Sometimes homesteading means making hard decisions. Last week, we had to make a really tough one: we butchered our purebred registered Jersey milk cow, Buttercup.
Do not be mistaken; this was not a decision made lightly. For one thing, she was dearly loved, particularly by my daughter, who raised her from a calf. Not just for the milk, but also as her 4H show animal. Rosebud is heartbroken. She spent a lot of hours with Buttercup. She took her to two fairs, and came back with big purple ribbons. There were many hours of walking, training, grooming, milking – there was a lot of affection between those two. I liked Buttercup too; for all her orneriness, she was very smart and friendly, and super enthusiastic about being involved in whatever farm project we might be doing. She was a sucker for pats and scratches and any spare weeds we might pull up for her.
The trouble started just after her calf was born, over two weeks late. Less than a week went by before she developed her first case of mastitis. We’re talking red, bloody milk. Obviously, we dumped it, after taking samples to the lab and panic-calling the vet. She had a round of antibiotics. Her udder was hard as a rock, and so swollen that she rubbed raw patches on it just walking around. We tried treating her with natural remedies, and then progressed to steroid injections and diuretics to try and reduce the swelling and edema. It worked somewhat, and the mastitis cleared up for a week or two.
Then it returned. We called our vet, who referred us to another vet that specializes in dairy cows. He came out, gave her a vitamin/mineral injection (MultiMin), and looked over our sanitation and nutrition protocols. He warned us that, since she was in good physical shape and in pretty ideal living conditions, that we may just have a cull cow. (Translation: a professional dairy would have removed her from the herd. Permanently.)
He also confirmed what we already knew: her teat length was too short, (the milking machine had a very hard time staying on, and you could only get 2 fingers around to hand milk her), and that her teat sphincters were very loose, allowing bacteria and dirt (manure) easy access into the udder from outside. These are both genetic; it’s nothing we could have caused or prevented. He said that her immune system seemed low, possibly because our land is low in zinc and selenium, and she apparently wasn’t getting enough through our mineral blocks. He warned us that it was likely she’d get mastitis again. While there are potential treatments for chronic mastitis, they are expensive, painful for the animal (lots of shots), and very much not a guaranteed success. Her milk quality would probably never be great. But maybe the MultiMin would give her immune system the needed boost and we’d be ok.
We talked to two retired dairy farmers: one conventional; one who had done both conventional and grass-fed. We also called a local friend who has operated a certified grass-fed raw dairy for decades. They all warned us that we were probably looking at a cow that just couldn’t handle what she was bred to do: make milk. Our friend with the dairy offered to help us send Buttercup to auction (as beef), and to sell us a proven cow, with lab results for milkfat, protein content, solids and low somatic cell count. (Translated: with lots of cream, good milk for cheese, and tested to be clear of infections.)
We decided to give her one more chance. Rosebud started doing all the milking, and was having more success than us adults. We were still getting less fat and rather watery milk, but it was testing clean, and we hoped we were on the road to recovery.
Then Buttercup got mastitis again, in three out of four quarters. The CMT test looked iffy for that last quarter, too. The milk was watery and salty, like seawater, with little globs of fatty stuff in it: all signs of mastitis.
Studies show that a milk cow treated once for mastitis has a 25% chance of getting it again. If she has a second round, her odds of having it a third time are 55%. If she has a third round, she has an 88% likelihood of having it chronically. This was strike three.
One retired dairy mentor has a theory that some cows have malfunctioning ducts that serve as reservoirs of infection. He thinks that they perhaps get sealed off, particularly in a swollen udder, but release periodically if the cow lets down well. The rest of the udder might be successfully treated and clean, but then gets re-infected from this bacteria-laden reservoir, which can be nearly impossible to find and treat directly, either by shots or by treatments injected through the teats. Since the infection is stored inside the duct, like a holding tank, treatments carried through the blood don’t penetrate it well. It makes as much sense as anything else I’ve heard.
In any event, Buttercup’s calf has bonded somewhat to our other milk cow, Bella. Bella is currently officially “dried off”, although we’ve seen the calf nurse from her occasionally. Calf (Biscuit) spends just as much time hanging out with Bella and Mooie (Bella’s yearling heifer) than as she did with her own mama, and nursed less from Buttercup than one would expect.
After the third mastitis test came back positive, Rosebud and I both cried. Then we discussed our options.
We couldn’t continue to pour drugs into Buttercup. It’s expensive, and extremely likely to fail. She would have been miserable, and likely would have gotten sick and died over the winter. Not treating her would have been a death sentence. Mastitis is nasty stuff. Vets talk about seeing infections left untreated in udders eventually eating through the udder wall. Continuing to allow her calf to drink infected milk would be bad for the calf. Obviously her milk isn’t fit for human consumption either. Drying her off wouldn’t have eliminated the infection, just the visible evidence of it in her milk. We had tried milking multiple times a day to move fluids through – another recommendation – and that didn’t work either.
We couldn’t sell her. Knowingly passing on our problems to someone else is unethical, and she probably wouldn’t have gotten a new owner who would treat her as well as we have done here.
We could have sent her to auction. The auction in Toppenish is supposed to be well managed, and she’d likely sell for the beef. But it would be extremely traumatic for her to be separated from baby (even if they aren’t glued to each other constantly), taken away from her herd and home, and put into a strange environment that she doesn’t understand. She probably wouldn’t have been milked at all while in the auction pens, which would have been very painful. There’s no guarantee that her death would have been an easy one.
Or we could have her butchered here. I told Rosebud, “She’ll wonder why we moved her to a different field [away from the herd, but the one she typically went to after milking for an hour or so], and why there was a man pointing a stick [rifle] at her… and then she’d just be gone.” I’d seen the mobile butcher guys shoot. They’re patient; they wait for the right shot, and the animal just collapses. They can’t possibly feel the bullet; it’s just that quick.
If we kept the meat… well, she won’t be missing it because she’s no longer inhabiting it. It’s her last gift to us. It just doesn’t make sense to bury 300-400 pounds of good, GMO-free, organically raised pastured beef.
Rosebud took awhile to cry and think. She decided that having Buttercup die here is the most humane (I agree), and that it was OK for us to eat her. Rosebud says she won’t eat any, and I won’t force her… but I have a feeling she might change her mind eventually. Butchering and eating a farm animal that you’ve raised is, after all, part of living on a farm. But I certainly won’t force her to eat her pet cow. If it’s too big a trauma for us, I know people who would welcome the meat.
Our butcher is a compassionate guy. He listened to the whole story, and was very sympathetic. He also had feedback that helped us know we were making the right, albeit tough, decision. I wish the guy he sent to the farm hadn’t shown up two and a half hours early (!!!), but since it meant that we ended up scrambling around getting trailers and whatnot out of the way of his truck, rather than crying over the cow, it may have been a good thing.
It was the worst Fourth of July of my life.
We walked her up, gave her some final pats, and she made a beeline for the weeds beside the fence. We tied her up, said goodbye, and walked around the truck back to the house. I wish we could’ve gotten inside; we hadn’t quite made to the garage when he took the shot. We didn’t see anything, but it would have been quieter inside. I had asked Mr. Caffeinated to stay and observe for me, because I needed to know that she didn’t suffer, but wasn’t going to be able to handle watching it, myself. He said it was a perfect shot. I still would have rather have made it inside, before. Rosebud and I ended up sobbing on the front porch. Then again, as soon as we made it in the house, Junior woke up and started barfing… life goes on, and I suppose it did take my mind off things temporarily.
We had her butchered sooner than later. Waiting too long meant that instead of the infection being contained in the udder, it would start spreading to the rest of her body. Waiting would also mean prolonging Buttercup’s pain. I’ve experienced mastitis with my own babies. It hurts.
The biggest challenge now is raising her calf, Biscuit. She’s two months old. Fortunately, this is dairy country, and options abound. We have milk replacer for bottles, calf manna for concentrated nutrition, and two farms willing to supply us with fresh milk if we decide to go that route. Biscuit has had her own ideas, however, and has been sneaking meals from Bella all along. I caught her nursing on Bella for several minutes yesterday. Even though Bella is “dry” – we haven’t milked her for two months – she must still be producing, because Biscuit appears to be quite content, nibbles at her calf manna but isn’t particularly interested, and seems content and happy. Her ears are up; her ribs aren’t showing, she’s curious and active, and only cried for her mother for a bit the first evening she was gone. It appears that she’s recovering from the ordeal faster than I am! Since Bella isn’t due till September, Biscuit can safely nurse from her for at least another month, by which time she should be able to safely wean completely with no major health issues.
If I had known two years ago what I know now, I would have done some things differently.
First – we wouldn’t have purchased a baby calf. We would have bought a cow currently in milk, with current test results for milk solids, fat and somatic cell counts. We might have tried to find a cow with a calf that could be shown, but maybe not.
Having the fair experience was great. Losing a week’s milk (at fair, you have to pump and dump) would have been painful but workable. Maybe we would have borrowed a calf or cow from our dairy friends to raise, train, show and then return. It’s at least a conversation we would have had.
We would have talked to our raw dairy friend about purchasing a proven cow that would fit our “operation”, as he calls it. Buttercup was bred for conventional dairy; it took us weeks to transition her safely to grass. She had scours (diarrhea) so badly when we brought her home! What she’d been given up till then was milk replacer and dry feed (five pounds of grain per day; standard conventional dairy procedure), and she had a long uphill road to good health on grass and hay before she took grand champion at fair.
I don’t blame the breeder that sold her to us. We just didn’t fit their usual customer profile. We followed the advice everyone gives: buy the best breedstock you can afford! We did – but it wasn’t the right breedstock for a small homestead, pasture-based, limited grain, once-daily milking, mixed-herd family home dairy. (To clarify: we don’t sell milk or cheese. We aren’t set up to. Everything we produce is for home consumption.) I’m reasonably certain that the teat length and insufficient sphincters were not something they could have predicted when she was sold to us as a baby. Udders don’t develop until a cow gives birth. If there was a visible indicator that something was wrong before she delivered, then surely three different professional judges at fair and dairy camp would have spotted it.
If I learned anything about breedstock, it was that our cheap, meant-for-the-freezer beef/dairy (Angus/Jersey) hybrid mix cow turned out to have the hardier genetic mix (as so many cross-breeds do) for our small homestead than the expensive purebred registered animal. I wouldn’t turn my nose up at another hybrid if we do buy another cow. I’d want those test results first, though.
We are going to miss Buttercup. Many tears have been shed; many more will be. I’m sure that there are plenty of people that will readily condemn us for being hard-hearted villains in this saga, and that will hurt. Even after hours of research and conversations with our vets and mentors, and being convinced that this was the right decision, it’s still very hard to actually live out. When it comes to quick judgement, we’re currently the low-hanging fruit.
I’m writing this post for the next homesteader who googles, “I have to butcher my milk cow” or “homestead mastitis”, looking for advice or just assurance that they aren’t the only one to have experienced this. I had my mentors to talk to, but if this had happened two years ago, we wouldn’t have known them yet. There are plenty of university research articles online with commercial dairy stats (30-35% of milk cows are culled annually; 12% for mastitis), but that doesn’t mean you get the reassurance that someone else tried everything and still had to have their beloved family cow put down. (Yes, my oily friends, there are essential oils for bovine mastitis. We tried them for a month.) There are many articles online showcasing homestead successes, but few and far between are the posts about home dairy failures. In talking to people here locally, I’m finding that almost everyone who experienced farm life for more than a couple years had to butcher something they really didn’t want to, for various reasons.
I told Rosebud weeks ago: “You might do everything that we ask you to do, and everything the vet recommended, and it still might not be enough. It won’t be your fault, and you’ll know you gave it everything you had. If it’s not enough, we will know it’s just the hand we were dealt, and I will be proud of you.”
That pretty well sums it up. We got good experience in raising a Jersey cow. She persevered through some early challenges, made 4H a success for my daughter’s first two years, and is providing us with beef. Buttercup was a great pet to my daughter, who learned how to deal with, train and compete with an animal that started out smaller but rapidly outgrew her in pounds 8:1. Rosebud learned patience, dedication, hard work, persistence, animal skills, milking, cheese making… how to seek out experienced advisors, and how compassion and smart management must combine when outcomes are unexpected.
Even though the tears… I’m awfully proud of her.