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article number 157
article date 08-23-2012
copyright 2012 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Raising Profitable Milk Cows … a 1924 Oklahoma Primer
by Clarence Roberts

From the 1924 book, The Business of Farming – A Manual of Farm Methods for Oklahoma.

A safe and sure way to add to the farm income is by milking good cows, fed on farm-raised feeds. The most profitable cow on every farm is the cow that furnishes the family with milk and butter. As cows go, she may be a very ordinary cow, a poor cow in fact. Yet the small amount of milk she produces replaces many high-priced groceries and thus she becomes a profitable farm animal. A scrub cow kept to furnish the family with milk and butter is far better than no cow at all.

Cows that are kept to produce butterfat for sale are quite another thing. Feeding such cows is a business matter. Each cow kept must pay for her feed and in addition, return a labor income for the work of feeding and milking her. If she fails to do this she will be a money-loser for her owner. The more of this kind of cows a farmer owns the worse off he will be.


The average cow kept primarily for milk in Oklahoma produces between 100 and 125 pounds of butterfat a year. It is doubtful if such cows pay for their feed. It is certain they do not pay for their feed and shelter and the labor of milking and feeding them. Not all these so-called milk cows are milked the year around. But even so, they must be fed the year around and the cost of feed and care must be charged against the income from the cows. A cow that produces only 100 pounds of butterfat may pay for her feed when feed is cheap and butterfat high in price. But she is certain to cause her owner a loss when feed is high in price compared to butterfat.

If the average cow in Oklahoma produces 100 to 125 pounds a year, then half of them produce less. These are the scrubs and “boarders.” Such cows when kept to furnish the family with milk and butter always pay for their feed and care (since the milk and butter replace many high-priced groceries), but when kept to produce butterfat or butter for sale they are certain to be kept at a loss. The other half of the milk cows in Oklahoma, which produce more than the average, are those cows which are helping their owners to increase the farm income, pay off farm debts and add to the comforts of farm life.

The profitable milk cow will nearly always have a well developed udder, squarely placed teats and large milk veins. Heavy yields of milk are not made by cows with small, ill-shaped udders.


The income from milking cows depends not on the number kept, but on the ability of each cow to produce enough butterfat to more than pay for her feed. A farmer with five good cows may easily have left more money, after paying for all feed, than the man with 20 poor cows.


Some remarkable figures have been collected by cow-testing-associations over the United States. In each of these associations, the milk of each cow was weighed for an entire year and tested for butterfat. The feed for the entire year was also weighed and valued at actual market prices. Thus it was known at the end of the year just what each cow in each herd produced and how much it cost to feed her. A record was also kept of the butterfat sold. It was then easy to figure just how much income, over the cost of feed, each cow returned.

Records of this kind were collected from over 3,000 herds containing 18,014 milk cows. Only records on those cows that completed a full year’s test were used. These cows were then divided into groups, according to the butterfat produced. The following table was then made, which should be studied most carefully.

How Income Increases With Production

This remarkable set of figures proves to us beyond doubt that scrub cows are poor property, while good cows are money-makers. It will be seen that the group of cows that produced 109 pounds of butterfat (about the Oklahoma average) returned an income over feed of only $12.48, when butterfat was high in price. As the production of the cows increased so did the income over cost of feed. The average production of all these cows was 248 pounds of butterfat, with a return over cost of feed of $57.44.

One average cow in this 18,014 tested, therefore, returned as much income over feed cost as four average Oklahoma cows.


All these cows were well fed. The butterfat was sold for about the same price. The feed fed was charged to the cows at local prices. The cows with the low records were net underfed. They ate less feed for the reason that they did not have the capacity for eating more, or would not turn more feed into butterfat. The better cows ate more, yet they returned a larger income over the cost of the feed. These actual figures will apply only with feed and butterfat at certain prices. But the principle will apply every year regardless of the cost of feed and price of butterfat.

No farmer should be content to keep cows very long that produce less than 200 pounds of butterfat a year. Cows that produce 200 pounds of butterfat and more are not exceptional. Many cows in Oklahoma produce 250 pounds of butterfat a year. A herd of this kind of cows will return their owner a good income over cost of feed in both good years and bad years. The income over cost of feed will be low some years and high in other years; the average, though, will be satisfactory.


The scrub cow is one that can eat only a small amount of feed above her body needs, or is one that turns the extra feed eaten into body fat instead of milk. The heavy milker is a hard worker. She has a large storage capacity and a strong digestive system. She can eat and digest large amounts of feed and when she does so will turn all the feed above her body needs, into milk.

We have found that it takes about so much feed to maintain a cow. This feed is called a “maintenance ration.” It is the amount of feed necessary for the cow to move about, eat and digest feed, breathe, keep warm and carry on other body activities. The amount of feed used to maintain the body is about the same for a scrub cow as for a good cow. However, the scrub cow can eat only a small amount of feed in addition to her maintenance ration. Therefore, she uses a large proportion of her feed to live on. The high-producing cow uses a smaller proportion of her feed to live on.

Remember that the farmer does not get paid for the feed the cow uses to maintain her body. Every cow must eat whether she gives milk or not, in the same way that a man or horse must eat even though not working. The income from cows is derived from that feed the cow eats over and above the needs of her body.

The lean face, sharp neck and withers, wedge-shaped body and straight top line are other points of a good milk cow.


Many so-called scrub cows are really good cows that have never been properly fed. In fact, we can never be sure that a cow is a scrub cow until she is first well fed. If a cow is fed to the limit of her appetite on a balanced ration and she fails to pay a profit on her feed, then she may be condemned as a milk cow. She had her chance and failed. But to determine what a herd of cows will really do, they must first be full-fed on a balanced ration. After a farmer feeds his cows this way for a time he can intelligently cull the scrubs from the good producers. The good cow will respond to the proper feed; the scrub cow will respond only in part and not enough to make her profitable.

But how can we know which cows in a herd produce 250 pounds of butterfat, and which produce only 100 pounds?

The appearance of the cow herself is a good indication of her value as a milk cow. The good milk cow is nearly always one with a large barrel (necessary to store the large amounts of feed), a clear eye, a lean, dished face, a thin neck, sharp withers, prominent hip bones, wedge-shaped body, large udder and large milk veins. The best milk cows are nearly always thin in flesh since they use their feed to produce milk and not to form fat for their bodies.


These, we say, are good indications of a milk cow. As a person studies cows he can come to judge their ability to give milk with fair accuracy. But the real test of a cow’s ability to give milk is actually to give it. In other words, the dairy cow should be made to prove just what she can do to pay for her board and keep. Fortunately we have an easy way of doing that. By means of the Babcock tester, the percent of butterfat in a sample of milk can be quickly determined. If then the milk from each cow is weighed to find out how much is produced, the farmer will know exactly the value of each cow in his herd.

There is no other way actually to prove the value of each milk cow. The man who milks cows nearly always is quite sure which are his best cows and which his poorest ones. But when he weighs and tests the milk from each cow he is quite certain to be greatly surprised. No one can look at milk and be certain of what it will test. Milk that contains 3 ½ percent butterfat often has the same appearance as milk that tests 5 ½ percent.

There will be found in every herd of cows a few that give a large flow of milk for a few months after becoming fresh. Quite often we think of these as our prize cows because they give so much milk. But each cow, remember, must be fed a whole year and the amount of milk and butterfat produced in that year determines the value of that cow, and not the amount produced during three or four months. The best cows are often those that never give a large quantity of milk at one time, but instead are steady milkers for 10 to 11 months of each year, and at the same time give rich milk. Such cows are likely to be overlooked in the herd. There is no way to prove their value except by weighing and testing the milk.

Three well-bred Jersey bulls owned by a bull association in Pottawatomie county. Full use of these bulls, and others as good, will result in a community of high grade milk cows in a few years.


A few poor cows in each herd will eat up all the profit. Each cow should stand alone, and be made to earn her share of the income over feed. If every cow in a herd will more than pay for her feed, the herd is certain to be a profitable one. But if the herd is treated as a whole, the poor cows in it are equally certain to reduce the income from the whole herd.

Since, then, good milk cows are so important, how can we get them? Not by buying them, since there are not enough good ones to go around. Here and there a good cow can be bought. But most farmers must depend on raising better cows. The one way to do that is to make use of the best bulls possible and to raise and develop properly the heifers from such a bull and from the best cows in the herd.

Dairying, to be most profitable, must be based on an abundance of pasture. Cows do their best when grazing on fresh, tender pasture. Pasture crops require less labor to grow than row or broadcast crops, while the cows do the harvesting.


There are enough good bulls to go around. They can he bought at very reasonable prices. Not every farmer can afford to keep a good bull for his own use but he can often secure the use of one from a neighbor at but small cost. If there are no good bulls in a neighborhood, a bull association will bring to a group of farmers the use of good bulls at a low cost.

A bull association may be a quite simple organization of two to six farmers who own a total of 25 to 40 cows. The cost of the bull is divided among the owners on the basis of the cows owned. One member keeps the bull and is paid for the feed and care given him. Many bull associations own three or four bulls. The farmer members are divided into “blocks” and one bull placed in each block. At the end of two years the bulls are shifted to new blocks. In this way four bulls will fill the needs of farmers owning up to 175 cows, for eight years.

This is the cheapest way known for farmers, owning but a few milk cows each, to secure the use of really high-class bulls. It is the method widely used in other states to which farm dairying has brought prosperity. The plan is no new idea but has been tried and tested by years of practical experience and has proved highly successful. It is the sensible plan for Oklahoma farmers to use in getting better milk cows.

It is not enough that the bull used be a registered one. Many registered bulls have little or no value as dairy bulls. Every dairy bull bought and used should he from stock of known productive value. The buyer should know the record of the bull’s dam and his dam’s dam as well as the record of the dam of the bull’s sire. The bull from high producing cows on both the sire’s and dam’s sides is quite sure to breed heifers which, in turn, will be good producers. All such bulls, of course, should be good individuals of their breed.


The heifer calves from these good bulls must be given the best of care. If they are to be cows of large capacity they must be developed when young. The heifer that is stunted will not grow to full size. Very little is gained if good bulls are used and then the heifers are not developed.

The dairy heifers should have the best of feed and care. Their future value depends upon being well developed. The stunted heifer rarely becomes a profitable milk cow.

For the first two days after the calf is born it should run with it mother. The young calf needs the first milk to give it the right start in life. At the end of that time the calf should be taken away from its mother and put in a large pen or lot. With just a little patience and time, the calf will soon learn to drink from a bucket. It is far less trouble to raise a calf with a bucket than one that nurses its mother until weaned. Just as good a calf can be raised, while the cow may continue to give milk longer than if the calf is allowed to nurse. It takes much more time to milk if the calves are allowed to nurse, and when the calves are weaned at five or six months of age, the cow often dries up. This does not happen to cows that do not suckle their calves. Every argument is in favor of taking the calf away from the cow and teaching it to take its milk from a bucket.

All vessels used in feeding the calf must be kept clean. If fed from dirty vessels, in which milk has soured, the calf is quite likely to take the scours. Feeding cold milk is also likely to cause trouble. The calf should get only fresh, warm milk either as whole milk or skim milk, in clean vessels, and should not be over-fed. More trouble is caused by over-feeding than from under-feeding.


The calf should get whole milk for the first month. It should be fed only in clean vessels and the milk should be sweet and warm at feeding time, without too much foam on it. Dirty feeding vessels and sudden changes in the temperature of the milk are causes of many cases of scours. The calf should get about one quart of milk for each 20 pounds of body weight a day, or three to five quarts, and for the first two weeks it is best to feed it three times a day. At the end of three weeks the whole milk may be gradually changed to skim milk, taking three weeks in which to make the change.

At two to three weeks of age the calves begin to eat ground grain and will soon learn to eat considerable quantities. If grain is not too high-priced they will repay the cost of the grain fed to them. Especially is this true of heifers which are to be developed into milk cows for the home herd. At the age of one month, calves will begin to nibble at hay and should be encouraged to eat all they will. Hay will take the place of more expensive grain and help to develop a strong digestive system in the calf.

If it can be had, the calves should have skim milk until six months old. Milk is nature’s own food for calves and nothing else will wholly take its place. Skim milk, plenty of clean hay (legume hay if possible), pasture and grain are all necessary for the best development of the dairy calf. (The same good feed is just as necessary for a bull calf to be used as a herd bull.)

We must remember that we have only two to two and one-half years in which to develop the heifer, although we may keep her in the milking herd for six to ten years. Thus, the benefits of a well-developed heifer are spread over many years and we have a long time to make back the extra feed and care given her, and she will pay for it many times over.


The right feeding of milk cows is no less important than good breeding. No cow, no matter how well bred, can do her best unless fed a full and a balanced ration. That is, she must be fed plenty of feed and it must be of the right kind. Milk is called a perfect food. It contains protein, or muscle-forming food. It also contains energy and heat food, called carbohydrates. Now it takes these same kinds of feed to form each of these elements in the milk. The cow must have both kinds. She cannot take one kind of food and change it into the other. Protein feeds fed to the cow form the protein part of the milk, and carbohydrate feeds form the carbohydrate part of the milk.

A balanced ration, therefore, contains both protein and carbohydrate feeds. The common protein feeds are cottonseed meal, alfalfa hay, cowpea hay, soybean hay, peanut hay, bran and shorts. The common carbohydrate grain feeds are corn, kafir, milo, barley and oats. Cane, sudan, Johnson grass and prairie hays are also carbohydrate feeds, as well as bundle feed of all kinds. Silage made from the grain sorghums, cane, corn and sudan grass is also a carbohydrate feed.

The ability to produce a profitable flow of milk depends upon the ability of the cow to eat and digest large amounts of feed. To do this she must have a large barrel, or middle, in which to store and digest the feed eaten.


Not enough protein feed is produced on the average farm to balance the cow’s ration. Protein feed to buy is nearly always higher in price than carbohydrate feed. For that reason it will pay on nearly every farm where cows are milked, to raise protein hay of some kind. The farm that will grow alfalfa has its protein hay problem solved. But those farms that will not grow alfalfa will grow sweet clover, cowpeas, soybeans or peanuts. Good clean hay from any one of these crops is good protein feed, and the farmer who grows plenty of such hay from one or more of these crops will have to buy but very little feed at the store.


The first effort to grow cow feed on the farm should be with pasture crops. Those crops discussed in Chapter 26 can be used to produce pasture on every farm in Oklahoma. Pasture is the cheapest cow feed that can be grown. Cows like it and give the most milk when grazing on heavy pasture. However, the value of thin pasture is not great and unless the cows are getting all the tender pasture they want, they should be fed other feeds in addition. A real effort should then be made to produce an abundance of pasture. In any program to grow cow feed, this item should come first.


After plenty of pasture is provided, then comes the rough feed. It, too, is cheap feed. When the cows are not on pasture, they should have all the good quality rough feed that they will eat. Plenty of good pasture and rough feed will cut down the amount of grain that must be fed, and will result in a lower feed bill. By nature, the cow is adapted to eating large quantities of rough feed. Unless the man with cows grows all of it the cows will eat, he will have to buy feed, or feed his cows on a short ration. Whichever he does, the net income from the cows will be smaller than if they had been heavily fed on farm-raised feeds.

Many farmers prefer to keep beef-type cows selected for milk production. The calves from such cows are grown out and fed for beef. The cow in the above picture is a good Milking Shorthorn.


Cows that have the run of rich, heavy pasture may need no grain feed in addition. However, at all other times of the year they must be fed grain feed in addition to the hay and forage. Cows will give some milk when fed only on forage, but they will return far less income over cost of feed, than if fed also on a grain ration.

The grain raised on the farm should form the basis of the cow’s grain ration. However, the grain fed by all means should be ground. Many farms do not have feed grinders of any kind. Unless the distance is too far and the cost too high, it will pay to have the grain ground at some public mill, or on some neighbor’s mill.


Silage for milk cows has a high value. Cows like it to eat and will eat more of it than they will of hay or bundle feed. For that reason they will need a little less grain, or with the same grain will return a larger income, even after paying for the silage eaten. The more rough feed that a cow will eat, the lower will be her annual feed bill. By means of a silo, she can be induced to eat more than when fed dry feed alone.

Not only is silage good feed, but through use of a silo, the rough feed grown on the farm can be made to go further and produce more milk and butterfat. The Kansas Experiment Station put an acre of rough feed in the silo and fed it as silage, and then cut and stacked another acre of exactly the same feed and fed it in the bundle. By making a careful check they found that the acre of silage made twice as much meat and milk (when fed as part of a balanced ration) as the acre of bundle feed fed to the same cows. Thus, by means of a silo the value of an acre of feed can be increased. The value of each cow can also be increased by feeding her silage, as she will (with good care and feed otherwise) return to her owner a larger income than if fed only on dry feed.

A silo is especially valuable in the western half of Oklahoma where the pastures often dry up in the summer. With silage for summer feeding, the milk flow can be kept up. The cows will then continue to give milk until fall pasture or other feed is available. A serious loss is caused by a shortage of feed during the dry summers causing cows to dry up or fall off badly in the milk flow, after giving milk only four to six months. Some means is needed to keep the cows giving milk through the summer so that the milking period can be made longer. The silo (which for western Oklahoma means the pit silo) will do that. A pasture of sudan grass will also help. Both together will almost insure the cows giving a profitable flow of milk through the whole summer, and then on into the winter—if they are given good care in other respects.


Rule 1. Grow an abundance of pasture for all the cows. It is the cheapest and best feed produced on the farm. Do not depend, however, on short pasture. Cows do their best only on deep, rich and tender pasture.

Rule 2. Give the cows all the rough feed (carbohydrates) such as cane hay, sudan hay, prairie hay, Johnson grass hay or bundle feed, they will eat. These feeds are second in cheapness to pasture. The more of such feeds the cows eat, the larger will be the income above cost of feed. If possible, also feed 25 to 35 pounds of silage a day (depending on size of cows) when the cows are not on good pasture.

Rule 3. Feed each cow eight to ten pounds of legume hay (protein feed) daily, depending on size of the cow and how much milk she gives. This may be alfalfa hay, sweet clover hay, cowpea hay, soybean hay or peanut hay (with the grain or nuts attached to the vines).

Rule 4. Feed a grain mixture at the rate of one pound to each three and one-half pounds of milk given each day, or feed as many pounds of grain a day as each cow gives pounds of butterfat a week.

The grain mixture should consist, as far as possible, of grain feeds raised on the farm. Grain feed can be raised on every farm. To buy all or most of the grain feed will greatly reduce the income from the cows after paying for the feed. Different grain feeds will be raised on different farms so that no definite rule can be laid down for mixing the grain ration.

However, on most farms a grain ration can be mixed according to the following rule:

- One hundred pounds of ground oats or ground barley.
- One hundred pounds of ground corn, ground kafir, ground maize or other grain sorghum feed.
- Fifty pound of cottonseed meal.

This makes 250 pounds of grain mixture. The only feed that is bought is the cottonseed meal and it is needed to supply the protein, even when the legume hay is fed. If no legume hay is fed, 100 pounds of cottonseed meal, instead of 50 pounds, should be used. The ground oats or ground barley help to make the grain ration somewhat bulky. If neither barley nor oats are grown on the farm, it might pay to buy bran to take the place of them. This will depend on the comparative cost of bran and the price of butterfat.

If enough good protein hay is produced on the farm, the herd of cows may be fed on a balanced ration the year around, without the necessity of buying feed of any kind. However, the grain feed must be fed just the same, even though the cottonseed meal is omitted. Also the amount of protein hay must be increased so that each cow will get 12 to 15 pounds a day.

Before a well bred cow can produce a large flow of milk she must be full fed on a balanced ration. High producers in the dairy herd eat more feed than the low producers, but they turn a larger percent of it into milk and therefore return more money for each dollar’s worth of feed eaten.


The man with milk cows should make every effort to grow all his feed, including the legume hay and the grain. If he does that the price of feed to buy will not bother him. He can buy it, if it is cheap enough; or he can leave it alone. However, if he for any reason does not raise all his cow feed, he will then be forced to buy. For buying feed, no rules can be laid down. The best feed to buy is always the feed that will, when fed to the cows, result in the largest income to the owner after paying for all feed fed. As feed prices change, the farmer will change the ration he is feeding to a cheaper one. If the cows do not pay for the extra feed bought, it will be better not to feed it unless the cows are to be carried through a dry spell or period of short feed until a later time when cheaper farm feeds become available.

The feeding of cows is a most important subject. It cannot all be told in a book of this size. The successful farm dairyman will study the subject carefully, learning something important about it every year.


Cows that come fresh in the fall will nearly always give more milk during the course of a year, and return the owner a larger income, than cows that come fresh in the spring. If plenty of feed is available on the farm, the fall-fresh cow will hold up in her milk through the winter in good shape. By so doing, she produces the larger part of her butterfat when prices are generally highest. The milking is done when there is more time to do it. The flies do not bother. When spring pasture comes on, the cows make a new start and hold up the milk flow until hot weather, when they are turned dry.

There is a severe loss from cows that come fresh in the spring due to the fact they give a large flow of milk as long as the pasture is good and then as the pasture dries up, they also dry up. After giving a small flow of milk for four to eight weeks during the hot summer, when the flies also help to reduce the milk flow, the cows cannot again be built up even with plenty of good feed.

The wheat farmer finds it of especial advantage to have the cows come fresh in the fall so that they will be dry during the summer harvest. Thus, the milking is done during the fall and winter when there is more time to do it, while during the rush of harvest the cows are dry. This plan also saves the trouble of caring for the cream during hot weather and milking the cows when the flies are worst.


In addition to liberal feeding of a balanced ration, the farm milk cow must have a warm, dry barn or shed in winter. The cow must keep up her body temperature in winter. If not given shelter, she will use the feed, which otherwise would go into milk, to keep herself warm. It is always much cheaper to keep a cow warm with a shed than with feed. A warm, dry shed or barn need not be expensive. Such a place may be an open straw shed, or an open shed built on the south side of a barn. But it should be a comfortable place for the cow.

The milk cows should be treated with kindness. Running the milk cows with a horse or dog, kicking, striking or beating the cow will surely reduce the milk yield and is always an expensive practice. Some milk cows are quite nervous and even loud shouting will reduce the milk yield.

This farm family is building up a herd of high grade milk cows. They weigh the milk of each cow. The poorest ones are sold for beef and the heifers from the best cows are raised for future milkers.


The farmer may ship his cream direct to the manufacturer (the creamery owner) and receive the full market price, less the express. In fact, many farmers do that very thing … Others sell to the cream shipping stations but do not receive quite so much for their cream, although they may get paid for each delivery of cream as made.

A high quality of butter can often be sold to consumers for a price that will pay for the extra work of caring for the cream and making the butter. Not a few farmers add to the income from the milk cows by sales of butter in this way. However, it seldom pays to sell butter to the grocery stores. Such butter seldom brings a higher price than butterfat of good quality, and often sells for a lower price. Where once most butter was made on the farm, it is nearly all made now in creameries. This has taken from the farm wife, one of her hardest tasks.

The small amount of extra work required to produce cream of high quality is worth-while. Sometimes cream is not bought on grade, though more creameries each year are paying for good quality in cream. Especially does it pay to produce only high quality cream if such cream is to be sold through a cooperative shipping association. Large and regular shipments of good quality cream always command the highest prices.

We have said nothing so far about the different breeds of milk cows. The particular breed kept is of far less importance than the ability of each cow to produce a profit for her owner. The object of keeping cows is to add to the farm income. To do that, a cow must pay for her feed and care and in addition, an income for the owner. All such cows are profitable; they will add to the prosperity of farmers in Oklahoma.

This clean, cool concrete milk house helps the owner to produce a high quality of butter which brings a price well above the average market price the year around. He sells direct to the consumer.

1. Explain the difference in value between the family milk cow and cows kept to produce butterfat for sate.
2. What is the average production of milk cows in Oklahoma?
3. Show how the profit in farm dairying depends on good cows.
4. Row many pounds of butterfat per year do the milk cows on your farm produce?
5. Why can one cow give more milk than another cow when both are well fed on a balanced ration?
0. How can we be certain how much butterfat each cow in a herd produces?
7. Explain how poor cows in a herd will reduce the income over the cost of feed for the whole herd.
8. Show the importance of feeding the dairy heifers so as to produce rapid growth. How should they be fed?
9. Why must milk cows be fed a balanced ration?
10. Why provide pasture for the milk cows?
11. What is the value of rough feed?
12. Explain the value of the silo to the dairy farmer.
13. Explain in detail the four rules for feeding given in this chapter.
14. What are the advantages of having the calves come in the fall?
15. How may the farmer increase the income from the cows by better marketing of the dairy products?

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