Everyone will tell you something different on this subject.
Breed preference will vary greatly based on geography, personality of the farmer, farm goals,
individual animal temperament and so forth.
This is based on my experience in West Virginia on a hillside farm with a family of Five where raw milk sales and herd shares are illegal. Where erosion to the steep land is a concern and amazing hay isn't easy to come by. Where winters can be pretty nippy and electric doesn't work like it should (which matters if you have a high production cow that would take an hour to handmilk verses a machine)
I started my journey with a exceptionally nice, high production Full size Jersey named Stella.
Those who have followed our farm since 2009 will remember that doe-eyed beauty that now resides on Twin Maples Farm in Milton, WV. A farm with the space to offer her that she needed.
We realized her size and production, after owning her from calf to two year old, would never work for us.
Small cows make sense for the small homestead. Dexters and Mini Jerseys and crosses with these breeds work well for so many most any non-commercial farm without hundreds of lush acres to run cows on.
The ease of handling, hardy factor, the impact on the land and the smaller input / output all around works for many homesteaders in a way the traditional dairy cow often will not.
I'm going to talk about the cattle breeds I often recommend to folks in a similar situation as I have found myself in.
Dexters and Miniature Jerseys.
There are two "types" of both breeds. I've pictured 4 animals here.
Angeline is a more Beef bred Dexter.
Anya was a very dairy type Dexter.
Elsie was a high production Mid-Mini Jersey
and Ellie is a low production, grass only Mid-Mini Jersey
You will find VERY beef bred Dexters offer few dairy qualities, and you will find More Dairy Dexters that are dual purpose for milk and beef.
In Mid-Miniature Jerseys (I will not cover the very small Minis, as I've never owned one and they are beyond difficult to find), you will find grass based, lower production types and higher production types that will require a lot of grain (This is true in full size, too).
*The first thing you have to consider is space. How much room do you have? Is this flat, rolling or steep land?
Erosion is a concern where I am with steeper hills, so small cows are a must for me. Do you have to buy hay all year, part of the year or are you able to feed grass from your land and roll your own hay? How much do you want to spend feeding your cow?
A Dexter will fair well on an acre with some hay supplemented, A Mid-Mini Jersey on 2 Acres with some supplement and a full size can require even more space (ours could eat down 3 acres of decent grass when we had her pretty quick) if you're hoping your pasture will mostly sustain the cow verses dry lot conditions.
If you have very little land, rough pasture or steep land, the Dexter is the way to go.
If you have a lot of space with some decent pasture and some rough areas, Mid-Mini Jerseys should work well.
If you have a lot of nice pasture, take your pick. The world is your's if you want lots of milk or big cows, this article will not even be helpful.
*The next things to decide are how much milk do you need and how much grain to you want to offer.
Find out if you Can you sell the milk or shares. Do you want to do that if you can?
Do you have a larger family of 5 plus and intend to make all of your dairy products at home?
If so, a Single Dairy type Dexter or even two, will not do. Neither will a grassfed Miniature Jersey, typically.
If you're looking for a gallon plus a day, either the Dairy type Dexter or the Mid Minis can work for you. If 3 gallons or more are what you're hoping for, you need to consider a higher production mid-mini or a full size Jersey.
But if grass based is also important to you, then pause and consider which means more? Production or grassbased?
Some cows will not thrive without grain. Many require quite a bit. This is not something you generally can change. If you want grass based genetics, buy the right cow. You need to be sure you know what you're buying. See how the dam of the cow fairs and the dam of the sire, if you can.
Full size Jerseys are going to out-milk Miniatures or Dexters.
Cows on grain will out milk cows on grass only.
Mid-Minis will out milk Dexters.
The broader, more beef type of the breeds are usually going to
milk less than the refined, dairy varieties.
These are general rules of thumb. There are EXCEPTIONS.
Dexters are quite a bit smaller than Mid-Miniature Jerseys. The thing I've ran into with Dexters is that finding a cow that can be handled by a newer cattle person isn't easy, and the dairy characteristics are being lost as most people are using them for beef instead of as dual purpose cows. While any cattle breed can produce beef steers, the Dexters will be the better choice compared to a Jersey if meat is at least half of your reason for having a family cow. They are very hardy and should subsist on less than a Jersey. They are typically grass only cows or need very little grain. If you cannot milk, the calf can easily nurse and take care of the amount of milk the cow gives. The milk is more similar to goat's milk and less apt to be able to be make into butter. You can expect 1/2 a gallon to possibly 2 gallons from these cows. You can expect little wear on the land if you do not overcrowd, and they generally eat things on the land most cattle breeds will not.
Mid Mini Jerseys:
Mid Mini Jerseys are larger than Dexters, most of the time, and while difficult to find and most expensive, those offered for sale have usually been someone's milk cow and are relatively easy to handled and milk. Many will need milked at least once a day as the calf cannot consume all of the milk produced. You need to be committed to milking rain or shine with many of these cows.
The milk is rich, and butter is a heavenly thing you will make a lot of! You can expect 2-4 gallons from these cows. Many will need at least some grain, and some will need a lot of grain to maintain condition and milk well. Some will thrive on grass only, but 1.5-3 gallons will be the average production you will see. The grainfed cows will give 3-6 gallons.
Be thou diligent to know the state of thy flocks, and look well to thy herds. For riches are not for ever: and doth the crown endure to every generation? The hay appeareth, and the tender grass sheweth itself, and herbs of the mountains are gathered. The lambs are for thy clothing, and the goats are the price of the field. And thou shalt have goats' milk enough for thy food, for the food of thy household, and for the maintenance for thy maidens
- Proverbs 27:23-27