The family cow is the heart of the home. No other animal so pointedly represents all the beautiful qualities of motherhood, nor does any one animal provide so many potential benefits for the homestead. (Goats serve a similar role, but are unable to provide the sheer quantity of a cow, and thus are relegated to a close second place.)
A single cow can provide;
- Dairy products
- Beef products
- Draft power
- Organic fertilizers
- Methane power
- Land clearing
All this, of course, doesn't happen overnight, nor does it all actually come from the same specific animal. You aren't going to get much milk if you eat your cow. The way it works, however, is that the first family cow that you obtain becomes the mother of the homestead.
Once a cow calves, she starts paying her way, and everyone else's way as well. Dairy and beef are the obvious benefits, but the potential inherent in the calf is the greatest thing ever, in my opinion. This is where you can have beef and leather products after slaughter, or train the bull calves as oxen and the heifers to continue being family milkers. Either way, this isn't a short season prospect, so you have time to make other benefits from having the cattle on hand.
The initial secondary benefit of cattle is their manure. If you garden, you know what I'm talking about. Cattle are goldmines of rich fertilizer for the garden. Even one cow can overwhelm the family garden with compost, however, and many savvy cow owners have turned to capturing the energy that is wasted when bacteria break down those manures. Methane digesters are a phenomenal way to help all your animals pay their way. Since many small farms have to haul manure anyway, putting it into a methane digester to power electrical generators or heat a home is a cost savings, and environmental piggy-backing technique that can be a great success. What's more, the effluent is still a fantastic fertilizer for lawns and gardens. Efficiency on a farm is boosted many fold in this type of setup, leaving the homesteader with more time to enjoy the fruits of their well planned and executed labors.
When looking at breeds, look farther than the Holstiens and Jerseys found on most homesteads. Anecdotes abound with Milking Shorthorns, Herefords, even Angus and Highlands that serve well on the farms that house them. Also, don't forget about mixed breeds. Often, these cattle will have brilliant qualities of the parentage, and a "hybrid vigor" that makes them much more feed efficient and hardy.
As with any endeavor, the best way to begin is to hit the books and digest all possible outlets of information out there, which have been known to be contradictory, and then decide what approaches seem best to you. Trial and error is bound to occur, but with a little homework and some good base knowledge, a cow is something the whole family can grow with.