Getting A Family Cow: Buy A Cow Or Raise A Heifer?

Jersey cow in sunflowers

Congratulations! Getting a family cow is a huge step towards raising your own food, and you won’t believe how wonderful the fresh milk tastes! I’m sure you’ve asked yourself, are you getting a cow or heifer?

It’s a big question: should you get an established, knows what she’s doing cow or go with a heifer, who has all of her production and productive years in front of her?

How do you know if you’re ready? My guide “Are You Ready For A Family Cow?” will walk you through the things you need to have figured out, including feeding needs and daily care, before you get your cow.

Get a well behaved, structurally correct cow for your first family milk cow. A cow will be comfortable with a daily care routine, know what she’s doing regarding milking (specifically milk let down) and require very little training from you. Do not get a heifer, beginners should start off with a cow.

In looking around online, I frequently come across well respected authors suggesting that you should get a heifer as your future family cow. Don’t!

Allow me to explain the reasons why I am taking such a definitive stand. Normally I’m a pretty easy going gal, this one has me fired up.

This “get a heifer” advice is the well meaning but bad, or at least incomplete, advice that leads to disappointment for motivated and capable families.

I’m truly sad for anyone who took that bad advise and ends up saying “we tried that and it didn’t work.”

Of course it didn’t work! Anyone with a decent amount of dairy cattle experience would have seen this coming.

Start with a cow for your family milk cow!

Is A Family Cow Affordable? shows you the math on buying and keeping your family cow.

Let me help you get started with a cow that will work with you and your family for years to come. I really mean that “years to come” part, our family cow, Aleene is a 14 year old Jersey and she’s still going strong!

Here are the topics we are going to cover:

  • Price of the cow
  • Temperament of the cow
  • A cow is a proven breeder
  • A cow knows the routine
  • A cow has a known udder structure
  • What about a springer?
  • What about a first calf heifer?

Price of a cow is more than a heifer

Let’s start with the big one: cost. A great family cow will cost more than a heifer, it’s that simple.

Why is a cow more money? Simple, the cow is proven. She made it through quite a few levels of sorting: attitude, udder structure and teat length for starters.

We milked cows for years and I can say with certainty, you never know what a heifer will turn out like until she has a few years of milking experience. Please, please, please do not get a heifer!

Cost Of A Family Cow shows you what to expect to pay for a high quality family cow. These gals are out there, you just have to look a bit to find them.

If you live near a dairy farm, ask about a family cow

There is a potential hidden gem in the world of family cows: the dairy farm cow that is a will mannered, healthy, structurally sound cow that is just getting a bit older.

Once this cow falls below average production of the herd, she will be culled for low performance.

This is your opportunity! Low performance for a dairy farm is still more than plenty for you!

How do you know if you’re ready? My guide “Are You Ready For A Family Cow?” will walk you through the things you need to have figured out, including feeding needs and daily care, before you get your cow.

Our cow, Aleene, is milking 1.5-2 gallons per day on nothing special feed. If we needed more milk, we could easily give her higher energy feed to up her production. As is, we have more than plenty and I still give a lot to the barn cats.

Seriously, her only “crime” is that she is not a three year old anymore.

With the individual attention and more laid back approach to milking that she would have at your place, a high quality older cow will be wonderful as a family cow!

If you have the opportunity to get a well behaved older dairy cow, read my article on Family Cow Selection first, so you know what specifics to look for and what to avoid (I call these the deal breakers).

Temperament of the cow is key

Aleene grazing in early spring.

Aside from convincing you to get an established milking cow, this is the most important selection criteria!

Attitude is everything, especially with a cow that you are going to be handling every day for milking!

Kathy McCune, owner and hand milker of Aleene

You may not have thought of it, but cattle have to be trained to stand for milking, seriously. It is not hard, but it does take a little time, know how and sometimes substantial patience!

I have to admit, we have had at least one heifer that was calm and easy going her whole life and was an easy to handle cow to milk from the get go. Let me be clear: she was unusual, very unusual.

Here’s the scoop on most heifers: Most heifers will be nervous and dance around a bit and kick the first few days (or weeks!) until they realize milking is a time to relax.

She is not misbehaving, she’s unsure of what is going on and she’s new.

Still, she is going to be hard for you to handle. Let someone with experience get her through this confusing time!

A cow is a proven breeder

This is a point that most people will likely take for granted, but not all heifers will breed. No calf, equals no milk!

If the cattle are well fed and kept healthy, most heifers will breed at around 14 months of age to have her first calf at two years old. This is a normal cattle production cycle.

You know that a cow is capable of having a calf because she already has proven herself as a reliable breeder.

Open (not bred) heifers that were born twins

An unusual complication for anyone not familiar with cattle: if your heifer was born a twin, look out!

Heifers that are born twins to a bull are likely to be incapable of breeding, ever. This is not a 100% certainty, but it is about a 90% certainty!

A heifer that is born twin to a bull is called a free martin. She is just a she from the outside, internally she has an incomplete reproductive tract.

She is biologically unable to have a calf: no calf, no milk.

Although the male twin in this case is only affected by reduced fertility, in over ninety percent of the cases, the female twin is completely infertile. Because of a transfer of hormones or a transfer of cells, the heifer’s reproductive tract is severely underdeveloped and sometimes even contains some elements of a bull’s reproductive tract. A freemartin is genetically female, but has many characteristics of a male. 


Laurie Ann Lyon, Cow Calf Corner

A cow knows the milking routine

A cow is a veteran when it comes to the milking routine, she knows what’s going on. That’s really good, since you do not!

If both you and the new mom are both new to the whole milking thing, disaster is imminent.

Do yourself a huge favor and increase your chance of success: learn to milk a cow, not a heifer!

A cow has known udder structure

Teat length of a Holstein cow, the yellow is teat dip used after milking
Here is a great view of the teat length of a Holstein cow at one of the neighboring farms. Notice how all of the teats are long and well spaced and the floor (bottom) of the udder is flat. The yellow liquid you can see is a post milking teat dip that contains iodine.

A cow does not develop her “working” udder structure until she is 2-3 years old.

It takes a lactation or two for the udder structure to really show itself and then a few years of milking to see how it will hold up.

A heifer that has nearly zero udder is a mystery as far as udder shape and teat length.

Looking at her relatives (or having decades of experience with cattle) will give you a good guess, but it’s just a guess.

The biggie here is teat length. Short teats are tough to milk by hand!

Well placed teats and good udder support are ideal, but without some teat length for you, hand milking is going to be rough.

If you are machine milking, not a big deal. If you are hand milking, teat length is a big deal!

Springers are for dairy farms

A springer is a dairy cattle term for a heifer that is about a month away from coming fresh (having her baby).

For a dairy farmer looking to increase herd numbers, buying a few springers is a great option!

Why? The heifer is obviously bred and will have some time to get used to you and your farm before she has her calf and joins the milking herd.

Springers are not a good family cow option

A springer is not a good choice for your first family cow. She has nearly all of the uncertainties of a younger heifer.

You have no idea what her udder will look like, although it will be filling out, and you have not idea how she will take to milking.

A springer is still a guess, not a sure thing.

If you buy her and don’t like her attitude or you are having trouble training her to milking, you will begin to think that a family cow was your worst idea ever!

When, really, you have just made a poor initial choice. Don’t risk the disappointment, get a cow.

The exception to the rule: first calf “heifers” are cows

Oddly enough, this is only an exception in wording, she is still a cow!

Some farmers call a first lactation cow that has just had her first baby a first calf heifer.

I think the reason is to keep her in a separate group, at least in thinking and expectations of her abilities.

A first lactation cow will not be at full production or full body capacity for another year or so.

She also is likely to be a bit timid when she joins the rest of the herd.

For these reasons, it can help to keep reminding yourself that a new to milking cow needs a bit more patience and care.

We do not call our first calf dairy cattle heifers. We call them cows, but the person you are buying your cow from might use different terms.

When you are looking for your family cow, don’t be put off by the phrase first calf heifer, it is really a cow!

How do you know if you’re ready? My guide “Are You Ready For A Family Cow?” will walk you through the things you need to have figured out, including feeding needs and daily care, before you get your cow.

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