The Family Cow
…sharing the joy of a family milk cow without all the work
“The Family Cow” is another one of the farming books Scott brought to our relationship. I was open to cows but it took 5 years of our failed milk goat animal husbandry experiment before a milk cow even entered into the discussions of our homestead and farm business. Luckily, we already had a book to help us😊
I clearly remember the day I decided we needed to say goodbye to our milk goats. Scott had been ready for a while, but I was too stubborn to admit defeat (they were my idea in the first place). It was shortly after our youngest was born when I found myself, kid free, peacefully looking out over the goat pasture when I noticed one of our goats acting strangely…never a good thing, goats can’t be trusted. Before moving forward, I should probably give some back story to explain this goat’s name.
A year or so previously we had just come home from purchasing Garett his first backpack for preschool. It was a pretty big milestone in his 3yr old life and he couldn’t have been happier. As I took a peek in the rear view mirror of our van I felt like super mum when I saw his huge grin as he turned his Thomas the Tank Engine backpack over and over in his little hands. It was under the influence of this maternal glow (I’m sticking to this excuse) that I agreed to let Garett name our newest addition born that morning. It took him less than a second to think of the perfect name for this sweet little doeling, Backpack, I regretted my moment of weakness immediately (he lost all naming rights for about 4 years then, shortly after getting his naming rights back, he lost them again after naming a cow Eartag. We still don’t ask his opinion on names).
On that beautiful afternoon Backpack was swaying back and forth next to the electric fence (5 strands of wire separating pastures) like a kid getting ready to join in on a double dutch jump-rope session. Instead of waiting for a gap in the twirling ropes Backpack was listening to the pulse on the electric fence. Once she felt like she had the rhythm right she ran right between the wires without receiving any sort of zap. It was while watching her enjoying the browse in the “resting” pasture I realized, I really didn’t like goats and that it was time for them to go! We were about to become cattlemen.
It was at this point that “The Family Cow” was pulled off the shelf, dusted, read, reread and tabs were added to the important pages. We searched the Ag Review for a cow in milk with no luck, we asked our neighbors, still no luck. It was during a conversation with Garett’s preschool teacher that I happened to mention our difficulty in finding a milk cow that our luck turned around. It turns out that one of the other parents was (and still is) our regional Dairy Extension Agent.
I reached out to Marti as soon as I got home, telling her all about my love of cheese making, my wish to have a milking animal that wouldn’t put me in an asylum and my desire to make a living farming. It was a long conversation that jump-started a friendship which is still going strong to this day. After hanging up the phone I knew I needed a milk cow. Not any old milk cow, I needed a Jersey.
The process wasn’t going to be an easy one. At the time milking cows were in high demand and VERY expensive (in the $1200-$1400 range, we had a much smaller budget of about $800). Luckily, Marti was the perfect person to connect us with someone willing to sell a cow in milk (she knows everyone in the NC dairy business). After a couple of weeks (which seemed like several months) she called up with the news that she had found us an older jersey cow that was no longer producing at the rate required by her dairy (they milk over 1000 animals) for only $600. It couldn’t have been a better fit; we need a cow who wasn’t going to give us 8 gal a day and she needed a home (plus she was only $600). With what we know now we would never have bought an 8 yr old commercial dairy cow who had never even seen a blade of grass in her whole life. Luckily, we didn’t know any better because Sally May turned out to be my first jersey cow love.
Marti and I hooked up her trailer and drove over to pick up our newest animal husbandry experiment (I’m happy to report that 17 years into this experiment we definitely made the right choice). Picking up Sally was an adventure in and of itself, but I’ll save my numerous “Marti” stories for another time.
Sally was huge and bred for production. By the time she came to us her rear udder attachment ligament was so stretched out that her udder was barely a foot off the ground when full. In addition, she had never had a halter on, never been walked on a lead rope or hand milked. This great deal wasn’t looking as rosy as the days marched on.
In my head Sally would be so grateful for us rescuing her from the sale barn that she would happily frolic in the pastures, stand quietly to be milked and generally add value to our lives. What I wasn’t expecting was to have to invite a group of friends over to help us get her in her milking area because she was petrified of her new home, seriously petrified!
It’s funny to think back to all of us in the dark with no idea about flight zones, pressure points or any clue about herding trying to coral her with ropes. It was becoming painfully obvious that “The Family Cow” wasn’t as complete as we first thought and I probably should’ve worked as a cow hand at a local dairy before getting our first cow.
After several hours and lots of beer we got Sally in a stall in our old tobacco barn. Next, I squatted next to her ready to jump out of the way as her kicks became more aimed while Scott, Kate, Sean, Charlotte and Mark stood well out of the way. After relieving some of the pressure on her udder I stepped out of the way. Nothing was broken but I had some pretty colorful bruises to show for my efforts.
The next day was much easier, the next even easier and it wasn’t long before we had a rhythm. Not even a month passed before Sally realized that although life on pasture might be different it was pretty sweet being the only cow amongst a herd of goats.
I remember the exact moment I fell in love with Sally May. It was sometime mid-January and I had just come home from tutoring. I nursed Owen, left Scott to put him to bed and headed out to the barn in the dark for the 4th night in a row (I milked earlier when I wasn’t tutoring but on tutoring nights it was easily 11pm before I could get out there). I was worn out! The very last thing I wanted to do was sit on an upturned bucket in the cold and hand milk 2 gallons into an open bucket (this was before the days of my lovely milking machine).
Sally gently mooed as I walked into the stall, some of my stress started to melt away. Gone were those early days full of fear and uncertainty, she now eagerly awaited my nightly visits to feed and milk her. As I sat down, washed her udder and started milking I felt even more of the stress of the day melt away (it’s just not the same with the mechanical milker). I had just put my head on her flank to absorb some of the heat radiating off her body when Sally reached back and started licking the side of my head just as if I were her calf.
What happened next can be completely blamed on either my nursing hormones or the rough night of tutoring but was probably due to the unique exhaustion that comes from having a newborn….I started to cry. As I silently sobbed into her side feeling her thick, rough tongue slide up the side of my face and through my hair, I knew without a doubt that I really needed that cow in my life, and probably a shower.
That became our routine, I would start milking and she would give me a lick, sometimes it was a single acknowledgment of my presence and sometimes I left her side with slobber dripping from my hair. I always felt the stress of the day evaporate with each squirt of milk ringing in the bucket. We had Sally for the last 5 years of her life….I think they were 5 of the best she had.
We’ve had quite a few good cows over the years (Levla, Iris, Eartag and Mavis) seeing all of them into double digits but I don’t think I’ll ever love a cow the way I loved Sally. She was the perfect cow at the perfect time for us and, I think if she were still with us and could speak she would say the same.