Joann S. Grohman,
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
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
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.