Critical Questions to Ask When Buying a Family Dairy Cow

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One of my neighbors, Amanda, bought a dairy cow two weeks ago. She tried to ask all the right questions. Sadly, when she brought home her cow and had her examined by the vet, she discovered the cow was a freemartin. 

Amanda and her kids were devastated. They faced the loss of $1,800 into the cow. Even worse was the terrible choice of culling her after falling in love because she could never be a dairy cow. 

Sadly, stories like this happen too frequently. I often hear of someone who has invested time, money, and love into a cow only to find out a week, month, or a year later that it was all for naught. Cows are pricey animals to own and easy ones to fall in love with, so the heartbreak extends to the heart and wallet. 

This article will cover critical questions you should ask when buying a dairy cow, beef cattle, and a calf. 

Questions To Ask When Purchasing A Dairy Cow

When to ask (the topic) Questions to Ask
Price of the cow Does the price indicate a problem? (ask yourself)
Cows cost more than heifers.
How did you come up with her value?
Age Heifers should be yearlings
2-3 yrs is the optimal age for cows
7-8 yrs is an excellent age for a mellow family cow
13+ is considered an older cow and will have decreased production
Heifers What do her lines look like? 
Is she a twin?
How old is she?
Has she been exposed to a vet exam?
Dry Cows Why is she dry?
How long is she dry?
Did she dry up naturally, or did you dry her? 
Did she have issues that caused her to be dried? 
Is she pregnant, and when is she due?
Cow / Calf Pairs Has the cow been milked?
How often?
If yes- see other milking questions.
How old is the calf?
Are the cow and calf separated for part of the day? How many calves has she birthed in total?
Lineage What’s her lineage?
Is she registered?
Can I see her dam and bull?
What is the longevity of her lines?
In-Milk Cows What does the udder look like?
Observe how her feet look.
Does she walk comfortably?
Halter or stanchion trained?
Taste the milk from the cow.
How many good quarters does she have? 
Has she ever had mastitis?
How often?
How did you treat it?
Health-related Find a complete list of cow health questions here.

This table shows what questions to ask when you buy a cow based on the type of cow you are looking to purchase.

If you aren’t sure what answers to look for, keep reading, and I’ll go over each of these questions.

 

When Buying A Dairy Heifer 

Buying a dairy cow is a big decision. A producing dairy cow will cost you between $1,500-$3,000. If you purchase a cow in poor health or who doesn’t produce milk, you may end up pouring more money into her or have to cull her as Amanda did. 

If you buy a milk cow, you need to ask the right questions to get a reliable cow. Milk cows are usually more costly than beef cows. When purchasing a milk cow, the most critical question is whether the cow can produce good milk. The answer will depend on whether she can birth calves and produce enough milk.

Should I Buy a Heifer or a Cow?

Heifers are female cattle who have never had a calf. Cows are female cattle who have calved. Cows are worth more than heifers because they have already demonstrated the ability to give birth and what their average milk supply amounts produce. 

Because heifers are unproven, you’ll want to make sure you eliminate as many potential problems as possible. Buying a heifer is something that I only recommend for someone who has some experience already with cows. There are so many things that can go wrong with a heifer. 

Heifers can provide a good dairy cow at a lower cost, but it’s a risk, so you must ask the right questions. First, make sure the heifer isn’t a freemartin. 

Understanding Freemartin Cows

What is a freemartin cow? A freemartin cow is a female heifer with a steer twin. In utero, the hormones from the male twin affect the development of the female’s ovaries, making her infertile. Freemartin cows can never have babies or produce milk. 

Infertility makes a freemartin cow only suitable for beef. But, because many dairy cows are thinner than beef cows, making for a more expensive beef cow. Amanda won’t get a lot of meat off her. 

Freemartins act like steers. They are an infertile dual-gender, but they appear to be entirely female from the outside. 

That’s why it’s always important to ask if the cow is a twin. It can indicate that she’s a freemartin. But, some heifers are born as solo calves if the male twin dies early in the pregnancy. In that case, the farmer may not realize it’s a freemartin. A vet exam will quickly identify a freemartin.

  • Is this heifer a twin? 
  • Are her genitals fully developed and in the right place?

Deciding between a heifer and a cow is an important decision (1)

Age Provides Essential Clues When Buying a Heifer 

Age can be very telling when buying a heifer. You want to make sure that she can get pregnant and calve easily. You don’t want a heifer that struggles with any part of the reproductive cycle because she won’t make a good dairy cow. 

Dairy cows are bred when they are yearlings, around one year old. Some beef farmers wait to breed their cows until they are two. But, if you find a heifer who is three years old or older, she likely has infertility issues. Jersey heifers are bred by 15 months, or they will get fat and never get pregnant.

Be very cautious about buying a heifer that’s two or three years old (or older). 

Bred, Exposed, and Confirmed Heifers 

Several terms are popular in ads when listing heifers to help “enhance” their value. Bred, exposed, and confirmed are very different terms. 

Exposed heifers and open heifers have been around a bull, but do not have a confirmed pregnancy. It’s an “implied” term. Usually, this means that the exposed heifer was in the same field as a bull. Sellers use this term to imply that the heifer might be bred or pregnant to increase the value. Open means the same thing. 

Don’t assume that because an open or exposed heifer is pregnant—99% of the time, they aren’t. A simple blood test can confirm pregnancy and will raise her value. There is no reason a seller wouldn’t confirm pregnancy. Open or exposed heifers are not pregnant. They have the highest risk.  

Bred heifers are heifers who bred to a bull. This may mean that the farmer witnessed the breeding. In theory, they should be pregnant. However, pregnancy will depend on many factors. Since milk cows require pregnancy to produce milk, it’s best to assume that a bred heifer is not pregnant until you have confirmation. 

Confirmed means that the heifer has a confirmed pregnancy. A confirmed heifer has the lowest risk because she is pregnant. There are still unknowns, such as her future milk supply, ease of calving, and quality as a mum. But, one major obstacle, reproduction, has been eliminated. 

Questions to Ask When Buying a Heifer? 

If you’ve chosen to purchase a heifer, the right questions can help you mitigate the risk. 

  • What is her lineage? If possible look at her dam (mother) and bull (father). Understanding the heritage and abilities of the heifer can assure you she will produce well. Don’t buy a heifer with poor lines unless you have a high-risk tolerance. 
  • Is she registered? Registered cows usually have great lines. Ask to see her lineage and get a copy. Ask what the longevity of her lines is. 
  • How do her quarters look? Quarters are teats. Cows should have four working quarters. Make sure your heifer has four healthy-looking quarters. This won’t tell you as much as on a cow but can identify potential issues. 
  • How old is she? Don’t buy a heifer that’s three years old or more. She likely has reproductive issues. Be very cautious about purchasing a two-year-old heifer. 
  • Has she ever been pregnant? Ask this if you are considering a two-year-old heifer. Make sure she hasn’t miscarried, which can indicate issues with pregnancy. 
  • Was she a twin? It’s better to have your potential heifer examined, but at least ask if she’s a twin. This could indicate that she’s a freemartin. 

Determining the Right Cow to Purchase 

I’ve talked to dozens of farmers and homesteaders who have raised cattle. Nearly everyone recommends buying a cow over a heifer. It eliminates so many problems. 

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Age of the Cow

Most of the cows sold are two or three-year-old cows. It’s the optimal age to sell a cow, and turning a heifer into a cow makes her so much more valuable. A two or three-year-old cow will either be in milk, pregnant or with a calf.

Age isn’t as critical with cows as heifers. Cattle can live up to twenty years old. My neighbor, Ashley, is a fifth-generation cattle farmer. She still has 15-year-old cows that are great mamas with a high quantity of milk. 

Dairy cows can produce milk for 15 years. But, if you want a cow that will produce milk for years to come, I wouldn’t suggest going higher than seven or eight years old. At seven or eight, a cow has many years of good milk left in her, but she may have declined in her amount of milk. 

Eight years old is also a great age for a trained cow. At eight, cows are often a little more gentle, patient, and mellow. She’ll be more used to people and often more patient with new milkers. An eight-year-old cow can be the perfect family cow for a newbie. 

Teenager cows aren’t common. They can still produce well but can also have more problems. Make sure you know why the farmer is selling her.

  • Examining the teeth can tell you if the cow is older than the owner claims. 

Dry Versus In Milk Cow

A dry dairy cow is a cow that isn’t giving milk. Drying off a cow refers to the process of ceasing milk production in a dairy cow. A cow should only be dry if she’s already pregnant and going to calf in the next three months. 

If you consider a dry cow, make sure that you understand why she’s dry. If she’s not close to calving, there’s a reason why. Find out if she dried up independently or if the farmer dried her up.

If the farmer dried her up early, find out why. She might have had a health issue, had mastitis or had another problem. Dry treatment is one-way to treat mastitis. Jersey cows that are dry for too long will develop other issues. It can happen with other breeds as well. 

  • Why is this cow dry?
  • When was she dried up?
  • When is she due to calve? 
  • Did she have any issues with milk production? 

Dry + Open Cows are dried off and ready for breeding. This is a bad sign. Usually, there isn’t a reason a cow should be dry if she’s not already well into her pregnancy. 

Dry + Open + Exposed Cows are neither pregnant or in milk. There is no more value than a Dry and Open cow, and they have the same red flags. Be careful and ask a LOT of questions. 

A1 and A2 Milk Cows

In the dairy world, A2 milk is the sexy new kid on the market. A1 and A2 milk refer to the type of protein in the milk. When your body digests this protein, it makes different types of beta caseins, depending on the type of protein. Regular store milk has both A1 and A2 in the milk. A2 milk only contains A2 proteins. 

What is A2 Milk? A2 milk only has the A2 protein. In the human body, A2 beta-casein appears to have fewer adverse effects on health than A1 beta-casein. Those with lactose intolerance can sometimes drink A2 milk without discomfort. 

Some studies link A1 milk to increased inflammation, type 1 diabetes, and heart disease. Other studies indicate that A1 increases the risk of SIDS (sudden infant death), autism, and digestive issues. 

Various breeds of cows produce A1 or A2 Milk. 

  • A1 beta-casein dairy breeds are Freisen, Ayrshire, British Shorthorn, Danish Red, Murray, and Holstein. A1 protein cows originate from Northern Europe. 
  • A2 beta-casein dairy breeds include Jersey, Guernsey, Normande, Charlois, Limousine, and Brown Swiss. Because many jersey cows are mixed breeds, their milk may carry A1 protein as well. 
  • If you require an A2 cow, test the cow before purchase.

Buying a Cow / Calf Pair 

Often, a milk cow and a calf sell together. You may even find a confirmed pregnant cow with a calf pair that sounds like a dream, but there are a few things you should find out about a cow and calf pair. 

Many cows with calves have not experienced milking. You need to know if the cow is trained to be milked. An untrained cow will be a lot more difficult to train, especially if you are new to milking. 

If she’s used to being milked, what’s the process. Find out how often the cow is milked and when the calf has access to nurse. Ask if the cow and calf spend the whole day together or if they spend part of the day apart. You’ll also want to ask questions about the calf, covered below.

  • Has the cow been milked? 
    • By a machine or by a person 
  • Does the cow get milked once or twice a day?
  • How much of the day are the cow and calf together? 

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What to Watch For When Purchasing an In-Milk Cow

An existing milk cow is the least risky cow to purchase. She’s already producing a known quantity and quality of milk. You can examine her and see how she’s doing. She’s already given birth. 

Ask, ask, ask. The more questions you ask, the better informed you will be. Take the time to show and look for the best cow for your family. As you ask questions, you’ll get better and notice the things the seller doesn’t tell you that are as important as what he does tell you. 

Examine her. 

Make sure you check her quarters. Are her teats uniform and healthy-looking? Check out her feet and how she walks. Look at her rump to see if she looks like her structure supports easy calving. A three-quarter cow can make a good family milk cow, but be careful about fewer quarters.

Ask if she’s stanchion or halter trained. A halter-trained cow follows a lead rope better. Stanchion cows are willing to stand with its head in the stanchion during milking. This eases the milking process. 

Find out how much milk she produces. Find out if she’s used to machine or hand milking. 

Taste her milk and make sure you like it. Each cow has a slightly different flavor, and the taste can tell you if something is wrong. 

Lastly, find out if the cow has ever had mastitis. Mastitis can be difficult to resolve completely. Often cows are more prone to mastitis after the first occurrence. If she’s had it, find out how often and frequently. Ask how they treated it and what caused it. 

  • What does the udder look like?
  • Observe her feet. Does she walk comfortably?
  • Halter or stanchion trained?
  • Taste milk from a cow?
  • How many good quarters does she have? 
  • Has she ever had mastitis? How often? How did you treat it?

Questions to Ask Before You Bring Home Your Dairy Cow

Once you’ve decided on the cow to purchase, asking certain questions will make your transition smoother. 

You’ll want to find out about the feeding and milking routines. Ask how often the cow is fed and what her feeding schedule looks like. Is she fed grain or hay or both? Because cows are ruminants, they should be eased into all diet changes. If the cow is eating a specialized pellet, you’ll want to know so you can keep her on it when you take her home. 

Ask about the milking routine. See if the seller will let you milk her. At least watch her being milked. Ask about the routines, frequency, and methods used for milking. Find out if she’s machine trained or hand-milked. If you plan to change how she’s milked, you may face a lot of stress and frustration.

How much milk does she produce per milking and per day. Ask to see the records. If they don’t keep logs, you know that the info you are being given is more of a “hunch” than fact. We humans tend to misremember details. 

Find out how she’s kept clean. How are her teats cleaned? How is the milk cleaned? Ask if there has ever been a problem with an infection. If you buy a machine with the cow, take it apart and look for cleanliness. 

  • What is the milking routine?
  • How much milk does the cow produce per milking? 
  • How frequently is she milked?
  • Is it easy to milk
  • What is your cleaning process for cleaning her teats?
  • How do you clean your milk?
  • How often do you clean the equipment? 
  • Look at the bag to verify good health.

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That’s Not All You Need to Ask! 

This article covered dairy cow-specific questions and issues to watch for, but it isn’t conclusive. I’ve also written another article on questions to ask every time you buy a cow. That’s where I cover health-related questions and calf-related questions that apply to beef and dairy cows. 

Frequently Asked Questions

How much does a milk cow cost? 

A milk cow costs between $1,500 and $3,000 for an in-milk cow. A heifer or dry milk cow costs between $900 and $1,300. Milk cows are worth the most after they are 3 years old. At 3 years old, they have proved reliability in the quality and amount of milk. 

Why should I get a family milk cow? 

A milk cow will provide your family with consistent milk during supply chain issues. A milk cow teaches responsibility to kids and can provide a healthier alternative to processed store milk. Plus, some people can handle raw milk easier than pasteurized milk. 

What do I need for a family milk cow?

You will need a barn or shelter for your cow, access to hay or a pasture, a watering trough, minerals, and a well-kept fence to keep your cow in. You can also choose to get an automatic milker, storage containers, and a trailer for transportation. 

How many years can you milk a cow?

A cow should calve at two years old and will produce milk for 10 months after calving. Cows can produce milk as many as twenty years, but their peak years are between 2 and 8 years old. After 8 years, cows can still produce as much as 3 gallons of milk a day for another decade. 

How much milk can a cow provide a day? 

The most common surprise for new cow owners is how many gallons of milk a cow produces a day. During peak production (40-60 days) a cow can provide 5 gallons of milk a day. Even older cows can provide as much as 3-4 gallons of milk. 

Annemaria Duran

Hi, I’m Annemaria Duran. I moved out to the country 6 years ago, mainly so I could have more land. I love all aspects of country living. First, we got chickens, then ducks. Now we have sheep, goats, and rabbits. I'm always learning and love sharing it!

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