How hard is it to manage a small dairy cattle herd?

OK, first, long story short.

I’m looking for Doper thoughts concerning their collective experiences with dairy cattle. Just for the sake of argument, suppose that “Bob” wanted to keep a small number of dairy cattle on his 60 acre pasture. Bob has no interest in getting into commercial dairy production. Rather his goal is to provide a steady supply of high quality, hormone/anti-biotic free milk for his household’s use and to supply for his amateur hobby of cheesemaking.

At roughly 6,000 liters per year, per animal (cite), half a dozen head of Guernsey will have Bob swimming in all the milk he can use. Sixty acres of decent pasture land is most likely wildly generous in providing for the bulk of the herd’s nutrition (cite) (Yes, I know pasture lands vary in capacity per acre and winter forage will have to be provided as well as supplementation with grains and trace nutrients.)

My question is simply this - how much time and work is required to maintain this small herd on a daily basis? Dairy cows need to be milked twice a day, every day. They don’t get a vacation and neither does the dairy farmer. Is this going to be a two hour a day job? Six hours? Fifteen hours?

Short story made longer.

Bob is a friend of mine now living in central Missouri (north of Columbia). His partner is also my cousin. Bob grew up on the family farm, got the hell off it as soon as he could, got a degree, a career, made a couple of bucks and then purchased the farm following the death of his step-father. Bob never ran the farm though. Mostly the land was just rented out to help support Bob’s mother who still occupies the homestead. Bob has mostly retired now and decided six months ago to move back to the old farm to help care for his elderly mother and to expand his hobby, cheesemaking. He’s been making cheese for many years now and actually turns out a pretty nice Gruyère copy (although I think it’s too salty). He’s been trying to replicate Stilton but the last batch he made had a stench that frightened his dogs.

My cousin has long supported her partner’s hobby but now that Bob has decided to up his game by developing a producing dairy herd to get a stable supply of unpasteurized, whole milk, she’s wondering where this is going to end. She welcomes the idea of getting fresh milk and cream, and the occasional veal calf into her kitchen but she also made it very clear that the first time he expected her to get up at “oh-my-XXXX it’s early to grab a double handful of Bossie, it’s not going to end well.” (her words, not mine).

Should my cousin start shopping for divorce attorneys or is running a handful of dairy cattle really not that daunting a project?

There are actual farmers on the board, hopefully you will get better answers soon - but in the mean time: I have had some exposure. Things to keep in mind: Cows don’t just magically give milk. They give milk after giving birth. Typically milk cows give birth once a year, to give milk 10 months a year (varies some by breed). So you have to deal with the insemination, and the birthing process. Cows are susceptible to disease. Managing that can be a handful. Some cows develop fertility problems, at which point they no longer are milk cows. Is your cousin ok with Betsy being sold off for meat? After the cow gives birth, if the calf is taken away too late, (more than a few days) the cow will keep calling for her. It takes a stone heart to eat veal within a year or two of hearing that. Having the cows in pasture means that several times a day they need to be herded to be milked. And then they need to be milked. I think most everyone already knows you cannot skip the milking, that needs to happen at the time it needs to happen - i.e. not your time. All I know is there are easier ways to get milk than having cows, like buying it from some poor bastard who has cows. While historically making cheese meant having cows, in our current age having cows to make cheese is a little like growing trees to make furniture, except the trees don’t need milking.

I had several relatives in the dairy farming business. And did they work!

The part about twice a day every day is the first thing to think about. And it’s not just about taking vacations or weekend trips. What if you get sick, break an arm, etc.? Who do you know that will do the milking and how much is it going to cost you?

Note that with such a small herd certain costs can’t be amortized over a large herd. E.g., you need a milking machine. My relatives needed 2 or 3 for their much larger herds. (And don’t even think about doing it by hand.)

So that’s $1500 new for a basic one. Maybe it lasts ten years. That’s $150/year you’re shelling out … for milk. (I don’t even spend $100/year on milk.)

And that’s just for one thing. Never mind food supplements, medicine, vet bills, maintaining a milking barn, and a hundred other things.

That seems like an insane amount of money and lifestyle changes for a milk supply for a cheese making hobby.

Google tells me that 4 litres of milk nets about a pound of hard cheese, two pounds of soft. So with your numbers six cows producing 36,000 liters of milk would give him about 9000 pounds of gruyere. There’s going to be waste and other usage, so let’s call 5000 pounds. Does your friend have a plan for that mountain of cheese?

That sounds like my cousin. I promise you that she will have no issue with this. To the extent that some animals are pragmatically useful, she’s content to pay farmers and ranchers to extract that value and deliver it to her. If Bob wants to deliver fresh milk, cheese, packages of tender veal and old, tough stew meat to her kitchen then she’ll make tasty meals from it. She says that they can afford the financial risks involved. Beyond that, she doesn’t want to know about the cows or what Bob does with them. I actually suspect Bob is going to have a much bigger issue with this but it’s his idea, he’d better get used to it in a hurry.

Bob like doing things his way. To his way of thinking, managing his own dairy herd is the most efficient way of ensuring quality and a predictable supply. I met Bob while he was still in college. At the time, he was making some side money as a self taught luthier. He was pretty good too. I still have the guitar me made for me for my 40th birthday. He complained about the quality of the locally available wood and actually planted a few trees with the intent of coming back and harvesting them for instrument construction.

If he has much of a plan, he hasn’t shared it with me. IMHO, I think he likes the idea of taking his hobby to the next level but I suspect the reality of it is going to hit him hard and fast. As an off-hand comment, he did mention something about doing this for a couple of years, making sure he has his technique and skills in place and then investigating the possibility of selling his cheese commercially. Sounds dicey but I’m not going to tell him he can’t try.

He’d be way better off (and able to take an occasional vacation) if he just finds a source of quality milk and purchases it.

I agree with this and I suspect my cousin does as well. As long as Bob doesn’t let this dairy herd become her problem though, she’s going along with it.

I grew up on a small mixed farm. A section mostly in crops, but some pasture that carried 20-30 head of commercial beef (12-15 cows). When I was young, 2-3 of the cows were dual-purpose breeds like shorthorn, or were beef-dairy breed crosses, and were milked for our use. When I was really young (as in I scarcely remember) there was enough milking that we shipped a bit of cream commercially. Later it became a single cow strictly for home consumption, and eventually dad stopped milking entirely. All milking was by hand.

6 cows doesn’t really sound like a hobby to me. More like a job. Not a full-time job, but a significant part-time job. There are no vacations, ever, unless you have someone to cover for you. Even the months when the cows are dry, they have to be fed and monitored (because they’re just a month or two from calving). 6 cows is also 12 animals most of the time unless he intends to sell the calves immediately, and I don’t know that there’s much of a market for that. Might be for the heifers, I guess.

My advice would be to start of with 2 rather than 6, unless this is actually a serious attempt to start commercial artisanal cheesemaking as a full-time enterprise. Anything beyond 1 or 2 cows isn’t really a hobby anymore in my book, though starting with 1 or 2 intending to move to 6 would pose a few issues with some of the infrastructure expenses. Do you size your shelter for 6 right aways? How do you set up your milking parlour? Etc.

Also, keep in mind that “vacation” includes things like illness. Wake up with severe gastrointestinal illness? You’ll need a bucket to vomit into while you’re milking your herd.

I knew a family who did this. Eventually one son and some hired hands did all the work with this herd of probably less than 30 cows. All of the milk produced went to one dairy which they worked hand in hand with. I don’t know any real details but it sounded like they needed that deal with the dairy to afford to operate. I haven’t had any contact for a while but they may have sold their farm to real estate developers by now.

As already mentioned, hardly seems to be the way to obtain milk for home use and a cheese making hobby.

I ain’t a dairy rancher, but I do live within a halfmile(upwind thank og) of a small dairy that I drive past every single day, and sometimes at night. The milking shed is right there by the road for ease of access by the tank truck that come to collect.

Based on what I’ve seen and been told, the more automated your friend can make his milking operation the easier it will be. Cows are creatures of habit. Once the milking routines are established, they will come into be milked on their own, going to the exact same stall at the eatablished times every day with out being herded. AIUI, many large dairies rely on this to help manage the herd.
I’ve driven by the dairy near me many times in the middle of the night to see the cows lined up waiting to be milked with no visible sign that there were any humans on site.

Personally, I think your friend is nuts, the stench of the cattle waste is puke inducing and you never really get it off your clothes, but, if that’s what dunks his cookie, I wish him the best of luck in his endeavors

Does he have a good barn and a place to put the milking and separation equipment? Does he have the equipment to keep it all clean and sterile?

Here is how my uncle did it:

Cows are gathered into the barn and one by one go into the stall to be milked. They need grain at this time. You go up to each cow and wash each teat and then put on the suckers. Where the cow is done they leave and go back to pasture. While this is going on the farmer watches things and shovels up manure as the cows do their business in the barn. When all the cows are done all the equipment must be cleaned and the milk stored. the barn all cleaned up and the cows back where they are supposed to go.

Rince and repeat twice a day.

That means no matter what you are doing, all stops while the cows are milked.

I don’t have any livestock: and the reason I don’t have any livestock is that I have a friend who farms alone and she does have livestock. Have the flu when it’s five below zero F out with a howling wind and ice on the path to the barn? Even aside from milking: livestock must have feed and water, so if there’s only one of you to do it, you’re going out there anyway.

My friend needs to have livestock like I need to have cats; so it’s worth it to her. And she’s from a farming family and in a farming area and can sometimes find backup help, though sometimes not. When she needed to be in hospital (timing of surgery elective, having it done at all not very elective if she wanted to stay able to walk back and forth to the barn) she was able to arrange for coverage, though she didn’t have anyone needing milking at the time which made it easier to do so. If your cousin will have nothing to do with this, her husband needs to find out, before buying any cows, whether he’ll be able to get backup. Bear in mind that a cow in milk absolutely must be milked or she’ll not only almost certainly get ill, but be in a great deal of pain – starting within hours of the missed milking time.

However if this is the old family farm and he knows others still farming in the area maybe he can line up emergency backup.

– I also strongly suspect that six cows is way too many, if this is to be a hobby. Families wanting their own milk and cheese for household use often only kept one for that purpose. They’re herd animals, so if he hasn’t got other livestock in the barn he’d need two to keep each other company; and their dry periods could be staggered. But even if he can get backup two sounds like plenty to start with. – If his real intention is to run this as a business, he needs to look into regulations for legally selling his cheese in that state, and figure out what his setup costs are going to be; and also I expect that that would be very much full time work. Maybe that’s what he’s after, of course. There are at least in my area a batch of relatively recent small cheese producers who seem to be doing pretty well; though I don’t think any of them are one person operations. If his wife’s not interested, I expect at some point he’d need to hire help. If he’s trying to figure out whether he loves cows and cheesemaking enough to make it a business, then starting as a hobby does IMO make a lot of sense – if he can get emergency backup lined up to take care of the cows.

I would guess that a lot of the labor, trouble and costs are more or less fixed, and don’t scale with the number of cattle. I mean, someone’s still got to get up really early, no matter the weather to milk the cows, regardless if there are 6 or 60, for example.

So it’s going to be a LOT of work, and probably not a dramatic amount more to have a larger herd. Or the other way around, if you want to look it that way; having 6 cows isn’t probably materially easier than 12 or 24.

I know there is a large barn on the property that at one time housed more than twenty horses. I have not seen the inside of this structure but I know it hasn’t been used for animals for over a decade. At best, it will probably require extensive cleaning and refurbishment before it’s suitable for livestock again. That’s assuming it’s still structurally sound and I don’t know that even that is true.

He has a nice “cheese shack” for that part of his hobby but I can’t know if it’s adequate to deal with the output of half a dozen cattle. He currently does cheese starting with 250 liters of milk yielding >20 kg of finished cheese. If six cows equal 36,000 liters of milk a year then that’s 3 three batches a week. He’s definitely going to have to expand his cheese aging cellar.

All other equipment and structures will have to be acquired.

At least it’s not a chicken farm :eek:

My grandpa had a dairy farm and other than the things already mentioned (e.g. no breaks, up at 4am, etc.), these were some things he dealt with:
1 - Cutting the horns off cows
First cut with things that look like big bolt cutters
Then put acid (or something) on the end so it won’t grow back
Sometimes they cut a little too low - cow really not happy with that

2 - Weeds - I remember him being pretty worried one time about some weeds that were popping up. Not sure if cows would get sick or if the quality of the milk is what would have been impacted

3 - Bulls from the neighbor:
Bulls hopped the fence a couple times - he went out there with a shovel to prod it back to the neighbors (my dad was pretty worried about grandpa doing this but it worked out)

4 - Baby cows
I don’t know what exactly he did (I was young) but I remember momma cow in a special area right before ready to give birth and then either during or after grandpa went out and did something

If the up-front investment isn’t a big deal, I imagine he can always just sell the cows if this ends up being a horrible mistake.

Start out buying in the raw milk from a local supplier.

Get the cheese thing working, then consider going into primary production.

There are a (relatively) large number of people who run large milking herds. There are a (relatively) small number of people who produce boutique cheese. This is not a coincidence.

A couple of points.
One, milk is not a homogenous product. Milk quality in terms of butterfat and protein etc varies significantly through the lactation, through the seasons, with dietary intake and varies between cows. Each have some effect on the cheese. IMHO they’d be better served getting drawing from a larger pool to start the cheese making process with a more consistent raw material.

Two If the idea is to have a half dozen milking cows with 10 month lactations then you will either have a period when there is no milk or need to stagger the calving which requires

Three, you can’t restart a lactation. If for whatever reason a cows dries off, you can’t restart production as suits your production requirements. She needs to produce another calf.

I had a friend who had a couple of cows and a couple of goats that provided way more than all the milk he needed. He did not have a milking machine. He and his partner had time to take vacations, but they may have done that during periods where the animals were dry. He did not wean the calves early either–he kept the mamas producing after the weaning. Some of them did get slaughtered at that point.

I would say if Bob grew up on a family farm then he must know what’s necessary to keep things going. I’ve never heard of anyone doing it on a scale of more than a couple of milk-producing animals without going commercial. My friends were semi-commercial–they made cheese and traded it with friends for other stuff that the friends made.

Also, goat milk makes super ice cream as there is so much cream in it! Good for cheese, too.