On our farm, we enjoy being as independent as possible. To offset the ever-increasing costs of groceries, we have raised beef cattle, chickens for eggs, and a vegetable garden. We’ve also planted an orchard for fruit. Because the six of us consume large amounts of milk and milk products, the idea of owning a dairy animal has always intrigued me.
However, for many years, I was in a very busy season of life and could not take on any more work. I was in the midst of pregnancies, nursing, and potty training and couldn’t fathom any additional responsibilities. I set the idea of a milk animal aside until a better time.
As my children grew older and more independent, and more of our money went toward dairy products, I began to revisit the idea of owning a dairy animal. As milk prices neared $4.00 a gallon in 2011, my husband and I began to look for a dairy cow.
After some searching, we found two Jersey cows for $1,000 each. Although for our family, one cow would provide more than enough milk, I figured that I could train both of them for milking and later sell one of them for a profit. The price for a trained milk cow in our area is pretty high, so it felt like a good plan. Additionally, I hoped to train any female offspring of these Jerseys and sell them as milk cows. If we were overwhelmed with surplus milk, we could either raise bottle calves or allow the cows to adopt other calves for later sale.
When my husband brought our cows home, I was so excited. However, my enthusiasm was tempered by the fact that neither cow had been handled much at all. It would take a lot of work to convince nervous two-year-old cows to allow us to touch and eventually milk them. Fortunately, the cows were not mean, but were merely skittish of people. They also enjoyed getting grain as a treat.
Training the Cows
The first few days, we did little with our cows, allowing them to get acclimated to their new surroundings. We named the black cow Blossom and the brown one Dolly.
After a day or two, we began treating the cows to some grain daily in a feed trough. Slowly, we would approach them as they were enjoying the grain. Blossom was so interested in eating that she did not care when we walked up and began gently petting her. Dolly took a bit longer, but after awhile, she too grew more comfortable with our touch.
We knew that we would have to teach the cows to like people and walk on a lead rope. Therefore, we needed to halter-train both of them. Thankfully, our farm is equipped with a cattle chute and head-catch for handling our beef cows. Finding properly fitting halters for Blossom and Dolly took several trips to Tractor Supply. Even then, Dolly’s halter had to be modified by punching additional holes so that it would fit snugly enough.
By the time we had halters on the cows, they had learned to follow a grain scoop and feed bucket. They were definitely addicts to the grain that we were feeding them, a fact that made it much easier to catch them. Then, we began training them to lead and stand quietly when tied.
This was much easier than we thought it would be. We clipped a lead rope to their halters and tied the rope securely to a stout post. After fighting the rope for a while, Dolly and Blossom learned that the rope never gave way. They soon gave up struggling and settled down. We were able to approach them and give them grain treats. We also began brushing, petting and touching them to get them used to being handled.
We made a point of touching and handling their udders and teats. We tried to make every human interaction with them calm, quiet, gentle and rewarding. We wanted them to associate humans with good things, rather than fear. This process took three or four weeks of daily handling and training to complete.
The man from whom we bought our two Jerseys figured that they would give birth around the middle of December. We watched and waited. Christmas came and went, and then New Years’ passed with no calves. By the end of January, we began wondering if they were ever going to give birth. We knew that they were bred, since their udders were swelling and they weren’t having regular heat cycles. We were just unsure as to when the big event would finally happen.
Although this delay was a little annoying, it did have some advantages. We were able to prepare our milking stanchion and fix up a pen in the barn out of the weather. Since we never knew when our cows would go into labor, we began putting them into the barn on cold, wet or stormy nights. We also began to acclimate Dolly and Blossom to the milking stanchion.
Since we had never milked before and Blossom and Dolly were going to learn the ropes too, my husband created our milking stanchion with safety in mind. Along one side, he ran a sturdy board behind which one could easily milk out of reach of flying hooves. Along the other side, he hung a metal gate that could be swung back to trap the cow and protect a milker on that side as well.
Another advantage of the calving delay was that we were given more time to tame Dolly and Blossom. Every evening I would go to the barn to check on them before bedtime. By doing this nightly, they began to get very friendly toward me. Soon, I was able to approach my cows in the field, and they did not shy away from me.
February passed and still no calves were born. The Jerseys’ udders swelled enormously, and their bellies looked huge. At this point, I expected a calf any day. The weather was warm and dry, unusual for early spring in our area, but perfect for calving.
We were a little nervous about calving. Compared to our larger Angus cattle, the Jerseys looked too small to be having calves. Additionally, since they were already bred when we bought them, there was no way to be certain that they were bred to a bull that sired small calves. It is not unusual for first-calf heifers to require assistance with calving, and sometimes they die in the attempt to bring new life into the world. I hoped that both Blossom and Dolly would have no problems with their calves.
On the morning of March 13, 2012, I went out to check on my cows. As soon as I saw Blossom, I noticed that she appeared different. Her tail-head protruded noticeably. When I felt around the tail, I found that I could not feel the pelvic ligaments that normally are quite prominent. These signs pointed to the fact that she would have her calf within the next 24 hours. However, when I saw that her udder was dripping with yellowish colostrum, I figured that she would have her baby within just a few hours.
Around 11 am, I looked out at the field. I saw a light brown blob on the ground, and, when I walked out there, I happily discovered that Blossom had given birth without a single problem.
The calf was still wet and sticky. Blossom had not yet even passed the afterbirth. If I had peeked out just a few minutes earlier, I would have been able to watch the birth. She was up, licking the calf and mooing softly to her little bull calf. After a time, the calf began to get up and try to nurse. He was healthy and strong.
Learning to Milk
Later that day, I went out to visit Blossom. I took a small container and was able to milk about a pint of rich, yellow colostrum from her udder. Colostrum is the first milk that a mother cow gives to her baby. For the first few days after birth, a mother cow creates a fabulous, antibody-rich food for her calf. It is thick and yellow in color. I milked out a bit to store in the freezer for any orphaned calves we might have in the future because it is so essential for a calf’s health.
Three days after calving, Blossom’s milk came in. At this point, I milked her for the first time in the barn. Blossom was not very happy about people messing with her udder. While she would not kick us, she kept raising her foot to swat our hands away from her bag. The first day I milked, I worked very hard to hand-milk a quart of milk from her. Then, she stuck her manure-caked foot right in the bucket.
The second day, I talked my husband into helping out. He took a rope and tied Blossom’s foot to the gate, immobilizing her leg so I could milk more easily. Something I’ve learned about cows is that it takes about three days for a cow to get the hang of a new routine. On the third day, Blossom seemed to resign herself to being milked. She stood fairly still, and we were able to milk more easily.
On the third day of hand milking, my husband ordered me a bucket milker. Although I enjoyed the hand-milking process, I did want to speed things up a bit. At this point, our other cow, Dolly, had given birth and I knew that unless I wanted to milk for over an hour each morning, I needed the process to go more quickly.
On day four, I recruited my daughter to help me. She would milk on one side, and I would milk on the other. We were able to milk her dry this way, but it was slow. It took about 25 to 30 minutes to complete our session, and after about 20 minutes, Blossom began to get impatient. As long as she had grain, she was happy, but she would get restless once her food was gone. My daughter and I learned that it was best to have two buckets handy. We would milk into one bucket and occasionally pour the milk into the other one. This way, when Blossom began to get impatient, we wouldn’t lose all the milk if she started to get crazy with her feet.
I didn’t want be tied to milking a cow every twelve hours, so I adopted the once-a-day milking routine. I left the calf with Blossom around the clock, and just milked what I could get each morning. This seemed to work well. I did not have to worry too much about milking on a strict schedule because the calf would help keep her bag drained, preventing milking issues, like mastitis. I planned to eventually put the calf up at night, allowing Blossom to build up a good amount of milk that I could milk for my family each morning. However, since I was able to get at least half a gallon of milk each morning (plenty for our needs), I just left the calf with Blossom all of the time.
Two days after Blossom’s baby was born, I checked on Dolly. The pelvic ligaments were almost undetectable around her tail-head, so I figured that she’d, too, give birth very soon. Sure enough, the next morning, Dolly had given birth easily to another Jersey bull calf.
The first day or two I tried to milk some colostrum from Dolly. The formation of her teats confirmed to me the necessity of a milking machine. Her two back teats were so tiny that I could only milk them with two fingers. This took forever and was ineffective. I hoped that the calf would suck enough from them to drain those two rear quarters until my milking machine arrived.
The day that Dolly’s milk came in, I tried to milk as much as I could from her back quarters. It appeared that, since the back teats were so small, the calf was pretty much ignoring them. I anxiously awaited the delivery of my milker, knowing that Dolly desperately needed those back quarters drained to prevent mastitis.
The very next morning, I found that Dolly’s milk in her right rear quarter was the color of tomato soup. Later, she quit eating and drinking. I called the vet, and he figured that she had mastitis, an infection of the udder tissue. He told me the dosage of injectable antibiotics needed and recommended that I use a product called ToDAY® in the teat canal to get rid of the infection. I also needed to milk as much infection out of her udder as regularly as possible, even though the milk was not drinkable. After the first injection, Dolly began to eat and drink once again.
For the next five days, I milked Dolly every few hours. Her infected quarter was one of the rear ones which had tiny teats, so hand milking was pretty much ineffective at draining the nastiness. I was very glad when my milker came, as it worked better at sucking out the gross stuff. I had to massage the bag with all of my strength to break up the infection. Finally, on day five, I felt that I was making some headway.
Because walking was painful for Dolly, I began keeping her up in the barn in a pen so that I could easily get to her to milk. Since we were out of hay, I would tie her on a lead in the yard to eat grass. The warm sun also seemed to soften the udder tissues, making our milking sessions more productive.
On the morning of March 26, I tied Dolly in the yard to eat and returned to the house for a bit. Several hours later, my daughter found her dead. Apparently, she had gotten her feet entangled in the lead and fell. The force of the fall, combined with the taut lead rope, broke her neck and she died instantly. We were all heartsick. Dolly had such a sweet personality. Even though her mastitis treatments were painful, she never kicked and patiently endured my firm massage.
Grafting a Calf
Despite our sadness, we still had work to do. We had to graft Dolly’s ten-day-old calf onto Blossom. Blossom didn’t like this idea at all, so we bribed her with grain. We put a halter on the calf and introduced him to his new mother. He was more enthusiastic than Blossom, but after two or three days, he learned that he could sneak in behind Blossom when her calf was eating and get a good meal. Soon Blossom resigned herself to being the mother of two calves and accepted both of them.
The Milking Experience
With only one healthy cow, milking went very smoothly. Blossom got into the routine of morning milking. However, I was surprised by the difficulty that I had getting milk with good flavor. While the milk did not taste spoiled, it had a definite “cowy” odor and flavor.
The flavors were worse when I stored milk in plastic containers, so I began buying half-gallon jars of pickles just so that I could use the jars for milk storage. Cleaning and sterilizing glass jars was much easier than with plastic containers.
After some research, I learned that off-flavors in milk can also be caused by fresh spring grass. I learned that adding three or four Vitamin E capsules to Blossom’s grain ration could improve the flavor of milk. Amazingly, this worked perfectly, and we began drinking the milk once again.
Every morning now, I go to the barn and hook up my milker. The bucket, shells, and tubing are stored in the house so that I can keep them sterile. The pump is on an elevated shelf in the barn. I attach everything to the pump and let Blossom in the barn. She goes right to the stanchion and begins eating. I close the stanchion bars around her neck and wash her teats. I squeeze a stream of milk from each teat into the dirt, since the first squirts are contaminated with bacteria. Then I turn on the pump and attach the milking machine to her teats.
After five or ten minutes, Blossom’s bag is empty. I have found that she needs a firm udder massage to help her letdown the milk. I carry the milk to the house while she finishes her grain and strain it using commercial milk filters. By the time I make it back to the barn, Blossom is done with her grain. I let her out of the barn and then clean my milking equipment. The whole process, including clean-up, generally takes about 25-30 minutes.
So far, I keep both calves with Blossom all of the time, but as they begin to consume more milk, I will pen them away from Blossom at night. Right now, I get at least a half-gallon of milk each morning, and Blossom is raising two calves.
I am enjoying the milking process, despite the difficulties I have encountered. I think it will take a few years to recover the investment in the cows and milking machine, especially since Dolly died, but I love the fact that fresh milk is always in the fridge. Each day, I thank Blossom for sharing her milk with my family as I let her out of the barn after milking.
Through these experiences, I’ve learned that you may end up having rough times in farming, but you just keep going. Because in the end, the beauty and joy of the experience makes it worth the hard moments.