A Home Dairy?July 8th, 2008
There are two common animals raised for milk, the cow and the goat. Either one will require you to milk your animal[s] twice a day for most of the year. It is a huge investment of your time, and they must be milked the same times EACH day. They will get to know you, and many dairy animals in small herds simply will not let anyone else milk them. The milk must be cooled promptly, and everything it comes in contact with must be kept incredibly clean, or it will NOT taste good. You will need quite an investment in milk handling equipment and fenced pasture. Also a barn for your animals and to store hay to feed your herd, as well as grain. A Dairy herd will make you into a 'Farmer' more than anything else you might raise!
Dairy animals convert grass we cannot digest, into one of natures most perfect and complete foods, MILK. Soon you will want to make cheese, butter, or other milk products. Large surpluses of milk can be handled crudely, and fed to pigs who will thrive and grow quickly. You will literally have tons of manure to improve your soil with. It's a giant step, with big risks and big rewards. A dairy animal needs to be bred, and give birth to young before they produce milk. They will give far more milk than the offspring needs. Most can be milked for about 9 months. In the first 2 months or so, part of the milk will be needed by the offspring. The mother animal will need to be re bred, for the next year.
Let's look at goats first. Because they are smaller animals, you may keep several. You could also keep your own male or buck for breeding the female goats called does. Goats love to climb, and they love to eat fruit trees and berry bushes. Fencing will need to be quite sturdy to keep them in, and also keep out dogs or coyotes. They usually have strong and stubborn personalities, but can also be quite charming. You will get quite attached, but they are not pets. They are playful, and you shouldn't really turn your back on them. They will think nothing of butting you or stepping on your feet. If you fall down, they may walk on you. Your dog would never do that, but it means nothing to a goat. The milk from a goat is naturally homogenized. That means the cream will not rise to the top like fresh cows milk, so if you want to make butter you will actually need a cream separator. It is very easy to digest, and it is superb in cooking. It takes half as much goats milk to make the same amount of cheese as cow's milk. That's half as much to milk out of the animal, and half as much to carry in from the barn. They are quite at home in very rough pastures, with steep banks or huge rocks. They will need high quality hay and some grain to produce milk though. Some can be trained to carry a pack for hiking. They won't be content on a leash, but will follow you. If you come to some water, they will not get their feet wet to cross it without a lot of training. There may or may not be a local market for the goats offspring, called kids.
Cows in large herds seem to me to have almost no personality, only a blank stare. I grew up around dairy cows, and because of the size, you certainly have to look out for them. If they step on your foot, it could break bones. If you get between them and a fence or wall, they may crush you into it. They are not playful, and won't be trying to hurt you. They are mostly oblivious. When a cow comes into heat at breeding time she will be much more active and unpredictable. Artificial Insemination [AI] breeding services are widely available in areas where cows are farmed. This allows you to choose semen from any breed of cattle. You can produce a dairy/beef cross animal for meat. If you want a sale able beef calf, avoid Jersey cows which have a yellow colored fat. It tastes fine though. Commercial breeds of Dairy cows can give huge amounts of milk, but there are also breeds more suitable for a home dairy and the cross breeds too. Ask around locally first.
For both goats and cows, animals from 4H projects will have already been handled by their owners far more than an animal from a big herd. Students at Agriculture High Schools may also have project animals to sell. Unlike a dog show, which is a sort of beauty and grooming contest, the qualities of a show farm animals are ones that promise good production too. See if you can buy something for no more than two or possibly three times the meat market price. A well raised and cared for animal is certainly worth that.
This is an overview of dairy animals. If you are still interested, I would buy a good reference book on your choice of goats or cows, and also see what information you can find through your State or County Agriculture department. After doing some reading, I would try to make contact with people raising the animal of your choice. You will have a lot to learn, but it certainly isn't rocket science. Common sense is what you really need most with livestock.