Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.



This time of year as I talk with pond owners all over the nation, there are a full range of conditions. My friend Mike from Tennessee, referring to Baton Rouge, said, “Yep, I imagine the birds are already a-whistlin’ down there.” And so they are. Just this week, I swam in a pond for the first time to help a friend create spawning habitat for his fish. I also saw my first two snakes. In Louisiana, spring has arrived. Quite a contrast to my Northern friends, who have suffered through the “Polar Vortex,” which seemed like a whole season instead of an event. One thing for sure, temperatures are warming and spring is on the way. Warmer temperatures for pond owners always means algae production. While we welcome spring, it is also the season for the not-so-welcome invasion of algae.

The 3 Types of Pond Algae

Three types...Now these aren’t the only three types of algae, but these are three categories that will likely be important to you and your pond biology.

Green Phytoplankton: This algae is single-cell, free-floating algae. It is most often noticed as a green color to the water. It can range from a just a greenish tinge to pea soup. Green algae is productive and useful in the pond. Assuming you have sunny weather, it is a net producer of oxygen in the water. It is also the basis for the food chain for a bass-bluegill system, and contributes to other food webs as well. While it is a “good” algae, it can overproduce and the population eventually crashes, if the pond is too rich with nutrients. The level of production desired is also a matter of personal preference, depending on your goals for the pond. If you want to use the pond for swimming, typically, you will prefer little algae production of any kind.

blue greenBlue-green: This is the “mutant, evil twin” of green phytoplankton. Blue-greens are difficult classification for biologists. Cyanobacteria: Half-algae, half-bacteria. Blue-green algae are a deep green color, although they can vary from green to distinctly blue. Since it forms dense colonies and floats, it looks like someone spilled green paint on the water. The dense floating nature of blue-green algae shades out the green phytoplankton below, which reduces oxygen levels. Blue-green algae are not net producers of oxygen through photosynthesis. They are associated with high nutrient levels in the pond, and produce bad odors, off-flavor in fish, poor oxygen conditions, accelerated sludge accumulations, and they have been associated with toxic reactions in both pets and humans.

Filamentous Algae: Most often called pond scum, pond moss, or more scientifically, “that #%@# stuff that keeps getting on my fishing hook.. There are several species. Some, like Spirogyra, grow in the winter, which is also the name of a really good jazz group, although the group spells its name wrong. Once water warms, spirogyra burns off. The warm weather varieties, like Pithophora, are the most aggravating. Ptihophora begins as mats along the bottom of your pond while temperatures are still cool and you are unaware. Then when warm temperatures arrive, the bubbly mats float to the surface and drive you crazy while you enjoy your pond.

Algae Control


A common scenario : A pond owner has a flare-up of algae in the pond. The pond owner goes to the local feed store or farmer’s cooperative to inquire about how to handle it. The store salesperson, or Cliff Clavin, the eavesdropping customer, with limited knowledge but in and effort to have some solution, directs the pond owner to use copper sulfate because it is cheap, and they heard about someone using it that one time. Many farm stores carry copper sulfate because they have very limited knowledge, want to provide some solution, it’s inexpensive, and they heard of someone using it once. Satisfied with the consultation and small investment, the pond owner returns home. After opening  the container, he gazes, hypnotized,  at the blue crystals hoping they will magically tell him the dosage to use, since he doesn’t actually know the volume of water in his pond and reading a label is frustrating. Using the scientific method of selecting the largest clump of crystals that breaks off first, he proceeds to use Cliff’s advice of putting the blue crystals in a leg of panty hose and dragging it around behind the boat while it dissolves. Copper sulfate is a very effective algaecide, bactericide, and fish poison when used incorrectly —without regard to water chemistry or volume. Unfortunately, the all-too-common character in this story wakes up the next morning to a pond full of dead fish.

Approach Algae Control … Organically

Physical removal is an option for filamentous algae since you can grab it. A lake rake is a wide aluminum rake with a float across the top. You throw it out with a rope attached and pull it in to shore. This sounds easier than it is since it has a large volume of water and can be difficult to handle., Dragging a chain across the bottom of the pond to disturb the formation of filamentous algae along the bottom also can be used effectively. 

Dye reduces the amount of sunlight penetrating the water to stimulate algae growth.  Shading helps reduce all types of algae. Blue or black dye is available in liquid or packets of water-soluble dry powder.  Blue dye is associated sometimes with the “Tidy Bowl”-blue of miniature golf course ponds. It can be used in a limited fashion to make your pond more attractive and to help reduce algae growth. Dyes are safe for pond inhabitants as well as other visiting wildlife, including humans.

Beneficial bacteria treatments add a high concentration of cultured, beneficial bacteria to your pond. The objective is to create a bacterially-dominated ecosystem, instead of an algae-dominated system.  The bacteria don’t kill algae, they out-compete them — making nutrients unavailable for algae. These bacteria, especially in the presence of adequate oxygen, can be effective and arrest and reverse sludge buildup in your pond. These beneficial bacteria do not cause disease, and are safe for pets, irrigation, livestock, and people.. The secret to predictability with bacterial treatments is consistent, scheduled treatments at the full, recommended dose. I know this means reading a label and possibly doing math, but it really is important this time. Choose a  dry products because they are more concentrated and cost less to ship.


Barley straw has had much acclaim for reducing algae growth.  Its use began as a technique to control algae in open wells in Scotland. Lignin coats the outside of the straw, and is a hard waxy material. When submerged in water and exposed to sunlight, it breaks down, and one of the byproducts is peroxide. Peroxide is algaecidal. The bad news is that this effect is fairly localized unless water is flowing past.. The straw has to be replaced monthly and the old straw removed. This can be a lot of work for an inconsistent result.  Several products, including flakes and extract, give more consistency, with less bulk handling of straw. Peroxide products are available in a predictable, concentrated form for algae control. The good news is that peroxide has an organic label. Green Clean peroxide is available in liquid or granular and is OMRI certified. I have used this product with success. 

Ultraviolet (UV) sterilizers are used for water gardens and koi ponds. This is sound technology and works well at clearing green water from ponds. A filter exposes water  to ultraviolet light. When sized correctly for water volume and flow rate, a UV filter will kill 99.99 percent of algae, virus, bacteria, protozoas, and fungus. A UV filter in the plumbing and kills only the free-floating algae. In water gardens, this is cost-effective and doesn’t use much energy. Vegetable farms use UV technology  to  reduce coliform counts in vegetable irrigation.

Buffered alum binds phosphorus and also drops out small particles like clay in the water. Phosphorus is one of algae’s main nutrients, and vascular plants also need it. Alum, or aluminum sulfate, binds phosphorus into a salt crystal and takes it out of availability for algae. When aluminum sulfate goes into solution, however, it makes an acidic reaction and shift in pH. Your fish won’t appreciate that shift much, and will express disapproval by gulping at the surface in a stressful manner, and possibly floating upside down in your pond (this isn’t so you can scratch their belly). Fortunately buffered alum products on the market prevent this reaction. I have used this product in both water gardens and natural ponds with great success and without harming fish. As a bonus, this product will help to clear your water of small organic particles, clay particles, and even tannins that cause tea color.

“Phytoremediation” with plants along an edge or in bog filters, work for water gardens, natural ponds, stormwater ponds, and even septic and industrial waste treatment. Running the water past the roots of plants allows them to take up nutrients and even pollutants. Coupled with correct sizing, some proven design for the construction, and a commitment to some maintenance, the results can be incredible. 

Next time I will visit with you about a fantastic addition to the edge of your pond or water garden, Louisiana irises. 


Seashore Near Bittersweet Heritage Farm in Maine

Mornings in Maine come softly and quietly. My days begin with tending flocks and herds. Then Penny, my English Cockerspaniel, and I slip up to Harborside Market for a cup of coffee before heading to Marshall Point Lighthouse. As Penny runs along the rocky beach, across the hills surrounding the lighthouse, and through the woods behind, I sit on a granite bench engraved with a local family’s name. I drink in my coffee and the view. Islands dot the watery landscape. It’s March, and they’re still dusted in white.

I take time to do this each day. It’s more than just the dog needing to stretch her legs. These trips remind me of the history of the people who, for generations, have worked these waters. Likewise, there are those who have eked out an existence working the lands that hug these coasts. It’s not an existence for the faint of heart.

Sometimes, usually when I least expect it, I get rewarded for keeping at it. Small things, like a tiny newborn goat kid laying its head on my shoulder after a bottle feeding. A doe in labor, resting her chin on my knee in the stall, awaiting her new arrival. A lamb falling asleep in my lap as we sit in the sun on a hay bale. On days when my patience has worn thin from spending time repeating the same daily tasks, I’m reminded why people before me chose this life.

Sunrises and sunsets here remind me why artists are drawn to coastal regions. Whether a cold wintry morning or in the heat of a summer sunset, colors intensify around the water. Who cares about the weight of a hay bale when you step out the barn door and are greeted by such stunning skies?

Turkeys on Bittersweet Heritage FarmSome people say farming is too much worry. Worry that predators, either overhead or on land, will snatch up a tiny one when you’re not looking. Worry that winter snows will never melt and uncover buried fences, leaving flocks vulnerable. Worry that the hay won’t stretch through until next season.

Worries fade when sacks of newly spun wool, rich with color from each flock member, wait by the spinning wheel. Milk sits in shiny stainless totes, so white and creamy you can’t help but pour big, tall glasses of it. Vats full of curds evolve into fresh, crumbly cheeses. Eggs in shades of every brown imaginable softly rest in nest boxes.

We’re moving from winter to spring on the farm. It may not feel like it or look like it when you glance out the window. But it’s in the air. The animals feel it, too. They are anxious to get back to grazing, foraging, scratching in the earth. It will feel good to have luscious green blades underfoot after such a long, cold winter. We’ll take our morning walks again through the pasture, into the edges of woods. The herd will nibble at green shoots and emerging buds. I’m happy to let them take it all in. They deserve it after a long time being stuck in coops and stalls while the snow drifted high.

Fishermen will lay their traps out soon. They, too, will be glad not to be cooped up. Just as the girls are being sheared for their wool, lobsters will begin appearing on a more regular basis. Witch hazel will be popping, forsythia budding.

The last vestiges of winter are fading. I’ve already received my application for Open Farm Day in July, when Maine farmers throw open their barn doors to visitors. It’s sort of like being invited aboard a lobster boat. Bittersweet will, once again, celebrate farming. I’m happy visitors can stop by, take some time, sample fresh made cheeses and farm fresh milk, ask questions about wool, and simply share what I am privileged to experience every day, on my farm by the sea.

Rainbow Over the Shore Near Maine's Bittersweet Heritage Farm

This post originally appeared on

Dyan Redick describes herself as “an accidental farmer with a purpose.” Her farm, located on the St. George peninsula of Maine, is a certified Maine State Dairy offering cheeses made with milk from a registered Saanen goat herd, a seasonal farm stand full of wool from a Romney cross flock, goat milk soap, lavender, woolens, and whatever else strikes Dyan’s fancy. Bittersweet Heritage Farm is an extension of her belief that we should all gain a better understanding of our food source, our connection to where we live, and to the animals with whom we share the earth.



Deciding to keep chickens is an important step for most people interested in being more self-sufficient and testing the waters for raising livestock. Chickens offer the reward of fresh eggs and endless hours of entertainment and can be kept in a lot of suburban and urban areas these days.

When you start your flock with chicks, you get the added joy of hand raising your chickens to be well socialized with people, and it’s a lot of fun to watch them grow. While chicks may seem tiny and fragile, they are surprisingly hardy, and will quickly grow into wonderful chickens, with little work on your part. Here are the most important factors to keeping your chicks happy and healthy:

The Brooder. Baby chick housing is the place where you keep your baby chicks confined is called a brooder. I’ve seen people with brooder set-ups from cardboard boxes, to kiddie pools, to plastic storage containers. It’s pretty amazing what people come up with. The things to consider when setting up your brooder are: it must have a heat source, a feeder, a waterer, bedding, a top (those little rascals can really fly sometimes) and enough space for the amount of chicks you have to be able to play and stretch their little legs. Most people like to incorporate a roosting bar so the chicks can have something to perch on. Make sure your brooder is easy to get into for cleaning and feeding, and in a secure place where it won’t fall over or be accessible to curious pets or small children.

Heat. Chicks need to be kept very warm, starting at 90°F and moving down 5 degrees every week. The traditional way to offer chicks heat is with an infra-red heat bulb over the brooder. You can put a thermometer in the brooder to check for proper temperature, and the brooder should be “pre-heated” before you place chicks in it. The chicks will let you know how they feel about the temperature – if it’s too cold, they will stay directly under the heat source in a cluster and cheep loudly in distress. If it’s too warm, they will move away from the heat source, and open their beaks in what looks like a pant. When the temp is just right, the chicks will be spread out evenly, go about their business, and make little noise.

We started off with the traditional red heat bulb. However, at 250 watts, this thing will kill your electric bill. It also poses a serious fire hazard, especially in the middle of the night when you can’t monitor it. Lucky for me, my chick raising buddies who had much more experience than I, suggested using the EcoGlow 20. This warmer is outstanding – it only uses 18 watts of electricity, eliminates fire hazard, and warms the chicks in a similar fashion to a mother hen. It also accommodates up to 20 chicks! It did take our chicks a little time to figure it out, but once they did, they absolutely loved it. As they get older they’ve enjoyed perching on top of it as well. I can’t recommend this warmer enough – it’s a life (and electricity) saver.

Feed. Medicated vs. Non-medicated? For me, one of my biggest questions was whether to feed my chicks medicated feed or non-medicated feed. There are a lot of different opinions on which feed is best. After a lot of research and careful consideration, I realized that there was really one big factor that it came down to – Coccidiosis.

Coccidiosis is a common disease in chickens and can be contracted very easily from contaminated soil or other birds. It is most prevalent in young chickens. Some chicks are vaccinated for Coccidiosis along with a Marek’s vaccine. If a chick has been vaccinated against Coccidiosis, a medicated feed will nullify the effects of the vaccine, which means these chicks will need a non-medicated feed. Chicks who have not been vaccinated for Coccidiosis receive protection from medicated feed. Be sure to check with your chick supplier as to whether your chicks are vaccinated for Coccidiosis.

Water. Fresh, easily accessible water is very important for chicks. However, your basic waterer will become filthy very quickly – I swear my chicks make a game of getting it as gross as possible, as quickly as possible. To help with this, you can elevate your waterer to help keep it from getting too much bedding in it, or getting pooped in. Make sure the water is very shallow for young chicks, as they can drown in it easily. Many people add small rocks or marbles to the water dish portion when chicks are very young in order to prevent this.

We saved our sanity over cleaning out the water a billion times a day by investing in a few Brooder Bottle Caps from The Chicken Fountain. This ingenious little invention is a watering cap that fits on the end of any soda bottle, and only costs $3 per cap. I was really skeptical at first, but the chicks figured it out quickly, and just love it. It has cut down on our chick maintenance by leaps and bounds. Get one of these!

Bedding. When your chicks are very young (a few days old) it is highly recommended that you start off with paper towels or puppy pee pads as bedding. This prevents their tiny legs from sliding apart and causing splayed legs. It also keeps them from eating things (wood chips, sand, etc.) that they shouldn’t. After about a week, you can change to another type of bedding, typically pine shavings. Hay is not recommended, for several reasons, and neither is newspaper due to harmful inks and the slippery surface. We use pine shavings, but I’ve heard of more and more people using sand, which can be scooped out much like cat litter, and provides grit and a dust bath. The most important thing to bear in mind is that chicks poop a lot. A LOT. They are smelly and messy, and bedding needs to be changed often to keep it clean and dry.

Treats. Stay away from most treats until the chicks are a few weeks. When you do introduce treats, make them soft ones – fruits, plain yogurt, hard-boiled egg, etc. Anything with a whole grain could cause serious issues since chicks don’t have anything to help process it unless you choose to provide chick grit. Even so, I would avoid hard treats like scratch, seeds, etc., until the chicks are older and have access to grit to process them properly.


3-14-14 Road Strauss 003 jpg

Some would possibly contend that we have three seasons in the Rockies; winter which is our longest season, all other seasons combined and the dreaded mud season. We actually have five seasons with winter being the longest, sometimes up to 6 months long, and then spring, summer and fall. Our worst season is MUD season. That is when the winter snows change to water and slush, and coupled with the combination of warm days and cold nights they turn our roads and the ground into mud. This is the season that only lasts for a few weeks but clearly has the capability to make lives and travel miserable. Mud season is a time that tests your will to remain sane and cope with the never ending messy conditions.

Mud Season

Springtime in the mountains is when everything goes from brown or white to green. Animals come out of hibernation. It is a time when you can again see the ground and assess the damage winter may have caused. Wildflowers start to bloom and the meadows become radiant with a myriad of different colors. Birds build nests and hatch their young. It'ss a time when everything emerges fresh and new, and life is reborn again, and the freshness of the air is invigorating and dazzling colors return to the meadows and open areas. Sandwiched between winter and spring however is our most depressing season and that is mud season. Dirt roads become rutted bogs of soft clay, mud and rocks that require excellent driving skill. It is part of living in the mountains so most people, like us, just tough it out knowing that it is only a brief time all the time looking forward to what follows: spring, summer and fall. Mud season is that season to tolerate and persevere. Anyone who has lived on a dirt road in the mountains can relate to these words.

Mountain Dirt Roads

Mountain roads are generally dirt roads and require the wisdom of Solomon and the precision of a watch maker to drive safely on them. Mud season is a sensitive time of year for roads because if you drive on them when they're real soft you can do irreparable harm to them. Recently our grader operator plowed our road when it should have been left alone. Over night we had received 13” of snow and the temperatures were around freezing. Then the sun came up and it warmed up to the 40’s and the snow melted as did the dirt under it. When the grader came around at 5:00 P.M. the ground was soft and the snow had turned to slush. 

One careless attempt to plow the small amount of remaining snow destroyed our road. The grader sunk 6” or more in the mud allowing the blade to scrape off much of the road base and dirt that had been on the road. With the gooey mud the grader then was having trouble staying on the road leaving deep ruts that went all over the road. Our perfectly functional road of 17 years was gone in one careless moment. Once the grader had started down the road the operator couldn’t help but see what damage was being inflicted on the road, but it was too late to turn around as there was no place wide enough to turn around and head back.

Adapting to Mud

While we were heartsick over this occurrence the result is that we now have to plan trips to shop when the road is frozen early in the morning and return before it thaws out. We are required to adjust to a sloppy road and hope that our land owner association will repair the roads soon, which is looking doubtful at the moment. Mud season is a time of year when patience is tested, vehicle endurance is tested and adaptability is required. Four wheel drive is absolutely necessary this time of year. The aftermath of having our road destroyed now rests in the hands of those within our land owner association. Like most associations of this kind, ours is not always functional and presently our road also is equally non-functional. We have noticed that other roads have been damaged and hence we may have to get in line to get much needed road base reapplied to our road.

Never the less, the dirt roads this time of year become a hazard to use and extra caution is needed. While winter is harsh it is predictable and more easy to adapt to than mud season. Mud season lasts as long as the snow continues to melt and the temperatures are warm during the day. It is dependent on the volume of snow received in the winter. The snow or rain we do receive this time of year is wet and contributes to making more and deeper mud. The moisture does provide the necessary moisture to see us through the rest of the year so we put up with the mud. Soon it will have melted off and our roads will be more passable. It is also that time of year when we take special precautions not to track mud into the house. Our mud season doesn’t last over a few weeks but it can reduce a well behaved and calm person to hysteria and fits of anger.


Receiving deliveries and having services preformed by outside repairmen are far more difficult during the dreaded mud season. Mud season is a very real season in the mountains just like the other four seasons are. Some have suggested that we pave our roads but steep winding roads once paved tend to ice over easily and getting in and out of our community would be impossible to accomplish safely under those conditions. So this is our time of year when we exercise patience, use extra caution, and fondly look forward to the best of springtime.

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and mountain living go to:


Belle and HeidiI think trying to predict when kids are going to be born is part guesswork, part science, and part voodoo. I’ve been checking the prospective mothers to be and have been stymied. I generally know when they will give birth (I keep my does in with the buck several days to ensure that it took), but honestly, it all becomes guess and by golly. So I’ve resorted to “tried and true” methods for trying to guess when the little ones are coming out.


By the book: All the books and all the other goat owners have assured me that if the ligaments on the flank that lie either side of the tail have disappeared, kidding will commence in 24 hours. It’s even considered a “sure-fire method” of figuring out when the kid is coming out.

Reality: The ligaments in the tail and along the sides of the tail disappear and reappear all the time leading up to kidding. By this method, one of my does has been kidding the past three weeks.


By the book: Discharge is supposed to go from cloudy to clear. Kidding is then imminent

Reality: My goats are fleeing from me because I keep looking at their backsides. They’re yelling “pervert!” with each bleat. Most of them don’t have any discharge at all up until birthing. Then pop! There comes a kid.

Developing Udders

By the book: The udder will maybe start to fill, but could fill any time in the last month.

Reality: Udders can look big and swollen prior to kidding. Checking them out is another matter. My goats are convinced I’m a pervert trying to cop a feel.

Eating Habits Change

By the book: Doe stops eating.

Reality: Are you kidding me? My does are eating while popping out babies. Totally worthless information.


By the book: Doe gets more vocal and her voice changes before and while giving birth.

Reality: I did have one doe who did this. Too bad I sold her. And anyway, she didn’t get vocal when she had her kids this last time.

Vulva Swells

By the Book: The vulva swells getting ready to give birth.

Reality: See “Discharge” and “Pervert.”

Behavior Changes

By the Book: An aloof doe will get friendly. A friendly doe may get aloof or aggressive. Doe looks for a place to kid. Paws the ground.

Reality: Annie has been more aggressive these past three months. All the other does are running away because I’m checking their backsides. Heidi dug a hole in the kidding pen three weeks ago.

Load Shifts

By the Book: The kids drop lower in the doe’s belly to prepare to enter the birth canal.

Reality: I’ve been seeing this in all my does, but it can happen weeks before the kids come out.

As you can see, my goats aren’t thrilled with my examination and convinced I’m a pervert. They behave typically atypically and have none and all of the signs of being pregnant and getting ready to kid. None of these signs are actually good predictors. The best sign seems to be a nose poking out of the doe’s backside.

Sometime soon they’re going to kid. It’s been around five months.


Garden compost

It's been an unusual winter here in Maine. It started unusually early, it was unusually cold, unusually snowy, we had a record ice-storm before Christmas and now, when arriving in April, we can conclude that winter has been unusually long. We've said this so many times I really feel like a skipping CD, but today, on a fantastic spring-like 1st of April I need to say it again; it's over. Spring is here.

One of the first task of the new gardening season is to break open the compost pile. It's the touch of spring, the smell of spring and the beginning of all what's ahead. Our simple pallet bins is where it all ends – the garden scraps, leaves, weeds and chicken manure. This is also where it all begins – all the cabbage and carrot and parsnips and all the rest of the garden get planted in and takes its start from compost. It's the product of nature's own mean of survival – the process of decomposing. Something lives, dies, decomposes and form a medium for new life. The action to sustain life by the transformation of energy is a natural event that connects everyone to nature and that we too must accept our part in; to die and be metamorphosed into new life.

Making compost for the garden can be made very technical – what kind of receptacle to use, what to put in it, if and when to turn it and if and what, if any, amendments to add. Many books and articles have been written on the subject, still, if doing nothing, nature itself will inevitably take care of the decomposing - ubiquitous fungi, bacteria, microorganisms and insects are assigned the task of making this happen. That's what happens in the forest with dead logs and debris on the ground and that's what happens with the thick layer of seaweed mulch we cover our garden beds with every fall – it decomposes right there and provides nutrients for the soil. Hence, I don't see any need to make compost too technical, it will happen even when kept simple.

We use pallets from the lumber yard and tie them together to form the bin and usually fill it up over the course of the season. We avoid branches and twigs cause they take too long to decompose and invasive weeds – witch grass and comfrey to mention some – that might survive and be brought back to the garden. We use separate bins for emptying our composting toilets and use the compost from them on our fruit trees and perennial flower beds. We add a lot of seaweed to our piles – it's plenty of it washed up on the shores around here and it's a great medium to fuel decomposing. If we think it's necessary, we open the pile during the second season and remix it with seaweed – especially if it has a lot of sawdust from the chicken house that needs extra heat to break down. I like spending time making compost and tending the piles – adding material and sifting out debris before I use it is a way to honor the role it plays in sustaining life.

Much of the conventional agriculture today doesn't use compost at all – the plants are fed chemicals processed with the help of fossil fuel and after the harvest the soil is left depleted. That's the difference between sustainable food production and destructive food production – feeding the soil using nature's own way of extending life or feeding the plant ignoring natural mechanism that's been in use as long as there's been life on the planet.

Growing an organic garden with compost I made using natural material from our surroundings is to comply with nature's way of taking care of itself – it's to remain humble for a true and tried life cycle and acknowledge our inevitable part in and connection to life on Earth.


cow headWhen I was a kid, an old dairy farmer I worked for told me: "Boy, it doesn't matter how you milk your cows as long as you do it the same way every time."  I’ve learned and lived his words for the past fifty years and, by gosh, are they true. Cows love routine.  The more things stay the same for cows, the safer and more secure they feel.  Here is my abbreviated list of best practices for milking a cow, learned over many decades in the barn.

Take the Common Milking Wisdom with a Grain of Salt

Much of the common wisdom about milking cows is geared towards encouraging the production of cheap milk rather than doing what is good for you and your cows.  As I wrote about in my last blog, the average life span of a cow on a commercial dairy is roughly four-and-a-half years.  My cows regularly live for ten-plus years because I don't burn them out.  I keep my cows healthy so that they live good, long lives and provide a return (and then some) on my investment. 


When I milk my cows, the first step is to sanitize the teats by dipping them in a mild iodine based teat dip approved for "pre-dipping".  To reduce the risk of being kicked, I dip the teats that are on the far side of the cow first.  If the cow has a sore teat or is just having a bad day and decides to kick, she will kick with her hind leg that is away from me instead of the one I am next to. 

I let the dip sit on the teat for at least 30 seconds.  Then, I clean and start each teat to check the milk flow and make sure the milk looks good.  This stimulates the cow’s milk production and encourages milk let down.  I don't use a strainer cup because I have been milking cows long enough to know when there is a problem with the milk.  If the cow is eating, seems normal (meaning the quarter is not swollen or hot and you don't feel any clots in the milk when you start her) she is probably okay.  I wipe the excess sanitizer off with a paper towel, using one towel per cow to minimize the possibility of spreading infection.  After another 30 seconds or so, I will put the milking unit on and leave the cow be until she is done.


Leave the Udders Alone While Your Cows are Milking

Years ago, it was the custom for dairy farmers to mimic the hand milking process when machine milking by kneading their cows’ udders and squeezing out every last drop of milk.  Now, dairy farmers know it is best to leave their cows alone.  Don't touch their udders until the milking process is complete.  Occasionally, you might have to help a cow finish by manipulating the milker, butI only do this if one quarter is milking out uncharacteristically slower than the other three.  When my cows are done milking I will quickly dip their teats in the sanitizer after I remove the machine. It is especially important to post dip the teats before the cow lies down.

Over Milking Is Preferable to Under Milking

Inexperienced milkers may find it difficult to know when a cow's udders are empty or "milked out."  The common wisdom (see above for my thoughts on Common Milking Wisdom) says it is better to "under milk" a cow than to "over milk" a cow.  I don't agree.   If a milker stays on one of my cows for a couple of minutes after she is milked out, I am not concerned.  I'll get to it when I can.  As long as the cow doesn't complain and there is no damage to her teats and teat ends, I don’t worry.  Of course you want to make sure you minimize both over and under milking. 

When all is said and done, take the old farmer’s advice. Establish a predictable milking routine. This will build trust between you and your cows that will make your life and the cows’ lives a lot easier.  Don’t forget to be kind, relaxed and confident.  Talk to your cows or sing them a little song.  Move calmly and stay close.  Your cows will thank you.

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Lighten the Strain on the Earth and Your Budget

MOTHER EARTH NEWS is the guide to living — as one reader stated — “with little money and abundant happiness.” Every issue is an invaluable guide to leading a more sustainable life, covering ideas from fighting rising energy costs and protecting the environment to avoiding unnecessary spending on processed food. You’ll find tips for slashing heating bills; growing fresh, natural produce at home; and more. MOTHER EARTH NEWS helps you cut costs without sacrificing modern luxuries.

At MOTHER EARTH NEWS, we are dedicated to conserving our planet’s natural resources while helping you conserve your financial resources. That’s why we want you to save money and trees by subscribing through our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. By paying with a credit card, you save an additional $5 and get 6 issues of MOTHER EARTH NEWS for only $12.00 (USA only).

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