Cows are domesticated ungulates (hoofed animals with two toes on each hoof) that we see very often chewing the grass in farmers fields as we walk or drive through the countryside. Cows are raised for many reasons including: milk, cheese, other dairy products, also for meat such as beef and veal and materials such as leather hide.
There are almost 800 different breeds of cow worldwide. The most well-known ones are the dairy cows that produce milk, as not all cows do. The Holstein cow is known to make the most milk out of all the dairy cows. Originally from the Netherlands their milk production is unrivalled. While Jersey cows that come from Jersey in The Channel Islands located between England and France, have golden coloured milk that is great for making cheese.
There is an estimated 1.3 billion head of cattle and 920 breeds of cow in the world today. A cow spends up to 6 hours a day eating. Cows spend over 8 hours a day chewing their cud which is regurgitated, partially digested food. Cows each drink equivalent to a bath tub full of water a day.
The average cow is 2 years old when she has her first calf. Calves are fed from the cow until they are between 8 and 9 weeks old. It is essential for a calf to be fed their mothers milk from the start as it contains antibodies that protect the new calf from diseases. Two months before giving birth, a dairy cow takes a rest from giving milk in order to grow her calf. During this period the cow is known as a Dry Cow. When a dairy cow gives birth, this process is called a freshening. All calves are born with horn nubs. It is common for a vet to remove these nowadays.
Cows are gentle animals who are affectionate, emotional and intelligent. Cows are certainly deserving of our compassion as well as our understanding and respect. The idea that cows are dumb is a myth. Cows are actually very intelligent, curious and able to think critically and solve problems. Cows have great memories and are very good at remembering and recognizing faces even after long periods of time. They can remember where things are located such as food, water, shelter, best grazing spots and most importantly, the location of their babies.
Cows are highly emotional. Even cows have mood swings. They are unhappy when the weather is bad and practically smiling when it’s sunny outside. Like humans, cows seek pleasure and love to play. They run, prance and jump with joy. Sometimes, however, a cow just wants to be left alone because she’s not feeling well and isolates herself from others. Cows can be moody and sensitive. They may dislike certain individuals and can hold a grudge for years against other cows and people who have crossed them.Cows form strong bonds and friendships, choosing to spend much of their time with just a few preferred individuals. They even have best friends. Cows help each other, learn from each other and make decisions based on compassion and altruism. They even form grooming partnerships where they can do each other’s hair.
The most powerful relationship for a cow is that between a mother and baby. Cows have strong maternal bonds and are attentive, protective and loving parents. When allowed, a mother cow may nurse her calf for as long as three years. The mother-child bond continues after weaning; mothers and their children remain close to each other for life. There is also a sense of maternal community as other cows in the herd will help nurture calves if necessary. Because cows form such strong bonds with their loved ones, it is only natural that they show signs of grief when separated from them. When a calf is taken away, the mother will cry and bellow for hours, even days, and fall into a deep depression. Mother cows will search for their babies, visibly distressed, just as the calves cry for their mother.
While cows do “moo” to communicate, they also use different body positions and facial expressions. Another way cows “chat” is by mimicking each other’s actions. If one cow gets up from eating and starts walking across the field, other cows may get up and follow. This group behavior and networking is a type of communication between the cows.
If you have never given a cow a belly rub, you should put it on your bucket list. Cows love to be petted, stroked and scratched behind the ears. They are very loving and welcome interactions with kind people. Even cows who have been mistreated or abused in the past can heal over time, forgive and learn to trust people again.
Milk from a house cow, goats or sheep gives you a valuable resource you can use to drink, for cheese, and to make soap.
- You will need good quality, food-grade, preferably stainless steel buckets and fridge to store milk in large quantities (only keep raw milk 2-3 days then use it or freeze it).
- For a year-round supply have two cows, one that calves in spring and one that calves in autumn. If you only want one cow, she’ll keep milking for 8-9 months of the year and you will need to store milk; it can be frozen for 3-6 months and thawed.
- Depending on the breed (see below) you will be getting a lot of milk. Even if you make cheese every few days and/or have children to help you drink it, you will need assistance to use it up. Options include:
• share-milk with a calf (or two)
• feed leftovers to pigs (not poultry, which are lactose-intolerant)
- Cows are easier to handle when in a routine and tend to only work for food. Training them as calves to be caught, led, tied-up and handled, especially around the udder, can make life a lot easier. However, food bribes can work well on adult cows.
- Cows will deliberately ‘hold’ their milk, preventing you from milking it out. Keeping a cow calm and happy, especially if she is feeding a calf, helps. For example, the calf could be in a pen beside where their mother is milked.
- If you are share-milking with a calf, you’ll have to separate them overnight once the calf is around three weeks old, otherwise it can drink your daily milk supply for breakfast before you get to it. Calves can spend overnight in a small area close to their mothers, as long as they can’t lean through the fence to feed.
These are some of the breeds traditionally used for milk production, with approximate daily milk production assuming a cow is on good quality grass diet, and milking for nine months (approximately 210 days) of the year.
Friesian (Holstein Friesian)
Daily milk: 20 litres (average)
Yearly milk: 4000 litres
These black and white cows are New Zealand’s most common dairy cow, making up 45% of the national commercial milking herd. Its milk is also the highest in protein of the two main dairy breeds. The Friesian is a large cow, the biggest of the dairy breeds, reaching up to 500kg in adulthood or about the same average weight as a horse.
Daily milk: 13-15 litres (average)
Yearly milk: 2835 litres
The sweetest-looking cow and the second most common dairy breed in New Zealand, making up 15% of the national herd, and Jersey-crosses a further 28%. It is a much smaller cow, weighing 360-380kg, but has higher milk solids fat content than a Friesian, and produces more per kilogram of live-weight.
Daily milk: 16 litres
Yearly milk: 3400 litres (average)
This Scottish breed is an efficient grazer, and used mostly for cross-breeding into dairy farms. Known for its long-production life, tends to be white and brown mottled.
Daily milk: 16 litres
Yearly milk: 3000-3600 litres
This is a separate type to the beef shorthorn and used to make up over half the NZ herd, until it was surpassed by the Jersey. There are still several thousand milking shorthorns around NZ. Shorthorns are so-called for their short horns, are always red, roan or white in colour, and are renowned for being long-living productive cattle.
Daily milk: 8-10 litres
Yearly milk: 1600-2100 litres
The Dexter is traditionally a dual-purpose breed, providing beef and milk in its native Britain for over 5000 years. The appeal of the Dexter for people on a small block is its size – around 1m high at the shoulder – with excellent feed-weight/milk conversion, and because they are lighter than many other breeds of cattle, they tend to do less damage to pasture and soil.
Highland cattle were originally bred to be the Scottish crofter’s house cow, and producing a rich milk even when grazing on low quality pasture. As with many of the beef breeds, it is able to produce enough milk for both its calf and its owners which makes great cheese and butter. It is actually one of the smaller breeds of cattle, although its horns (if you choose to keep them) take up a lot of room. It also can produce calves and milk well into its teens.