We were blessed this past Thursday with our first miniature Jersey calf from our sweet little mama cow, Elsie. Our currently no-named bull-baby was born on my parents anniversary, and both cow and calf are doin’ just fine. I found him when he was still a wet little lump, trying to stumble around but not quite getting his sea legs yet.
Now, I’ll be totally honest with you. I’ve had goats for a long time, and pain in the butt though they may be, I still love ’em. That said. . . there’s just something about cows. They are such beautiful, majestic creatures and the newborns are so soft and sweet. I am smitten. I want a thousand more. (Okay, maybe not really that many.) And on top of that, I had no idea just how lucky I was getting when I decided to buy Miss Elsie Moo-Cow.
I bought Elsie sight-unseen on good faith and a couple of photographs. I stumbled onto Elsie through what amounts to happenstance — I just happened to see her posted on a facebook sales page and it was a right place, right time kind of a thing. I’d previously tried to buy a different Mini-Jersey heifer calf, but another buyer beat me to the punch. What seemed like a disappointment and a roadblock at the time turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because surely Elsie was always meant to be my cow. I knew nothing of her temperament, yet I swear she is the sweetest cow on the planet.
Miraculously, milking Elsie for the first time went so smoothly I would swear she’d already been trained to milk if her previous owner hadn’t told me himself that they never milked her with her first calf. I know from experience with my goats and from stories of other milkmaids that a dairy animal’s first time being milk usually does not go smoothly. My mom’s Holstein she had back in the day had to have her legs tied to posts in order to be milked — she was so hard to handle that my mom talked my dad into milking for her. Yet Elsie stood mostly still, didn’t kick, and didn’t spill the milk. Mr. Pig was especially happy about that last part, since he’s getting the milk for right now while there’s still colostrum in it.
Elsie’s good temperament did not, however, prevent me from falling backward off my stool and landing in a cow pie. Yeah, that happened.
Despite everything going so well, and despite my previous experience milking goats (which is similar, though not exactly the same), milking Elsie for the first time had me thinking about what a learning curve it is to learn to milk for the first time. Even going from milking goats to milking a cow is a different, unique experience. First of all, cows have four teats, whereas I only have two hands. (You know you’re used to goats when you see the undercarriage of your new bull calf and think, “oh no, he has extra teats!” before remembering he’s supposed to have that many.) The positioning to milk the back teats is totally different, and harder to reach, than the two teats on a goat. I also usually milked my goats from behind — that is definitely not an option with a cow unless you want a big ole cow pie on your head. And let’s not forget the simple fact that cows are bigger — bigger udders, bigger teats, and more milk. That means using different muscles and body positions to milk them, and it takes longer, too.
I get that when you’re ready to have a cow (or any dairy animal — this really applies to them all) on your homestead, you’re ready for milk sooner rather than later. Like, you want milk yesterday and you’re tired of waiting. I so completely get it. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve gotten ahead of myself due to impatience, I’d be so rich I really could buy a 1,000 cows and the land and hired hands to manage ’em, too. But truly, the last thing you want to do when bringing home your first dairy cow is to buy one that is already in milk and has no calf on her. It may seem ideal upfront. Maybe you want milk but don’t need two cows. Maybe you don’t want to be responsible for birthing, raising, and selling or butchering a calf just yet. Maybe you just want that liquid gold moo-juice.
None of that is a good enough reason.
At the end of the day, you get to choose what you do on your homestead, and I’m 100% down with that. It’s your homestead, not mine. And I’m definitely not claiming to be the end-all, be-all definitive source of homestead wisdom, either. But before you go out and throw your money at the first cow in milk you find, just hear me out. There are some really valid reasons to choose to purchase a dry, bred cow or a cow-calf pair instead. I know I’m certainly glad that I did.
Three Reasons to Never Buy a Cow in Milk with No Calf (As a First-Time Milker)
The learning curve for a first-time milker is steep. It’s not so much that milking is complicated to figure out. The basic steps are simple enough: Put the cow in the stanchion with feed to occupy her. Wash the udder well. Milk out a few squirts from each teat onto the ground or a strip cup. Milk the rest into your bucket. Dip the teats and release the cow. Voila. Easy-peasy, right? Well, yes and no.
The actual physical action of emptying milk from the udder is not hard or complicated, either. You squeeze with your forefinger and thumb at the top of the teat to trap milk inside it, then gradually close your other fingers on the teat to push the milk out of the orifice (you don’t tug or yank on the teats). But doing that over and over until the udder is empty is not so easy. It creates muscle fatigue and believe me when I tell you that your hands will burn and cramp and ache. Your forearms, and even up into your biceps, will feel like you’re lifting weights. You will most likely have to take breaks every so often to flex out your tired muscles. Just like any exercise, it takes some time for your muscles to build up strength and “muscle memory” to make the action quick, efficient, and not painful. Eventually you will reach that point, but it won’t be in the first week or two.
The cow’s anatomy and temperament can also be a hurdle. I was doubly blessed with Elsie, because she has nice sized teats that are well positioned and her behavior when milking is more than I could have possibly asked for a cow who hadn’t been previously trained. That said, I’ve trained some goats who were hell on wheels, and I’ve struggled with small teats or small orifices that make milking physically harder. Some animals, cow or goat, are going to have udders that aren’t ideal, and some will have attitudes that are not ideal.
All of these things add up to a very strong probability that you are not going to actually be emptying the cow’s udder while you’re learning to milk. Each time milk is left behind, it signals to the cow to make less milk next time. The benefit of having a calf to milk-share with means that whatever milk you aren’t able to get out, the calf will happily suck up for you. This keeps the cow’s production from dropping by keeping the supply-and-demand ratios up higher than if you were milking on your own.
In addition to keeping production up on your cow, having a relief milker is a game changer if you, like me, enjoy traveling a few times a year and/or work a “day job” that makes milking twice a day more of a struggle.
When you are the only one milking your cow, you have to milk her twice daily until she starts to drop production. An un-milked udder on a cow in full swing production will cause edema and discomfort at best and possibly dangerous mastitis or other complications. That means if you’re going solo on the milking, you are tied to your farm twice daily for several months. Traveling under those circumstances means finding someone willing (and able) to step in and milk for you while you’re out of town — and it’s not that easy to find someone who can do this for you. Animals also tend to become comfortable and familiar with “their person” and will often act out and be difficult for strangers to milk.
When you leave the calf on, this opens up the possibility to milk only once per day if you choose and to take time away from the homestead without endangering the health of your cow. To milk once a day, you simply separate the calf at night twelve hours before your milking time, milk the cow in the morning, and then allow the cow and calf to hang out all day until you separate them at night again. (You won’t start separating the calf until its about two weeks old, generally). If you need to skip a milking or go out of town, you simply allow the calf and cow to stay together all 24 hours with no separation.
I always prefer to milk only once a day and milk-share with the offspring, because it greatly frees up my schedule. I also typically work evenings for my “day job,” which is not very conducive to twice a day milking. It’s true that you get less milk when milk-sharing, but for our little family of three, it works just fine.
I do have to mention that there are exceptions to this rule. High-production cows may not be able to be milked only once a day, especially while the calf is younger and not drinking as much. If the calf cannot consume enough milk to have the cow’s udder mostly empty at night when separating, you will still need to milk twice a day to prevent the cow from experiencing discomfort or edema.
Drop in Production
Moving is stressful for animals; not only are they leaving their familiar environment, they’re also learning a totally new system. They have new living quarters, a new routine, new caretakers, new feed, and possibly new pasture-mates. This is all in addition to the stress of transport and the quarantine period in which they are kept isolated in a separate, smaller area to prevent the spread of germs and parasites to your existing livestock/land.
All of that stress will typically make the cow’s production drop. If you are combining stress with other factors such as being milked by someone inexperienced and/or other elements such as hot weather or stormy weather, it can make the dip in production even worse. In some cases the cow’s production might level off again once the new routine is established, but it’s not uncommon for that sudden drop in production to be permanent until the cow’s next freshening. That leads to disappointment and frustration when perhaps the previous owners told you that the cow was producing a certain amount for them, but suddenly when she’s at your farm she’s producing drastically less.
The best way to avoid that drop in production is to buy a bred (pregnant), dry (not producing milk) cow and to bring her to your farm at least one month before she’s due (but preferably earlier than that). That way the cow has time to acclimate to her new surroundings before ever going into milk, and if she’s on your land for at least a month and preferably longer before calving, her colostrum will contain antibodies specific to your farm’s environment, which means your calf will have better protection. Bringing home an in-milk cow with a calf on her will help keep her production up, but it will probably still drop some due to the stress of moving.
Now that Elsie’s in milk, I’m just impatiently waiting for all the colostrum to work out of her milk and her calf to get old enough to separate overnight. And then we’ll have milk, butter, cheese, kefir, yogurt. . . all of the wonderful things. Mmm.
Do you have a milk cow or dairy goat? What’s your favorite milk product?