Edmonton

Moos you can use: northern Alberta families milking miniature Jersey cows

A breed of compact cattle is allowing some northern Alberta families to mimic a bygone way of life — and skip buying milk at the grocery store.

Small bovines being used for milk, manure and lawn maintenance

A woman hand milks a jersey cow tied to a fence
Tazara McClanaghan breeds miniature Jersey cows in Spirit River, Alta. (Luke Ettinger/CBC)

A breed of compact cattle is allowing some northern Alberta families to mimic a bygone way of life — and skip buying milk at the grocery store.

Tazara McClanaghan has raised miniature Jersey cows in northern Alberta for five years. She purchased her first cow from Oregon but now breeds the livestock in Spirit River, Alta., about 500 kilometres northwest of Edmonton. 

"You know, when you put out your own cheese or butter on the table, it's quite satisfying to know that you produced that," said McClanaghan, who is also president of the Canadian Miniature Jersey Association.

The downsized bovine is typically a mix between a standard Jersey and a smaller cow like a Dexter. 

The venture in miniature Jerseys is how McClanaghan channels her grandparents, who lived the self-sufficient lifestyle of prairie homesteaders.

"They had one Jersey and it was my grandma's favourite," she said.

Milk to spare

McClanaghan said the miniature breed produces about half the milk of a typical Jersey. Still, with between eight to 16 litres coming from a single cow a day, she admits there is some excess even for her family of five. 

"The easiest thing to do with the excess overflow of milk is [feed] pigs," McClanaghan said.

"And nothing tastes as good as a milk-raised pig, for sure."

Jason Schulte, a power engineer by trade, purchased a miniature Jersey in 2020. To reduce waste, he keeps his cow and calf together during the day so the baby can drink.

At night he separates the pair so there is almost a gallon — about three litres — ready for him in the morning. 

"Most people don't drink a gallon of milk every single day so that leaves some leftover for me to make butter, ice cream and simple cheeses," Schulte said. 

Two brown cows in a field
A miniature Jersey cow and her calf in Grovedale, Alta., about 450 kilometres northwest of Edmonton. (Luke Ettinger/CBC)

Worth the time

While there is the option to hand milk, Schulte uses a machine to make the process easier. 

"Now I can do it in about 40 minutes ... [including] sanitizing the milk machine to get it ready for the next milking," Schulte said. 

Schulte said milking and caring for his cows is worth the time beyond being able to skip the dairy aisle. He moves the cattle fencing around his Grovedale, Alta. lawn to eliminate any need for mowing. 

Cow manure has also made a difference in Schulte's garden, which had very heavy clay soil. 

"It's very difficult to grow anything in this [soil]. After putting manure in the garden for a couple of years, I got this nice, very dark soil." 

This year Schulte was able to harvest potatoes, cucumbers and zucchini without having to buy fertilizer. 

"That costs money. Manure is free," Schulte said. 

a man stands in front of a cow in a field with a machine milker.
Jason Schulte milks his miniature Jersey cow every morning using a machine. (Luke Ettinger/CBC)

Although the cows and equipment have been a $10,000 investment, Schulte hopes there will be long-term savings. His goal is to retire in comfort by homesteading like his grandparents, who lived on a tight budget.

"You would have never known that they were poor by looking at them. They gardened and produced everything: jam and juice and berries," Schulte said. 

While the cows may be smaller, McClanaghan feels like her grandmother would be proud of her herd of Jerseys. 

"I think she'd just be grinning away, from ear to ear."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Luke Ettinger is a video journalist working for CBC Edmonton in Grande Prairie. Reach him at luke.ettinger@cbc.ca.

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