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.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Share Milking

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.

There are several things I like about share milking:

  • 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. 
There are also several potential problems with share milking:

  • I get less milk because the cow makes sure her calf gets what it needs, and I get what's left over.

  • I get less cream because, believe it or not, cows can selectively "hold up" and save the cream for their calves. 

  • Some people feel that calves that get used to nursing are more likely to suck on other calves after weaning.  So far, this has not been our experience.

  • This past year, milking kind of got away from me.  I knew that we would have to be gone several times during the summer, so I kept both calves on their dams and just milked occasionally when we needed milk.  I was concerned that if I milked one of the cows on a daily basis, I would encourage her to build up her milk supply beyond what her calf could easily handle when I had to be gone.  So our cows got to be mamas and our calves got to be babies for most of the summer.

    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.  :)

    Recently I've started milking again.  To my delight, Siobhan has slipped into our new routine without a hitch, and Wellie, whose halter training ended practically before it started, has been easy to work with.  I've switched to evening milking because I've been hesitant to shut Siobhan away from Wellie overnight for fear she would start self-sucking again.  In the winter, trying to put her anti-self-sucking harness on in the dark is more than I want to tackle.  So I separate Siobhan in the morning and milk about nine hours later when we do evening feeding.

    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.

    I tied Siobhan up to eat her grain while Herb led Wellie into the milking parlor.  I was surprised that Wellie followed Herb so nicely and didn't try to go nurse while his mama ate dinner, but I was gratified at how tractable he was.

    Wellie settled down to munch on Siobhan's hay while I got her into the stanchion.  To my surprise, her udder that should have been full and tight was floppy.  It didn't feel like she was holding her milk up; it just felt like there wasn't much in there.  And there wasn't--a measly one and a half cups!

    "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.

    When it became obvious that I wasn't going to get much milk, I untied Wellie and decided to let him clean up.  To my astonishment, Wellie couldn't have cared less.  I couldn't even get him to look at Sibohan's udder, much less nurse.  And suddenly the light dawned!

    The pasture gate that was pushed in toward Siobhan . . .
    . . . Wellie waiting right by the gate . . .
    . . . Siobhan's empty udder . . .
    . . . Wellie completely uninterested in nursing--

    They were busted!  The little stinker had nursed through the gate and drained his mama dry!  And the big stinker had turned herself around so the little stinker could nurse both sides!  Look back up at the photo of Wellie by the gate, and you'll see what a feat of patience that was on both their parts.

    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!


    1. Another great story, Susan. I really enjoy your pictorial essays. They are at once enlightening and amusing. Thanks Bill ps I don't get the SelectProfile

      1. Thank you, Bill, I'm glad you enjoyed the story. There are always chuckles with these cattle! I'm not sure about the "Select Profile." It's probably something I don't see since I'm already signed in to Google when I post and answer comments. It probably has something to do with if you had created a Google identity, a WordPress one, or another one. Don't worry, your comment still comes through under "anonymous," and as long as you sign it, I know who you are! :)

    2. Love it! I've learned from you to relax and watch and learn as I go. It's really helped me not stress out as much. I read a thread on the Dexter proboard yesterday that was LONG. I didn't finish-too convoluted and depressing! The guy kept talking about how Dexters are totally misrepresented, don't give much milk, don't have enough for a calf and household use, and on and on. Then I sit down and look at your blog and sigh. I like animals. I am mostly enjoying them. Chores are always there, problems always pop up, but staying safe and learning are the important things. Thanks again!

      1. You're welcome, Deanna! I'm pretty sure I know who you're talking about. He had lots of theories he liked to expound on, but few of us found them accurate or helpful. I talk about my experiences, which may not be the same as everyone else's, but hopefully they're at least helpful. You know the old saying, "If I can't be a good example, I'll just have to serve as a horrible warning!" I guess it's up to each reader to decide which I am! ;)


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