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, March 9, 2014

The Saga of My Self-Sucking Cow and How I Got Her to Stop

Note:  This post will be long and photo-heavy.  Self-sucking is an insidious habit because it's hard to be sure your cow is doing it.  It's an addictive behavior and very hard to break.  If only there was a 12-step group called Self-Suckers Anonymous!  It's a dangerous behavior which can lead to mastitis and can be taught to other cows.  I have been fighting Siobhan's self-sucking since Feb. 19, along with mastitis caused by it.  I want to share what I've learned, what's worked and what hasn't in case it can help anyone else.

What is self-sucking?  It's exactly what it sounds like.  It's when a cow sucks on her own teats and drinks her own milk.  It falls under a category called orosthenic syndrome.  Now that's a mouthful!  I have never caught Siobhan doing it, but other people have caught cows in the act.  It may look funny, but trust me, it's not!  
Why do cows self-suck?  It's possible that the cow in the third video was doing it in response to the pain of calving as well as from the discomfort of her engorged udder.  Some cows do it from boredom, when confined in too-close quarters, when their udder is overly-full, or perhaps due to the discomfort of mastitis, although it's a question of which came first--the mastitis or the self-sucking.  One hypothesis is that it is due to a mineral deficiency.  Since Siobhan has minerals available and was not overly-crowded in the barnyard, it seems likely that boredom was the main factor for her, especially when separated from her calf at night.

How do you know if a cow is self-sucking?  Let me share photos of Siobhan to show how and when the problem developed.  As they say, hindsight is 20-20; it wasn't until Thanksgiving that I suspected I had a problem, mainly because I had never heard of self-sucking!

Early June, pre-freshening.  The quarter in question is the left front, on the left in all the following photos.

June 6 in the afternoon.  Macree was born in the morning and had been nursing.

Aug. 17 before milking.  Siobhan and Macree had not been separated overnight so Macree had been nursing.

Aug. 20 during milking.  This photo shows the curve of the left front quarter against my hand, highlighted by the white spot.

Sept. 13.

Oct. 11.  Siobhan and Macree were kept in the pasture with the horses.  If I wanted to milk, I walked down in the evening and led Siobhan up to the barnyard, then went back and led Macree up.  She was too strong and had too much of a mind of her own to lead them at the same time anymore.  We separated them at night.  The next day after milking, I made two trips back down to the pasture to lead them back down.

Nov. 5 I brought Siobhan and Macree up to the barnyard full time so that I could milk every day.  Knowing what I know now, I would have kept them in the Home Pasture across from the barnyard to prevent boredom.  However, that pasture already held our escape-artist steer and I was trying to let it recover before we had to add our new little bull.  Like I said, hindsight is 20-20.

Nov. 13 before milking (and after shaving Siobhan's udder).  Unfortunately, I didn't realize the significance of the wrinkly teat and small quarter.  The problem had already started, but I didn't have these photos to see the change.  I will also say, I had never heard of self-sucking and would never in a million years have imagined what was going on.

Nov. 19.  Regular use of Bag Balm while milking had cleared up the dandruff and dry skin.  Still in my ignorance, I wondered if the tight rear teat (at right) was exhibiting a problem.  I did notice that I was getting less milk from the left front quarter, but thought it was just not increasing production like the other three.

Nov. 29, Thanksgiving weekend was the first time I remember wondering if Siobhan might be self sucking.  You can see from the white spot that outlines the left front quarter that there is very little milk in that quarter.

I went so far as to order two kinds of weaning rings to try, but when they arrived Herb and I together could NOT get either one in her.  It was quite some time later that I stumbled across the suggestion to place them in very hot water so they would open wider.

I also tried an experiment by putting food coloring on that teat, but it was inconclusive.  I tried putting it on at night before we shut her up, and I couldn't see clearly where I was putting it.

On Feb. 19 I discovered that Siobhan had mastitis in her left front quarter.  I was immediately convinced that it was no coincidence that the mastitis had happened in the very quarter that I suspected she was self-sucking.  I had just found a tip about putting weaning rings in very hot water to make them easier to insert, so in desperation I marched out to the barnyard by myself armed only with a bucket of boiling water, a tongs and the weaning ring.  In a jiffy Siobhan was sporting spikes!  If only I had known it could be so easy.

A later post recounts what I did to treat the mastitis, once I found a new vet to help us.  At this point I was rather naively trusting that the weaning ring was working and that the reason Siobhan kept coming in with an empty quarter was that she had destroyed it with her self-sucking.  As I write this, I realize it sounds downright stupid!  All I can say is, I couldn't imagine that Siobhan would be so desperate to suck on her own udder that she would jab it with those spikes!  I also figured that if she did, surely I would see some indication of it in a scratched or bleeding udder.

A week later on Feb. 26, I had to admit that somehow Siobhan was getting around the weaning ring, perhaps by flipping it up so that it stabbed the bridge of her nose instead of her udder.

Someone on the Keeping a Family Cow ProBoard gave me a link to a post by "4ever" about a weaning halter that she made for a self-sucking cow.  Once again armed with pure desperation, I broke out Herb's drill and turned an orange road cone into an Anti-Self-Sucking Halter.  Once it looked like it would do the job, I removed the weaning ring.

Unfortunately, by March 5, I suspected that Siobhan was getting past the weaning halter, probably because the plastic was so flexible that she could bend it back against her side and reach her udder.  So I broke out my trusty red gel food color.  After I milked that day I put one dot on the tip of the left front teat.  (Don't worry, the food color will never return to the kitchen!)

By the next morning (March 6), my fears were confirmed--and there was even worse news.  You can see the smeared food coloring well up the left (mastitis affected) teat, but if you look closely you can see there is also red food coloring on the right one, especially visible on the pink tip.  While I've been doing my dead-level best to cure her mastitis and break her of sucking one teat, my crazy cow has started sucking on both teats.  I was sick at heart!  I spent the entire time milking trying to talk myself out of depression and into determination.  I left the barnyard reciting my new mantra:  "I am smarter than a dumb cow, and I am more stubborn, too!"

Whoever said "necessity is the mother of invention" had never actually felt desperate.  Believe me, desperation is the mother of invention!  I raided the hay barn and upped the ante from electric drill to (cringe!) electric jigsaw.  It was not pretty--not the black plastic "sand" I left all over the front porch, nor the snarling jags when I caught the saw blade, nor the several near misses with bodily parts.
But in the end Siobhan's New Improved Anti-Self-Sucking Halter was ready.  This is definitely not the kinder, gentler version like the first one.  It's not even version 2.1.  This is the Neo-Nazi version, the Medieval torture device version!
But she could eat in it, and I was pretty sure there was no way she could self-suck while wearing it!  So I went into the house, somewhat at peace, but still troubled enough about the feasibility of this halter as a permanent solution to stay up till 2 a.m. surfing the internet.

Here are some of the ideas I explored:

I rejected out of hand the idea of keeping her in a stanchion permanently.  Although this image is actually of a cow getting a foot bath, you can see why death would be a preferable alternative to living like this full-time for a cow who has never been confined in her life.

I needed something a little less drastic . . .

. . . like the Nasco Crown Weaning Ring, which is self-piercing and can be permanent.  I rejected it on the grounds that Siobhan would certainly learn to flip it up like she did with the other weaning ring.  She might also hurt her newborn calf with it when she tried to lick it.
The flipping it up objection was the same for the Nasco Kant Suk Weaner.

What if I could put something big around her neck that would keep her from turning her head?  Something that Amazon Prime could get to me really quickly, like an XX-Large life preserver?  I posted questions about the neck opening, but the answers came back that it was too tight for a 6-foot man, so I was pretty sure it would never go around a cow's neck.
Amazon's handy "other shoppers have purchased this item" led me to this dog collar, but dogs simply do not come in cow sizes, nor do dog collars.
That was the same problem with this cone of shame.  I briefly considered trying to buy two and sew them together, but I realized I would never be able to get them long enough to reach Siobhan's nose.  I filed away for future consideration the idea of trying to sew a bovine cone of shame from scratch.  A seamstress I am not!  Sewing something like that would come just before having to break out Herb's circular saw on my list of things I would rather not try.
I wondered about a cattle yoke, but it seems nearly impossible to find yokes for just one cow.  This one was listed on e-Bay, but disappeared before I could finish writing this post.
A 1912 newspaper article suggested a collar of stakes something like this horse collar.  I found an 1899 article that illustrated something similar for cattle, although I can't attach the image here.  For awhile that was my Number One possibility, and as soon as morning came I was ready to go looking for two nylon collars that would fit Siobhan's neck, bolts, and PVC pipe that I could use for stakes.  I would have to be sure it was something that would shed water and not create moist places around her neck if she was going to wear it permanently.  My biggest concern about an Elizabethan collar on a free-ranging cow was the chance that she could pierce her neck with one of the stakes.  So I kept searching . . .
The same 1912 article that suggested the collar of stakes went on to specify that if the cow turned to sucking other cows, you would have to put spikes around the noseband of her halter, like this spiked dog collar.  I didn't really see how that would be compatible with mothering a calf!
The 1899 article also gave this idea and a similar one illustrated below it on the web page.  The whole stake thing freaked me out a bit thinking of the horrible injuries that could result if it came loose.  However, these Victorian-era articles showed me that self-sucking has been around for a long time, and with all the marvels of modern technology, farmers still aren't any closer to solving the problem.  It also showed me that Victorian farmers weren't so quick to cull a self-sucking cow if they were willing to go to all this trouble to save one.

This bit for cows from an 1879 article is one I'm filing away for future reference.  It seems like a horse bit might accomplish the same purpose.

A vintage book on Google illustrates a sort of Cow Bra  like this one from e-Bay, which is another idea I have seriously entertained and rejected mainly for reasons of sanitation--and incompatibility with nursing a calf.

The final, brilliant idea that made me heave a sigh of relief and feel that I could finally go to bed because I just miiiiiight have found a solution came from the July 1, 1915 edition of the Toledo Blade.
Here is what the article said:  "To prevent a cow from sucking herself, put on a good strong halter and a strong strap around her body.  Fasten rings in the the girth strap, one on each side about level with the side rings on the halter.  From these rings to the side rings place two other straps just long enough that the cow can turn her head from side to side, but cannot get it back far enough to suck."
What this 99-year old article has described is exactly like a surcingle for longing a horse.  My daughter Kara used to longe her Quarter Horse Romeo, and I knew that her old surcingle and long reins were hanging in the tack room gathering dust.  What were the chances that Romeo's surcingle would fit Siobhan?  I would have to wait for morning to find out.  With a weary yawn I headed to bed.

After milking Siobhan the next morning, I tied her in the barnyard and got to work.  I hauled Romeo's surcingle and long reins out of the tack room and brushed off five years' worth of dust.  Siobhan did not like the flapping things hanging from her sides and the buckles were stiff from disuse, but I finally got the surcingle on and attached the reins.  Then I called Herb to hold Siobhan while I took some photos.

Siobhan did not want to stand still, and she ended up longing herself around Herb.  I think we just invented Dressage for Dexters!  Look at that nice, extended trot!

Here's a close-up of Siobhan's Super Anti-Self-Sucking SurcingleTM.  The surcingle fits her perfectly because the straps have buckles on both sides enabling me to reduce it to Dexter size.  It should feel pretty comfortable for her because the padding on top is made to fit a horse's withers so it rests well on a cow's high backbone.  The padding is neoprene, which should breathe fairly well.  The long reins have multiple rings and several clips which permitted me to play around with finding a length that should let her turn her head without being able to reach her udder.

You can see Siobhan trying out how far she can stretch her head.  I'm sure she doesn't miss the plastic contraptions over her nose now that she can actually smell the roses and the nice spring breeze.

Here she is from the other side.  I watched her closely and took lots of photos once we turned her loose because I wanted to be sure that there was no way she could catch a leg in the long reins.

Here's a front view.
And the all-important taste test--can she eat in it?  Yes, she can!

With the nutrition and safety issues resolved to my satisfaction, I left her to it.  You could see her delight in grazing freely with nothing pushing against her nose.  Siobhan's relief added to mine, and I was ecstatic as I went back to the house.  I felt like a huge load had been lifted from my heart.  Of course, the acid test remained to be done . . .

Since it was the acid test, I applied a dot of green food coloring to the tip of her left front teat.

It was potentially a mistake to have applied the food coloring before the post-milking spray, but I decided to just go with it even though the spray made the food coloring run and spread a bit.

This morning, Siobhan came in to the stanchion with her teat looking like this.  I think she's passed the acid test!

No, wait, let me try to make that look like I'm feeling . . .


I decided to perform one more test, just to be sure I'm not naively resting on my laurels.

I'll add an update in the morning with one more photo.

Here's the March 10 update:

The red food coloring is just where I put it!  So I don't think it's premature to say . . .

❤Thank you, Kara and Romeo!  Thank you for saving my Siobhan!❤

Note:  Please be sure to read Part II of this post for an important update.


  1. That was very informative. I've never had that problem here (yet), and since seeing your photos, I know what to look for now, and how it can be stopped if it's a problem. Thanks for the great post!

    1. Hi, fellow KFC-er! I recognize your smiling face! Thank you for taking the time to comment here--you know the way to a blogger's heart! ;) I truly, truly hope that you never do encounter this problem!

  2. Wow! What an awesome narrative and what ingenuity! Great job of sticking with it. You show her so much love in the effort and time it took you to come up with a good solution that would not harm her. Great cow Momma!

    1. Thank you so much for the encouragement, Karen. She is such a sweet cow and my baby--I just couldn't give up on her.

  3. I agree, you are a great cow Momma! This definition comes to mind--


    1. steadfastness in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success.

    You have truly persevered!! Siobhan would give you a big hug if she could!

  4. Hi Susan,

    Thanks a lot for sharing. I am facing the same issue with one of my girls. Many of the images here are not loading and showing. Could you please mail the images of your design from different angles to Thanks a lot.


  5. Thanks a lot for your explanations and photos. I real appreciate your work.

    1. You're very welcome, Andre, and thank you. Are you dealing with a self-sucking cow, too?

  6. This is the best researched article about self suckling cows I have come across so far. We have two cows with this really bad habit, for one the only thing that worked so far is the bra. Now I will have to try out your fabulous idea on her. The second one got cured by placing a bull ring in a slightly off position, if you could send me you e-mail then I will send you pictures of both as addition to the many different ideas that you have already found and tried out. I really love your wonderful blog which is so overflowing with love and passion for your animals and the work you are doing!

    1. Thank you, Sylvia, and thank you for your kind comments! I'm really sorry you're having to deal with this problem. I've sent you my email; I'd love to share a photo of the bull ring. I also put this in my email to you, but for the benefit of other readers, I have to share a serious caution against using a cow bra or udder support. Here's a link to the post that tells about the very serious mastitis Siobhan got from wearing hers:

      I see that your farm is in Kenya, so you might not have as much problem with your dryer climate. I have to add that we spent time in Mombasa back in 1985 and absolutely loved it! The beaches are the most beautiful I've ever seen, and the people are so friendly. We were there for a language class and enjoyed practicing our bit of Swahili that we were able to learn. To this day, I think "Mungu Baba," a song we heard sung at a church, is one of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard anywhere. The seminary students back home in Bangui, Central African Republic loved to sing it, and it would give me chills it was so beautiful! What a small world! :)

  7. Asante Sana. Just in time for my naughty Helen. Noticed the problem last week. Short term response for us is to milk three times a day. My Vet also suggested the bra and the bull ring.

    1. Karibu, John! (For non-Swahili speakers, he said "thank you" and I hope I said "you're welcome!") I hope the bull ring and a harness will prevent you from needing the cow bra, if you mean the one that has a net covering the udder. It sounds like such a great idea, but in fact, having the net touch the ends of my cow's teats caused her to get Pseudomonas aeruginosa mastitis, and I nearly lost her. Good luck with your Helen!

  8. ohmygoodness!!!! I just bought Opal, our Jersey girl and you guessed it... a self suckler!!! This saved us from one huge head scratcher!!!! Thx my friend for posting!!!!

    1. Oh wow, I'm so very sorry! But so glad Siobhan's and my story can help you. Be sure to search for more posts on Siobhan to find out about the nose ring option that also helped her.

  9. I don’t have this problem but using surcingles with your cow gave me ideas for my two mini dexter steers and their education in cart pulling . Using a breastplate with the surcingle plus a thingy under the tail to keep it from sliding forward ... we’ll see! Thanks!

    1. That's a great idea, Pal! Let us know how it goes!

  10. Mashallah very very beautiful,informative and reasonable thanks alot dear for your great sharing.

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  12. A very educating sharing. At my Institute for agriculture in Seychelles we have face this experience for the first time. I was searching for the reason. Thanks very much.

    1. Thank you for letting me know! I would love to visit the Seychelles in person some day, but I'm happy to know that both Siobhan and I got there over the internet! :) I'm sorry you are dealing with this problem. The thing that worked the best was putting a bull's ring in her nose, one side in the nostril, the other side in her lip. I learned this trick from a reader in Mombasa, Kenya! What a small world! Here's the link with photos to show how it works.


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