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Monday, April 7, 2014

How Do I Train a Cow to Milk?

I am often asked if it's better to purchase a trained cow or buy a heifer calf to raise and train as a family milk cow.  It seems that most people are persuaded to get a cute little calf with the idea they can bond with it and then train it more easily.  While this is true on some levels, the process can be a lot more difficult and involved than what many family cow owners have considered.   Sometimes we tend to forget that animals are not human and while human/animal relationships can and are formed, bovines are bovines and process accordingly.  We rely on their instinctive nature to birth and nurture a calf, but we often times get frustrated with them when they don't understand what we are asking of them.  For this reason, I always recommend  to start out with a healthy, well trained family cow. Starting a home dairy is hard enough without adding the stress of teaching a newly freshened heifer how to be a milk cow.

With that said, there will be those who can't resist the chance to buy a cute little calf to raise.  Or, if one does buy an already trained cow, eventually that cow will have a heifer calf and your family might just want to keep her  to raise as a replacement or to provide additional milk.  Training a first calf heifer without some prior planning is probably not a good idea.

A lot of people like to halter and lead train their family cows.  In theory, this makes it easier to move the cow from place to place, to trailer the cow if necessary, and to direct the cow to the milking parlor and stanchion.  This blog post is not about halter breaking and lead training a cow.  To be honest, I do not halter or lead train my cows and have not had any issues in getting them to respond to me.  If you will find it necessary to move your cow across a busy road or through an area that is unfenced on a regular basis, then haltering and leading training would be beneficial.  Otherwise, with a good set up, it's not a requirement.  Knowing more about the nature of cows and how they think will help a person regardless if they halter and lead train or not.  An excellent chapter in the book ANIMALS MAKE US HUMAN by Dr. Temple Grandin explains the nature of bovines in detail and is a must read in my opinion.

So, let's assume that you have a cow that is not lead trained and you want to milk her.  Perhaps she is tame but even if she is not, most cows can be lured into a stanchion with treats.  For most people this would be grain but for those who choose not to use grain with their cows, it could be a piece of hay or some alfalfa pellets.  It won't take but a few times for most cows to understand that their treat is waiting for them in the stanchion.  (And that brings up an important point.  There are some cows that can be milked without a stanchion but most cows require a headgate to secure them and bars on either side to keep them from swaying . ***** Don't have stars in your eyes and your head in the clouds and assume that your sweet cow is just going to stand in the field and let you milk her.****  While this is true of some cows, it's not true of most.  Most require a restraint of some sort just to provide them with boundaries of what is acceptable and what is not.)  There are some cows who may completely refuse to go into a stanchion if they have not previously been in one.  This is why it's advantageous to begin even before the baby is born to acclimate the cow to the stanchion  and begin familiarizing her with the process. If your cow is not lead trained and can't be lured, then you will have to drive the cow into the stanchion.  This is sometimes easier said than done and often requires at least two people, especially if the cow has not been handled a lot.   (On a side note, bovines will fall into a routine within a few days.   If you have other cows to milk, the heifer in training can be a nuisance wanting in for their treats while you are trying to milk the others.I also advise to only offer treats or grain in the stanchion and not in the field.  Otherwise, you can create a monster that approaches you quickly and aggressively in the open field looking for a handout.  This can be dangerous and is not advisable.)

Getting the cow into the stanchion and comfortable can sometimes be the easy part.  Many times a cow does not want her udder handled.  She instinctively knows that part of her anatomy provides for the baby and she is protective.  If you are able to touch the cow's udder and let her familiarize herself with your touch before the calf is born, this is good.  Word of caution:  Do not actually milk the cow before she gives birth.  Just touch her udder and her teats and let her learn to trust you.  She may kick at first,  so be careful.

If you are fortunate enough to have your heifer trained to come into the stanchion and tolerate your touch before she calves, you are miles ahead of the game.  However, once the calf is born, the heifer's body will be under the influence of some powerful hormones making her extremely maternal and protective.  Your sweet, compliant cow may be a beast you don't recognize.  BE CAREFUL.  Even if you think she is completely trustworthy, be smart and very aware as you handle her and the calf.

I personally allow the mother and calf to bond and don't try to milk her for the first 12 hours after the calf is born.  The calf gets as much colostrum as he wants during that time.  After 12 hours I bring the cow in to the milking parlor to be milked.  I personally DO NOT bring the calves into the milking parlor, although there are a number of homesteaders who do.  They bring the calf to keep the cow happy and they sometimes use the calf to get the momma cow to let down her milk.  This post is written with the assumption that you are milking the cow separate from the calf.  At first the cow may be hesitant to leave her calf but she will learn with time that the calf is fine there without her.  (I am also writing this on the assumption that the reader is leaving cow and calf together and not taking the calf away to bottle feed.)

At this point the cow's udder is very tender and often very swollen.  Remember that it's just a normal reaction for them to kick at something that is uncomfortable to them.  Wash the udder gently.  I use barn towels and a solution of iodine.  Some people use just water or water and vinegar.  If you are hand milking, you have the advantage of a quiet environment.  If you are machine milking, it's actually important to expose the heifer to the sound of the machine as she is in the stanchion prior to milking her for the first time.  If you have not done this, the first time she hears the vacuum pump start it will be an additional fear for her.

We personally always try to milk without using restraining devices on  the heifer/cow.  We don't want them to get use to being restrained in order to be milked (aside from the boundaries provided by the headgate and stanchion bars). Training them from the beginning that kicking isn't acceptable is our goal.  However, if one is a novice, afraid, or it is evident that the heifer is going to be uncontrollable, then one would want to use some method of restraint.  There are several ways a cow can be restrained.  There are several different types of anti kick devices like the Kick Stop and the Kow Kant Kick, hobbles, or even a rope used properly can work. Do be careful using restraining devices.  If used improperly, they can cause injury to both the cow and the individual milking the cow.  Always remember to remove the restraint when you are finished milking.  This may sound evident, but it's not uncommon to forget this step and cows can be injured when turned out with restraining devices still in place.

 If you have two people available, you can also do what is called "tailing" a cow.  One person simply stands directly behind the heifer/cow and holds her tail straight up firmly where the tail and rump meet.  When held straight up, theoretically, the cow can't kick.  My husband and I actually use this method quite often the first time we milk a heifer if it is evident that she is going to kick.  (Warning:  Heifers are nervous and will often poop and pee while in the stanchion the first few times.  If you are tailing a cow, you will end up very dirty.)  While this method works in most cases, if done incorrectly it can be dangerous.  It is best if you can get an experienced individual to show you how to tail a cow and then let you try it with help.

Try to stay calm, no matter what happens when you are milking a first calf heifer.  She will pick up on your fears, anger, frustration, etc.  Be sure to praise her when she does what you want her to do.  Speak gently and firmly to her.  Explain what you want.  She will learn key phrases over time.  On the other hand, don't be afraid to use your voice to let her know when she does something you find unacceptable.  If she kicks, loudly yell at her "No".  I find that cows will either kick at the machine/hand that is milking them (a perfectly normal reaction.  Think about if you just had a baby and someone restrained you and tried to take milk away from your baby.  You would kick as well, whether out of fear, anger or because you were sore and uncomfortable.)  or, if you have a more aggressive cow, she may kick fast and hard at your body.  These are the cows I consider more dangerous.  A cow can have unbelievable good aim and strike with great force causing serious injury.  A balance between being cautious while not being fearful is of great importance.

My way of training a newly freshened first calf heifer is not the only way, but it is the way that works for me.  I believe strongly in allowing the cattle to be cattle and live as naturally as possible.  They raise their own calves, graze, live in a herd setting, are bred by a bull and even my training methods for milking are gentle and as carefree as possible.  I have found that familiarity, gentleness and consistency are far greater teachers than ropes and halters at least for our farm.  Restraint is used when necessary to protect us from a cow that is kicking dangerously but those restraints are used as a last resort and discontinued once the cow is no longer a danger to the person milking.  On a side note, it has been interesting to observe over the years that my cows who were my biggest pets were usually the most difficult in the stanchion in the beginning, while those who were still a bit shy seemed to be more compliant once they learned that a treat was available for them in the milking parlor.

The information in this post is by no means exhaustive but perhaps it will be a starting point for those contemplating milking a first calf heifer for the first time.

Happy Milking!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Better Late Than Never! (Why Doesn't My Cow Calve?)

Humans often get worried when babies aren't born when they think they should be born, and sometimes there are some reasons for concern.  However, often, the time simply isn't right for the calf and the cow.  We try to let nature take it's course here at the farm.  That is why we prefer our cows to be pasture bred rather than artificially inseminated.  We also prefer to not use any types of hormones or antibiotics unless they are deemed absolutely necessary.  Inducing a cow that is "late" is not something that we do.  Don't get me wrong.  If there were some type of life threatening condition that warranted such, then we would do what was necessary but too often we as humans try to take matters into our own hands rather than just letting nature take it's course.

One issue that comes up when a cow does not calve on schedule is the question of if the cow is actually bred.  This is a valid question and for beginners who aren't able to palpate or "bump" a calf to determine if the cow is bred, it is always wise to have your local Vet come out and verify that the cow is indeed bred.  This is especially important if you don't have a bull that runs with your herd.  A cow that was simply exposed to a bull once could very well not be bred.  If your cow has been in with a bull for many months, it is likely that she is bred, but sometimes there are other issues that cause a cow to not conceive.  Making sure the cows is indeed bred is important.

In our case, we have a cow that was put in with the bull when she cycled and her due date was set for March 5th.  Her due date arrived and I told my husband that she didn't look anywhere near ready to calve.  I decided then that she was either late or hadn't bred on that initial cycle when she was serviced by the bull.  We waited and counted the days, watching her carefully for signs of change.  Exactly 21 days from what we thought was her initial due date, she gave birth to a healthy bull calf without any assistance from the farmers.  We know now that she was indeed bred on her second cycle after she was put in with the bull.

We welcome Princess' healthy calf to the world on this cold, windy, snowy, spring day.

Good job Momma Cow!

Monday, March 10, 2014

I Want to Keep a Family Cow: Where Do I Begin?

I frequently get requests to mentor folks regarding the care and keeping of a family cow.  In addition, individuals often want to know if I have any advice for them on running a cow share program.  While I greatly enjoy sharing information with others, you can see by the frequency (or should I say infrequency) of my blog post that I am no longer able to spend a lot of time doing that.  There was a time when I spent hours responding to questions and helping people as a moderator on a fabulous  forum called Keeping a Family Cow.  This forum is a fantastic resource and I highly recommend your starting with it, as most of your questions will be answered simply by reading past posts.

While the forum will give you an excellent starting point and  some quick answers to commonly asked questions, I also highly recommend that you buy the book Keeping a Family Cow. The author,  Joann S. Grohman, has written  the best book on the subject to date.  Originally written in the 1970's the book has been updated and remains relevant to the small farmer and homesteader of today.  Joann continues to milk her own cow and is currently in her 80's.

To truly understand the nature of cattle one should take the time to read articles and information shared by Dr. Temple Grandin.  Specifically read the chapter on bovines in her book Animals Make Us Human.

If you are able to find a small farm or willing farmer who has the time to share hands on experience with you by meeting with you privately or offering classes for a fee,  take advantage of those types of training experiences.   Please don't begrudge the farmer for charging for their hard earned knowledge.   In addition to the worth of their knowledge and experience,  farms who offer classes must be insured to cover liabilities and that expense can be quite costly.

If interested in share programs or selling raw milk, the best resource is the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense organization. This organization will provide legal guidance as well as training with occasional  online courses.

In closing, let me just briefly say that I always encourage people to begin this journey only if they have a burning passion for owning and keeping dairy cattle. Keeping a family cow is not just a job, but it is a lifestyle.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Hen that Touched Our Lives

You have to understand that I am not particularly fond of chickens.  Oh, I like them well enough to own about 60 hens but if they didn't provide delicious, free range eggs for us, I would not own them.  I do not enjoy raising meat birds and I do not make pets out of them.  However, the spirit housed beneath the feathers of the bird pictured in this photo changed all of that for me. 

We didn't make her a pet.  She just "was" a pet.  We never named her and there was really nothing to distinguish her from the other 50 Speckled Sussex hens running around the farm other than the fact that she singled us out and chose to love us. 

I received this little hen as part of a group of mixed breed birds that a friend of mine started and then sold when they were several months old.  Every morning and evening as I milked and worked on the chores, she would follow me around and talk to me in a special voice.  I will never, ever forget the sound of her calling to me.  It was soft and conversational. 

It didn't take us long to realize that she enjoyed being held.  We would pick her up and stroke her feathers, talking to her and enjoying her company.  She and Spencer, the Corgi, also had a special relationship.  Spencer watched out for her and if he thought she needed to be somewhere else, he would very gently "herd" her.  He didn't run at her and spook her but would gently lay his mouth on her tail and turn her, not nipping and barking like he usually does. 

I loved this little hen's tempermant so much that I bought all Speckled Sussex last year for our laying hens.  While they all have a quiet disposition, none of them became pets like this little hen. 

We would sometimes talk about how much it would hurt to lose the little hen when it came her time to go but we never really wanted to think about it too much. 

Then one day a couple of weeks ago,, I saw the body of a hen lying under the roost.  Normally, I will remove a dead bird but I walked away.  I didn't want to look any further.  Later, I told Mike and he went to remove the bird confirming that he thought it was our little friend.

There was no way for us to really know because she looked like all the other Speckled Sussex in the barn yard.  But, I knew if she was alive she would greet me at chore time. 

The days have come and gone and I have waited for her.  Sometimes another hen will come close to the door of the milking parlor and peer in and I watch to see if maybe it is our little friend.  But, she has not returned.  Sometimes I hear a hen speaking in conversational tone and for a moment, I think it might be her until I realize that it's not her sweet voice calling me. 

She was five years old and I like to think that she went to sleep on the roost and died in her sleep peacefully. 

Goodbye little hen.  You are missed and will always hold a special place in our hearts. 

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Kids Meet the Children!

What a fun day it was at T. Cupp Miniatures!  Some of our share members were able to bring their children to the farm to meet Buttons and Bows, our Mini Nubian goat kids!  The children were so careful with the goat babies and things went very well!  Beautiful children and beautiful kids!  It doesn't get any better than that!  We had six children in attendance.  Thank you to the parents who took time out of their busy lives to share this experience with their children.  I believe it is so important for children to learn where their food orginates as well as to plant in them the desire to seek out humanely raised animal products. 

We had a snack of Chevre and Feta as well as the opporunity to drink goat's milk.  Each child went home with a bar of goat's milk soap. 

Note:  Permission was received from the parents to post photos of the children and anyone who did not grant permission, their child's photo was not included. I was unable to get photos of everyone as it was difficult to monitor activities and photograph at the same time. In the future, we need a designated photographer for such events