A Thumbs Up Book Review
Keeping a Family Cow
By Joann S. Grohman
Coburn Press, 2002
Review by Sally Fallon
This is a practical guide to keeping a family milk cow, including instructions for milking, feeding and dealing with health problems. But even if you are not interested or able to keep a family cow, Grohman’s book is worth the price of admission for the first two chapters alone, in which she describes the position of the cow in history and vents on the decline in quality of the modern food supply.
To those who insist that a plant-based food system is the way to a better world, Grohman begs to differ: “To produce grain in useful quantities requires rich flat land such as flood plains. It requires a huge amount of energy, available in antiquity only where complex cultures had developed. This energy was provided by slaves. The more slaves you had, the more grain you could grow. And the more grain you could grow, the more slaves you could afford, thus giving rise to a wealthy class able to afford monumental tombs and other durable artifacts of civilization. . .
“. . . To herd animals requires only the availability of shepherds and can be done on any kind of land from rocky mountain sides to kelp strewn beaches. Wherever herbivores have been herded, their milk as well as their meat became important parts of the diet. Herbivores form grass, bushes and weeds into high-grade, readily available food. They do this with enormous efficiency, whether in captivity or not. But when herded, they free up a great deal of human time for other pursuits. Humans with extra time and energy tend to engage in commerce, the arts, invention and war, not necessarily in that order. Dairying has played its part in these pursuits.”
Unlike other domestic animals who readily revert to feral conditions (pigs, goats and sheep), the cow requires humans for her survival. In return, cows provide humans with the basis of wealth. “Cattle are the original stock in stockmarket. Ownership of cattle has always been a mark of wealth.” People who create wealth with a cow are “hard working and reliable,” which are not necessarily the characteristics of those in ancient times who created wealth through the cultivation of grains.
The cow “. . . can support a family. She not only turns grass into milk in quantities sufficient to feed a family but also provides extra to sell and she contributes yearly a calf to rear or fatten. The by-products from cheesemaking (whey) and from butter (buttermilk) will support a pig or two. Her manure improves her pasture and when dug into the garden, results in plant growth that cannot be surpassed by other growth mediums. The family that takes good care of its cow is well off.
“The over-arching truth about the cow is that she drives the domestic or small farm economy. By living on a constantly renewing resource, grass, she is able to support not just herself and her calf, but your pig and your chickens (neither of which can live on grass) and still provide milk for the house. The reverse is never true. No pigs or chickens or any other non grazing animals can live on grass or support another animal.”
Grohman’s description of the milk commerce in the later part of the 19th century–an emphasis on cleanliness at the farm, milk trains from rural areas to the cities, blocks of ice to keep the milk cool–contains a fascinating tidbit. In the winter of 1886, the lakes didn’t freeze. Without fresh ice, dairy farmers were forced to sell their milk to middlemen. “They have never been able to regain control over their own product,” says Grohman, (at least not until recently with the advent of direct farm sales and cow share programs). This loss of control helped usher in the era of pasteurization, a necessary step when fresh milk is pooled and transported great distances. Pasteurization, says Grohman, was instituted for the benefit of distributors.
Is the family cow an anachronism? Can there be any economic benefit to keeping a family cow? For a family with small children and a little bit of land, the answer is yes. Instead of joining the rat race and paying for childcare, Mom can stay home with the children. The cow provides a good portion of the family food, the children will need minimal health care, the orthodontist budget will be zero, and with a bit of enterprise a value-added product like butter or cheese can provide some supplemental income. The family may even come out ahead financially, and Mom will maintain her health so that she can join the job market, should she choose to do so, at a later time.
And if you decide to keep a family cow, Grohman’s provides a highly readable how-to manual.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2003.