As you know, the milk that my four cows produce does not provide my sole income. This means that I can be more flexible than most commercial dairy farmers with my management practices and breeding program. I have the flexibility to wait to breed my heifers so that they will calve at 24 to 26 months when they are mature enough to handle the process, rather than pushing them to calve and produce milk at a younger age.
I can also be a bit more relaxed about getting my mature cows bred back. I prefer to breed my cows so that they calve in the spring or early summer, and I do this via artificial insemination by a local breeding service. Because I live in a thickly-settled village in Vermont, I don't keep a bull. Bulls are dangerous. It is no myth. In fact, I know several people who have been seriously injured or killed by bulls (a topic for another blog post).
Understanding Dairy Cow Breeding Cycles
Understanding and effectively executing a breeding program depends on understanding the calving cycle and when and how to dry a cow off in preparation of calving. Here is my guide to these processes:
The gestation period for a cow or "Duchess" (the name given to cows by an old farmer I worked for when I was a kid) is approximately nine months. Because I want my heifers to calve between 24 and 26 months, I breed them when they are 13 to 17 months old.
Nine months after a heifer is bred (give or take a week or two), she will give birth. Hopefully, this happens on a dry pasture or in a clean calving pen. Then, she will begin to make milk. See the end of the blog for more information on the importance of this first milk, or colostrum. Having calved, this heifer - now called a "first calf heifer" - begins lactation. At this point, I milk her twice a day for approximately 10 months. Ideally she will have her next calf in twelve months and deliver one calf per year for the rest of her life. Of course, this sounds simpler than it really is. In order for her to have another calf in 12 months (during what is called "the calving interval"), I'll need to get her bred back within 60 days after she first calved. After 60 days, she should be fully recovered from the first calving experience, eating well and making a lot of milk.
'Drying Off' Your Dairy Cow
After the cow is successfully bred back, I will milk her until two months before she is due to calve again. At this point, I will stop milking her (dry her off) and give her a 60 day vacation before she calves again. This vacation is critical and allows the cow to build up stamina and repair her body condition so that she will be in good shape for calving. Then, the cycle starts over again. People have asked me many times for the best way to "dry off" a cow. There are many opinions regarding how a cow should be dried off. Here are some important things to consider:
When you stop milking a cow, her udder will swell. This swelling puts pressure on the mammary glands in a cow's udder and sends the signal for her to stop making milk. Some cows dry off very easily. Their udders swell for a few days and then they shrink right down within a week or so. Other cows don't respond so well. Their udders will swell up and stay swelled up for days and milk will leak out of their teats. This makes dairy farmers nervous. Consistent swelling creates the opportunity for germs to enter the cow's udder and can cause an infection known as mastitis.
Some farmers will stop giving a cow water during the drying off period. Some will milk them once a day or once every other day. As I mentioned earlier, I am a traditional dairy farmer. Two weeks before I dry a cow off, I gradually cut back on her grain and feed her a bit coarser, lower protein hay, if I have it. Then, when the day comes, I just stop milking her, period. Ideally, a dry cow should only be fed long stem dry hay and not receive any grain or salt during her dry period - the period she is not giving milk before she has her next calf.
Occasionally I will have a stubborn cow that refuses to stop making milk. Her udder stays swollen and leaks. In this case, I might milk her out in a few days to stop the leaking. But I prefer not to do this because it relieves the pressure and prolongs the drying off process. Nature is amazing. Let it take its course. As long as the cow is eating well and looks healthy, leave her be.
Some farmers routinely use "dry treatment" when they dry their cows off. "Dry treatment" is an antibiotic solution injected into the cow's udder through the teat canals. Some folks claim that dry treatment prevents udder infections in dry cows. I don't like to use any medication routinely so I don't use dry cow treatment with my cows. And, knock on wood, I haven't had a cow come down with a case of mastitis in eight years. The key is to keep all your cows clean dry and comfortable and, generally, they will stay healthy.
Two weeks before my cows are due to calve, I will begin to "lead feed" them and give them a little grain along with higher quality hay. This restarts the digestion system and gives them time to adjust to being fed grain--that is, if you feed your cows grain, which I do.
As you know, I am a fairly traditional dairy farmer, and my breeding practices follow suit. For any additional information on the breeding and drying off process, please call Bob-White Systems at 802-763-2777.
Important Dairy Cow Tips and Takeaways
A cow's udders will begin to develop about half way through its pregnancy.
I milk Jerseys, which means that I generally do not have to worry as much about my heifers birthing large calves--a common issue with other breeds, like Holsteins.
A cow's first milk is called colostrum, and it contains all of the antibodies that a calf needs to fight off diseases. It is essential that a newborn calf drink, or be fed, up to a half a gallon of warm colostrum as soon after birth as possible. If the newborn calf doesn't receive any colostrum within the first 12 to 24 hours after being born, it is likely it will die in a week or two.
Cows come into heat or estrus (when they become receptive to being bred) every 21 days. It is possible to breed a cow back during her first "heat" after calving, but generally that doesn't give her enough time to recover from the birthing experience. It is best to wait for the second or third heat to breed a cow back.