Stories of life on our farm in Northwest Georgia where every day is an adventure in this beautiful spot that God has entrusted to our stewardship.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Share Milking, Part I: Basic Questions for Getting Started

Lately several people have asked how to handle various situations that come up while share milking.  Today Ebony treated me to a "situation" of her own devising, and it reminded me that I promised to do a troubleshooting post.  (You'll have to stay tuned to see what Ebony did.)  These situations are not unique to Dexters, by any means; however, all my experience is with hand milking Dexters.  These posts should be read with that in mind, as some of my advice would not be suitable for a high-producing dairy breed.  So, what are some of the questions, problems and situations that I've run into with share milking?

Q:  When do I start milking?

First, I always wait until the calf is born.  It can be tempting to see if that swelling udder has milk or colostrum or some other substance in there, but God designed cows' teats to be sealed after drying off to protect from bacteria that could enter through an open teat orifice and get up in the udder to cause mastitis.

To help with edema before calving, I brew strong raspberry tea (4 bags to a half cup of water) and pouring it over their feed twice a day.  If a cow has a lot of edema, I continue into the first week or more after calving.

So when DO I start milking?  It depends!  :)  It depends on several things:

  • What lactation my cow is in.  My first freshener (first lactation) did not need milking at all after the calf was born. 
  •  With my second lactation cows, I milked within twelves hours after the calf was born, depending on how full the udder was.  In general, the rule of thumb I follow is that if the calf is born in the morning, I milk the cow that evening  If the calf is born at night, I milk the cow the next morning.
  • How high of a producer my cow is.  Some lower producing cows will be fine without having to be milked, even in later lactations, but I have personally milked my second lactation girls.    

Last year when Ebby's second calf was born, her milk didn't fully come in until several days later, so she didn't need milking the first 24 hours.  This year her third calf was born at 3 in the afternoon, and she was already so engorged with milk before calving that I milked her that evening, after I was sure the calf had gotten a lot of colostrum.   I freeze any colostrum I milk out and label it Day 1, Day 2, etc. to keep in case of a future need.

Q:  How often do my cows need milking?

Remember, we're talking about Dexters and we're talking about share milking, keeping the calf on its dam instead of pulling it at birth.  Dexters are dual purpose cows so they are different from full-blooded dairy cows, meaning they usually produce less milk.  (For me, this is an advantage because I want the calf to be my relief milker.)

How often do my cows need milking?  The answer is, "It depends."
  • Once or twice a day, especially for the first few weeks.
  • A couple of times a week or every day, depending on how much milk I want. 
Hopefully the rest of this post will help clarify how I decide how often to milk.

I started milking Siobhan as a first freshener two months into her lactation, because that's when we got our stanchion built.  Her heifer Macree was able to handle all of Siobhan's milk production, and I never had to milk.  At first, I milked several times a week.  Later I began separating Siobhan and Macree for about 12 hours every night, milking every morning.  Remember, regularly taking more milk than the calf needs causes a cow to increase her production, so you then need to keep up with it.  Once I had Siobhan's production built up to supply both Macree and the house every day, I would not have suddenly gone off on a trip and assumed that Macree would keep Siobhan's udder empty.

The following year, I had two cows that were both in their second lactation.  Both had small calves, and neither calf could keep up with their dam's milk supply until they were about three weeks old.  I milked Ebby TAD (twice a day) for almost three weeks--18 days to be exact.  At that point we transitioned to milking OAD (once a day).  Within a few days, her calf was keeping up with her production and evenly nursing her out on a regular basis.  At that point I was able to quit milking--until it was time to milk Siobhan when her calf was born.   Things worked out much the same way for Siobhan.

Last year I knew in advance that I would be gone for a week or more on a monthly basis throughout the summer.  For that reason, I chose not to milk either cow once their calf could take all the milk they produced.  By not driving up their production, I could go on my trips without worrying about a human relief milker.  Of course someone still had to come feed and water the animals, but that's a lot easier to find than someone who can milk!

This year, both cows are in their third lactation.  Ebby's udder was huge before she calved, so I went to TAD milking immediately.  I milked her TAD for exactly three weeks, then switched to OAD.  After ten days of milking OAD, I thought her calf, Seb, was keeping her udder fairly evenly nursed, so I tried to stop milking.  After a day and a half, I felt that I needed to start milking OAD again.  So here, almost 5 weeks into her lactation, I still need to milk many mornings.  There is still often one extremely full quarter in the morning.  If I can encourage Seb to nurse that quarter, we skip milking.  When he won't, I milk that quarter completely out--to be sure things are flowing and milk is not stagnating in that quarter.

Siobhan is due to calve any day.  With six weeks between their due dates, I thought I had things arranged perfectly.  Ha!  Count on cows to remind us they are the ones in charge!  Ebony went eight days late, and Seb still hasn't learned to count to four.  So I may find myself milking "three" cows a day for a while.

The third lactation is generally when cows hit their peak production.  So, although Ebby had a large bull calf this year, I'm not too surprised that I still need to milk her.  I fully expect to have to milk Siobhan for a month or more.  Some milkers from KFC have said that it can take up to six weeks for a calf to "learn to count to four" so that it equally nurses all four quarters and manages to keep up with its dam's supply.

Q:  How do I decide if the cow needs to be milked or not?

The photo above is of Ebby's udder one morning recently, with her teats pre-dipped.   Ebby's four quarters are normally quite equal in size, so it was clear that Seb had done a good job of nursing this side.  Here's where it's important to know your cow's udder.  See how small the rear quarter is (at right)?  It always milks down like this, and there's really no mammary tissue to be felt up above.  Now see how large and full the front quarter is, especially the forward part (at left)?  The "swelling" you see in the front part of the quarter is always there; it's the smaller part underneath, the reservoir, that gets milked out.  When I placed my hand on the fuller part on this particular day, I could feel that although it was firm (which is normal), it was not hard.  It had been well-nursed by Seb, so I knew this side did not need to be milked.

Here's the right side of Ebby's udder that same day.   The rear quarter had been nursed, but not the front (right).  Look at the fullness all the way along the front curve of that quarter.  The front quarter is clearly rounded and curved, especially where it connects with the rear quarter.  It was firm and hard-ish to the touch, so I decided to milk that quarter.  Today Ebby came in looking much the same, and I got over three cups of milk from the front quarter alone--of course, she didn't let it all down for me.  I milked it all the way out, since it was clear it had not been emptied in some time.

That's how things work THIS year!  LAST year those front quarters freaked me out, and I was constantly worried that Ebby was developing mastitis--until I thought to ask her former owner (who had milked her during her first lactation) if Ebby's front quarters were more fleshy than the rear ones?  Yes, was her reply--and I heaved a sigh of relief.  Sure enough, Ebby's mastitis test came back negative, and all my worry about those firm quarters was for naught.  This year I've been careful but not worried, because I know my cow's udder better.  It really does make a difference!

To recap, here are some of the situations that might lead me to milk whether I planned to or not:

  • A full, firm quarter instead of a partially full or flaccid quarter.
  • One quarter or side that has not been nursed, especially on a regular basis.
  • If a cow has edema (pitting fluid retention) in her udder and/or umbilicus, I massage and milk, even if not much milk comes out.  Keeping things flowing is important, especially if there's congestion in the udder.
  • Any redness (which is hard to see on a black Dexter!), heat (compared to the other quarters), or clumps in the milk.  (I'll talk more about clumps later.)

Q:  How do I decide which quarters to leave for the calf?

Usually, the calf is going to be a more efficient milker than I am.  So during the first weeks, if there's a quarter that needs milking, I try to get the calf to nurse that one.  I lead the calf into position on that side with its head facing toward the cow's tail and push its head under the udder.  With a reluctant nurser, I even bump the calf's nose against the udder several times.  Then I stand back and wait for nature to hopefully take its course.

So far, of the four calves I've share milked with, two have been eager nursers who didn't need encouraging, and the last two have been reluctant or shy.  Ebby's calf last year was particularly unwilling to nurse "on demand."  Seb, this year's calf, may respond to encouragement--or not.

When the calf is on the cow 24/7, the goal of OAD milking is to be sure the cow gets her udder emptied every day.  Some people milk out the easiest quarters and leave the more difficult ones for the calf.  Some people with a higher producing cow rotate, milking three quarters and leaving a different quarter for the calf each time.  With a moderate producing cow, some people rotate sides, leaving the opposite one for the calf.  The cow is always going to hold up some milk for her calf, so the calf will not go hungry.  At this point I'm milking because the calf can't handle that much milk.

In the past it has worked for me to finish milking out the quarters that were most recently nursed and leave the full ones for the calf.  However, this year when I tried that, Ebby would come in the next day with the same quarter un-nursed and extra full.  I've learned that Seb goes on "kicks."  He almost always nurses the rear quarters, but chooses to ignore the right front for several days.  Then suddenly he'll change and ignore the left front for several days.  So with this guy, I've learned to milk the fullest quarter all the way out.  That way I know it's getting emptied at least once a day.

So, like many of these questions, the ultimate answer to this question is:  It depends!  It's a process of trial and error, and I figure out what works best as we go.

Q:  When do I separate the cow and calf overnight, and how do I do it?

I don't separate mama and baby until the calf is handling all of the cow's production.  That means that she is regularly coming in with all four quarters soft, if not empty.

As I mentioned earlier, I start out milking TAD, transition to OAD, and when the cow is coming in for milking with all four quarters at least partially nursed, then I'm ready to separate them at night.

I've found the best way to separate is to shut the calf in a stall and leave the cow loose to graze, or at least have free access to hay in the barnyard.  It's a lot easier to put enough hay and water for the calf into a stall than it is to provide enough for the cow.  In addition, I believe that when we switched to putting Siobhan in the stall instead of Macree is when Siobhan got bored and started self-sucking.  So that's not an option I'm going to consider in future.

Since I'm not an early riser, and I'm not interested in milking at 6 am, I generally get the calf at about 8 pm to shut it up.  If I milk at 9, that's thirteen hours the cow and calf have been separated.

Another option I've used at times is to separate the cow and calf in the morning for six to eight hours and milk in the evening.  Again, it depends on what works well for each particular situation.

This post is not comprehensive, but it covers some of the basics about how I approach share milking.  If readers have other questions, feel free to ask them!  In future posts I'll deal with some of the problems and situations that arise while share milking.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Tips for Training Your Dexter as a Family Milk Cow

Lately I've been getting lots of questions about milking.  Some of the most frequent questions are about how to train a cow to milk.  So I'll start at the beginning with my tips for training your Dexter as a family milk cow--with a newborn calf.  Don't be discouraged if you've got a heifer about to calve or a brand-new-to-you cow with a new calf.  Just look down the list, start where you are, and go on from there . . .

Start training your heifer calf from birth.  Halter train her.  Handle her all over.  Teach her to let you pick up her feet.  Rub and touch her little teats.  It's never too soon to teach her that you're allowed to touch her anywhere and that it feels good.  Most Dexters love food and treats; use them to your advantage to make friends and reward her for good behavior.

Set up a place to milk.  Get the stanchion before the cow, at least, hopefully before you try to milk her.  I was lucky that Siobhan, as a first-calf heifer, had just enough milk for her calf.  If she had been producing more milk and I had HAD to milk her, it would probably have worked out because she's a very laid-back cow and trusts me.  But it's always easier to milk when you have a place set up.  I know a couple of ladies who walk up to their cows in the pasture and sit down to milk, but those are rare cows.  Getting the stanchion set up means having the equipment and supplies you'll need at hand, which will help you relax.  It means being able to clean the udder properly, which helps avoid mastitis.  And if you're lucky enough to have a heifer calf, you'll be training her as a milk cow while you milk her mother!

Make your training count double.  Train your heifer to the stanchion while she's a calf at her mother's side.  I started milking Siobhan when Macree was two months old, so Macree learned early on that going in the stanchion means yummy things to eat.  By the time I was ready to sell Macree as a bred heifer, she would readily hop up into the stanchion, let me close the head catch on her, and stand like a rock while I handled her teats.

Start gradually. Get the cow used to the stanchion before you need or want to milk.  If she's halter-trained, you can lead her right up to the feed box and let her eat without closing the neck catch.  Do this several times.  Then when she's at ease, close the neck catch, but open it as soon as she finishes eating.  When she starts to leave the stanchion, let her go.  You can gradually lengthen the time you ask her to stand with the neck catch closed, gauging by her behavior how quickly to proceed.  

If your cow is less tame, you may need to "bucket lead" her to the stanchion with a bucket of feed.  You can put a tub of feed where she can reach it without having to get into the stanchion.  Let her eat it.  Try again the next day (or in the evening if you feed twice a day).  Each time, you can make her advance farther into the stanchion to get the feed.  Just remember, if your cow was not already getting grain, you must work her up gradually over a period of weeks; suddenly giving her a lot of grain will upset her rumen and make her sick.

Start with a positive attitude and the right goal:  Make the first few times milking about the cow having a positive experience.  It's not about the milk!  It's about teaching your cow that this place and this time are GOOD.  If you think positively and approach her calmly and kindly, she will sense your "good vibes" and be reassured.

Be flexible.  If you find yourself needing to milk your cow because her udder is too full, but the clanging bucket makes her nervous, "kick" the bucket! Milk onto the ground if you need to, that's okay.  In this case, getting the milk out is the goal.  If your cow gets upset and puts a foot in the bucket, don't get mad; you've got chicken food!  Next time try milking into a smaller cup or bowl and dump the milk into the bucket, safely placed where it can't be kicked.

Keep the calf near her head where she can see it and see that you aren't hurting it.  A calm calf will make for a calm cow.  (You'll probably want to halter and tie it so it doesn't wander around and knock things over.) Talk to your cow or sing to her.  Let her feel that this is a partnership, that you love doing this, and that she can trust you.

Get a routine and stick to it.  Cows like routine, some more than others, so milking at the same time each day and following a predictable routine will put your cow at ease.  Also, following the same routine each day will ensure that you don't leave out any important steps necessary for good udder care.  If you've read this far you are probably new to milking, so the link above is for the more detailed procedure that I follow, along with plenty of explanations.  At the end of that post you'll find a link to the simplified routine.  You'll develop your own routine to fit your situation and your cow, but this will give you an idea of what works for us.  Having said this, don't hesitate to tweak things that need to be changed.  Just do it gradually and not all at once.

These tips are very general and should help to get you started.  Next time I'll try to cover some specific questions and problems that readers have asked about, as well as some that have come up in my own experience.  You know the old adage:  "Experience may not be the kindest of teachers, but she IS the best!"

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Calf Watch for Ebony

Every year when a cow is getting close to calving, I go on "Calf Watch."  I observe developing signs of calving and take lots of photos for a visual record of her progress.  Since Ebby calved late this year, this will be a long Calf Watch post!  It will provide a good set of visual notes for me for next year, and hopefully it will help someone else figure out if their own Dexter is close to calving.

Remember, every cow is unique and every calving is different.  It's the combination of signs and their progression that is helpful.  There is no one particular sign that has to happen--not even the famous "her pins are gone."  Last year Ebby calved without me detecting that her pelvic ligaments had loosened.  You will hear that "once the pins are gone, she'll calve within 12 hours (or 24)."  I'm here to tell you that last year Ebby calved overnight after I felt her pelvic ligaments the evening before.  So, there are no guarantees!

Having missed the births of five previous calves, I was determined to see Royal's first calf born.  Based on Ebby's Estrotect patch and the date I sent milk for biotracking, the calf was due April 4.  I started Calf Watch early and took lots of photos.  Now that Ebby has calved and I'm down to milking only once a day, here's what transpired . . .

March 21 - Ebby moved into the Home Pasture for easy observation and feeding.  I started her on Dr. Hubert Karreman's 2-2-2 ACV regime:  Two ounces of apple cider vinegar twice a day for two weeks before calving.  I mixed the ACV with 1 Tbsp. of unsulfured molasses and poured it over a few ounces of non-GMO pellets.
Use apple cider vinegar 2 oz twice daily for two weeks prior to freshening to keep blood calcium levels up.
Be careful of low calcium since the muscles that control the teat sphincters at the very bottom of the teat may be weak and not close tightly between milking times. This is how environmental bugs get in and causes horrible problems (especially coliforms). 

March 24 -  Springing.  The vulva began to get swollen and floppy.

Udder development.  In my experience it is usually uneven, and Ebby's right rear quarter began to fill first.
Udder development from the side.  Please excuse the mud in these photos; we had a very rainy April.  I preferred to take photos while Ebby ate, then brush her after.  She's happy to stand still for brushing; not so much for a photo op!

March 28 - Side view.  In addition to peering closely at vulva and udder and feeling for ligaments, I like to stand back and look at the cow as a whole.

Udder development.  Not much happening.

March 31 - Rear udder development.  The left side is catching up to the right side.

In addition to twice daily checks during feeding, I started going out to check on Ebby before I went to bed.  We were having frequent thunderstorms, so she spent quite a few nights shut up safely in a stall.

April 2 - I began setting my alarm for 3 a.m. to make sure Ebby didn't do a repeat of last year, have her pelvic ligaments suddenly go, and calve overnight.  This was the first of many wee-hours-of-the-morning photos.

When I felt Ebby's pelvic ligaments, she usually backed up to "ask" for a massage, responding with what I called her "Pin Dance."  She would wiggle her entire body, snaking slowly from head to tail in obvious pleasure.  I could often feel contractions tightening her right side or feel the calf move, like here when it shifted and made a huge baby bump.

Here Ebby is later that morning, safe from thunderstorms, with a full rack of hay, two buckets of water, and plenty of bedding just in case she should calve.

Udder development.  It's beginning to fill.

April 3 - Rear view showing springing and Ebby's round belly, although she doesn't get as huge as Siobhan does.
Looking at her pelvic ligament area.

Palpating Ebby's pelvic ligaments.  While not as obvious as in a dairy cow, they can be felt like cord about the diameter of a pencil.  This sign of calving is the hardest one to detect without plenty of experience, and I still consider myself new at it.

April 4 - Springing.  There is a definite increase in puffiness from April 2.  Today was Ebby's due date.

Time to get the stanchion ready!  I thoroughly bleached everything, hosed it off, dried the mats by hanging them over the gate, and replaced them.  I filled the teat dip cups that I had previously bleached clean and made sure that all the supplies were ready to go.
April 5 - Mucus.  This was the first time I saw any, and it wasn't much.
April 6 - Mucus.  Another photo from the wee hours of the morning.
Rear view.  This makes it clear that Ebby had not gone slab-sided, which occurs when the calf drops low down to move into the birth canal.  She was also wet with rain.

Udder development.  It's fuller and rounder, swelling farther back than on March 28.

Not that much has changed from the side, although the angle a photo is taken from does make a difference.

April 8 - The udder is more visible than on March 24.  Note the front teat protruding more due to that quarter filling.

Springing.  Observe the folds of skin around the vulva.  By this time it was jiggly when Ebby walked.
Udder development.  The rear quarter is noticeably fuller than two days previously on April 6.  The front quarter is not noticeably fuller, although it was to the touch.  However, strutting of that teat is visible as it swells and points out.


April 9 - Springing.  The vulva is so swollen that Ebby's tail is pushed out to the side, and there are more folds of skin visible around it.
Springing from the side.

(NOTE:  The red block behind Ebby is not a mineral block, it's a bloat block.  She normally gets loose minerals free choice, but they get taken up when she has a bloat block because it contains minerals.)
April 10 - Mucus.  She had another long string, which her tail slapped around on her sides.

This morning Ebby looked slab-sided.  Note the lack of a baby bump on the right side.  I called to cancel a doctor's appointment, thinking she might calve in the hours I would be gone.
By the afternoon, the baby bump was back.
Side view.  There is marked udder development from two days previously on April 8.

April 11 - Ebby says, "Are you taking pictures of me AGAIN?  Let's get this over with!"
Udder development.  Ebby's teats were pulled so tight there were tiny wrinkles.  The reason they look dry is because I don't handle the teats before calving, not even to apply balm.  I don't want to take the risk of dislodging the wax plugs that seal the teats, which would allow bacteria to enter and lead to mastitis.  There will be time to soften that skin up once the calf is born and I'm milking.  And under NO circumstances would I express milk "just to see" if there is any.  Trust me--as swollen as Ebby's udder is, there's milk in there!  I leave the teats alone, doing nothing more than occasionally laying a hand high up on a quarter to check for filling under all that fuzzy winter coat.
Udderly miserable!  That night I found poor Ebby laying on her side with her legs sprawled out to keep the pressure off her swollen udder.  She normally lays tucked up nice and upright, so I knew how miserable she was.  She didn't even get up for a massage.

April 12 - Finally!  Ebby's pelvic ligaments were no longer palpable.

Slab-sided or not?  Maybe, although not dramatically so.
Side view.  Ebby still had an appetite and devoured her grain.

Her udder was full to bursting and very firm to the touch.

From the rear, you can see that her teats were strutting, so full they were sticking out to the side.

Springing and mucus.  Note all of the wrinkles under her tail.

Springing from the side.  She was holding her tail away from her body, off to one side.

When Ebby disappeared down to the bottom of the hill and hid in the woods, I was pretty sure the calf was on its way.

After I went down to check on Ebby and invaded her private hideout, she came back up to her shelter.  Royal seemed suddenly quite interested in Ebby's rear end, another indication that something was different.

Ebby seemed to want company, both Royal's and mine.  She came over to me, asking for a massage, went back to her shelter, and a little while later she headed down the hill again.  Note the hollow look between her hooks and pins, compared to the full side view on April 10.  If you're not also palpating the pelvic ligaments, that "hollow look" is easy to miss.

Clued in by Ebby's restlessness that something was happening, I was checking her every half hour.  She couldn't seem to find a place to settle, and she headed back up the hill again.

She laid down under the tree in a favorite spot, but got up a few minutes later.

By 2:08 p.m., Ebby had decided--the calf was going to be born on a nice bed of hay in her shelter.  I could tell she was miserable.  Just look at that cartoon-cow udder sticking straight out like it was pasted on by a child.  The calf couldn't come soon enough for either of us!

Half an hour later, the calf was clearly on its way and Ebby's Calf Watch was over.  Click here for the rest of the story, the birth of ZH Royal Celebration.