I have had many people ask me about getting a dairy animal - cow, sheep, or goats - for family use or homesteading. I have homesteaded some with dairy animals and think it is definitely a viable consideration on a small scale. From my experience, you need to consider time demands for milking and animal care, annual breeding, feeding, shelter, and handling soiled bedding and manure. This is just a basic introduction - things I usually try to share in the first conversation with those seriously asking.
First of all, you need to honestly ask yourself a series of questions:
The Demands of Milking
A commercial dairy animal is usually milked twice daily at twelve hour intervals or three times daily every eight hours. Unless you have the help of a nursing baby, you will need to milk twice daily. I have heard of milking once daily, but I personally think that would be quite uncomfortable for the lactating girl. I suspect it will also cause decreased milk production and increased risk of mastitis (infection and inflammation in the udder).
Will you milk by hand? Do you know how to milk? Do you have arthritis or hand pain that would make milking unpleasant? If getting sheep, Nigerian goats, or small-teated goats, they are more difficult to milk. I have had goat-loving friend who struggle because they hand milk and have mild arthritis, which makes milk very unpleasant. Your grip and forearms will become more developed and muscular, but you'll also feel it in your joints. My preference for hand-milking? I would stay cows and standard sized goats with large teats (gives you better room for your entire hand).
I strongly favor machine milking - its faster and easier and I don't have arthritis. ABSOLUTELY use a system that PULSATES. I have seen these little constant suction systems and this is unhealthy for the udder. There is no release of suction so it is like giving their udder a bad hickey internally. This can lead to blood in the milk, infection, and life-threatening bloody mastitis. I don't just speculate about this risk - I know goat-lovers who have tried this system and nearly lost their favorite goat. Considering the potential loss, contamination of the milk, and veterinary bills to save the animals, these systems turn out to be expensive. I would love to say buy American as there are many good portable milking machine options, but there are some inexpensive Chinese copies of US/European milking machines that would also be better than the constant-suction systems. Even if you machine milk, you want to know how to hand milk in case you have a power outage or broken part.
When homesteading, I did not milk twice daily every day because I left the kids or calf on their dam. At night, we would put the kids or calf in a pen where they could see their mother but not nurse. That reduced some anxiety and gave me a full udder in the morning. I waited until the kids were at least several weeks old and had access to hay and fresh water while separated from their mom. It worked well, and would work well for cows and sheep, too. Some cows produce so much milk that you don't have to separate them from their babes, but some calves are milk-guzzlers and will take all they can get. The kids (and lambs) learned after only one morning that they better beat me to their mom or I'll take all the milk, so leaving them together didn't work.
The benefits of leaving the young on the dam is you only need to milk once a day. You really shouldn't milk twice a day or you may wean off the young, so if you need more milk, that may mean adding another animal or two. However, if you want a day entirely off - I tried to take Sundays off - the babes will gladly pick up the slack for you. This keeps the milk production up. Dam-raised babies are fatter (meatier) and more robust than bottle babies, so you also get healthier little ones.
A word of warning about this method is that some dams wean their young before you're done milking for the year. Optimal dry time for cows is 60-70 days. That way they rebuild mammary tissue but don't go into hibernation. I suspect its similar for goats and sheep tolerate a longer dry period. Most dams don't suckle their young for that long. So, you may need to decide if you want to milk twice a day for a couple of months or dry her off ... FYI: frozen farm-fresh milk is still tastier than store-bought milk. Sheep milk freezes the best of the types.
Pasture, Hay & How Many
Do you have enough room to pasture your animals? A rough rule of thumb I use is two acres per cow if you have good pasture subdivided so you can rotate grazing. They will definitely need winter supplementation with hay, and not garbage feeder hay used to hold over beef breeds, but something good that will help the dairy girls put on weight while growing a calf. The demands on their body is higher than on a beef cow - think of them as performance athletes.
For sheep and goats, I've seen that five does or ewes are roughly equivalent to one medium to small-ish cow. They can have nursing young on them. Sheep prefer grass, especially short grass. Goats like browse (herbs). Cows like lush long grass. They all like some variety. There are plants that are poisonous (pine needles for cows, lupine for a couple species, Saint John's wort for light colored animals, and on and on), so you should check your pasture, identify what is growing, and remove toxic plants. Also avoid burr-bearing plants as these can imbed in their mouths and cause painful sores. The sores can often cause the animals to eat less and lose weight. Check pasture and hay both for unwanted plants. A quick note about that ... some seemingly unwanted plants may be liked by your animal - namely goats. They love thorny wild berries and roses, stinging nettle, and other plants that may seem undesirable.
Plan on purchasing hay in the winter unless you grow it. Legume hay or hay blend is good. Sheep tolerate a higher portion of grass. The smaller animals won't willingly eat thick stems of first cutting alfalfa, but prefer the thinner stems of second or third cutting. Cows will clean it all up. If you have mixed species, they can work together to clean it all up. Be sure to have a good feeder because hay can be expensive and stinky bedding, but the animals will use it as such and subsequently soil it and leave it as compost.
Dairy animals produce milk for their young, which we then steal or trade them for grain and treats. This means you need to breed your girls probably once a year. My understanding is that you can keep some cows and goats in lactation and breed only every other year. I think this is a wonderful solution, but you wouldn't have nursing young to help you out with milking. If you have help or no life demands that conflict with twice-daily milking, this may be a good option.
My understanding is milk production is lower and not quite as high in fat, but it can be steady. Make sure your dairy girl is in good physical shape - good pasture, hay, and grain. Gaining weight while milking is nearly impossible, so a long lactation can be very physically draining if she is gradually losing a little weight all the time.
For most of us, annual breeding is the reality we live with. I would definitely NOT recommend keeping a bull, especially if you have little children. Even friendly bulls can cause serious or fatal injuries with a friendly head-rub. They are incredibly strong big guys. I have owned beef breed bulls, which are known to be tamer, and I will admit I really like them. I don't intend to always keep them around, but mine have been sweet, confident, and loving to the girls in their herd. Dairy bulls tend to be more aggressive. For a homestead or small diary, I think it is not a good choice.
Rams and bucks can also be aggressive. If you decide to keep a stud around, never turn your back to them and be constantly aware of at least two good exits for you if they attack. Keep yourself in a safe position. I do keep rams and bucks. My rams are all sweet, but if they decided I was encroaching on their hotty girls, they could hurt me. The problem with keeping studs is that you need to change them up every one or two years so you aren't inbreeding. Inbreeding is how you find out what genetic flaws they have and develop defects from a shallow gene pool. I suspect I have a related buck and doe that I purchased from separate areas because of the results of their two breedings. I first got a "dummy" kid doeling who didn't respond to treatment and died, then twin doelings with white spots on their heads (no other detectible defects). After two breedings, I get the message - use another buck.
Neighbors with rams and bucks may not want to loan them to you or let you bring your girls back for breeding. Some may be perfectly fine with this. I don't breed my boys to anyone else's girls. I don't know the health history of their girl and don't want to introduce health problems to my herd. I don't want my bucks leaving and bringing back nasties. Besides, I have enough girls that my boys are used fully during breeding season and I don't want to dilute their potency or have any over-breeding problems. It's a hassle for me to breed someone else's animals, and stud fees just don't outweigh the drawbacks. I know some other people who feel the same way and some who don't care.
I use artificial insemination (AI) for my dairy cow breeding and consider some for my goat breeding. Sheep can be bred by AI, but it is a surgical procedure. I have an AI technician I like as this is not something I want to do myself. I synchronize their cycle so they can al be bred at once, but because of various factors, I still have three different days per year I'm breeding. Ideally, it's just once and then you watch them to see if any were missed. My technician stores semen I purchased, but he also has a tank full of good dairy and beef bull choices.
If keeping a cow or two, I strongly recommend using AI instead of keeping a bull. You may be able to pay for stud service, which is a good option, too. If keeping sheep, I'd say consider getting a ram. One ram or buck can reasonably breed 8-10 girls, possibly more if you manage it right.
Shelter & Winter Feeding
If you have wonderful pastures and space for your dairy animals to graze, you still need to consider the expense and commitment to purchase and store hay and straw for winter. We feed our dairy girls better quality hay than our beefers as there are greater demands placed on them physically. Second and third cutting alfalfa and alfalfa blends keeps protein up and isn't as stemmy and difficult to chew for the smaller ruminants. Our diary cows do fine with first cutting. Sheep do not need all legumes (hay, clover), but seem to like a good turn with grass hays, too. In fact, all of our animals like variety in their diet. If they are on wonderful alfalfa and I have some soft meadow grass hay, they all want a stomachful of the grass.
Other than when drying off lactating females, I also feed them grain in the winter. I watch my sheep to make sure they don't get too fat, but this isn't ever a problem for my cows or goats. Because dairy animals seem to have different body types that beefers and their skeletons show more, watch their hip bones as an indicator of fatness. There should be a little padding here, not just skin and bones. Also, look at their spine and feel that they have meat around it, not just boney. Putting on weight while lactating or in the winter in challenging. I've found the best time is late winter and early spring just before they give birth and they are dried off. They are also the most crowded with large babies they're carrying around.
Eating generates heat for ruminants, so providing shelter and reducing the amount of energy spent keeping warm can also help them maintain or gain weight. Any lameness also makes it difficult to keep weight on when it's cold or wet. Shelter is vital for the smaller ruminants. They cannot take the cold if they get wet, and especially if it is windy. The cattle also appreciate it and it may help keep cows fatter who tend to be thinner. I have half-sisters where one is an "easy keeper" (keeps weight one well) and the other is the opposite. Shelter helps.
In our area we have found it best to purchase hay the summer preceding the winter we will feed it. We try to buy it out of the field. I favor large bales because I can move them with the tractor, but we used to use small bales when we moved them by hand. You'll want to make sure your feed accommodates the size of bales you'll be using. Also, we get a winter thaw in January, and the mud that results can bog down a tractor with a 1,350 pound bale of alfalfa at the end. We're trying to establish mud-proof routes for the tractor, but it's something to keep in mind.
Where will you store your hay and straw? How will you keep it dry on top and bottom? How will you move it when you need it? How far do you have to move it? How will you bring it to your farm? If you get snow, how will you manage it when the snow is deep? Or, when it thaws partially and then refreezes so there is a lot of ice? If you have grain or other supplemental feeding, where will you store that? How will you access it? Will winter weather make it difficult or tedious? Will you be able to keep everything dry? Will you be able to keep rodents and wildlife out of it?
Straw is usually used for bedding, though I have used it as feed and the livestock will often eat part of it by choice for fun. When grain has been harvested and the stems and some leaves are left behind, this is straw. It is usually very low in calories and nutrients, so not a good source of food for lactating animals. I do feed it for about a one to two week period when drying off my lactating girls as it allows them to eat until they are full but the lower calories tells their bodies to cut back on milk production. When I put it out for bedding, they will sift through it looking for missed seeds and tasty leaves. They do this by choice as they have plenty of hay available.
Different types of straw offer different levels of absorbency. I believe wood shavings or chips can also be used, and they can help some with mud in high-traffic areas. Bark does not seem to help, so look for wood chips. I favor the straw and over the winter I don't clean out the bedding areas regularly, but pile clean bedding on top of the old. This may sound gross, but it's not (until you have to clean it up). Aside from being softer this way and consolidating my work into fewer days, the soiled bedding underneath actually generates a little heat from microbial activity. I have noticed it when tending a sick animal and I think it must improve their comfort on a cold day. Clean straw on top keeps them warm and dry.
Waste management is one area I think is commonly overlooked. Sheep and goat manure is much easier to deal with as they are little round "berry" poops, whereas cows have liquid manure. Ruminants poop where ever, so they don't hold it until they go outside like cats, dogs, or hogs. They are messy. The soiled straw, however, is farm gold. If you take it and compost it, your garden and orchard will thank you for it. I want to keep it all ... in fact, I usually want more than I have. But, I don't compost it where the animals lie and I need to get it moved.
If you keep a cow or two, this can add up to be a lot of work. If you have a tractor and well-designed spaces, it's not a problem. When planning a barn, shelter, or new space, I spend a fair deal of time thinking about and sketching out how every corner of the place will be accessed. Will the tractor fit? Is there work that needs to be done by hand? (I hope not.) What is the route for removing it? Will the mini-dump truck fit? Will I have space to load the dump? If you don't have a dump truck, what will you use? How many loads will it be - 2 or 20? Will fences, panels, feeders, and other things be in the way? Can they be easily moved or will they be trapped in accumulated bedding? Is the space tall enough? Can I do it myself, or do I need to work as part of a team? Where will the livestock be while I clean it out? (They are amazingly skilled at NOT getting out of the way.)
One more consideration about shelter and overwintering is where does the water flow. When it rains or snows, where does the contaminated water go? To a watering hole? Fish pond? Stream that others use or that may pollute a larger area. A run-off pond or lagoon can hold this water and be used for watering a garden, especially if you plan it so it's nearby. It's wonderful fertilizer for the plants and prevents it from polluting areas off your farm. Also, some of the water will evaporate from the pond during the summer. Be aware if the run-off crosses paths or roadways you use regularly as it will make it difficult and gross to navigate at certain times during the year.
Health & Veterinary Care
To stay healthy, dairy animals need regular health care. This does not have to be provided by a veterinarian, but if they get injured or ill, they may need that, too. First for health care, they need at least one annual vaccine as well as supplements for items deficient in your area. We're copper and selenium deficient here. I believe selenium deficiencies are very widespread. Dairy girls may also need some mineral supplements as they are putting out a lot of minerals in milk production. They also may need regular hoof trimming to prevent lameness, shearing for sheep, regular breeding.
With regards to veterinary care, my suggestion is to please find an interested vet before you're in need. Some vets don't care about goats and see them as disposable. Find another if that happens to you. Ask other goat people. Sheep and especially cows are much easier to find vets to treat them. Why would you need a vet? Your beloved cow who you've become surprisingly attached to won't get up after calving and you don't know what to do. If she dies, you lose your cow and have to bottle feed or find a new home for the calf. Several of your sheep have diarrhea and a couple are laying around groaning and not seeming themselves. Or you have goat who is carrying her head crooked, standing in the field like a zombie, and only sporadically grazing. These are all things I have heard of from the owner or seen for myself. All of these can lead to death without skilled intervention.
I've also had animals get injuries that are not life-threatening but can leave them lame or disabled in some regard without a little care. For example, a foreign object in an animal's eye can cause blindness or to lose and eye. One of your dairy girls could catch her udder on something sharp and get a terrible cut. Sometimes they seem as though they seek out problems. A veterinarian who treats them can help preserve their quality of life and help them maintain their productivity. Hopefully you won't need vet care.
If you're thinking about getting a dairy animal, it may be a good idea, but be sure to think through it. This is just a sort of brief conversation I start with, not even all of the considerations. Look for books and others who do it to learn as much as you can. Still, when you finally get your dairy animals, you'll discover there is still mountains more to learn.
** One final note - if you get a dairy animal and she drives you crazy, it might be just her. They all have different personalities. Some are sweet and easy to keep while others are set on causing problems. Don't get discouraged if you don't find the right one right away. **
Wife to Brandon, mother to Tess and Liam, farmer, entrepreneur, cook & baker, nurse, and accountant who loves to try new things, travel, and work toward greater self-reliance.