2016 - Issue Three

Two Acres and a Cow: Pleasures and Perils

Chris O'Neill Download Article

Grohman, Joann S., Keeping a Family Cow: The Complete Guide for Home-Scale, Holistic Dairy Producers (3rd edition, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013).

My wife Amanda and I bought our first family milk cow in August of 2009, two days before our anniversary. Amanda remembers the date precisely because we spent that anniversary in arguments over whether and how we ought to get rid of it. It did not take long for us to realize that the gap between what we thought we needed to do and what we actually needed to do to keep a cow was much wider than we had anticipated.

We became interested in cows shortly after moving to Loranger, Louisiana, a small rural community in a parish that was once dominated by small family dairies. The story of how the ideas of an enlightenment philosophy which separates man from nature gave rise to an industrialized economy and a technological culture had been something I had been thinking about for some time. The place we were living helped us to become acquainted with a lesser known chapter of that story, the history of modern dairying in the Unites States and the role of the pasteurization of milk. I learned of the tragic history of the epidemic of milk-borne diseases in industrialized cities of the early 20th century. These resulted largely from early attempts to keep dairy cows in city centers, usually near breweries where the cows could be fed the grain by-products of that process. Such environments proved inhospitable to cows and dangerous to the people who relied on them. At the same time, the nutritional requirements of large numbers of people in unheard of concentrations made it very difficult for cities to go without a constant supply of milk, which doesn’t travel well and is prone to spoilage. Pasteurization became the only reliable way to get the milk into the city and keep the cow out of it—a technological achievement that contributed to the building of the modern city, but also one that brought about yet another separation of man from nature, this time man from cow.

We did not live in a city. We found ourselves on a 10-acre plot of land that was once part of a small dairy. Our plot still had the old cypress barn on it, complete with a milk parlor that was filled with layer of sawdust two feet thick.

The pasture, like the barn, was somewhat neglected but it was adequate. We had access to a supply of hay and water. The idea of attempting to keep our own family cow grew on us. We began to read, exploring the benefits and potential liabilities of keeping a dairy cow, about pasture requirements and management, cow nutrition and reproductive health, milk processing, and cheese making among other things. We cleaned up the barn and repaired the fences and mowed down the weeds. We had done our homework prior to making the decision to get a cow.

But a real cow in your back yard is not quite the same thing as the cow you read about in books. Amanda spent the first day getting no more than a half of a cup of milk from an uncooperative and impatient cow, and the next day watching its health decline with alarming speed. All of our research and preparation was bested in less than 48 hours. We began to wonder whether we hadn’t made the worst decision of our lives.

Keeping a dairy cow required a fundamental shift in our way of thinking and way of life, and no amount of study or material preparation could have given us the familiarity with the cow nor the virtues necessary to care for it properly. After that eventful anniversary, we managed to acquire a pair of bull calves from a nearby dairyman who was kind, helpful, and encouraging. It turns out that the days-old calves were far more knowledgeable and skilled at providing what our cow needed than we were. Cows in milk quickly become ill if not milked regularly and thoroughly. It took two growing calves, in addition to our clumsy efforts, to keep up with her supply. With a temporary solution in hand, and a new experienced friend that was willing to help us, we decided to persevere.

It was only then that the significance of one book in particular became apparent. Of all the books we read, Joann Grohman’s Keeping a Family Cow became by far the most important. Keeping a Family Cow is not the most scholarly work you can find on the issues surrounding dairying. You will not find in it the most articulate defense of the virtues of raw milk or the most nuanced critique of the “false economy” resulting from the nation’s food policy (though these are discussed in the first part of the book). But what you will find is simple and straightforward advice for those trying to learn for the first time what it takes to actually care for a cow. There is wisdom in this book that feels like the recording of the common sense of a bygone era. Not too long ago, there was hardly a need for such a book. Today, we could not have done without it.

The dairy cow is a remarkable animal. To keep it and to enjoy its many benefits requires a profound respect for who she is and what she does. It is not enough to merely like cows, or to know something about bovine anatomy and biology. The most essential thing for keeping a family cow is to understand the cow, to be familiar with it. This is what Grohman helped us to do.

A cow is not a rational animal, so trying to argue with it is an exercise in futility and absurdity. I have attempted it many times. At the same time, the cow is not a machine which can simply be made to do what you want it to do. One does not take milk from a cow. It seems odd to have to say it, but producing milk is a function of mothering and it is the mother’s prerogative to give it to whomever she favors. She may not be a rational animal, but she has a rich emotional life, and she isn’t dumb. There is a reason behind what the cow does. In the end, she does make sense, but this understanding doesn’t come naturally. An effort is required to conform one’s thinking to the logic of the cow. The advice of an experienced friend helps, as does a book like Keeping a Family Cow. But nothing substitutes for contending with the reality.

At one time we had a big beautiful Brown Swiss cow who gave us fantastic milk with loads of cream for coffee, butter, ice-cream and the rest. As usual I stopped milking her a couple of months before she calved to give her an opportunity to focus her energies where they were most needed. When she came back into milk there was almost no cream. She was only giving us skim milk. It turned out that she was saving the cream for the calf! The cream starting coming back after a concerted effort on my part to be a little less business-like, a little more patient, and a lot more affectionate in the milk parlor—a lesson that I should have learned elsewhere in the course of my life.

Dairy cows are radically dependent on the people who keep them. Since they produce more milk than can be consumed by their calves, they don’t stray far from the milk parlor, which they typically must visit twice a day. At the same time, they need a constant supply of quality grass and hay to maintain their health (which is why the City Cow experiment was doomed to fail). It is for this reason that, unlike other farm animals, the feral dairy cow is a rarity. It is difficult for a dairy cow to survive without the dairyman’s help. The work she has to do requires the help of a competent farmer.

The relationship between the family and the cow has been part of our history for as far back as anyone can remember. It is one of mutual competence and affection, requiring constant and faithful effort—virtues which our techno-saturated culture has failed to instill in us. At the same time, the cow is a generous creature. She gives much more than she takes, providing the family with more than mere nourishment, that is, with genuine pleasure. She inspires a reciprocal gratitude and generosity from those who care for her. Anyone interested in trying to understand better what has been lost to the dominant culture would do well to consider the cow and its place in the context of the family. If you are able, quite a lot more can be gained from actually keeping one. I am very grateful to have had just such an opportunity, and for the timely help of Joann Grohman’s book.


Chris O'Neill is the Assistant Director of the Family Life Apostolate of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.