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The backyard cow

Progressive Dairyman Editor Peggy Coffeen Published on 17 October 2014

As the trees lose their leaves here in northeast Wisconsin, it is clear that the fall season is here to stay. Looking back over the past few months, you may be asking yourself the same question as I am: Where did the summer go?

Outside of cattle shows and baseball tournaments, my family spent the majority of the summer in our own backyard. However, it wasn’t the usual kickball games, badminton tournaments and bonfires that kept us close to home. It was one cow.



For those of you who have hundreds or thousands of cows, you may be wondering why we have one cow in our backyard and how she could possibly keep us so occupied. Allow me to explain.

On our little hobby farm in a semi-suburban neighborhood, we raise a few show heifers. Of course, heifers turn into cows, and we usually keep the cows at a friend’s farm. However, we made an exception for a four-year-old red and white Holstein cow named Glitter.

She is one of those “pretty” cows, the kind that I love, but that most commercial dairymen hate – and I totally see their point. At well over 60 inches tall at the hip, she is simply too big for most stalls, so we decided to keep her on a grassy pasture for her dry period and through the first couple months of her lactation. Our goal was to get her right and ready for some summer shows, and we felt the best way to do that was to calve her in ourselves.

When Glitter gave birth to a healthy heifer calf named Lola on July 5, we knew we were in for some additional work, but we were surprised by what happened next.

Seemingly overnight, our backyard transformed into an agri-tainment center. Neighborhood children biked over to watch us milk the cow and to take their turn bottle-feeding the calf. The phone or doorbell would ring with requests to go “play” with Lola or bring friends to see Glitter. Lola even turned into a social media sensation, popping up on Facebook and Instagram.


The cow and calf were certainly conversation starters. Even parents were intrigued to learn that the big red cow was a surrogate mother to the little black and white calf – an embryo transferred from another cow that was no longer alive. I called on my old dairy princess key messages to reinforce points like dairy farms of all sizes are committed to providing their animals with the highest level of care.

Of the many inquiries I received, I was most surprised by those on the subject of raw milk. People asked if we drank it ourselves, or if we sell it to others.

That’s when I got on my soapbox and explained that consuming unpasteurized milk presents a high level of risk, particularly for people who have never drank it, and that the milk they buy at the grocery store is safe, wholesome and what I put on my own dinner table. (If you are wondering what we did with 90 pounds of milk every day, it went to feeding Lola and making a local farmer’s pigs fat and happy.)

Keeping one cow in our backyard was truly a labor of love. Much like the days of our youth, we found our lives revolving around the milking schedule, which included three times daily for the first month. We missed a few baseball innings and showed up late for social gatherings with that age-old excuse, “Sorry, we got in late from the barn.”

Our travel was limited to no more than an hour or two from home, as not to miss a milking. The truth is, however, that even though there were days when milking Glitter seemed like an inconvenience to our lifestyle, I really enjoyed the quiet moments, just the cow and me.

As I reflect on our backyard cow-milking project, I realize it served an even greater purpose than simply getting Glitter ready to show. My family was able to give children and adults a memorable, hands-on experience with dairy farming, and that is something we were proud to share.


As our neighbors saw our level of dedication, they realized just how committed dairy farmers are to taking care of their animals. It was rewarding, too, to learn that one of these neighbor kids who had her first cattle experiences in our backyard now milks cows on a nearby dairy.

Never did we think that our backyard would become an impromptu dairy education center, but let it be a lesson to all of us that sometimes you can do the greatest good in helping others learn about our industry at the moments when you least expect. PD

  • Peggy Coffeen

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