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Cows figure prominently in most of human history from our cave dwelling days to modern times and this is no accident they are highly productive animals and deserve their place in our history and our hearts.

Fiona and I started keeping cows for their milk, and what we could do with  the milk – but now they are our pride and joy. However, cows are by far the  greatest responsibility any smallholder will ever have they will cost and  require more attention than any other stock you could keep.

The Upside
A cow can be as versatile as you want her to be – she  can provide you with milk, cream, butter, cheese, ice cream as well as beef.  From little more than good quality pasture and good hay, one cow can provide  for the whole family and two can provide for the family and produce a valuable  surplus.

The Downside
Cows are the most expensive of all livestock and an  investment, which could take years to realise, so it is not a choice to take  lightly. Depending on the size of the animal you choose it will need one to two  acres of pasture to feed it, one acre for grazing and one to cut for hay. Here  in France it will have to be blood tested on arrival at your holding and then  again every year, at your expense. Milking a cow is a twice a day 365 days  a year endeavour, and finding someone to cover your absence for any reason is  not always easy.

How to get started
First you must consider carefully all the possible  options. Is your cow for beef only or just for milk; or are you after a  dual-purpose cow for both milk and beef?

This is one question worth taking your time over. A  good beef cow may not give you good quality milk or a great deal of it either;  a good quality milk cow may not give you good quality beef.

One of the best known of the milk cows is the Jersey,  and she deserves her reputation for good quality milk, with one of the best  butterfat to milk ratios you will find. But she will not give you good quality  beef.

Even if you cross a Jersey with a beef bull she will  still give you poor quality beef calves, that will neither fetch a good price  at market or provide you with beef you feel is worth boasting about at the  table when entertaining guests.

Hereford beef is renowned throughout the world but  the cows are aggressive and the bulls even more aggressive so trying to milk  one is far from practical.

Frisian cows are great milk cows. I would guess most  readers have a picture of one well fixed in their mind from childhood. They  are, however, poor for beef production and although their milk yield is  greater, it is of a lesser quality in comparison to a Jersey.

A dual-purpose cow like a Dexter will give you good  quality milk and good quality beef, but it is a small breed and consequently  will not provide you with a large amount of either.

Another important point is geography. Some cows are  more suited to the weather conditions in your region than others. For example,  it would be tough for a highland cow from the cooler regions of northern  France to have to endure a regular temperature of 42°C in a southern summer.

Buying locally has three advantages – your vendor  could be a neighbour and therefore become a constant source of advice; a local  cow will probably be cheaper to acquire than one from farther afield; and it  will be acclimatised to the local weather.

Normande cows are readily available here in central  France and for no other reason than that, We purchased two of them, from a  neighbour in my village, who has been a constant help throughout.

Normande cows produce very  high quality milk and nearly double that of a Jersey cow and the beef from the  bulls is a market leader for price. If you cross them to beef bulls even the  heifer calves will command a good price at market. We however enjoy nothing  more than having guests share our produce with us and hear them rave about the  quality, knowing we produced that on our own land from our own beasts.

Housing needs
Cows can and in some cases do live  outside all year round. However if you wish to keep your pasture in good order  in wet regions you will almost certainly need to keep them off of your ground  for at least 3 months of the year.

In mid-Wales the local farmers would  take cows inside in October and may not return the cows to pasture until May.  Here in central France we take our cows in as late as December and we can  sometimes return them as soon as March but certainly by April.

To do this you will need at least a  corral on well drained soil, but as we milk our cows we also need a cow shed  although admittedly this is for our own comfort as milking outside in –15°C  temperatures is a little uncomfortable to say nothing of rain, snow, and north winds.

In truth, for our two cows we have a  cowshed that occupies half of our barn about 4 meters by 10 meters and we house  our cows here for the winter and milk them here too. Now you have two choices  deep litter or not.

Deep litter
Deep litter simply means you keep  adding bedding material to the cowshed, so the cows do not lie in their own  muck. I do not advocate this for several reasons – one I would not like to do  it myself; two the litter will start to compost within a week and the resultant  heat will make the atmosphere unpleasant; three within a month the gasses from  the deep litter can cause respiratory problems for the cow leading to the use  of drugs as a matter of course, leading to an added cost for upkeep of  livestock, and four the resultant half meter of compost is real hard work to  remove, unless you have unnecessary and expensive equipment.

If you choose not to deep litter you  have to clean out the cowshed every day and take away the mixture of straw and  muck and store it else ware to compost. This is the best compost you will ever  have for your garden, and add any other garden and kitchen waste, hedge  cuttings, chippings, leaf mould etc, and you will enjoy compost which no shop  can match. It’s free and it’s organic, but it is also hard work!

This is not simple although it  sounds simple to say they need little more than good quality pasture and hay  made from more good quality pasture.

Good quality pasture
Pasture is more much more than just  grass; pasture is a complex mixture of grasses and wild flowers. Imagine if  your diet consisted of the same thing day in and day out without any variation  at all… well it’s the same for your cow times 10. Not because she is more  sensitive to dietary change but because she is producing food; her milk will  only be as good as the pasture you put her on. If the pasture is lacking in  some of her dietary needs she will produce poor quality milk; if it is very  poor she will produce even poorer quality milk. The secret to good quality milk  is good clean pasture. Here are just some of the different things that could  make up your pasture:

Grasses: Common bent, Sweet vernal grass, Crested dogs tail,  Red fescue, False oat grass, Smooth meadow grass, Rough meadow grass.

Wild flowers: Yarrow, Common knapweed, Pignut, Lady’s bedstraw,  Cat’s-ear, Meadow vetchling, Autumn hawk bit, Oxeye daisy, Common birds foot  trefoil, Ribwort plantain, Self heal, Meadow buttercup, yellow rattle, common  sorrel, Devil’s bit scabious, Red clover, Germander speedwell, Tufted vetch.

Clean pasture
This is as complex as good quality  pasture. Clean pasture is not just pasture that looks good; it is the product  of good pasture management and this involves rotating your pasture so your  livestock are not back on the same ground year after year. The simplest way to  manage this is to graze pasture one year and cut it for hay the next, and then  rotate back. You may also want to put other stock on this pasture in another  year. Sheep for example if you have some, as the parasites which can affect  cows will not thrive in sheep and vies-versa.

Water is a hugely important part of  the diet of a cow she can drink as much as 30 litres a day and in hot weather  even more. Cows are very good at communicating their needs and if ours bellow  during the day it is usually because we have forgotten to fill the water  troughs!

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