The Backyard Cow: Guide to Keeping a Productive Family Cow

Owning a Dairy Cow

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The Backyard Cow is for “Those people who want to keep cattle on a small scale, be it for household dairy or recreational purposes (or both).”

It is written with the homesteader in mind.

Does that sound like you?

We’ve had beef cattle before, but until I read this book, I didn’t see any way I could ever keep a milk cow.

Not enough space, not enough time, not enough knowledge.
The Backyard Cow Book Review

The Backyard Cow: An Introductory Guide to Keeping a Productive Family Cow

But author Sue Weaver has changed my mind.

I now know that a cow does not take a lot of space or time.

And with this book at my side, I’d have just about all the knowledge I’d need.

As the author points out in the preface, most everything written about cattle is about managing herds of cattle, not the individual milk cow or steer for riding or field work.

The Backyard Cow An Easy and Fun Read

The Backyard Cow book is like a treasure hunt with both large chunks and wee tidbits of information.

The main text itself is very interesting, thoroughly covering all the cow basics.

But scattered throughout the book are additional little sidebars: anecdotes, quotations, poems, legends, and song lyrics about cows.

The effect is a presentation of academic and scientific facts with a touch of playfulness.

Everything You’ll Need to Know

The table of contents indicates the three main sections of the book: Meet the Cow, Have Fun ‘Til the Cows Come Home, and Care for Your Cow.

Three appendices explain Restraint, Clicker Training, and even Emergency Euthanasia.

A cow glossary, resource list, and index complete the package.

From cow breeds and history to behavior and purchase considerations, “Meet the Cow” covers it all.

“Have Fun” includes details on how to milk a cow, ride a steer, and raise a calf.

There are recipes and instructions for several homemade dairy products which must be delicious made from fresh milk.

“Care for Your Cow” tells readers all about breeding and birthing, shelter, feeding, and health care.

Picture this!

Illustrations include sketches, diagrams, and delightful historical black and white photos.

Line drawings demonstrate how-to steps for tasks such as milking a cow and tying a slip-knot halter.

About halfway through the book readers are treated to an inset of 16 pages of beautiful full color photos of cows in fields, cows with children, and homemade dairy products.

Right from the first pages of this book, I was on a learning curve.

I usually think of breeds as having specific purposes, but that wasn’t always the case.

If you have a smaller plot of land, you may consider miniature cattle breeds.

Owning a Dairy CowInside the World of a Dairy Cow

Weaver explains, “Historically, most breeds were dual- or triple-purpose cattle.

Herefords were developed as much to serve as brawny oxen as they were for their meat-making ability.”

A beef breed with a dairy background makes a great family cow, producing sufficient milk while bearing calves that will provide good beef for the table.

You mean cows can talk?

I’ve watched cows and thought they didn’t have much going in the social department.

Yet Weaver explains the bovine communication system and even provides a code translation.

She tells us how each group of cows
has a hierarchy, with the “top cow” getting first choice at everything.

There will be other “leaders” with specific roles: perhaps one will lead the way out to pasture each morning, and another will direct the trek back to the milking parlor at the end of the day.


But the book’s big surprise for me was the chapter on riding steers.

A plodding steer provides a leisurely trail ride or even a way to get from one place to another.

Who knew?

Weaver indicates that steers are in some ways easier to train and ride than horses.

She has used her equine expertise to develop training methods that she explains in detail.

One thing that was not a surprise to me was this quotation, a little Lithuanian proverb: It is difficult to teach a cow to climb a tree.

Open Letter From a Kansas Rancher and Cowgirl Brandi Buzzard Frobose Rancher, wife, mama and steward of the land

Have You Considered a Dairy Cow?

Oftentimes, people can be turned off by the amount of work (and milk!) that cows have a reputation for.

However, with the right breed and cow, this is often not the case.

Dairy cows can be a very manageable part of many homesteads.

If you have any questions about milk cows, or wonder if you could ever keep one yourself, The Backyard Cow is a must-read.

You will find yourself referencing this book often.

Plus, it’s just a fun read overall.

All the basics are there, along with much more!

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Country Gardens Are Not Just for Vegetables

fresh garden flowers

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Country gardens are not just for vegetables.

There’s so much more you can do.

Just in time for our first snowfall, I got our vegetable patch put to bed for the winter.

As I was working, I realized that in spite of the colorful veggies and herbs, I had really missed having a flower bed.

Along with food production, beautiful scenery is an important part of a wellness sanctuary and rural living too.

We didn’t have flower beds around our house yet, but I’d intended to plant a rainbow-colored band of flowers around our country gardens.

Somehow time got away from me, and with my focus on growing fruits and vegetables, I just never planted the flowers.

Starting a country garden

With just some basic supplies, like a great pair of pruning shears, you will be well on your way to a beautiful landscape and Country Gardens.

That winter, as I prepared my seed orders for spring, colorful flowers were at the top of my list.

Not only do I love their outdoor display, but to me, one thing that says “country kitchen” is a large pitcher stuffed with multi-colored fresh flowers.

Another plus is that colorful flowers attract industrious bees, beautiful butterflies and interesting birds to the garden.

In addition to keeping a garden, many find beekeeping to be a fascinating hobby.

A country garden also lends itself to multiple income streams.

Country Gardens aren’t just for vegetables

Beginner’s Guide to Greenhouses Reviews How to Get Started

Acquiring seeds

You can buy flower seeds locally in the spring, or you can order them from seed companies throughout the year.

There are catalogs full of beautiful photos and descriptions.

It’s easy to build a list of favorites, especially noting the ones native to your geographic region and climate.

You can even find seed mixes for flowers that attract butterflies and hummingbirds.

Be sure to check your local library. More and more of them are letting you “check out” seeds for flowers, produce and plants native to your area.

Growing flowers to cut

Flowers that last well in indoor bouquets are often described with the words “cut flowers” or “cutting garden.”

In some catalogs, they’re designated with an image of a pair of scissors or a vase.

Some seed companies sell “cut flower garden” packets containing seeds for a variety of flowers.

Another way to discover long-lasting cut flower varieties is to visit a local flower shop or the website of an online florist.

There you can peruse bouquets and arrangements designed by professionals who know which blossoms have staying power.

For accurate information on gardening, I like to consult online educational articles from universities and extension offices. offers many tips for raising cut flowers.

One tip is pick your flowers often which causes them to produce more.

They also advise on smaller spaces. You can start a successful cutting garden with up to 20 plants in just a 3 foot by 6 foot raised bed.

One publication I found, Maintaining a Succession of Cut Flowers, lists many varieties ideal for cutting.

This year, I made a pledge to plant a colorful cutting garden each year — eye candy that will do my heart good!

garden flowers
garden flowers

Getting Ready to Grow Some Groceries

We are getting antsy to get our country gardens going. Though there’s still some snow in the forecast and spring won’t arrive for a few more weeks.

We’ve been pacing out the garden area and getting ready to start some seeds indoors.

Last year was our first for our country gardens at our new place.

Due to other urgent projects, we got a late start, but fortunately spring arrived late, too.

Since it was our “test drive” in a new climate zone, we started slowly with several different veggies and herbs grown in small scale.

We experimented with rows, hills, and raised beds and tweaked our drip irrigation system.

Afterwards, we realized that dill and mustard are too tall to grow in our waist-high raised beds.

Also, we couldn’t even dig up all our garlic—some was so firmly embedded in rocky soil.

 our garden
This is not our garden–just a photo I love!

We took note of what really grew well, what didn’t quite flourish, what worked and what didn’t.

Between our experience and conversations with neighbors, we learned what to generally expect during a shorter but warmer growing season than we’re accustomed to.

Maximize The Space In Your Garden

Expand and Grow More Varieties

This year, we’re ready to expand a bit more, grow a few more varieties, and plant more of everything.

We’re still eating some frozen veggies and using dried herbs from last year but ran out of other things months ago.

This time, we want to grow enough for the full year.

We like starting our plants from seed.

Last year we were limited to four south-facing windowsills.

This year we attached lights to the underside of some closet shelves.

We’ll be able to get quite a few seeds going.

It’s not too late to start!

We’re planting the first seeds this week.

Cuke starts windowsills
Cuke starts windowsills

How about you? Will you be growing some food in your country gardens this year?

We’d love to hear about your plans in the Comments.

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Gardening in the Snow

Yes, I have been gardening in the snow. I’m not talking about checking the garlic plants under their deep white bed.

And unfortunately, we didn’t get around to fixing up a cold frame and no longer have fall stragglers surviving in our raised garden bed.

Chickens and Roosters in the snow
Chickens and Roosters in the snow

The other day I was out in the snow sowing seeds!

Last summer and fall, I collected seeds from several types of wildflowers growing on our property.

I wanted to plant them in a few areas around our living area where our clearing and leveling had eradicated whatever was growing there before.

Only the lupines seemed to survive the turmoil of the soil.

I’d planned to plant the wildflower seeds in the fall, but our chickens were having such fun wandering around in the fall sunshine that I didn’t want to pen them up yet.

And I knew they’d eat any flower seeds they could find.

It’s kind of a good thing I didn’t sow seeds in the fall, because we had an unusually dry period between November and January.

Gardening with Heavy Snowfalls

Heavy snowfalls just didn’t come.

Seeds would have been sitting on the ground in plain sight.

I can pen up my chickens, but the wild birds are another story.

They would have scarfed up any seeds they found.

It seems like spring planting time is just around the corner.

But some of my seeds need to have a cold winter nap.

They actually benefit from several weeks of chilling.

This part of the dormancy phase, called stratification, can be artificially provided in a refrigerator or a cold building.

Gardening with snowfall
Gardening with snowfall

But when possible, I prefer to let nature do its job.

Where we live, it’s common to scatter hardy seeds before the first big snowstorm of the fall.

In a normal year, the seeds literally chill out under a layer of snow much of the winter.

As the snow melts, it carries the seeds down into the soil, moistening and softening the seed coats.

The seeds settle there and wait for spring thaws to wake them up.

As it turned out, this was not a normal winter.

But finally now in mid-January we are getting another wave of measurable snowfall.

So in between storms, I went out and raked snow away, scattered the seeds, and raked some snow back over them.

Sure enough, the next snowfall settled that layer down and nicely tucked the seeds in for a chilly snooze.

I can’t even tell there are seeds under there, can you?

I don’t think the chickens will, either!

Hopefully I’ll see green sprouts in the spring and a variety of wildflowers all summer.

If not, there’s always next year!

Celebrating Real Food!

You know, eating real food that’s real good for you.

According to the Food Day website

“Food Day’s goal is nothing less than to transform the American diet—to inspire a broad movement involving people from every corner of our land who want healthy, affordable food produced in a sustainable, humane way.

In other words, we want America to eat real.

We want to get Americans cooking real food for their families again.

We want fewer people at drive-through and bigger crowds at farmers markets.

Let’s celebrate fresh fruits, vegetables, and healthy whole grains—and to support the local farms and farmers that produce them.

Wouldn’t it be great for all Americans—regardless of their age or income or geographic location—to be able to select healthy diets and avoid obesity, heart disease, and other diet-related conditions?!”

In a similar vein, Slow Food USA recently launched a $5 challenge: create a SLOW FOOD meal for $5 or less, the cost of a FAST FOOD meal.


“The organization, a national non-profit working for good, clean and fair food for all, is encouraging people across the country to cook slow food that costs no more than five dollars per person.

Slow food – the opposite of fast food – is food that is good for those who eat it, good for farmers and workers, and good for the planet.

“Slow food shouldn’t have to cost more than fast food.

It’s time we take back the ‘Value Meal,’” said Josh Viertel, president of Slow Food USA.

Slow Food’s challenge and Food Day got me thinking of a further challenge: Create a slow food meal of local foods for $5 or less.

And then, an extended challenge: if we’ve raised our own meat and produce, how about creating a slow food meal of homegrown foods for $5 or less?

I’m up for the challenge! How about you?

Start by thinking about what you may have grown yourself and what’s available locally from neighbors, farmers’ markets, or savvy supermarkets that stock local products.

Be creative—how can you combine some of those products into a tasty and satisfying meal?

Granted, this might have been easier during the summer when many backyard gardens were producing fresh salad ingredients and farmers’ markets were at their prime.

But still there are stored or processed foods and fall-growing crops to help.

Here are some examples:

A soup or stew can be created with several different veggies.

Add a local source of protein—eggs, cheese, legumes, meat, poultry, or game—and you’ve got a complete meal.

Ditto with a main dish salad, especially if you’ve still got greens and other veggies growing.

If you are a fan of bread or rolls with every meal, one of the challenges might be finding local flour or grain to grind.

If you can’t think of a substitute and must have your bread, at least you can make most of your meal with local ingredients.

As I’m writing this, I’m planning a Food Day $5 homegrown slow food meal. My experimental patch of soup beans was not a stellar success, but I did manage to get enough beans for one pot of soup.

We had a good crop of potatoes and several other veggies and herbs.

To complement the beans’ protein I can also choose from eggs and meat from our own chickens.

Our New Strawberry Beds, Planted
Our New Strawberry Beds, Planted in August.

This is the first year I could ever say this, but from garlic and onions to chicken and beans, we can create a tasty hot meal using only ingredients from our backyard.

If I hadn’t raised enough myself, I could buy other locally grown products in my community.

If the local grocery stores all shut down, we’d still be able to eat some good meals.

That’s a good feeling!

Extended-season gardening information

  • Thinking about starting your plants early in the spring?
  • Want to make harvest last longer in the fall?
  • Wish you could pick fresh greens in the middle of winter?

Extended season gardening for Growing Fresh Vegetable in Fall and Winter

Many of these concepts and materials will also work in spring.

Gardening Books

The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener by Niki Jabbour

Four Season Harvest

The Winter Harvest Handbook

Gardening Articles

Sow Seeds for Fall Garden from National Garden Bureau at GRIT Magazine

Cold Frame Gardening at Kitchen Gardener Magazine

Top Tips for Great Fall Gardens by Vicki Mattern at Mother Earth News

Expert Advice for Greenhouse Growing by Harvey Ussery at Mother Earth News

Grow Your Own: Winter Lettuce and Microgreens

Natural Lawn Care Tips and Hacks

11 Herbs for Indoor Container Growing

Fall crop schedule and other tips

DIY Structures for your Country Gardens – plans, instructions

Extend Your Growing Season by Barbara Pleasant at Mother Earth News

Use Low Tunnels to Grow Veggies in Winter: Quick Hoops by Eliot Coleman at Mother Earth News

Make an Easy, Inexpensive Mini-Greenhouse With Low Tunnels by Barbara Pleasant at Mother Earth News

Very clever, very simple cold frame from 5R Farm

Make a Cold Frame for Herbs (great cold frame info for veggies too) by Barbara Pleasant at The Herb Companion

Cold Frame Plans (wood) by Betsy Matheson Symanietz at Mother Earth News

A Cold Frame to Build (straw bales) by Paul Gardener at GRIT

Cold Frame Gardening at KitchenGardenerMagazine

Planning and Building a Greenhouse from Maryland and West Virginia Cooperative Extensions

The Benefits of Building a High Tunnel by George Devault at GRIT

Remember, country gardens are just that — filled with sprawling, brilliant flowers, fruits and vegetables. You can enjoy them all year long.

Restoring an Old Abandoned Rural Backyard

Rural Backyard

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This is about restoring an old abandoned rural backyard. Several months ago, we had to relocate due to a job.

In this economy, you often don’t have a choice.

The job we relocated for was a blessing but it took us several months to find the right home.

The one we found is incredible.

It’s out at the end of a rural backyard road, and it has about twenty fruit trees, a grape arbor, blackberries, tons of foraging, and acres of woods.

Rural Backyard
Rural Backyard

When you have a relatively new property, there is lots of potential.

You can plant things where you want to, clear out what you want to, leave the woods alone where you want to, find the perfect spot for this or that, and so on.

Oftentimes, when people decide they want the rural lifestyle, they end up with a place they can do whatever they want with.

However, sometimes it doesn’t happen that way.

When you move to a home that already HAS all those things, it can pose an issue.

Especially if the people who initially developed the property had no interest in vegetable gardening.

We are renting.

We had no desire to commit to buying a home since the ultimate goal is to be able to live on the property we already have.

All in all, though, this can create opportunities. Make lemonade from lemons, right?

Know that wherever you live, there may be some obstacles that you will have to think creatively to work around.

The nice thing is it will give you a lot of great experience, regardless if you plan on staying there forever or if it is just temporary.

My obstacles are just a few:

  • No good place for a vegetable garden because the tree canopy is too tall.
  • Not much direct sun gets into the yard.
  • There hasn’t been much maintenance done in the last few years.

This means I have an orchard with twenty fruit trees that really need pruning.

There’s a grape arbor that is so overgrown, it is trying to take over the neighboring trees.

And there’s a lost patch of blackberries that was abandoned years ago that needs to be restored.

This also means a significant amount of my vegetable growing will be in containers this year, placed carefully in spots here and there that get enough sun.

But you know what? It’s exciting to have the opportunity to do this.

There will be lots of very valuable experience in rural living and lifestyle to be gained from this, even though it may take several years.

I hope you’ll follow along with me on this journey, and I will post photos of my progress along the way.

In the meantime, here are some “before” pictures to show you what I mean.

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Old Overgrown Grape Arbor

Restoring an Old Abandoned Rural Backyard

Here is the beautiful old grape arbor.

There are a few remnants of the tiny, sour grapes it produced this fall.

I am hoping with some heavy-handed pruning, it will produce some good fruit.

You can see it is trying really hard to take over the trees next to it!
Overgrown Grape Arbor Taking Over Trees

There are two, 20-foot rows of domesticated blackberries that are completely lost.

They need to get new posts and wire re-strung.

The good news for rural living is, we’ll probably end up with lots of blackberry starts to give away and to replant.

How to define a project area with fencing

Depending on the size of your property and what you want to do with it, you may be considering fencing. 

Fences in the country aren’t necessarily to keep people away and to provide privacy like in the city and suburbs.

Rural fencing usually has a functional purpose. In fact, any improvement made to a rural property usually has a clear functional basis.

After you make a master plan for your lot, you can decide if fencing will be among your goals. 

Before you buy fencing or do anything, you must define a project area first.

What is your reason for fencing

Our former property was an old homestead that had no structures or real improvements on the property.

Over a hundred years ago, the European immigrants homesteaded here. We had purchased it from the descendants.

It is from this home that we moved onto our current rental property.

We mention it because at that property we were able to improve the backyard with fencing. 

It was nearly four acres.

While we didn’t have money or even the need to fence in all of the acreage, we planned for our garden, small livestock, and a greenhouse as well as our utility buildings and our home.

We decided to fence that area.

It made the most sense to define the space that would serve as our core area. 

Originally, our reason for fencing it was to create boundaries for our livestock guardian dogs and prevent them from expanding their territory too far.

We were able to see where former owners cleared a large pasture.

Some fence corners were still standing with barbed wire.

They established an orchard many decades ago.

Barely visible under brush and brambles, a crumbled house foundation indicated where a home once stood.

But other than that, it was pretty much a blank slate.

The property was a large piece and planning what to do with it was a bit overwhelming.

Where could we start making this ours?

Building a fence to define the space made a huge impact.

Fences serve many purposes

The fence served another purpose just as important and valuable.

It helped us to stay focused on what was important and what wasn’t.

No longer were we looking at the whole piece of property and wondering “where do we start?”

We had an area defined by fencing.

For a large piece of rural property, it made working on the homestead much more manageable.

We were able to better prioritize our goals.

While we still had smaller projects going on other parts of our property, most of our time and energy was spent on the area within the fences.

fencing old branch fence
fencing old branch fence

Being able to properly prioritize is a huge benefit to one’s sanity!

I wonder if our forefathers knew that secret when they fenced small areas many years ago. 

While this isn’t specifically a “how to” post for fencing, it is one to encourage you to plan and build one for yourself if you don’t already have one.

fencing barbed wire
fencing barbed wire

Different types of fencing – Determine what the fence will do

Typically, fences “multi-task” by keeping some things in and some things out.

What do you want to keep in or out?

This will help you determine the kind of fence you do and don’t want to build.

For us, a primary reason for our perimeter fence was to keep our livestock guardian dogs enclosed so they will patrol and watch over the important core homestead area without wandering away.

We also wanted a physical barrier to keep predators and deer out.

We were planning on building fences to enclose hogs, chickens, cattle, and possibly horses.

But during the planning stages is when we were considering the move.

Determine the type of fence you will build

This depends primarily on function.

What you want it to do?

Because skimping here can be financially and practically disastrous.

Other considerations for the fencing type are aesthetic:

  • What it looks like
  • How long do you want it to last

But certainly the cost of the fence is also a major factor.

I would never recommend downgrading the type or quality of the fence you build due to cost.

Instead, reduce the amount you fence at a time by doing the work in affordable phases.

Types of fencing

Barbed wire

This is used mostly to fence larger animals into a large area, as the cost per foot of the overall fence is very reasonable.

Barbed wire should not be used for horses; they tend to lean into fences and can injure themselves.

Cattle, on the other hand, are not as likely to push into fences.

See closeup photo of barbed wire above.

define a project area with fencing
define a project area with fencing

Wire mesh field fencing

This is a very popular kind of fencing that comes in various strength, mesh sizes, and height options.

For our perimeter fence, we used a 48″ high heavier duty/smaller gauge fence that had smaller openings at the bottom than at the top.

We used wooden corner posts to anchor the fence, with metal T posts at 8′ centers or so.

I like this fence a lot. It is very functional and it’s attractive in our rural setting.

It will last a long, long time as well.

Cost-wise it is a bit more expensive than most options, but we saw it as a very long term investment in our homestead.

High tensile wire fence

I experimented with this type of fence to see if I was going to use it for my larger fields. 

It is a very good concept, flexible and fairly economical.

It has the potential to be my fence of the future.

High tensile fencing is constructed by setting strong corner post assemblies in the ground and attaching strands of high tensile steel wire between them.

Line posts are spaced 25-50′ apart, substantially farther than posts for wire mesh fencing.

This type of fence can have any number of wire strands, including just a single strand that contains cattle very effectively.

I have seen different farms using various numbers of strands depending on the purpose of the fence.

A property perimeter might have 5 or 6 strands, while a cattle paddock may have 2 or 3.

This makes the fencing system very flexible for many uses.

Create tension using springs.

I have seen in video where something like a tree falls on the fence.

The wire strands do not stretch.

After the tree is removed, the spring tension returns the fencing to its original shape.

One final great benefit of this fence is that some or all of the strands can easily be electrified.

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For a photo of high tensile fencing, click here.

define a project area with fencing
photo courtesy of

Electric netting

This looks to be a great option for a very flexible and portable fence.

I’ve seen photographs of these fences containing all sorts of small livestock.

The fencing comes in 100′ or 150 ‘ rolls.

You will be able to roll and move the fence.

The netting is designed to be electrified.

People use this for hogs and chickens as well as other animals.

Mark the fence lines

Once you’ve decided what type of fencing to build, use some large stakes to mark out your fence lines.

Plan for a wooden post at each  corner and at any point where there is a change in direction.

If you have a “valley” or a hill” in the fence line, be sure to put a wooden post at either the bottom or the top of each slope.

Measure for fencing and calculate the number of wood and metal posts you’ll need.

Then go shopping.

Be sure to choose treated and solid wooden posts.

I select mine by hand.

Take the time to properly define a project area with fencing so you can do it right the first time.

Working on your rural backyard and property can be overwhelming.

However, starting small with a plan can make it much more doable.

Start with the existing areas.

What’s already established?

What do you want to keep and improve or expand on?

Consider fencing an area of your rural backyard to create defined space and to protect from predators.

Restoring a Rural Backyard

Any improvements you make to your rural backyard will further add to your homesteading experience.

Have projects ready depending on the time you have.

Save the smaller, easier jobs for when you have an hour or less.

Have other projects in mind for when you have several uninterrupted hours in an afternoon or an entire day free.

As you make your plan, consider trees, sunlight, and drainage.

You will also need to pay attention to how level the property area is so that you can do what you want to do in the correct areas.

Other factors to consider are neighbors.

Depending on if you plan to grow vegetables, have animals, or want open space, it’s essential to start with a master plan.

After you make a plan for your lot — even if it’s a five or 10 year plan because of costs — start with one area and build from there.