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Don’t Have a Cow: Unless You Read This Book

So you’ve tried raising chickens and bees and now you’re ready to take your animal husbandry skills to the next level. How about a cow? According to Joann S. Grohman, author of Keeping a Family Cow, the recently updated edition of her 1975 book The Cow Economy, finding and keeping a bovine friend might be easier than you think.

Part how-to manual, part impassioned cry for a reformed food system, and part laudatory treatise on bovine virtues, Keeping a Family Cow is the definitive authority on raising cows at home. In addition to useful how-to information, the book provides a comprehensive and compelling argument for recreating a society in which more people are able and choose to raise their own dairy cows.

Newcomers to the world of small-scale animal husbandry and seasoned dairy cow experts alike stand to learn much from Grohman, who, at age 85, distills her lessons learned from decades of experience tending to and caring for animals that “improve life for everybody.”

She praises the dairy cow as “uniquely efficient among animals” for the ability to produce “an easily obtainable food of the highest possible nutritional quality right on site from coarse plants of no use to anybody else.” Even if you’re not chomping at the bit to invite a 450-pound animal into your life, Keeping a Family Cow nonetheless provides a detailed and complex history of the dairy industry and may make you think twice about the milk you drink.

Fern, Grohman’s dairy cow. Courtesy of Joann Grohman.

Grohman chronicles the historical relationship between humans and dairy animals—particularly cows, sheep, and goats—and points out that milking has been around for tens of thousands of years. She describes cows as the most eminent of dairy animals because of their “cooperative temperament, the comparative ease with which [they] can be milked, the volume [they are] able to produce, and the versatility of [their milk].”

Grohman aims to dispel the myth that the modern day prevalence of lactose intolerance is a sign that humans were never meant to drink milk. Instead, she places the blame for this phenomenon on an increasingly industrialized dairy system, which lacks the quality control and reliability of small-scale operations.

Keeping a cow at home, or perhaps sourcing it from a nearby small-scale dairy, allows the consumer to have more control over the four critical factors that ensure milk is both delicious and safe: “Healthy cows, clean milking practices, rapid chilling, and expeditious delivery.”

Grohman points out that for the bulk of human history, milk was never intended to last more than a few days—it was either immediately consumed or preserved as cheese or butter. As small-scale dairymen were phased out at the end of 19th Century, and refrigeration caught on, new strategies allowed a small number of producers to deliver more milk to more consumers.

Grohman argues that practices like pasteurization and homogenization, which arose to prolong the longevity of “fresh” milk, alter its inherent nutritional properties. Because modern-day industrial dairy operations aggregate milk from thousands of cows from different corners of the country, pasteurization is necessary to mitigate the risks of bacterial contamination.

Heating milk to pasteurize it also destroys much of the beneficial bacteria, she explains, and creates an unpalatable texture as cream lumps together, rather than rises to the top. Homogenization helps distribute the cream throughout the milk, but the process also leaves what she calls a “sludge” made of dead bacteria and other cells leftover from pasteurization.

Joann Grohman outside her barn.

Grohman calls on consumers to “make our own history” and once again reinstate the cow in its rightful place among individual families. For those who are have already taken the plunge or are intrigued by the possibility, the bulk of Keeping a Family Cow covers a myriad of topics regarding proper care and maintenance of a dairy cow. From diet to disease, birth to bad tempers, Grohman distills her knowledge into helpful, but not prescriptive, advice for her readers.

While Keeping a Family Cow is valuable for its historical contextualization of the dairy industry and its easy-to-read yet in-depth instruction, Grohman probably has too narrow a view of her audience. She argues that “anybody can do this” when in fact she probably should have said “anyone with a little land and money can do this.”

For one, the start-up costs (over $3,000) for the first year of cow ownership are likely to be inaccessible to many. While Grohman argues that cows more than pay for themselves if you sell their milk at $4/gallon, selling raw milk in this current food safety climate might be more than what most homesteaders want to take on. Moreover, dairy cows generally require milking twice a day, and many people working one, two, or more jobs would likely be hard-pressed to find the time to tend to such a chore.

Furthermore, it is disappointing that the closest Grohman gets to addressing the issue of land access is to recommend keeping a cow on “a large lawn and dispense with the lawn mower.” Missing from this discussion is also any mention of zoning codes, permit applications, landlords, or homeowners associations—just a few of the potential barriers that came to mind when reading this short-sighted suggestion.

With more and more people moving to cities, cow ownership seems off-limits to all but those who remain in suburban or rural areas and who are able to invest a fair amount in high quality dairy products up front.

While one can imagine ways for low-income urbanites to circumvent the unique challenges they face in raising a dairy cow, such as neighborhood sponsorship or pressuring city governments to allow small-scale dairy operations on vacant lots, Keeping a Family Cow is not the place to look for such ideas.

For the day-to-day facets of cow ownership, Grohman’s expertise is invaluable—but it is also only one small fraction of a larger conversation about how people in the U.S., regardless of income or access to land, may take more control of the food they eat.

One thought on “Don’t Have a Cow: Unless You Read This Book

  1. Am a small scale crop farmer ,with 5 acres of land,love animals so much but I do not have enough money to buy one,am looking for a person who can-sponsor me at least to have two cows,I have discovered that you can not manage ecological agriculture when you are on crops only,one need to be with a t least an animal to complete the cycle
    of sustainable agriculture