If you’re reading this post, you’re probably aware of the increase in demand for high quality, raw milk. It’s no secret that costs of virtually everything are currently rising. This includes the cost of food and livestock. Because of that, there are a lot of homesteaders and aspiring homesteaders that are looking into purchasing a home dairy cow. And one big question that these people are asking is, how many acres does a family dairy cow really need?
My husband and I have experience in raising a dairy cow on our own homestead. DISCLAIMER: I am still no cattle expert, but I have done lots of personal research on this topic. Before we brought our first cow home, we were asking many of these same questions. So today I want to share with you what I’ve learned and some of the things you may consider when determining how much acreage a cow needs.
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Is 1 acre enough for a cow?
There are lots of people (including us!) that only have 1 acre of land and want to know if they can feasibly keep a dairy cow. So, I’m going to give the short answer before I start diving into all the variables. I’m sure that’s what you’re really wanting anyway, right?! From what I have seen, 1 acre is enough for a cow in most scenarios.
The in most scenarios is important. If you want to be sure your own scenario is going to work, keep reading.
What quality of pasture should 1 acre have for a cow?
We have grass consistently growing for 6-7 months out of the year here in Tennessee. This would go for any other southern state, as well. If you live further north, your growing season may be 1-2 months shorter.
As far as what grows here, it is mainly a combination of fescue and clover, which is great for cattle. Know that cows can eat virtually any grasses that will grow in a pasture. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever seed specific grasses–although we haven’t done it yet, seeding is an excellent practice that I believe makes a lot of sense. This is especially the case if you have a lot of undesirable weeds taking over like chicory or dandelions (I do have a good use for those in this dandelion tincture though). However, it’s good to get to know what you have and try to make it work for you the best that you can. And if your pasture is lacking in good grasses, take that into account when calculating how many acres your cow will need.
How does rotational grazing help?
If you don’t have a lot of acreage, rotational grazing can really help make the most of your pasture. Actually, it’s a very healthy practice for both your cows and your pasture, even if space is not an issue. Because part of your land is getting a sufficient rest from grazing, your pasture grows back quicker and stronger.
With our dairy cow, we sectioned our 1 acre off into 4 tiny paddocks and moved her around every 3 days or so. It’s true that the longer you can let a paddock rest, the better. But just do the best you can–that’s what we did.
By not putting your dairy cow out on one section of pasture all the time, she will have a lot more to eat and you will find yourself needing to purchase hay less often.
How many acres for a mini cow vs. standard cow
When trying to determine how many acres a cow needs, the size of the cow(s) does matter! We spent a lot of time researching what our first dairy animal should be. We finally decided to go with a miniature jersey cow, mainly because we only had 1 acre of land to utilize but we also wanted plenty of milk for our family. Smaller cows mean less input needed. It also means there is less output compared to a standard cow, but for small homesteads like ours, that is totally okay. I can’t complain about getting 1-2 gallons of liquid gold from our own backyard every single day.
If your only option is a standard size cow and you have just an acre or less to work with like us, you may want to prepare to buy more hay.
Does a pregnant cow need more acres?
Yes. Breeding status is important to consider when determining how much food a cow needs. An open (unbred) cow or heifer does not consume as much forage as a highly pregnant one. And a cow that is being milked twice a day, as opposed to once, will consume more. This is a natural result of her output being higher.
Do you know what it’s like to nurse a baby? I know that during those early months especially, I feel ravenous almost all the time. That applies to cows, too. One reason that many farmers and homesteaders choose to have their cows calve in early spring is that it means plenty of forage will be available while the cow is in peak production. Peak production happens about 3 months after calving, and your cow will likely be eating at those levels as well.
The age of your cow, if she is in milk, if she is nursing a calf, and if she is pregnant will affect how many acres she needs to thrive.
Can a dairy cow live on just hay?
Some people are wondering if they can successfully raise a dairy cow on super small plot of land, provided that they are willing and able to feed hay year round. It is possible, but as much fresh forage as possible makes for a healthier cow.
Hay can also be very expensive. But if your budget allows for it, feeding more hay is an option.
If you plan to feed mostly hay, I recommend supplementing with as much fresh forage as possible. You can feed cows almost any leftovers from your vegetable garden. Also, find high quality alfalfa (we love Chaffhaye) to increase their nutritional intake.