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What I'd like to have is a cow that is basically a family milk cow; to experiment with cheese making, to feed babies that can't be with mom - we end up with piglets from time to time that we need to bottle feed - and to provide fresh milk and butter for my family.
I haven't done it before because I needed to concentrate on the pig part of my farm, to get that under control and running smoothly, and to spend the time it took to really understand pigs; 5 years later I've got a pretty good handle on it, and things are running smoothly. Time for a new project.
A family milk cow is a long-term project; a good cow will give you gallons of milk every day for many years; a calf every year to raise, and I just like the idea continuing down the path of raising all of the food that my family eats. We've got the meat part of the diet covered right now; I think it's time to do the dairy part.
I've been interested in the idea of having a dairy cow for a few years, and have been watching Matron of husbandrys' blog as she has worked through the process of raising her milk cow, and I'm going to give it a try myself.
Matrons situation is that she had a milk cow that died, but the latest calf from it was a heifer, so she has been raising it as her new milk cow, and talking about the process. It's been interesting to read about her progress on her blog. At this point her new milk cow is about to calve, which is the point after which it'll start to produce milk for her.
I don't have an existing milk cow, so I'm going to take a path that I think will be easier for others to follow. Here' how I started.
Spotting a likely heifer
I took a trip over to eastern Washington on Friday; I was buying some grape plants for a grape vineyard (I can't think of another word for a field of grapes, but I'm not growing them for wine, more on that later) and I stopped by one of the larger auctions on my way back.
When I go to a livestock auction, the problem is that you often have no idea what you're buying, so what I do is arrive an hour or two early, and I watch the animals being unloaded. When I see something that I'm interested in, I can grab the driver/owner/farmer and ask them about their animals. Now you have to take what they're saying with a grain of salt, but for the most part you can get a feel for the animal from their owner, and from looking at the condition of their trailer and the animal itself.
So I noticed three started holsteins being unloaded, and one of them looked like a heifer -- a young female cow. Holsteins are the black and white cow that you see a lot as an iconic dairy cow. Here's the little girl I saw:
It rang true, but I did ask the name of the dairy, and checked it out with my iphone when I walked away. Yep, newspaper story about the dairy closing, date matched... So far so good.
The risks of buying cattle at auction is that its pretty anonymous; you don't know who you're buying from; by catching the owner and being able to ask some questions, I had a big advantage over other bidders. Alls fair, right?
Started holstein heifers that weigh between 300 and 500lbs are selling right now for between $1.20 and $1.45 a pound; I looked this up on my phone as I watched a stream of goats and sheep and pigs get auctioned. When this cow came up her weight was listed as 415lbs, which at the low end of the scale put her at $498 at auction, and at the high end put her at $600. She was separated by the auctioneer from the two steers that she came with, and the bidding was on.
Starting at $200, there were 8 bidders. I wasn't happy to see that, but it had dropped down to 3 at $350, and then to two at $400.
$475 bid and she was mine. At that price I'm paying a little less than the lower end of the range, but it drove home that my initial price range was accurate, and I probably saved $50 or so vs going to the dairy auction. Since I was there anyway, I figured it paid for the fuel. Not a bargain, but the seller was probably happy with the transaction, too; hope he was. Seemed like a nice guy.
A good, active livestock auction will have consistent prices; there's no free lunch. Yes, we all get a deal every now and then at an auction, but the reason that we all remember it is that it's so rare. People who claim to get great prices at livestock auctions are like people who go to casinos and claim to win every time.
If we'd made a deal in the parking lot there's always the suspicion that someone didn't get a fair deal; having gone through the auction, the seller is assured that they got the highest price they could have that day.
Next: My little heifer and I see eye to eye