In traditional dairying, calves are removed from their mothers at birth or shortly thereafter and fed with milk replacer while their mothers are milked twice a day in order to sell their milk. On smaller farms and homesteads, farmers sometimes remove the calf from its mother, milk the cow and bottle feed some of the milk to the calf while keeping the rest for the house. Others use a foster cow to nurse one or more calves while milking the other cows. There are numerous variations of this system, usually requiring the farmer to milk twice a day.
One of the things that attracted me about Dexters is that they are well-suited to share milking. With share milking, the calf remains with its mother. After the calf is a week or two old, it's separated from the cow for up to twelve hours (usually at night) to allow the farmer to get one milking. The calf is then returned to its mother to nurse for the rest of the day.
- I love the idea that our cows get to raise their own calves the way God created them to. That's how heifers learn to be cows; and dam-raised bull calves are less likely to become aggressive with humans.
- I love that our calves get a good start in life with their mother's healthy milk instead of artificial milk replacer.
- I'm a lazy milker and don't want to have to milk twice a day, which is usually necessary when a calf is removed from its dam since her udder produces milk 24 hours a day.
- Bottle feeding a calf is a lot of work, and it can be difficult to get it right. Too little milk, and the calf doesn't thrive; too much, and it scours.
- I like to take days off and go on vacations, something no dairy farmer can do without an experienced relief milker. With share milking, the calf is a willing relief milker.
Tiggy was weaned in October before going to her new home, and I dried Ebony off, leaving Siobhan as my milk cow and Wellie as my relief milker. Then a fencing break in November meant the cattle had to move to a pasture too far from the barn for convenient milking. In December I got sick and couldn't get well, so I went two months without milking. Although I missed the time with my cows and we missed our fresh milk, it was a relief that Wellie stepped up to the plate as relief milker without a single complaint. :)
Today, however, was a first for me in share milking. When I went out at 5 p.m., Wellie was standing at the gate like a small red shadow of Siobhan. "How cute!" I thought, "and how nice that we don't have to go fetch him and lead him all the way to the barnyard."
As I opened the pasture gate, I commented to Herb in passing that "the boys" had pushed it in toward Siobhan so hard that it was difficult to open.
"Could she possibly have been self-sucking because I didn't put her harness on?" I wondered. I didn't think she could have drained all four quarters equally, but I had no idea what was wrong.
The pasture gate that was pushed in toward Siobhan . . .
. . . Wellie waiting right by the gate . . .
. . . Siobhan's empty udder . . .
. . . Wellie completely uninterested in nursing--
As I told Herb when I came inside with my measly haul of milk, at least today's milking wasn't a waste of time because we learned something! I learned more about a cow's desire to mother her calf and got a glimpse of bovine problem solving. And Herb learned that if he wants milk again, there's a new job on his Honey-Do List--line that gate with chicken wire!
Despite the fact that we have to tweak our management a bit, I'm still committed to share milking. We get plenty of milk for our needs, and far be it from me to interfere with that kind of God-given maternal instinct!