Where I live the small breeds of cows such as Scottish Highland and Miniature Galloway are kept as lawnmowers or pets. I really like the idea of these cows as dual purpose animals, as they were originally, but I was wondering if anyone had advice about selecting and training one to be a milk cow...?
Should I start with a heifer calf and raise her as a family pet to get her used to human contact?
If I wanted to save time is it a bad idea to get a fully grown cow and try to train her? If I bought one that is used to human contact already would it be easier?
Are there any signs I should look for in the calves and mothers to tell whether they'll be good milking animals?
Any other books, online resources, videos etc that you would recommend?
Hi Kate. I'll preface what I say by admitting that I've never owned a cow, let alone a Highlander, but I've read about them, so I'm an internet expert. I have, though, milked. We've got a quota system here, so most milking is done with Holsteins, but I've also milked a number of other breeds, but not a Highlander. I'm also going to assume that you've never milked before, no shame in that, but my apologies if I'm wrong.
I've found that Holsteins are great for producing lots of lower fat milk when fed to the max and pampered to the gills. Farms around here aren't as huge as in the States, but herds tend to start around 3-400 head and some are milking almost 700 when, 30 years ago when I was a kid, 50 milking was a pretty standard herd. I've had limited experience with the new Holsteins, but they're much larger and, I've found, not as easy handling as they used to be. I've found other breeds to be nicer handling, but there are always asshole cows in any breed, so you mostly need to make sure you don't get one of those. The last guy I milked for had a pregnant heifer that rammed the other cows. She's already caused one cow to miscarry yet they wanted to keep her until she calved. That's the cow you don't want.
I'd say that your best bet would be to find someone who's willing to sell a Highlander that's already being milked, or has been milked and is now dry and pregnant. You'll want to buy a girl that is calm, an easy milker and calver, is gentle and can train you. If you've milked before, you can disregard this, but it's so much nicer to handle nice cows, so make disposition a top trait when choosing. If you can find a milking or pregnant cow (a pregnant heifer has never given birth, so hasn't been milked before), I'd spend serious money for a good animal, like a cow on the edge of the top 20-25% of the herd for good genetics. This is a very tough get, especially if Highlanders are rare.
The second suggestion I'd have is to be open to another small breed, though again you can find smaller animals of any breed. The smaller cows have lower nutritional needs, on average, so you can keep them with less feed. They may not produce as much, but the return may be better than with a high producer needing supplements. I have read a lot about the Highlanders and, here in Canada, we have a pretty good gene pool of them, but they're still a specialty breed and a dairy Highlander would be rare indeed. I have read a lot of good things about them, but I've heard from a couple of farmers that they were disappointed with the carcass quality. I do not think that either had had success grass finishing with any other breed, so I don't just accept that it's an issue, but they don't develop as much body fat as other cattle, due to the hair coat, which is a downside for beef, for sure. That would be a definite trade off for you in raising it for beef, but I get falling in love with a breed. If you're open to other breeds, I'd look for an experienced cow as described above in a small breed. Devons give nice milk, and the breed will have a certain milk profile, but there will be differences in animals and I think that diet has a large influence on the milk quality. Around here in the past, farmers would keep a dairy breed and breed her to a meat breed to get a calf with more muscling ability, plus the hybrid vigor. Personally, I think that the environment and the diet and care of the cow will make a bigger impact on taste and quality than breed, so it may be better to get a better quality cow of a different breed.
If you're stuck on Highlanders, I get it. I will definitely have some at some point, just because I want to see what they're like and I love the looks. That said, my third choice would be to buy a calf, from a good herd, and raise her up. I'd very much recommend that you also buy a great milker of another small breed to train you and the calf. It's best to have two cows, the cow will show the calf what to do if you keep them together, and you can sell her later.
You may be able to get a good cow cheaply if you look for someone who's selling their milk cow. The important thing is not to buy a problem cow, but there's a solution for those as well. Best of luck with your endevour.
The only cow I've milked was a Jersey. She would stand in the paddock to be milked, without needing to be restrained (even though her last owner said she wouldn't do this), but otherwise was a bit crazy, and scared me on a couple of occasions running towards me shaking her horns when I had food! Jerseys around here for sale tend to be crazy, and I didn't like seeing how skinny she was, I always feel like I'm doing something wrong when I see a skinny animal, even though Jerseys are meant to be skinny.
I love Highland cows, but I also love miniature belted Galloways, who are supposed to be a dual purpose animal as well (although I don't know of anyone here that milks one, or breeds them for milking qualities). Both breeds can easily be found here.
I've heard good things about the temperaments of Guernsey cows, which can be found here too, but they are a big breed. Dexters I've heard are a bit wild, but they thrive here as well, and there are people who raise them for milk.
I currently have lots of logging regrowth that I want to turn into a productive silvopasture in time, and one thing that appealed to me about Highlands was reading that they will eat small tree branches, which would make it easier to provide all their food on my land.
Sorry, I didn't see your sig before. You obviously know about milking, lol.
I've never milked goats or sheep, but you'll look for the same things in a cow, but the temperament is most important to me because cows really don't HAVE to do what you want, and because stress in the herd can make a big impact on production. I would see if you can test milk the cow you're thinking of. A regular milker can usually get good behaviour from most cows, but you'll want to know how she is with you, though it will get better, obviously. I would personally look for the best cow, regardless of breed. Dual-purpose in cows is a little different than chickens and probably even goats and sheep as it is anywhere from 18 -24 months before she calves, and the beef you'll be eating is from the calves as you keep her in milk. If you've got a good milker, you'll probably want to keep the cow as long as you can and breed her to a beef bull for a better carcass on the calf. Dual-purpose in a cow mostly means you'll get a cow that doesn't produce anywhere near as much milk, but doesn't loose body condition like the dairy breeds. The DPs will throw better beef calves at the expense of milk, but the only time the actual cow comes into play is at the end of her productive life, where she'll provide mostly hamburger. At DP cow will probably have about a 10% better yield.
The Highlanders are supposed to be easy handling as they were raised and sometimes housed with the Scots. They don't fatten as much, but they'll put on weight on poor pasture. They supposedly will adjust their frame size based on pasture quality, though they're the only breed I've read can do that and I'm skeptical. They do have lovely horns and the hide is beautiful if taken in the winter. You could possibly sell these for an income stream. They do stop cars, so that helps for advertising. A guy near here had Texas Longhorns and I'd drive past his farm just to see them.
If you can milk in a paddock, it's probably cleanest and safest, though not always convenient. I was once pinned in a stall by a cow and I didn't know if I'd make it out. Two farmers in my area were killed by just that. Always have an escape route.
I think all cattle will eat young tree branches and cattle are sometimes used to clear land, so I wouldn't think the Highlanders are any better or worse at it. The secret is stopping them from killing the trees, but I think it's a great idea. I'd use honey and maybe black locust around here as part of the silvopastures, but there're so many great feeding options.
Do you have miniature Highlanders there at a reasonable cost? If so, cool! I’d have to drive halfway across the country and shell out around $5,000 a head. I was thrilled to find a standard Highland breeder only around four hours away and within my state (there are complications for bringing cattle across state lines here). I think it’s better to get a young heifer you can tame than an established cow that’s wild. Of course if you can get one that’s trained to milking, that would be great. Around here though, that’s just not going to happen. From what I’ve read, it’s possible to get around a half gallon a day when sharing with a calf. More than plenty for us. I don’t know how well they’d keep up condition under long milking, nor how quickly they might dry up even with diligent milking and good feed.
Highlands are primarily raised here for their lean, flavorful meat. (Lean is popular in the USA, and I think possibly more consistent with the natural state of the more ancient breeds.) Like Timothy said, if you want a more traditional carcass in the calves, you would inseminate with a more marbled breed such as Black Angus for faster weight gain and meat more suitable for backyard barbecue type cooking methods. I believe I read that the genetics for naturally polled animals are dominant, so that’s also a plus if you’re going for a beef that’s headed for the slaughter house.
As for selecting an animal specifically for milking, you doubtless know the drill with goats way better than I would. Heredity, udder size, shape, condition, teat formation, size... minis will obviously have tiny teats. I can only tell my girls’ equipment quality by feel... I’d have to lay on my back like an auto mechanic to actually see their little udders. 😅 I’ve noticed that the white heifer has 4 teats while the red ones have 6. I’m guessing someone has mixed blood there, but I don’t know who. People do milk the standard sized Highlands in pasture while the calf takes the other side, but I’m not sure... the Highlanders I’ve seen in person have all had shortish legs. I’d think it would be awkward. I think I’m going to want a milking stanchion (sp?). People do milk beef cattle... you don’t get as much milk (internet “knowledge”) but it’s generally rich in butterfat. They say they like the milk better.
I wanted Highlanders for their cold hardiness, their ability to thrive on lesser forage, their reputation for gentleness, their reportedly bison-like meat... I swear their adorable fluffiness had nothing to do with it...🥰 I also am hoping they’ll give me enough milk to experiment with some cheese making, ferment kefir and yogurt and possibly even butter. TBH though, we don’t use a lot of milk, so that wasn’t my primary focus. Self-sufficiency in food of what ever kind was the main thing... and our growing season isn’t long enough to grow much more than greens without a greenhouse. Milk, meat, eggs appear to be my best options there. Fortunately we have very nice grass/forage, and I hope to make it even better with the animals’ help. 🙂
Tomorrow doesn’t exist and never will. There is only the eternal now. Do it now.
Maybe I am just caught up in the cute fluffiness of it all!
Cows and calves of miniature breeds come up for sale on online classifieds here every so often, the price is around the same as for other breeds. There are some professional breeders around but I haven't asked them about prices.
We get all our drinking milk from our goats, I'm interested in the cows mainly for milking in summer/autumn for cheese and butter. I also like that cows will thrive on grass, that their manure is easier to collect, and that their calves will give us beef, so in the long-term once we have more grass growing and fenced off from wallabies, since cows do so well for our neighbours it would make sense to raise some.
Maybe I would be better off just waiting around for a cow of any breed that has the right temperament, and then breeding her to beef bulls, as we can make use of the milk from a full-sized cow. I like the smaller size of the miniatures, and the Highlands seem to do better on rougher food, rather than the Jersey I had who was very fussy.
From what I’ve heard, all dairy cows are more in need of high quality feed than beef cattle—probably because of the constant demands on their bodies spending so much of their lives in lactation. Don’t forget... like goats, cows need a buddy... it doesn’t necessarily have to be a cow. I’d imagine a nice doe would be just fine. I don’t personally know, but I’ve been told Jerseys are among the more high maintenance. That said, I’m sure you can find better advice than mine on that topic by just searching the forum. For me, with just my husband and me, and my mom, that much milk would be way more than we could use, even giving some away (and DH, being a retired insurance adjuster, would be worrying about doing that because of liability issues. In the States it seems a significant portion of the population is just waiting around to see whom they can sue.) So anyway, less milk sounds good to me, especially since I’ll (hopefully) have three cows lactating at once. 😉
Tomorrow doesn’t exist and never will. There is only the eternal now. Do it now.
Julia, I'm interested to hear how you go with milking the Dexters. Dexters do well in my climate, and I've heard their meat is tasty and they give a good amount of milk, and they're also fairly easy to find here too. I have heard they can be a bit wild though, but maybe that all depends on their individual personalities, and some are more easy to handle than others?
Temperament is huge, and also runs pretty strongly in families. If you're buying a cow you definitely want to meet the mom and at least hear about the dad. The farm our cattle comes from has couple of adult bulls and several young bulls all in their own pasture (with the sheep) and the farmers had no qualms about all of us stepping over the fence and to meet them.
We bought three steer this summer and harvested the oldest one this fall, and I can attest to the tasty beef part!
I would suggest the Dexter breed for your farm. Small easy to handle and any offspring can be raised for beef.
Purchasing a bred back milking cow would be the least complicated way to start and you would have more breeder support as you learn how to milk and maintain a cow.
They are delightful animals and because of their small size easy to fence, house and handle.
If we don't do the shopping, we won't have anything for dinner. And I've invited this tiny ad:
Wildlife Web Kickstarter: Participate in the Web of Life