The One-Cow Home Dairy
By Kim Pratt
Our home dairy utilizes both conventional and unconventional (i.e., "unheard of") dairying
concepts. We did not jump into it willy-nilly... we talked about it for a few years, read
everything we could get our hands on for another year, and then jumped into it
willy-nilly! I say that because you can only talk, read and study up to a certain point.
Eventually you have to really start doing it. That's exactly what we did.
Bessie, The Family Milk Cow
The first thing we did was look in the paper
for a cow for sale. Not finding anything, we ran a "cow wanted" ad. The first
person who called us had a nice little Jersey cow, dry but pregnant with her
3rd calf which was due in a few months. We drove out to see her and found the
skinniest, most malnourished animal we had ever seen standing knee deep in
manure in a darkened horse stall. Our book-reading had prepared us for this.
Prepared to walk away, knowing full well the ramifications, we said "we'll
It took about 2 months of generous feeding, daily brushing and attention to
bring her back. But bring her back we did and found ourselves with a beautiful,
gentle, 4-year old Jersey Cow.
While it is true that in order to get milk from a cow, she's got to have
a calf, this does not mean that she has to be bred year
after year. That is only the case if you want a continuous flow of
the maximum amount of milk your particular cow is capable of producing.
At the extreme end of the spectrum is a man who reported to get a
quart a day from his cow for 10 years without re-breeding her. Mileage
varies, according to genetics, feed and care.
On calving day here at Timber Trails Farm, there was no mistaking what was
about to take place. We had been quite worried that the calf was going to
be too large for her... Bessie had been bred to a very large beef bull (a Charolais).
Naturally Kim was home alone when the calf decided to come out. It took quite
a bit of Bessie pushing, Kim pulling to get it out all the way. Unfortunately, Bessie
had her head pointed down a hill. Therefore the calf's head was pointed up the
hill and he started choking. By the time Kim had him all cleaned up and breathing
she was covered head to toe with afterbirth. Bessie was paralized for about an hour,
unable to rise. Eventually she did get up and take care of the calf. I don't know who
was more pleased, us or her.
Our plan was to not separate the two. In most dairy ventures, the calf is taken
away from the cow immediately, or within a week or two (to give the calf time
to get the life-saving colostrum). This arrangement requires that you hand
feed the calf (via bottle or bucket), and milk the cow twice a day (normally
at twelve-hour intervals). It is necessary to milk the cow "dry" (get all the
milk she has) or else she will dry up and stop producing milk altogether due
to the lack of demand.
Because we don't have a need for all the milk she can possibly give, and we
don't have the time (or desire) to hand-feed the calf, nor do we have the time
(or desire) to milk the cow twice a day, we left the calf with it's mother. We
simply take from the cow whatever is leftover at the end of the day.
Some of the other advantages of leaving the calf with the cow are:
1) if the calf is butchered at 6 months to a year, you have put very
little money into the cost of your young beef, 2) vacations are
not impossible. We have taken a night or two off milking in order
to travel different places. Because the calf is on the cow she will
not go dry!
So Bessie had her calf and her udder swelled up something awful.
When she walked she had to swing her hind legs out to
the side just to accomodate the massive bag. We left her and the calf
alone for about 2 weeks so that the calf could get all of the colostrum.
We hand-milk our cow, while she is standing in her stanchion munching
on a big pile of grain. She is happiest this way. Because the calf stays
with the cow 24-hours a day (see the calf section),
we get a variable amount of milk. For the first 2 months we got anywhere to
1 and a half to 2 gallons of milk per day. Now, with the calf about 4 months
old (and huge!) we get closer to a half gallon a day from one milking.
Update:As the calf got bigger, Bessie started giving
less and less milk. Now we milk her only once a week, on
Saturdays. Saturday morning I put the calf in a separate
stall across from Bessie and keep them apart until evening.
By then, Bessie's "bag" is swollen with milk and I get
about 2 gallons. This is enough for our family for one week.
We find this arrangement quite suitable!
After milking, the milk is taken to the dairy room (nothing special,
just an area shared with the washer, dryer and freezer) and strained
through an antique strainer fitted with a modern store-bought
We choose to pasturize our milk, even though our cow is free of diseases.
Some people don't pasturize, and it is really a personal decision. Be sure
and read all you can about the pros and cons of pasturizing before you
decide. We use a store-bought pasturizer (made by SafGard)) that will
pasturize and cool 2-gallons of milk at a time.
We use an antique cream-separator to separate the cream from the
milk. This gives us skim-milk to drink (our preference) and cream for
buttermaking and sourcream. Our cream-separator is a Sears
FarmMaster brand from the late-fourties or early-fifties. We had to
learn how to use it by looking at old books and trial and error. We
would be happy to share all that we know if anyone is interested.
Just send us e-mail. Our cream-separator was missing the gasket
in the separator bowl when we got it. We were able to search through
o-rings and other rubber gaskets at several Auto Parts stores until
we found one that fit perfectly! There are also o-ring/gasket kits
that you can buy and make your own custom-sized gaskets.
Alas, the reason we bought our cow! Here at Timber Trails Farm we make
our own butter, sour cream and cheese. We have not yet ventured into
the making of yogurt or ice cream.
There is a vast amount of equipment available for the home
dairy. Listed here are the basic pieces of equipment that we use. All
equipment is sterilized after use by washing in hot, hot soapy water
(use non-detergent soap so it doesn't leave a film) to which a small
amount of non-chlorinated bleach has been added (to kill bacteria). It
is then rinsed in hot, hot water and allowed to air dry. There are many
ways of sterilizing equipment, it is a personal decision and should be
well researched prior to making a choice.
Milk Pail - ours is a 2-gallon capacity stainless-steel bucket. Stainless
steel is easiest to keep clean and lasts a long time. I found that carrying the
bucket to the dairy room (which is 100 feet or so from the barn) left the milk
wide open to dog-sniffing, falling debris and rain. Rummaging through our
pots and pans (a thrift store would be handy too) I found a pot lid that fit the
top of my bucket perfectly. This protects the milk from unwanted visitors.
Milk Strainer - we picked up an old (antique?) strainer from a
second-hand/antique store. It is tin-plated steel and looks like a large
flat-bottomed funnel. The bottom has holes in it. You put the filter pad
(we use store-bought filters) inside the strainer and fit upon that a metal
disk with holes in it that is held down by a piece that works like a spring.
This keeps the filter pad from shifting when you pour the milk in. Some
people simply use a clean diaper or cheesecloth inside a large funnel as
a strainer. We enjoy using our old tinned strainer.
By the way, when we bought the strainer it was slightly rusted where the
tin had worn off. We sent it to a Plating Shop that had a tin-plating
service. They took off the old tin and re-tinned it. It will last quite a few
more years this way. You have to be careful to thoroughly dry tin items
after you wash them or they will rust! One more note - if you take something
to the Plating Shop to be re-tinned, be sure and ask if their tin contains
zinc. Zinc is poisonous so you don't want it on food-related items. Many
Plate Shops use the non-zinc variety. Please check first.
Milk Bottles - we primarily store our milk in sterilized jars. Some of
the jars are 1 quart canning jars, some are 1/2 gallon jars that were donated
by a family member, and some are large 1 gallon jars that were found at
garage sales. It all depends on how much milk we have at the moment.
These jars are very hard to pour from when you want a drink of milk. So we
have purchased a few "real" glass milk bottles from a second-hand/antique
store. They have nice lips for pouring and are easy to grip with one hand.
We don't have the original caps for them so usually I just cover the milk
bottle tops with recycleable tin-foil.
Cream Separator - We use an old Sears FarmMaster table-top brand
that we picked up at an Antiuqe store for $50.00. It is invaluable for separating
the cream from the milk. There are other ways to separate, most notably simply
waiting for the cream to rise to the top of the milk and skimming it off. This does
not get all the cream, but it works. We prefer to drink skim milk and get plenty
of cream for buttermaking (etc).
Like our strainer, the Cream Separator is tin-plated metal and it was rusty in
spots. So we sent it off to a Plating Shop to have it re-tinned before we used it.
The re-tinning cost about $100, so the total investment into the separator ended
up about $150.00. The Cream Separator was also missing the important bowl
gasket when we got it... they just weren't meant to last 50 years or more! But
we easily found a gasket by search through the o-rings and gaskets at some
of the local Auto Parts stores. You can also buy gasket and o-ring kits to make
a custom size.
To operate our separator, we pour the milk into the large bowl on the top. The
milk should be warm, 90 degrees being optimum temperature. After pouring in
the milk, I start cranking the handle (did I mention that it is not an electric model?).
When the handle is going around about 60 revolutions per minute, I slide the lever
over that allows the milk to enter the small spinning separator bowl below. After a
few moments, I have skim milk coming out one spout and fresh cream coming out
the other spout.
Cleaning the Cream Separator when you are done is a BIG job. Not a hard job,
but there are at least 25 to 30 different pieces that must be washed/sterilized and
then quickly dried so they won't rust. For that reason, I only separate twice a week
(about every 3 days). Separating the cream from the milk is rather fun, so doing
it only twice a week keeps it fun.
Butter Churn - I have an old 2-gallon Daisy Churn. This is the one with the large glass bottom and
a crank on top with gears enclosed in a case about the size of a duck egg. I have
only used it a couple times, just for the fun of it. It is easier for me and less time-consuming
to make the butter in my Kitchenaid Mixer. I just put it on the lowest setting possible and
let it do it's business. You have to be sure and only fill the mixer bowl half way with
cream, or your buttermilk will slosh out all over the counter when the butter "breaks".
Butter-Working Bowl and Paddles - After your butter has "come" and you
have rinsed it until the water runs clear, you need
to "work" the butter to remove any remaining buttermilk out and incorporate salt (if you
are making salted butter). You can use a regular wooden cutting board to do this, but
I use an old wooden butter-working bowl I picked up at a second-hand store. It is
just a wooden bowl with a gentle slope to the sides. Be sure and let it soak in cold
water for a few minutes before you start to work the butter. This keeps the butter from
sticking to the wood. I use one wooden paddle to work the butter, it has a slight curve to it.
Some people use two paddles. With my paddle I gently work the butter by pressing it flat,
folding it over, pressing it flat, folding it over, similar to kneading bread. Some people use
two paddles. It is a personal style I'm sure. Be sure and soak your wooden paddle in
cold water when you are soaking your bowl. This keeps the butter from sticking.
Butter Mold - I have an old wooden butter mold,
the plunger type that you fill with butter then push
the plunger which forces the butter back out and makes a neat design on top. Be sure
and soak it in cold water before you use it. I've only used mine a few times for fun.
For every-day butter I use a small cheese-crock with the wire-handle/lid-closer on top.
After working my butter I just mold it with my handle into a shape that will fit into the crock.
The crock holds the equivalent of a pound of butter.
Before I had a crock, I simply wrapped my butter in saran wrap and put it in the
refrigerator. You can put your butter in anything, really.
Double-Boiler - You probably already have one of these, or the makings for one. It is used in
our home dairy for cheesemaking. I have two enamelware canners, one large,
one smaller. I put a few inches of water in the large one and set my smaller canner
inside of it on top of the canning rack. The basic concept is that you want water
circulating around the smaller canner (or pot) so that it never comes in direct contact
with the heat source. My smaller canner, where I will put my milk for making cheese,
is about 24 quarts. I takes as much time to make a large amount of cheese as it
does a small amount. So I make as much cheese as my milk supply and pot size
Cheese-Curd Knife - When you are making your cheese, you need to
cut the curd. Any long knife will do,
but when your making a large amount of cheese at a shot you need a VERY long
knife. I found a knife at a second hand store with a skinny, foot and a half long
blade. It works fine in my big canner.
Cheese Press - I bought a cheese press. It can make up to
a 4-pound wheel of cheese. They are
easy to use, and I can't think of any tips or tricks to pass along. Any how-to book
can give you the basic information. There is also lots of information out there on
how to make your own press.
Oh, one thing I did learn was that you cannot just put your curd in the press and
put a tremendous amount of weight on it. This will squeeze the cream right out
of your curd. You have to follow the directions and put only a small amount of
weight on the curd and increase it slowly. This packs the curd together, which is
what you want and squeezes the whey out. If you press too hard too soon it will
bruise the curds and you loose the cream.
Sadly, after this article was written our beloved Bessie was shot
and killed by a hunter. Nine months pregnant, the calf she carried
inside died along with her. I think of her often and dedicate this
article to her.
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