Why bother?

Points FOR

  • You get fresh milk the way nature intended it to be.
  • The pleasure of milking the cow yourself.
  • It’s a great educational experience for children.
  • You can make a range of dairy products from milk.
  • Surplus milk can be fed to other animals - calves, and pigs.


  • You have to milk the cow.
  • Her milk will vary in quantity and quality over the lactation.
  • The cow has to become pregnant at regular intervals - she will have to be mated.
  • She’ll need a break from milking (4-6 weeks dry period)
  • The cow has to be user-friendly to avoid accidents for the milker.
  • The milk you drink will not be pasteurised - so the cow must be disease-free.

Which breed?

It really depends on how much milk you want. You can even milk a beef cow.

Here’s what the main dairy breeds produce (from NZ Dairy Board statistics):

 Breed  Litres  Milkfat (kg)  Protein (kg)
 Holstein-Friesian (HF)  3800  165  131
 Jersey  2790  160  113
 HF x Jersey  3445  170  127
 Ayrshire  3452  150  122





The Milking Shorthorn and Guernsey are also specialised dairy breeds available in small numbers in New Zealand.
The British “dual-purpose” breeds produce both milk and beef. Examples are the Red Devon, South Devon, Welsh Black, and Sussex and they all make good house cows. They are classed as minority breeds and the Sussex as a rare breed.

Most of the “Continental” breeds are dual-purpose cattle in their native countries and some are good milk producers. The best example would be the Simmental.


  • This can be an issue if you are concerned about how much feed (Dry Matter) the cow will eat, and the facilities you may need for milking.
  • The Holstein-Friesian is the largest dairy breed with mature cows easily reaching 500kg.
  • The Jersey is the smallest with mature cows averaging around 360 - 380kg.

Age of cow

  • Milk production increases with the age of cows.
  • First lactation yields are the lowest, and production peaks at about lactation 6-8.


  • It’s vital that your house cow has a very good temperament and is quiet and friendly with humans.
  • You may want to milk her in the paddock so she should welcome your approach and not run away.
  • Temperament is mostly controlled by the way the animal was treated like a calf.
  • You can control this if you rear your own cow.
  • But if you purchase a cow you’ll have to assess her temperament before taking ownership.
  • Getting the cow used to handling and hand milking may take some time--depending on her previous experience.

The maiden heifer

  • Here you milk a first-calf or maiden heifer that you may have reared yourself.
  • If hand-reared, she should be very user-friendly and you should be able to go up to her in the paddock and be able to handle her udder and teats without getting kicked.
  • If she has been purchased and is not as friendly, then you must do a lot of bonding before calving.
  • If you can’t get up to her in the paddock, get her into a confined space and give her a lot of TLC with special attention to scratching her rear end, and massaging her udder and teats.
  • Some concentrate feed is the way to build a bond - feed her where you are going to eventually milk her.

How are you going to milk her?

  • A cow “lets down” her milk. This is induced by the hormone oxytocin and the impulse only lasts 5-6 minutes. So there’s a time limit if you want to milk the cow out cleanly.
  • The cow’s udder should be completely emptied approximately every 12 hours to maintain lactation and avoid mastitis (udder infection).
  • Fast efficient hand milking takes practice. Make sure you have the skills.
  • You may need to make a bail along the side of a shed or yard to confine the cow while hand milking. Make sure it’s wide enough for both the cow to stand and you to sit while milking so that you have a safe escape if the cow moves over towards you while seated.
  • The other approach is to remove any milk by hand that you need for the house and let a calf suckle what’s left in the udder. The cow may respond with a second let-down response to the calf suckling.
  • If you use a small milking machine, this will empty the udder quickly but make sure that it is working correctly or you’ll do damage to the udder and cause mastitis.
  • Ask at your nearest milking machine parts supplier for the names of approved machine testers.


  • The Dry Matter intake of a dry cow will be about 1.6% of her liveweight.
  • The Dry Matter intake of a cow at peak lactation (6-8 weeks after calving) will rise to 3.9% of her liveweight.
  • This means that when the cow is dry, you will be able to maintain her on a fairly short pasture and a hay or silage supplement.
  • But when she calves to meet her lactation needs, she’ll need good long pasture (eg 2500-2700kg DM/ha or 15cm long).
  • If she is suckling one or more calves as well as proving milk for the house, she will benefit from some meal at each milking, and creep feed the calves with calf meal.


  • About six weeks after calving, the cow will come into heat. (oestrus, bulling).
  • She may show heat 3 weeks after calving, but don’t mate her at that heat - mate her at the second heat.
  • Cows can later come into heat after calving for these reasons:
    • If they are producing a lot of milk.
    • If they are suckling calves.
    • Have had difficult calving.
    • Have had twins.
    • Had retained afterbirth.
    • Had milk fever, grass staggers, or ketosis.
    • Are low in body condition - Condition Score below 4.5.
  • Heat signs are:
    • Riding or mounting other cows.
    • Standing to be mounted by other cows.
    • Sexually Active Groups (SAG)of 3-5 cows riding each other.
    • Hair rubbed off her hip and pin bones from being ridden.
    • Bellowing.
    • Mucous discharge from the vulva.
    • Withholding her milk.
    • Walking around the paddock seeking the company of other cows.
  • She will stay on heat for 18-24 hours.
  • She will cycle every 21 days - with a range from 18-24 days.
  • A cow ovulates (sheds eggs) after she has gone off heat.
  • If you use Artificial Insemination:
    • If you see her on heat early in the morning - inseminate her near lunchtime
    • If you see her on heat in the afternoon - inseminate her the next morning.


  • Normal presentation is head and feet first. If you find anything different- seek experienced help.
  • If you don't want the cow to suckle its own calf - take it away at birth.
  • If you want to add an extra calf, do it at calving by pouring some birth fluids on the foster calf.
  • Make sure the calf has at least 2 litres of colostrum (first milk) before 6 hours.

Animal health

  • Prevention is always cheaper than cures.
  • Mastitis (udder infection) is the biggest risk from:
    • Calving in dirty paddocks
    • Spread from other infected cows via the milking machine or dirty hands
    • Not milking the cow out regularly and correctly
    • Damage to the udder and teats.
  • For mastitis seek veterinary advice to use the correct antibiotic.
  • Discard antibiotic-treated milk for at least 8 milkings.
  • Sore teats - apply udder salve after each milking or calf suckling.
  • At calving watch for metabolic diseases:
    • Milk fever - caused by a lack of calcium.
    • Grass staggers - caused by lack of magnesium.
    • Ketosis - caused by a lack of sugar (glucose).
    • Bloat - excess gas in the rumen caused by eating pasture rich in clover. Drench cows regularly with bloat oil when on lush pasture.
    • If you have to stab a cow with bloat - seek experienced help.
  • Leptospirosis - make sure the cow is vaccinated against this bacterial disease that can affect humans.
  • Tuberculosis (Tb) - contact AsureQuality New Zealand to have the cow tested.