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Buying a Milk Cow: The Age Factor

Ahhhh yes, the age old question, “Which is better, youth or experience?”  Well, if you’re in the market for a dairy cow, it’s definitely worth thinking over.Ultimately, the decision to purchase a heifer or a cow will be based on personal preference, but in my opinion, there is one choice that definitely has the upper hand.

Let’s begin with talking about heifers, which are usually two years old or less and have never had a calf.  If someone chooses to buy a heifer with hopes of turning her into a family milk cow, it is usually for one of two reasons:

  1. The hope of getting the maximum amount of milking years out of her. (And if you have found a young heifer with a trainable personality, then this is definitely something to consider.)
  2. The idea that training her to milk will be easier if she grows up around her owner.

I call this second reason an “idea” because while the logic is understandable, in reality, it just doesn’t work that way.  A cow ‘growing up around you’ won’t make taming her any easier.  The ease or difficulty of training is ultimately a matter of yours and the cow’s personalities.  In regards to ease of training, you don’t gain an advantage by starting with a young heifer verses a cow that is a little bit older.  The ease of training is about personality, not age.

This is one main reason I encourage people to buy a milk cow (i.e. has already had at least one calf) that is between 2 and 5 years old.  At this age range, you still have the majority of good milking years left, and most all of the important questions can be answered before you buy her.  These are the very important questions that can only be answered once a cow has calved at least once:

  1. Can she calve without assistance or problems? Generally, the first calf is the most worrisome and most likely to reveal any calving issues.  So, if the cow handled calving well, then chances are very good that she’ll continue to do so.  But if you buy a heifer, you just won’t know until it’s too late.
  2. Is she a good mother? It’s not extremely common, but it’s also not unheard of that a cow calves and then won’t let the calf nurse.  Generally, this is something you can get straightened out, but if you know ahead of time that she takes to her calves without issue, it will give you peace of mind.  If you buy a heifer, you just won’t know until it’s too late.
  3. Is she sound in all four quarters? Translation:  Do all four of her teats function properly?  Sometimes a cow will have only 3 out of 4 teats that produce milk, and this would be very valuable information to someone looking for a milk cow.  However, it can only be learned once the cow has calved.  So, if you buy a heifer, you just won’t know until it’s too late.

And so, there you have it.  It’s settled.  Experience wins out over youth on this one.  And I must admit, as I sit here with all six of my children running around me, reclined back for a few minutes just to keep my feet from swelling since I’m expecting #7, it just makes me smile a little.

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