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.

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!"

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