When we got our first family cow, I admit I was a bit nervous about how we were going to manage the ebb and flow of milk. Growing up on a commercial dairy farm you never had to worry about using or selling a certain amount of milk by a certain date because the milk truck took all the milk away every-other day. As farmers we just filled our jars from the milk tank and the rest went on its merry way. (Except for when the milk truck has already come and you have to wait for the evening milking to load up your jar again. Happened to me all. the. time.)
Family cows are great, but what if you can't use up all that milk? There is no milk truck coming to your house, that is for sure! What do you do when your cow goes dry? How do you manage when the cow is giving just enough milk, or not quite enough, to meet your needs?
In general, the milk supply of a lactating cow on a graph would look like a steep curve up and then a long, steady curve down until it is time to dry her off. After calving a cow's production will steadily increase as the swelling in her udder decreases and her body kicks into production-mode. Her highest production occurs up until 3 to 4 months after calving. Slowly her production will start to decline over the next 6-9 months, but it is so gradual that it will suddenly dawn on you at milking one morning that you aren't getting as much milk as you used to! There are a lot of additional nuances that dictate how much milk a cow is producing such as whether or not the cow is grazing on fresh grass or just eating hay and other aspects of diet, but we are just going to stick to the nice picture of a curving graph to make things simple.
When you first have that beautiful fresh, raw milk to work with, what do you do? Well, the options are somewhat endless. There are countless products that can be made from raw milk and if you read too many homesteader blog posts I'm sure it can get overwhelming. Personally, I don't have tons of time to figure out how to make hard cheese or fuss around with various cultures, as much fun as that genuinely sounds. My approach is to keep things simple, because the more doable I make processing milk, the more likely I will actually use the milk and not be dumping it out once it has expired (when about 7-9 days old).
Obviously I keep a gallon or so of liquid raw milk on hand at all times for us to enjoy and additional milk for soapmaking, but other products I make that uses up milk in a hurry are: yogurt, butter, kefir, soft cheese, and ice cream. Butter and ice cream particularly use up a lot of milk because these products are made using the cream skimmed off the top of raw milk. The remaining skim milk is wonderful garden fertilizer or can be fed to pigs.
Getting the proper recipes and tools for making your dairy products is key. I have an amazing compression ice cream maker and also a modern electric butter churn that can handle about 1 to 1.5 gallons of cream at a time. Most of the other tools you need to make products are common kitchen tools like pots and thermometers. Keifer grains are available online and making kefir is an easy daily process of straining out the grains and getting a new batch of kefir started. Yogurt is simply made using a culture from the previous batch of yogurt and uses up a 1/2 gallon to a gallon of milk at a time. Then from the yogurt you can easily make soft cheese just by using cheesecloth! These dairy products are simple to learn with little practice and not much trial and error.
Making ice cream.
When I am inundated with milk, my go-to method of using up extra milk is to make butter and stock the freezer with one-pound squares of the beautiful stuff. When the cow's production starts to wane, the first thing I stop making is butter because I know I have a freezer full enough to last us until the next lactation starts. The next thing I change is I start making yogurt with skim milk if I am still saving cream for ice cream. Slowly I stop making "extra" products until we only have enough milk to supply us with our own liquid milk.
Finally that dreaded day comes when your cow is ready to be dried off, thus cutting you off from all raw milk production until she calves again. During this time I recommend one of two things: 1) find a local farm who will supply you with raw milk while your cow is dry, or 2) get another cow that is currently milking because at this point you are 100% committed and can't live without your own raw milk. (Wink wink)
I hope this offers some insight into how the ebb and flow of milk production is managed on a small scale. Come to find out, it isn't nearly as scary as I once thought. In fact, it is quite the opposite. We are shamelessly addicted to homemade ice cream. I like knowing my ace-in-the-hole is making butter so we never have to waste any of the milk we (and the cows!) work hard to produce. Over the past two years I've probably bought two pounds of butter. Yogurt must be made before the weekend hits or else those homemade breakfasts won't be quite right. It is funny how raising your own food becomes a part of your daily life and something you appreciate to a whole new level.
So don't be afraid, you can totally handle all that milk.