Meet my new cow:

Photo borrowed with permission, from http://www.minimilkcows.com/

OK, ok, I’m totally and completely kidding.  Sort of, kind of.  Maybe not.  Alright, let me explain…..

As you may know, for several years now, we have been planning on getting a dual-purpose cow when we move to Red Gate.  Although I love my goats, and even plan to keep milking goats, I also greatly miss cream, which I can’t get very easily from the naturally-homogenized goat milk.  So, after much research, a couple years ago, we decided to purchase a well-bred Dexter heifer from a friend near Red Gate Farm, who is a breeder of very good, high-quality Dexters.  The thing that most attracted me to the Dexter was their small size, beefy build, and the fact they could also be milked.  It sounded ideal at the time.  Milk and meat all from one animal.  It seemed perfect for our little homestead-in-the-making. 

A Dexter cow. Photo borrowed from http://www.wolseyfarm.com/

Then, I got goats and learned about milking.  I began learning about the importance of good udder attachments, teat size and shape, butterfat levels, and production.  I learned how, although you can milk pretty much anything with an udder, the quality and quantity of the milk you get, the amount of cream in that milk, and the number of years the animal can continue to produce is more dependent on genetics.  A good milk animal needs to be intentionally bred to be such.  Likewise, you could techically eat pretty much any cow–dairy genetics or not.  However, if you are going to spend 18 months raising, feeding, and maintaining a calf, you want to get as much meat from it as you can.  After butcher, a dairy-bred cow may produce 30-50% edible beef , whereas a beef-bred cow may produce 60-70% beef.  That’s a several hundred pound difference when you are talking about such a large animal.  This quality, too, is bred into a cow.  Sure, you hear of the occasional “diamond in the rough” that someone finds in a seller’s backyard that is excatly what they want, but it’s a pretty slim chance. 

That being said, the Dexters I was looking to purchase had been carefully bred for meat, and milk and udders were not even part of the consideration.  I recently begin researching further, and learned that even a good milking dexter will likely not produce more than 1-1.5 gallons of milk per day.  That may sound great in itself, but when I considered that I could get that much from one of my Alpine girls who eat about 1/3 of what a Dexter would eat, suddenly, it wasn’t such a great deal.  Furthermore, I spoke with our friend who pointed out that they would likely have the same bull for quite a few more years, meaning I wouldn’t want to buy one of his daughters and then breed back to him year after year.  So, the search was on yet again. 

Then, I discovered the miniature milk cows.  Now I admit they are cute and babies can almost make you want to cuddle with those big eyes.  More importantly, though, they were the size we wanted for our farm and young children (a lot like the Dexter), but had been carefully bred to produce more milk– generally 3-4 gallons per day.  This was easily enough to allow me to milk her once a day, and still have plenty to feed a calf or two so I wouldn’t have to bottle feed (similiar to what we do with our goats).  Later, when we get into pigs and such, there would also be plenty to help grow the pigs on.  In addition, the mini milk cows are generally a very high percentage Jersey, meaning they have very high butterfat levels, which means LOTS of cream for ice cream, soups, and other creamy treats from the kitchen. 

A modern day Jersey cow. Photo borrowed from http://images.search.yahoo.com/images/view

At the same time, though, there are many downsides.  These cows were quite a bit more expensive than the Dexters, and much harder to find.  There are said to only be about 500 in the whole country.  For the most part, they are being carefully and selectively bred to be a miniature version of the large Jersey that most people think when they hear the name, which is, in fact a bred-up version of the more “standard” sized jersey that was originally imported.  You still with me?  The miniature jersey is based on the original jersey in terms of milk, but with enough cross breeding to add a bit more vigor and hardiness.  The downside of the “pure” miniature jersey, however, is that it seems to have often-times (though not always) inherited the poor leg genes of the large jersey, and it is a very “dairy” animal, with a thin build, and not much to look at in terms of a meat-producing animal.  A downside of dairy animals in general is that they require higher maintenance as a general rule.  They eat a lot more than a beefier animal of the same size in order to produce the high quanities of milk they are bred for.  Just like a high-producing dairy goat, they are quite inefficient. 

A 40 inch tall miniature jersey. Photo borrowed from http://sureshotcattle.com/Miniature_Jerseys_0U94.html

I wanted both meat and milk, so a pure miniature jersey didn’t really appeal to me, and that’s what most breeders seemed to be aiming for.  I wanted the perfect homestead cow, producing a middle-amount of milk to support the family, her calf, and maybe a few other critters, but also having enough meat on her to allow me to breed her to a good beefy animal (like my friends Dexter bull) and be able to produce a nice calf for meat each year.  The lower production and increased beefiness would likely result in more efficient feeding, lower maintenance, better legs, and hopefully still have a very good udder. 

I’m easy to please, really.  I just have high expectations.  My own mother was convinced I would never get married and she would be stuck with me forever since my demands were so high.  But, hey, my experience has shown that patience and persistence totally pays off!  After all, I got S didn’t I?!  Sorry, I digress….

After much searching, calling breeders, and too much time involved, I found a breeder just a few hours from Red Gate that breeds what I want.  The heifer pictured at the top is a good example.  Although technically a mini-jersey, she is similiar to a “Percentage” mini jersey rather than a “pure” mini jersey.  What does that mean?  Well, let’s say you take a a large breed beef cow like a Galloway and breed it to a pure mini-jersey.  You would likely get a slightly smaller mix of 50% beef and 50% dairy genetics.  Then, let’s say the offspring is a heifer.  You would breed it back to another mini-jersey bull, giving you a 75% dairy and 25 % beef animal.  Each generation from then on is bred to a pure mini jersey bull, meaning each generation gives more dairy and less beef.  Once you have greater than about 93% mini-jersey, it is considered “pure. ”  Of all the cows I have looked at (online, of course), it seems the type of mix I want is roughly in the 70-80 % range for dairy, and 20-30% for beef.  So, it is a “percentage” mini jersey.  (Mini jersey experts, please feel free to correct me if my understanding of the percentage and other ratings is incorrect!)

I have spoken with this breeder several times now, and really like what she has to say.  We seem to have similiar beliefs regarding breeding animals for improvement, and breeding the “whole” animal for better rather than picking certain things (aka milk), which has proven time and again to screw breeds up.  I have discussed our moving plans with her, I plan to keep in touch with her, and she has agreed to let us know what becomes available for sale next year.  During our dicussion, however, she mentioned that she may be selling 2-3 young cows already in milk and/or bred back next year, one of which might be the little girl pictured at the top.  I’m already in love with her, so S and I are discussing detouring on our next Red Gate trip to swing by this breeder’s farm and check out her animals.  Whether I will get this girl, another, or even a young heifer calf is yet to be determined.  It is fun to dream though, and it’s even more fun to know how close the time is getting!