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Finding the right person to interview about a family milk cow was easy. We contacted Kim Scileppi, who was featured in issue #146 of TNP with her husband John, daughter Sarah and son Ben. Milking two cows and goats is a daily routine at their ranch. We met up with Kim at a local dairy farm where Sarah and Ben were giving the owner a hand with chores.

When asked if a milk cow makes sense for anyone with a few acres and the desire to drink fresh milk, she answered, “A milk cow is not for everyone. First, you have to like cows and their smells. If you do, and your family enjoys fresh milk, yogurt, cheese and butter, a cow can become the centerpiece of your farm provided you have other livestock. I feed what we don’t use to our chickens, pigs, lambs, even baby goats, and bottle feeders (calves fed by a bottle). The calves are really what makes a milk cow pencil out financially.”

Partial To Jerseys

For a homestead milk cow, Kim is partial to Jerseys, but Ben likes Holsteins. The family has two, Lily, a Jersey, and Ben’s recently acquired Holstein #2. (So far, that’s her name.) He saved up and recently bought her from a friend. Between the two cows, the Scileppis get milk all year.

“We’ve also had Guernseys and Holsteins but have had the best luck breeding back Jerseys. Our Jersey gives us a max of 5 to 6 gallons per day if we milk twice a day, about 2 1/2 if we milk once a day. A Holstein can give you twice that amount.”

Kim likes the taste of the milk from a Guernsey or Jersey better than that from a Holstein, although she drinks goat milk herself. Ben, on the other hand, prefers the milk from Holsteins, which indicates how personal it gets choosing a milk cow. When deciding on a breed, taste the milk before making a final decision. One of the big advantages of Jerseys for a homestead is their relatively small size, which makes them easier to handle.

Milk Cow filtering milk
Kim pours filtered milk to a mason jar. The stainless filter is on top of the pail in the rear.

Hand Vs. Machine Milking

Kim and Sarah prefer to milk my hand, not with a machine, if (and it’s a big if) milking only one or two cows. “It is faster. Partly because you don’t need to clean the milking machine each time you use it. The milk goes from the teat into a sterile stainless container , then is filtered into jars. It’s not going through tubes, where, if the equipment is not thoroughly cleaned after every milking, the milk can pick up bacteria. One advantage to a machine is that it has an in-line filter.”

Ben would rather use a machine. “He’s more mechanical, I like the hands-on approach,” said Kim. “Again, it’s a matter of personal preference.”

When Kim, Sarah and Ben milk, they wash their hands thoroughly with hot soapy water and a couple of drops of grapefruit seed extract before starting, then wash the cow’s udder using a clean cloth dipped in a bucket of hot soapy water and the extract. Kim thinks that bleach is too hard on the udder. To get the cow to drop her milk, they massage the udder, mimicking the motions of a calf. It takes about 30 minutes per cow from start to finish—from washing the cow’s udder to filtering, bottling and refrigerating the milk, then cleaning up.

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Keep It Clean

After they milk, the Scileppis take the stainless container into a milk processing room that has a small refrigerator, a stainless sink and drying area. There they pour the milk through a stainless filter into sterile mason jars, which they then refrigerate. It’s important to cool the milk down as quickly as possible both for flavor and a longer shelf life. The equipment is washed and then air-dried.

“Everything has to be spotless—from the barn to the room where we refrigerate the milk,” explained Kim.

They keep a watchful eye on the lids of the mason jars. “You need to replace them every couple of months because bacteria can build up on the rubber ring around the edge. If you can smell sour milk in the lid, I won’t use it. If the lids don’t smell clean, the milk will be tainted. You can’t use lids that have been used on other foods. If you use lids that have been on pickle jars, the milk will taste like pickles.”

The milking container and any other equipment are washed in hot soapy water and a little bleach, and the countertop wiped down. Kim air-dries the jars and stainless milking equipment, towel-drying if in a hurry. She keeps the towels used on the cows’ udders separate from those for drying the equipment.

The stanchion and concrete floor in the milking parlor are cleaned with soapy water and a little bleach, then hosed down.

Cow Care & Feeding

The Scileppis pasture Lily and Holstein #2 on good-quality grass pasture at their ranch. They are fed hay (a grass/alfalfa mix) during the winter. You need to watch the amount of alfalfa a cow gets. “Too much will make the flavor of the milk off,” said Kim.

As a treat during milking, the cows are fed grain that has been soaked in water until it starts to sprout. Not only does the sprouted grain taste better, it is also more nutritious. To it they add sunflower seeds, which contain essential fatty acids. When the cows go in and out of the barn they can lick a mineral/salt block or eat loose minerals.

The Scileppis have encountered few problems with their cows. Kim said that severe distension of the rumen, or bloat, can be a problem. Occurring when cows first go on fresh pasture in the spring, it is caused by trapped gases created when grass ferments in the rumen. “We gradually introduce a cow to spring grass, then will leave her on it for about five hours only. She still needs dry grass. With any new feed, you need to introduce it slowly.”

Mastitis, an inflammation of the udder caused or aggravated by bacteria, is another problem. The udder gets hard and hot, and the milk tastes salty and comes out chunky. Kim said the best way to prevent it is to be sure the udder is stripped when you milk.

Worth The Effort?

Because it doesn’t tie them down so much, the Scileppis now milk only once a day. “The biggest disadvantage to milking twice a day is that you are married to it. If we have a baby calf on a cow, we have more flexibility. If you have only one cow, you milk her for 10 months to a year, letting her calf spend about 12 hours a day on her for four to five months, then wean her. At this point, we can still milk once a day. We breed the cow back within three to four months of her freshening, and dry her up during the last two months of gestation, which takes about nine months. That’s your free time.”

To get milk year round, they breed their cows so they freshen four to five months apart.

Ask Kim how she feels about milking today after doing it for 17 years and she will tell you, “There is no end to the adventure and learning when three living things come together—you, a cow and a piece of land. Cows are very nurturing. They are the foster mother to humans and everything else on the farm.”

This article originally published in THE NEW PIONEER® Winter 2015 issue. Print and Digital Subscriptions to THE NEW PIONEER magazine are available here 

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