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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 take her".

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.

The Calf

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!

The Milk

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 filter pad.

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.

Milk Products

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 will allow.

  • 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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