Wednesday, December 5, 2018

New Book Underway: Low-Nonsense Doomsteading.

   Doomsteading.  An admittedly sensationalized term for taking what country folk have always done (making ready for lapses in infrastructure) up a few notches.  Building a rural homestead that can endure extended, even permanent loss of utilities, services, and regular supply sources.  That sort of thing.

   We've been quietly doing this for quite a while.  Thought of doing a book on the subject a year or two back, but it seemed like it might have been be too late.  Appeared to be time to focus on actually hunkering down for the collapse ourselves...

   Then, somewhat to my amazement, Western Civilization managed to dodge the kill shot in November, hopefully buying us a little more time to prepare.

   So the composition of Low-Nonsense Doomsteading is underway.  I'll rotate rough draft pages through this blog as the work proceeds...


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LND: Communication.

   Science Fiction of yesterday sure overestimated us in most regards.  Here we are, well into the 21st Century.  No condos on the Moon.  No robot butlers.  No practical jet-packs. 

   But SciFi seriously underestimated the development of computer and communication technology.  Almost everyone these days is walking around with a device in their pocket that can outperform Mr. Spock's communicator and tricorder combined.  We've got broadband Internet, WiFi, cellular networks, hundreds of television channels via cable or satellite, etc.  People can communicate instantaneously with voice, text, images, and video to and from nearly everywhere.

   This incredible, multi-layered grid of communications technology doesn't just happen though.  Like most of the Cornucopian world, it requires a constant flow of resources and perpetual skilled maintenance.  It is almost inevitable that these requirements will eventually fail to be met, and modern communications will collapse.

   Those of us who remember living with telephone party lines and three channels of snowy over-the-air analog standard definition TV may not be quite as devastated at losing hundred megabit per second digital communication as the Millennials will be.  But we'll all need some alternatives as the Information Age breaks down.

HAM Radio.

   Amateur Radio covers a lot of ground.  It is relatively high-powered, long-range, two-way radio using many signal formats and bands, including shortwave, which can 'skip' very long distances.  Entry-level equipment starts at a few hundred dollars, but you can quickly get into thousands as an enthusiast.

   In most countries, including the US, HAM Radio is regulated by law, and a license is required to broadcast.  The fact that Little Tin God bureaucrats think they own the electromagnetic spectrum, and that usually proud, nonconformist Preppers are oddly supportive of this notion has long baffled me.

   HAM is one of those things that people get into mainly because they enjoy it as a hobby, then use prepping as a justification.  In practical terms, it is obsolete in today's era of layered global communications.  Ordinary events, like storms or earthquakes, may disable modern communications for a brief time on a local or regional basis.  But it would take a continental or global catastrophe to cause the final breakdown of modern communication networks.  When this happens, long-distance communications will become all but irrelevant anyway.    (A post-apocalyptic world is a localized world!)

   There may be a period in the later stages of collapse, as current networks fail, but before we're all fully hunkered into place, when HAM Radio will prove invaluable.  But I expect that, by the time the Internet and telecom services go bye-bye, sending out long-range messages may not be the wisest of things for a doomsteader to be up to.

CB Radio.

   Citizen's Band Radio in America is a two-way, shortwave, usually AM, analog voice communication system.  Stock CB radios are low-powered (four watts) and short-range (around ten miles).  They come in automotive mount, home base station, and handheld form, and can still be purchased new for under $100.

   CB was enormously popular for a time in the 1970s.  So much so, that, even when the number of channels was increased from twenty-three to forty in the later in the decade, you still had trouble getting a word in edgewise on any of them.  It didn't help that the AM analog signals were subject to static, fading, and bleed-over.  Plus, the potential for shortwave skip meant that users might be competing for a channel with signals coming-in from far outside normal range.  It was a glorious mess, but the only means the Average Joe had for mobile communication.

   Today, CB is effectively obsolete.  We've got cellphones for mobile communication.  Internet forums for the semi-anonymous socializing that CB once provided.  Truckers still use CB, and, without the zillions of voices trying to use it all at the same time, it is easier to hail and talk with people these days than it was in the disco era.

   CB originally required a license, but at the peak of the craze, the FCC gave up on any serious regulation and enforcement.  Enthusiasts routinely (and technically illegally) boost their CB radio transmitting power dramatically, using CB as a sort of redneck HAM Radio capable of interstate communication.  You can receive these souped-up signals with a stock radio, but you won't have the broadcasting power to reply.

   Providence only knows how many million CB radios are laying around in attics, basements, and garages across America.  They are pretty easy to set-up and use.  As communications infrastructure crumbles, I'd be surprised if a great many of them weren't fished-out and put back into use.  Handy for maintaining contact with your neighbors, and perhaps making first contact with strangers from a safe distance.

   1970s era kids' walkie-talkies usually operated on CB channel 14.  Their pathetic broadcast power makes them nearly useless for practical two-way communication.  (You can holler farther than they can transmit.)  But they can receive strong signals at long range.


   The General Mobile Radio Service is a whole 'nother kettle of fish with pro-grade handhelds, vehicular mobiles,  base stations, repeater networks, etc.  Licenses are required to use it in the US, and many regulations apply.

   But we're not interested in all that here.  (SEE DISCLAIMER AT THE BEGINNING OF THIS BOOK.)  Inexpensive bubble-pack GMRS walkie-talkies have long been available in America, and hardly anyone bothers with licensing.  There are new regulations on the manufacture and sale of these, but millions are already out there.

   GMRS operates with frequency modulation (FM) on UHF bandwidth.  This tends to provide clearer voice communications with less static interference than old CB, with no need for long antennas.  The drawback is that GMRS signals don't bounce and skip like CB, so radio-opaque obstacles like hills and buildings can block transmission more easily.  Modern electronics allow pocket-sized, short antenna GMRS walkie-talkies to exceed the transmission power of stock CB radios, giving them five to ten miles of range.  (Never mind the advertised ranges.  Those are only going to happen with zero obstructions.)

   The Family Radio Service is basically GMRS Junior.  It requires no license, but has fewer channels, and operates at lower wattage and range.  The modern equivalent of the Channel 14 CB walkie-talkies from the '70s.   Primarily used by kids.

   The popular bubble-pack radios were usually GMRS/FRS hybrids.  This gave them twenty-two channels.  1-7 were shared by GMRS and FRS.  8-14 were FRS only.  15-22 were GMRS only.  Because 8-14 were strictly FRS, it was illegal to transmit at over half a watt on them (regardless of GMRS license), and most radios automatically switch to low power on those channels.  So using 8-14 could be handy if you don't want anyone picking up your signals beyond about one mile...  Channels 1-7 and 15-22 would broadcast at the full five watts unless you intentionally set them to low power.

   At this writing, GMRS/FRS hybrids are still available new, but rule changes are supposed to end sales in late 2019.  After that, new FRS radios will be allowed to transmit at up to two watts on channels 1-7 and 15-22.  8-14 remain limited to half-watt. 

   GMRS gets eight new channels.  Supposed to be used for high-power repeaters.  Not much change in the radios, except they'll probably be explicitly labeled for licensed use only.  (And no one will care.)

Antenna Television.

   Those of us with a touch of gray remember the days before cable and/or satellite TV was considered the norm.  When most people got their TV programming through a simple antenna.

   Some folks don't seem to realize that over-the-air antenna television broadcasting never ceased in America.  In fact, it got substantially better, with taller transmission towers, and more independent channels, which later formed the foundation for new networks.  Then came the digital transition, which added an array of digital subchannel programming to the mix.

   All you need to get free programming over-the-air is a TV manufactured since roughly 2005 (or an older TV with a digital converter set-top box) and an antenna.  Contrary to advertising hype, it doesn't have to be a special "HD" or digital antenna.  The modern ATSC digital signals are broadcast on the same UHF / VHF radio bandwidth that American television has always used.  Plain old rabbit ears with UHF loop, or a rooftop antenna like Granny used, will work fine.

   We use a home made antenna mounted on a mast.  We're out in the boonies, but on a hilltop, and get forty to fifty channels in decent weather.

   We haven't had to pay for TV in over a decade.  Frees up money for beans, bullets, bandages, etc.

   Since our signals come directly from the various stations' transmission towers, rather than from a central up-link like a satellite provider, antenna TV is a bit more bomb-proof.

AM/FM/Shortwave/NOAA Radio.

   Listen-only radio became a revolutionary thing about a century ago, and it's still highly useful today.  The Clear Station blowtorch AM stations that blast news, weather, and more across large swaths of the American continent (especially at night) will probably be the last vestiges of modern communication technology to go silent, and they require the simplest of equipment to tune-in.

Crank Radios: 

   There are a ton of off-grid "emergency" radios on the market now, powered by crank handles and solar panels.  Most of them use a hand crank to turn a dynamo that charges a battery which powers the radio.  Problem is that the rechargeable battery is the weakest link in this set-up, and may go bad from either frequent use, or extended storage!

   There have been clockwork radios in which the crank winds a spring which turns the dynamo to power the radio directly with no battery involved.  The BayGen Freeplay was to best-known of these, and their spring-driven radios are still available on eBay.  But the company has gone to the cheaper, battery-powered design with their new models.  So shop carefully.

Crystal Radios:

   There is a way to get AM radio without any power source at all.  The simplest form of radio receiver there is still works, and can be assembled from widely available components.  In fact, people have put them together without any proper electronic parts at all.  (Known as "foxhole radios".)

   Crystal radios do require a fairly strong signal, a large antenna, and a ground, making them immobile while in use.  They also produce only low-volume audio, best listened to with an earbud. 

   If you really want to have the ultimate in primitive wireless two-way wireless communications, you can learn Morse Code and pair your crystal radios with equally simple to fabricate spark-gap transmitters.

Wired Telephony.

   A simple way to maintain communication between people in fixed positions not too many miles apart is to run a simple telephone line.  (Or re-purpose existing land lines that have become defunct.)  Telephone communications are reliable, resistant to interference, require relatively little power, are difficult to intercept, and even more difficult to intercept without being detected.

   The military has been using self-powered Field Telephones since the late 19th Century, and used military models are widely available at a reasonable price online.  Ordinary land line phones can be modified (mostly involves adding a battery) pretty easily. 


   Coping with collapse and disasters can take a bit of jury-rigging.

   Hurricane Hugo caught us without a decent battery radio, so I dug out an old car stereo, speakers, rigged a wire antenna, mounted the whole thing to a plastic milk crate, and powered it with lantern batteries wired in series.

   With just a little understanding of basic electrical circuitry, it should be possible to cobble together functional, if primitive, communication networks from materials and parts available.

Note: Include schematics of crystal radio, spark gap transmitter, simple phone.  PD HAM materials.





Tuesday, November 20, 2018

LND: Heating.

   Not freezing to death ranks pretty high on the "to do" list when it comes to survival.  It's also pretty beneficial to be able to have water pipes and liquid stores that don't burst when Old Man Winter asserts himself.  Of course, this is a greater problem for the poor souls not fortunate enough to live in Dixie, but even here in the Uwharrie hills, we're not fully immune to the Snow Miser's wrath.

   Here on the doomstead, we have several ways to keep the chill out of the house...

Passive Solar.

   Sounds fancy, but it's really old school for the most part.  The house is surrounded with deciduous trees (primarily big fruit trees for dual purpose) which provide shade in the Summer, but shed off and let the Sun warm the place up in the Winter.  May make it look like the Addams Family or Munsters live here by Hallowe'en, but on a bright day it'll be comfortable inside even when it's a deep freeze outside.  Decent insulation, storm windows, and heavy curtains to hold the warmth in gives us a good head start on the cold nights.

Wood Stove.

   Unfortunately, ol' Sol can be a stranger in the Winter, and the nights do get long.  So we need another way to heat up the cabin.  And it's hard to beat good old fire for the job.  If your place was built with a fireplace, you're ahead of the game.  But, if not, there's still a practical alternative.

   A wood stove is basically a cast iron box that allows you to build a fire indoors without burning the house down or choking on smoke.  (Hopefully!)

   There are modern wood stoves which are airtight, super-efficient, thermostat-regulated, with built-in blowers, soapstone segments to enhance heat radiation, water coils, etc.  If you are in a position to buy one of these and have it professionally installed, by all means do so.  But, if you can't budget five figures right now, 18th Century tech can still get the job done a lot cheaper.


   I was recently a little surprised to learn that you can still buy a plain old cast iron wood stove brand new from major retailers today.  I figured the lawyers and regulators would have put a stop to that by now.  Must be an oversight on their part.  As of this writing, these cost a few hundred dollars.

   We bought ours for $30 at the antique junkyard.  A rusty mess, but all the pieces were there and intact.  Cleaned it up with an electric wire brush, put it together, built a fire in it out in the barnyard to heat it up enough to paint-on and smoke-off linseed oil to re-season the surface. 

   Ours is a simple two burner stove with no oven section.  There are bigger cook stoves with multiple burners, ovens, and greater heating capacity.  There are also smaller single burner (and no burner) caboose or parlor stoves designed to take the chill off one room.  What you'll need depends on the space you need to heat and the kind of Winters your area experiences.

Stove Installation:

   Where you'll put your stove depends on which room you want the warmest, the kind of use you expect to put it to, and where it is most practical to fit it and its pipe.

   Old type wood stoves can get very hot, and radiate that intense heat upward and to all sides.  So you're going to need plenty of space between the stove and anything flammable, including most walls.  Like a few feet.  Even then, you might need to set up some reflective heat shields.  You'll want to monitor the situation closely during your first several fires to make sure that you aren't getting things around the stove too hot.

   Since heat rises, and stoves are normally on raised feet, the floor under the stove isn't likely to be cooked.  Many old cabins and country stores have had stoves burning on hardwood floors for decades without problems.  But it's safer to put thick tile (that can withstand the stove weight), brick/concrete pavers, or a fireproof pad down before putting in the stove.  This floor protection should extend well out from the stove on the sides with doors, because sparks and embers will sometimes sneak out when you open the box to tend the fire.  (I really hope I don't have to tell anyone not to install a wood stove over carpet, which has no place in a doomstead or farm house to begin with.  See the "House" chapter.)

   Then there's the exhaust...  There must be a big pipe from the stove to a point well above the peak of your house to consistently draw the smoke out.  You can do this by having the pipe run straight up through the roof, which provides the most effective draw, but allows more heat to escape with the exhaust, and requires a hole in the roof which almost always winds up leaking.

   The more common way in cabin style installation is to have an elbow pipe above the stove, a horizontal pipe out through a wall, then a T connector to a vertical smokestack pipe outside the house.  The downward-facing branch of the T pipe is capped, but can be opened for provide cleaning access.  The two bends will slightly reduce draw, but the horizontal pipe will radiate heat into the house that would have been wasted with a straight-up pipe.

   All the stove pipes will get dangerously hot in use, and cannot be positioned close to anything flammable.  Passing the stove pipe through a combustible wall or roof will require a kit that insulates the building from the hot pipe.  The vertical smokestack outside the house must be well away from the outer wall and eaves. 

   If there isn't an exhaust damper built into the stove, you can easily install one in the pipe where you can reach it.  This will give you a bit more control over your burn rate.

   You'll need some sort of cap to keep the rain out of your smokestack.  A simple shanty-cap works fine, but line the openings with offset layers of chicken wire or something to keep birds from crawling down the pipe.  Those little idiots can never find their way back up, and you will seriously get a pipe full of feathered mummies over the Summer.

   We put the wood stove in our bedroom, where we can keep an eye on it.  (This does mean the bedroom door has to be kept open when a fire is going.)  There was a convenient, big window in the wall.  I removed the glass and replaced it with a double layer of corrugated steel, which is impervious to the stovepipe heat.  There is a second big window in the room, so we could afford to lose the use of one.  Running the pipe through the steel that replaced the window saved me from cutting a hole through the wall proper and made the stove installation fully reversible.

   The vertical smokestack outside the house is primarily supported by a thick steel pole driven into the ground.  This also serves to independently ground the smokestack if it is hit by lightning.   Guy wires and long stainless steel brackets help support the stack against wind.

   We've used our wood stove for primary home heating for many years.  The original galvanized pipes failed catastrophically due to rust after the first few.  We switched to black stovepipe, but they also started to rust through after a couple years.  We then upgraded to heavier stainless steel pipes.  These are harder to find, don't look very rustic, and are much more expensive.  But they've lasted twice as long as the previous pipes, and are going strong.

Fire Extinguishers:

   Every doomstead should have multiple fire extinguishers strategically placed through all the buildings.  This definitely includes placing a big one in the room with the wood stove.  A smaller, disposable aerosol can extinguisher for minor mishaps, and a simple spray bottle of water to douse the odd spark are also handy. 

   Dousing the fire in the box, especially with a chemical extinguisher, will make a godawful mess and fill the house with smoke.  Don't ever do it unless you absolutely have to. 


   One advantage of old-fashioned, simple wood stoves is that they can burn just about anything flammable in a pinch.  But, to avoid toxic fumes and troublesome leftovers in the fire box, you'd best stick with wood.

   Of course, the availability of wood is a factor you should consider before installing a wood stove.  Our doomstead has enough wooded acreage to allow us to cut all the firewood we need from deadfall.  If you have to truck-in wood from elsewhere and store it, a wood stove may benefit you less.

   Well dried, small sticks and splits start easily then burn fast and hot.  So does conifer wood, though it will create more creosote residue in your pipe.  Green (less cured) wood and bigger pieces burn cooler and slower.  Adjusting the kind of wood or mix of woods you use is a good way to regulate the heat of your stove and duration of your fire, especially with an old school stove that allows only limited regulation via venting and the damper.


   Being a tall guy, it's easier for me to lift the top plate off the stove so I can build the fire from above when starting with a cold box.  Of course, not all stoves have a lift-off top.

   As with a camp fire, you begin with easy to light, fast burning materials at the bottom.  Paper and cardboard are good.  Crumpled, individual sheets.  Air has to be able to get in-between them.  Intact magazines, stacks of junk mail, etc., won't burn well.  Then twigs, sticks, arranged in crosses for breathing.  Smaller splits midway up the stack.  Bigger pieces on top.  You need to make sure you can get a match to the paper at the bottom through a front or side door.  It might be wise to avoid putting heavier wood in until later, as there's a possibility your light materials will burn away before the logs get going, and they will be left on the bottom, forcing you to pull them out to start over.

   You really shouldn't need an accelerant, but I have been known to add a little used cooking oil.  Just make sure it doesn't run out the stove onto the floor.  Don't even think about gasoline.  Not only are you likely to wind up in a hospital burn ward, but it won't even work!  (Burns away too quickly, before the wood can even warm-up!)

   With the top plate (and all burner plates) in-place, I open the exhaust damper and the stove intake ports all the way.  Then I light the paper at the bottom through the front door.  (A butane BBQ lighter is handy for this.)  Then I let the blaze grow until I'm confident that wood, rather than just starter material, is burning.

   My old stove is usually able to pull enough air in through its various seams for a good heating fire, so I close the intake ports.  For a low-intensity, fuel-efficient fire, I close the exhaust damper until smoke starts to escape from the seams, then open it back up a bit.

   Once you've got a nice fire with a bed of glowing coals at the base, you just add splits or logs as needed.  It's best to just let the fire burn itself out when you no longer need it, so cease fueling accordingly.  You really shouldn't leave an old style wood stove unsupervised with much of a fire going in it.

   Wood stoves seem to pull all the moisture out of the air.  Even to the point of discomfort.  So we usually keep an old tea kettle full of water on top of the stove to act as a humidifier.
   Traditional stoves seem to work best with an inch or two of wood ash in bottom.  But it will build-up more than that pretty quickly.  Let the stove burn itself out and go completely cold before cleaning out the ashes.  It's a pretty simple matter.  Use a steel fireplace shovel and a steel bucket, just in case there are a few hot coals hiding in the mix.  Get the bucket of ashes outside the house and away from anything flammable.  Ash is a good insulator, and can keep an ember or two alive in the pile for days.

   Once cool, hardwood ash is alkaline and can be used much like slaked lime to counter acid in stall floors, latrine pits, and gardening soil.  It is also used to make traditional lye soap.

Kerosene Heater.

   This one is easy.  Modern indoor kerosene heaters are reasonably priced, widely available, easy to use, and quite effective.  No installation.  Portable.  The kerosene heater is our first back-up to the wood stove.  (The electric central heat furnace is the back-up's back-up.)

   Kerosene is a handy fuel in general.  It keeps a bit better than gasoline, especially if you use a stabilizer.  We use it to fuel our old tractor, as diesel fuel seems to break-down rather quickly these days.  (Biodiesel mixed-in?)  And old-style kerosene lamps can provide a lot of light for hours on very little fuel.  So keeping a few jerrycans of kerosene around is no problem.  It gets used.

   You'll want a few spare wicks.  They don't need to be replaced very often.  And a simple siphon pump to fill the heater's tank.  These are cheap, and prevent you dumping fuel all over everything trying to pour it directly from the can.

   Follow the directions that come with the heater.  Keep it away from flammables. Turn it off before refueling.  Don't feed it diesel fuel or vegetable oil...  (These might work, but could imbalance the burn and release carbon monoxide.)

   Ours has been working well for over twenty years.  Comes in handy when we just want to take the chill off one room, or when we get caught with an insufficient supply of dry wood when Winter suddenly decides to assert itself.



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Sunday, December 17, 2017


   Hard to believe we're already into the final week before Christmas...  Time flies when you're gettin' old!

   In America, we have a near logjam of holidays from late November through early January.  It used to be understood that "Happy Holidays" and "Season's Greetings" were shorthand for "Happy Thanksgiving, Feast of Nicholas, Hanukkah, Christmas Eve/Day, Boxing Day/Feast of Stephen, New year's Eve/Day, and Epiphany!"

   Now when you say "Happy Holidays" and "Season's Greetings", many people think you're doing it to avoid saying "Christmas".   Sad state of affairs the PC police have brought upon us, 'tis.

   So MERRY CHRISTMAS to all, and a prosperous New Year to come!



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Friday, November 24, 2017

Millwater's FARRIERY: Black Friday / Cyber Monday and Beyond...

   Well, now that we're all turkey'd up and the Christmas season is officially upon us, just a reminder that Millwater's FARRIERY: The Illustrated Dictionary of Horseshoeing and Hoofcare is available from Amazon and other book sellers in paperback, hardcover, and Kindle forms!

   More information about the book available on the Millwater Publishing website.

   Follow our Twitter and Facebook feeds throughout the season for specials and discount codes.  Also check out eBay, where we usually have promotional copies available at discount prices.


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Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Happy Thanksgiving!

   Hard to believe the holiday season is already upon us again!

   Folks following Millwater Publishing know that I've been busy with the ongoing project.  At least until events at Prophet's Thumb started demanding so much time and attention.  (Rough start to an already late dairy season.)    Thankful to have got through that rough patch...  And to have made it to the slow-down phase of the season where I'm not spending all night, every night, in the dairy kitchen!

   Also thankful to have a barn full of healthy Quargian (AQHA/BDHCA) youngsters coming up.  Just hope I've still got it in me to make proper mounts of the industrial strength beasties.  Especially the colt.  A yearling now, and already a 16+ hand locomotive.

   Sadly, for a {ahem} middle-aged Sasquatch like me riding Jurassic Park refugees like these critters, the saddle that fit 1970s me and working quarter horses perfectly won't quite get it done.  So I've been distracted with another long-overdue project...

   "He sold his saddle" is cowboy speak for something akin to "He sold his soul."

   Wonder what it means when he builds a new saddle from scratch...

   Anyway...  Here's hoping you all find yourselves with plenty to be thankful for this turkey-day, and may it be the start of a joyous holiday season!


Tuesday, August 15, 2017

LND: Dairy. (Part I.)

“The cow is the foster mother of the human race.
 From the time of the ancient Hindoo to this time have the thoughts of men turned
 to this kindly and beneficent creature as one of the chief sustaining forces of the human race”

 – W.D. Hoard

   One essential feature of the classic, self-sufficient homestead that may go unnoticed in the background is the milk cow.  But ol' Bossy is always there, and she is a huge asset. 

   Grass is one of the easiest and most efficient ways to convert solar energy into nutrition...  But human guts can't digest the stuff very well.  A cow can.  And she'll convert it into milk, a near-perfect food source for most living things!  (Don't buy into that 'humans can't digest cow milk'  hooey.  That processed whitewater from the supermarket doesn't come with the essential enzymes for proper digestion like raw milk does!)

   The dairy cow is a fount of sustenance for the whole farm.  Milk, cream, butter, and cheese for her masters.  Clabber for the chickens.  Whey for the pigs or tomatoes...  And let's not forget the by-product in the form of hundreds of pounds of beef.

   The downside is that even a one cow dairy program is a huge commitment and a lot of work.  She's called a "family cow" because you really need a family to divide the chores, as well as to consume all the milk.  One person handling the whole dairy operation is overwhelming, especially when the cow is fresh.

Getting (or Raising) a Cow...

   Theoretically, any cow of reproductive age can be milked.  But countless generations of selective breeding have produced dairy cows so different from beef breeds that they could pass for separate species.  In addition to higher milk production, dairy cows are selected for quieter, more manageable dispositions.

   Everybody gets too clever by half these days with fancy breeds.  You really need look no farther than the traditional family cows, like the Jersey and Guernsey.  The most commonly seen commercial dairy cow in America these days is the Holstein.  An old joke claims that the government wouldn't allow dairymen to water-down their milk, so they bred Holstein cows to do it for them.  (Holsteins are bigger than other dairy breeds, and produce more gallons of milk, but with a lower concentration of milkfat and protein.)

   'Miniature' cows have become trendy, but keep in-mind the inbreeding that was used to scale cattle down.  If a Jersey cow is too intimidating, you might want to consider goats.  (More on those later.)

   You may be able to find a dairy cull for a good price.  Commercial dairy operations dispose of cows when they no longer meet a set output relative to upkeep standard.  Many of these cows are fairly young, and could produce more than enough for doomstead needs for years to come.  But industrial scale milk production is hard animals, and does not impart the kind of human-oriented social imprinting that is desirable for a family cow.  Look well about these for chronic mastitis, poor disposition.

   If buying a 'new' cow, a good argument can be made for starting with a heifer already confirmed well along in her first pregnancy.  That way you know she's fertile, and you don't have to wait too long to start getting a return on your investment.  But these can run you a pretty penny.

   We started with an early weaned Jersey/Guernsey heifer calf because we wanted to make sure our cow had a good upbringing and was completely imprinted on us.  We were acquainted with some folks through LATOC who had a small homestead dairy operation further up in the mountains, and knew they'd handled their calves extensively from birth. 

   Starting with a calf means you're going to have to invest a lot of time and effort and upkeep into the critter before you get the first cup of milk in return.  But a family cow really needs to be part of the family, completely comfortable and trusting of her people.  This isn't just for sentimental reasons.  Commercial dairies have lots of concrete and steel facilities, with sorting chutes, head gates, tilt tables.  They can use injections to get cows to let-down.  And they only expect two or three milking seasons from a cow before she becomes Big Macs...  You probably won't have anything like that.  So you'll need a cow who wants to cooperate with you.  Will let you catch her out of the pasture and lead her in.  Tie her to a post and milk her without restraints.  Will let down with just a little warm-up and sweet talk.  Even stand for artificial insemination procedures without trouble.

   Basically, we raised our little Maudie as if she were a foal.  Grooming, bathing, leading, tying, hoof handling.  She also learned to tether, which is something horses should not do...  Cows are naturally better at being tied with long (like 50') sturdy ropes to solid anchors like fence post bases.  Their leather hides are less likely to get rope burned, and they tend not to panic when they get tangled.  Tethering is a very handy way to let your cow consume grass in areas not fenced for grazing.

   One decision you may have to make when raising your own milk cow is whether to let her keep her horns.  Most dairy breeds do have the genetics for horn growth, although some lines and crosses may be polled (hornless).  Horns can easily be eliminated early in a cows life, prior to the horn buds attach to the skull.  Before around eight weeks of age, they can be cut, burned, or chemically eliminated (with a mild acid somewhat like the Compound W used for warts in humans).  The paste is nearly painless.  Other methods hurt a bit, and should be done with some sort of topical numbing agent and possible sedation.  Get a vet or experienced cattleman to help you the first time.

   Letting the cow keep her horns gives her some defense against coyotes, dogs, and other threats.  They also give you a convenient handle to take hold of her head.  The intimidation factor of just having horns may discourage city folk from messing with your milker...  Heck, half of them seem to think only bulls have horns!

   No decent family milk cow would ever think of goring her own people, but accidents do happen.  And mischievous cows will definitely use their horns as tools to disassemble fences, stalls, and other things.  So it's a judgement call.  We let Maudie keep her horns.  But she's the only one.


   When we brought Maudie home, we gave her a stall in the horse stables.  This worked just fine while she was a little heifer.  But, as she got bigger, then had to share with her calf, it became a real mess.  Cow manure is near-liquid, and a pregnant or lactating cow will make barrels of urine.  Cows are deceptively heavy, with relatively small, cloven hooves that will grind filth into a pit gravel floor.  And bovines have ZERO sense of hygiene!  They will turn a stall floor into belly-deep septic muck over time, despite your efforts to clean it regularly.

   Her current accommodations are an anchored-down steel tube corral panel enclosure on a reinforced concrete floor with heavy rubber mats and (of all things) an old boat secured keel-up to provide a partial roof.  (Remember, we're in Dixie, where a cow only needs a roof for shade and sometimes freezing rain.)  This is situated in her primary turnout paddock so that, when she has a new calf, she can go out to graze while he's safe inside.  She can come back and feed him through the panel when she sees fit.  (They figure that out pretty quick.)

   We also started out milking Maudie in her stall.  This was a BAD IDEA that got worse as the stall grew ever more foul.  Then I built a Milking Parlor...  Just an 8' x 12' extension on the barn with a gravel floor, rubber mats where the cow stands, a feeder, a low table for equipment, lights, a fan, and power outlets.  This little, dedicated workspace made milking so much faster and easier that I can't believe we ever did it any other way.


   To make milk, a cow has to first produce a calf...

   Heifers usually come into heat for the first time sometime between six and nine months of age.  Then they cycle about every three weeks unless they are pregnant...  This is going to test your patience a bit, as you shouldn't have a heifer bred until she's past fifteen months old.  So you'll have to put up with several rounds of her relentless bellowing, crazy eyes, and jumping on everyone and everything.  The saving grace is that cows are usually in full heat less than two days.

   When she's fifteen months or so, you can get your cow bred either the old fashioned way, putting her out with a bull, or employ the more modern approach of artificial insemination (AI).  The former may be handy if you have a good neighbor with an appropriate bull he'll share.  Keeping your own bull to freshen just one or two milkers is beyond impractical.

   AI means coordinating with your vet or a reproduction tech, who will show-up with a tank of frozen bull semen, packaged in one dose straws.  A dose will be selected, carefully thawed, and inserted into the heifer's uterus.  Well-handled cows in full heat are usually pretty tolerant of the whole process, requiring little restraint and no sedation.  But the person going shoulder-deep into the cow gets to make that call!

   Bulls inclined to produce small-headed, low-birthweight calves are desirable for a heifer's first pregnancy for easy delivery.  Angus bulls are a popular choice, as their calves are easily born and grow rapidly into good beef producers. 

   Breeding to a dairy bull gives you a chance for a relatively valuable full-dairy heifer.  But, if you get a full-dairy bull calf, he'll produce less beef than an Angus cross.  You can use sexed semen to assure a heifer calf, but availability can be a problem, cost is higher, and potency tends to be far lower than whole semen.

   Bovine gestation is usually around 283 days, a bit over 9 months.  Dairy cows tend to go a little shorter.  Cattle are pretty low-maintenance in pregnancy.  Just keep her well-fed (more on that later), with access to clean water, and the usual shade, shelter. 

   Calving is normally a pretty quick affair.  Most cattle come into this world with no assistance.  If you happen to be present when the calf comes, you can reduce some of the stress on cow and calf once the front feet and nose show.  (They should be oriented hooves-down, as though the calf was jumping out and intends to land on his feet... They may also be covered in the birth sack.)   Take a firm hold on the legs, just above the feet, wait for the cow to push, and pull out and slightly downward.  Don't yank.

   If the calf appears in an incorrect orientation, or birth takes more than 45 minutes after the water breaks, get a vet or experienced cattleman's help ASAP.  Don't panic.  Cows are pretty tough.

   A newly born calf usually appears lifeless.  Make sure its mouth and nose are clear, rub on the critter a minute, and it should soon awaken...  Then you have a decision to implement...

Point of Divergence.....

   You've now got a cow with (hopefully) full udders and a newborn calf.  You can let Mamma keep her calf, or you can split them up ASAP.

   Commercial dairies usually do the latter.  Some homesteaders do as well.  Taking the calf to another stall or hutch to be bottle-fed.  The primary advantage to this is preventing the cow from becoming calf-bound.  Although a dairy cow will produce far more milk than her calf needs, some will instinctively hold-up milk for the calf, shorting her people.  She may even dry-off when the calf is weaned, ending the milking season months ahead of schedule.  This maddening problem may be avoided if the cow never bonds with her offspring, but learns to rely on the milker for udder relief.

   Family milk cows are often allowed to keep their calves.  This has the advantage of saving the humans a lot of work.  Instead of having to milk the fresh cow three or four times a day, and bottle feeding part of the milk to the calf, we just let the calf self-serve, and milk the cow twice a day.  The dairyman typically gets a little less milk this way, but there's still usually more than enough for a family.