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.