dairy products,  milk cow,  milking cow

How Can a Milk Cow Pay for Herself?

Too often I see people looking for a deal when it comes to a milk cow. I dont want a deal cow.

When we were buying our first milk cows, I wasnt prepared to pay top dollar. I shopped around, I wanted a good price, and by good I meant cheap. However, over the last 12+ years, we have had 6 milk cows who have paid for themselves over and over again. (we wont count the heifer who broke Marius’ hand and we promptly sold because she wasnt worth it). We now know that paying top dollar will come back to us easily, and we no longer look at price, so much as searching for a healthy cow who is going to give us many lactations to come. 

Milk ready for the fridge

Based on the average production of a second lactation jersey cow of 5-6 gallons (21-25kg/litres), I confidently believe a cow can pay for itself in well under a year.

When looking for a cow, keep in mind she will most likely cost the same to feed whether you buy a high quality cow or a “fixer upper”. It will take you same amount of time to milk, feed and clean up whether she is a good producer or on her last legs. Buying a good friendly cow is worth it too- your time milking can be the most wonderful time of day (I look forward to it!) or it can be something you dread.

Unless you are experienced with ai or have a bull, its worth it to buy a cow already confirmed bred, unless she is under 2-3 months fresh in which case its early for her to be bred. 

A good milk cow is a real boon to a small farm. She feeds your family well and supplements your chickens and pigs with whey and skim milk. With the rising grain costs, having a primarily grass/hay/silage powered animal (yes i still feed grain but bulk of any cows diet is grass/hay/silage) who can help lower the feed costs of the other animals you raise to feed you or sell is a huge savings. 

Not only will she lower your grocery bill by you not needing to buy dairy, but we find ourselves turning to dairy heavy foods for breakfasts, snacks and quick meals, lowering our grocery bill even more. which further lowers our grocery costs. Yogurt, cheese and crackers, smoothies, granola and milk, nachos…so many yummy fast meals making use of your homegrown dairy!

Cookies and milk is always a good snack!

Its harder to account for savings are the skim milk and whey going to pigs and chickens (so much good calcium and protein!) and the fertility she provides for your garden! We bed the cows with straw, scooping poops out daily, and are left with a pile of straw and manure that composts down into GOLD for your garden. 

We’re also big fans of making small electric fence paddocks around our yard where we would mow, but instead move her out during the day between milking and allow her to turn grass into milk. 

The following prices are based on your average cost of dairy products in Canadian dollars, at our local grocery store in Smithers at the time of writing in May 2021. In my opinion the cheeses and such you will make from your own cow are worth the high end prices, but for the sake of this, I’m using average prices. 

Left to right- cumin spiced gouda, sourdough sponge, sourdough starter, milk kefir for smoothies

In our family of 7, heres a rough breakdown of how we would use 5-6 gallons a day, aka 35-42 gallons a week.

Drinking/baking/daily use milk – 5-7 gallons a week $29-$40/week

Yogurt- 1-2 gallons of skimmed milk a week $16-$32/week

Cheese- two batches of 4 gallons of milk yields you 7-8 lbs of cheese, enough to eat weekly and have enough to get you through when the cow is dry. You will also have 8 gallons of whey for chickens and pigs. Cheesemaking may seem overwhelming I promise you that if you can cook and bake, you can make cheese- 8 gallons total. 7-8lbs of cheese $42-$48/week (Although my gouda rivals the local butchers which is $15-$20/lb!)

Butter- it takes a lot of gallons of milk to skim enough cream depending on your cow. Production of Cream is mostly dependent on- genetics, stage in lactation, what shes been fed. On average a cow will produce enough cream in one day to make 1.5-2lbs of butter. So in our family we make 2 days a week worth of milk into butter so we can stash extra for when shes dry or times like Christmas when we want more butter. It freezes so well, its never sad to have lots of beautiful golden raw butter! 10-12 gallons total. 3-4 lbs of butter- $15-$20/week

Sour Cream- One gallon of milk should give you a 3 cup container worth of sour cream easily, the skim milk for the pigs. – $5/week

Cream for Coffee- 1 litre of “half and Half” $4/week

On the high end, this is 30 gallons of milk, leaving you with 5-12 gallons of milk a week that I always advise people to use to stock up on things that keep well. Near the end of her lactation and when she is dry for calving, you wont be able to make a lot of cheese and butter, so work on making more of those so that when those times come, you dont find yourself back at the grocery store as often!

Alternatively, thats enough additional milk to raise another calf for your family, whether it be a bottle calf for beef for the freezer, a twin from a beef cow you’d otherwise have to bottle-feed, or a replacement heifer. A weaned heifer calf is worth $1000, so using milk to raise yourself another heifer is a worthy use of extra milk!

This all adds up to $111-$149/week

In the average 10 month (42 week) lactation, this equals $4,662 to $6,258

Yes there is hay and feed costs involved, medical costs can add up too if you have issues…but we’re also not accounting for the other savings like raising you another calf, lowering feed costs for pigs and chickens and increasing your garden fertility. 

A beef twin being raised on one of our jersey cows

When a jersey cow has paid for herself in such a manner, the following lactations are gravy! She has earned her keep and you enjoy the savings, extra calves and delicious foods. 

Its going to take you time and some messed up experiments (lucky pigs! Also I teach cheesemaking in my insiders club) to get it all tweaked to how you like it, but thats just part of the fun in my opinion! 


  • Kati E

    Love this! What is your favorite aspect of owning a dairy cow? It’s my dream to have a dairy cow. We currently raise a small herd of beef cows but my husband thinks adding a dairy cow is more commitment than we can add right now. He is a numbers person so your calculations have helped me strengthen my case for the pro dairy column. Thanks!

  • Kristin and Tom Stanway

    Kate we are getting a bred heifer jersey in august/September! I cannot wait to obsessively refer to your posts.

  • A

    Thanks so much for this detailed post! Quick question- when it comes to saving 10 gallons a week, what do you do with them? Do they not go bad?

    • karenmouat@gmail.com

      Sorry not sure what you mean. We use all the milk in a timely fashion but the “extra” isn’t kept sitting in the fridge. It’s used to make more cheese than what we need, on a weekly basis, for when the cow is dried up.

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