Milking the Family Cow

From purchasing the right cow to the proper methods of milking by hand, author Philip Hasheider explains the basics of miking the family cow.

Family Cow Handbook By Philip Hasheider

"The Family Cow Handbook," by author Philip Hasheider takes you through the process of buying, feeding and milking the family cow.

Cover Courtesy Voyageur Press

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The following is an excerpt from The Family Cow Handbook by Philip Hasheider (Voyageur Press, 2011). Milking the family cow and experiencing the simple joys that come with it are explained in this incredible book. You will learn the do's and don'ts  of buying a cow, milking, feeding and much more. The excerpt below, from Chapter 7, "Milking: Adjusting Your Cow and Yourself to the Process," touches on the basics of milking the family cow. 

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: The Family Cow Handbook.

A family cow can bring great personal satisfaction and enjoyment. Just having her around and attending to her can become a daily pleasure.

Yes, your cow needs daily attention, and you must provide the basic care to sustain her and promote growth and good health. Still, cows are remarkable creatures. Left to their own devices, they can live fairly well on their own with little outside help. Their survival instincts can be to your advantage. In normal circumstances and with a healthy animal, you won’t need to babysit her too often. After providing her with water, shelter, and whatever feed she can graze, she can be left alone for most of the day.

In return, she’ll reward you with her milk, often considered nature’s most perfect food. That’s not a bad trade.

Making Milk Starts with a Calf

The initiation of lactation, or milking, begins with your cow giving birth. Before this happens, you’ll need to make several decisions. If you buy a pregnant cow that is dry (not milking), your process will be quite different than if you purchase a cow that is in lactation (giving milk).

If she is dry, which I recommend, you will have some time to get her acclimated to your farm and you can plan your milking routine. If she is giving milk, you’ll need to put your milking plan into action when she arrives.

A dairy cow is typically milked twice each day, seven days a week, until she is dried off in anticipation of her next calf. Peak milk production occurs in the first three to four months after calving. It is a standard lactation curve: high early on and then tapering off. Feed quality and availability, weather and climate conditions, and udder and body health are factors that affect production levels. There is no rule or law that says you have to milk her twice a day, once a day, or even at all. Nor is there any regulation that states what hour of the day she should be milked. These are all decisions that you make.

Whether you have one cow or more, there are three basic options for the milk produced: drink it, sell it, or turn it into another product. What you do with your cow’s milk determines how many times a day you milk her. The more milk you need, the more often you milk her. It may not be three times a day, but twice a day is a good option for many families. If you plan to use a lot of milk, whether for drinking, for cheese-making, for butter-making, or for making other products, you’ll need more milk. In that case, keep your cow in full production as long as you can. If you need less milk than planned, you can reduce the number of milkings each day with no adverse consequences.

Dairy cows have the ability to adjust their production to the demand for it. Taking nature’s view in the wild, if the calf required more milk, the cow would increase her production. If the calf needed less milk, she would instinctively lower the amount she produced because it wasn’t required. This instinct has stayed with the domesticated cow.

The udder tissue acts like a sensor to the pressures produced by the volume of milk in the udder. A long period of constant pressure where little or no milk is removed is a signal to the tissue to decrease production.

Set a Daily Milking Schedule

Will you milk your cow once a day? Twice a day? How will this fit into your work or family schedule? Your cow is adaptable. You can milk her morning, noon, or night. She can adjust to a 12-hour cycle, or a 16-hour and 8-hour milking schedule. Cows are creatures of habit and will adapt to the hours you maintain for milking, whether noon and midnight, five o’clock in the morning and five o’clock at night, or something in between.

Decreasing the number of milkings per day causes a reduction in milk yield. Skipping one milking a week reduces total yield by about 5 to 10 percent. Milking once daily cuts the yield by half in first-calf heifers and by 40 percent in older cows.

If you raise your cow’s calf, it could free up your schedule. If you need to be gone for a few days, with no one able to milk your cow, the calf will help you out. Just give your cow access to hay or pasture and let the calf nurse until you get home and resume your milking schedule.

Milking Your Cow

Learning to milk a cow is like learning to ride a bicycle. It may be a struggle and feel awkward the first few times. But once you learn, you’ll wonder why you ever thought it was hard. In fact, milking is easy enough to learn that other members of your family might like to get in on it. Everyone in your family can learn and take turns in the rotation. You may be surprised at how quickly your cow adapts to each individual who milks her.

Starting with a Dry Cow

I suggest buying your first cow when she is dry. She could be due to calve in a few days or in several months. Either way, a dry cow will allow you to train her to accept the pen or stall where she’ll be milked and to become accustomed to you.

Have a bedded pen ready with hay and water where your new cow can lie down after her trip to your farm. This will be a calming way for her to relax her first night at a new home. Most cows settle in quickly, particularly if handled gently and quietly.

Use her adaptability and desire for routine to help her find her milking place and be comfortable with it. Let her do this at least twice a day, at the times you plan to milk her. If you have a stanchion stall or head-lock in her pen, start to train her by having her put her head through. You can sprinkle some grain in front of her and let her decide to poke her head through to lock it. This will condition her to look for the sweet-tasting grains as a reward. She will adapt to this routine after a couple days of practice and even look forward to coming into her stall. This lets her settle into a familiar pattern that will make the days after calving less stressful for her and for you. She can adapt to close confinement during the milking if she hasn’t had that experience before. By allowing her to become acquainted with a comfortable and calm atmosphere, you will also provide yourself with a pleasant area to work.

Some homesteaders like to hand-milk their cow in the pasture in order to enjoy the outdoor experience. Listening to the rhythm of milk stripping into a metal pail while watching the evening sunset or morning sunrise may be the dream you’ve held. This will work if your cow is tethered and very docile. But any quick moves or surprises by something in the pasture can result in spilled milk.

Bringing your cow onto your farm before she calves also allows you time to get her acclimated to her new surroundings, feed, pasture, stable, family members, cats, and, perhaps, an expressive family dog.

Work with your cow while she is tied up eating grain or hay. Use a soft hairbrush and move alongside and gently brush her back, rump, and sides. This will calm her and let her get used to your presence. Talk to her as you brush her or have a radio on playing at a soft or moderate level. The more she becomes accustomed to your presence, family members, or pets before her calving, the less likely she will be disturbed or agitated afterward—when you want to milk her.

While there are no guarantees, buying a cow that appears calm and docile is the best assurance that she will be that way once she arrives at your farm. Yet, even though she may be calm upon arrival, the birth of a calf can alter some cows’ attitudes toward you or anyone else that may appear as a threat to her calf. You will need to be aware of her attitude toward you before or after calving and the first time you milk her.

Most cows are calm enough to share their calf with you and will express physical or vocal interest in what you are doing with her calf. On rare occasions, however, cows assert their protection in ways that are injurious to their handlers. Be calm, be alert, and be safe until you understand her attitude. Training your cow to be in your presence before she calves will go a long way in reassuring her of your intentions.

The first milking session after calving is a time of introduction to your methods. Your cow should go easily into the milking stall if she’s been trained to do so beforehand. Making the decision to separate your cow from her newborn calf for the first milking depends on how much space is available. Three of you can occupy it at one time, if desired. The arrangement or location of the milking stall in relation to the calving area, and whether your cow seems attached to her calf, are factors too. Most importantly, keep yourself safe. Avoid spaces where you can become wedged against a wall or gate and be crushed if she moves from side to side. Give yourself room to move away from an ungrateful cow if she decides to kick at you. Close quarters make it more difficult to evade swinging legs directed at perceived pests.

By mid-lactation, your cow will understand the milking process. She’ll generally accept her new surroundings with little fuss, especially if she has some feed to distract her. Her main concern may be how you milk her, whether by hand or machine.

Ways to Milk 

There are two ways to milk a cow: by hand or by machine. Your idyllic view of hand-milking may be one of your reasons for buying a family cow. It can create a close bond between a cow and a human, but it also can seem an arduous task at the beginning.

Don’t be discouraged. But realize that hand-milking a cow that gives forty pounds of milk a day, or twenty pounds each milking, is roughly five gallons.

This will take some time out of your day to do a complete milk-out. It will test the strength of your arm and hand muscles. You may need to stop periodically during your first sessions to let your muscles relax, but practice will make you stronger. Over time, your muscles will increase in both strength and stamina. After the cramps in your hands and arms are a thing of the past, you’ll look back and realize it is better exercise than joining a health club or mimicking the latest exercise video.

Hand-milking is easier if your cow has teats between two and four inches in length. Teats shorter than two inches are difficult to fully grasp with four fingers. While they work well with a milking machine, short teats only allow for your thumb and first two fingers of each hand to be used. This makes hand-milking more difficult than it should be. Teats that are more than four inches in length are not ideal, but they’re at least better for hand-milking than machine-milking because of the design of many teat cup liners that are part of the milker. A median teat size will make full use of your fingers and hands during the squeezing motion needed.

You can become an expert hand-milker in a very short time. You’ll develop a rhythm that suits you and your cow, and the daily milking may be time of peace and quiet. Call it meditation by milking. But whatever name you call it, it can have a therapeutic effect on daily stress. Experience is the best teacher, and you will quickly learn that long, slow strokes yield more milk in a shorter time than short, fast hand strokes.

If your time is at a premium or your physical ability is a major concern, a portable milking machine could be your answer. Maybe you’re just not up to milking by hand. Regardless of the reasons, you don’t need to feel guilty about using a machine. Portable milking units are available and affordable. They accomplish the milking in a very short time. They achieve a complete milk-out and are easy to clean and store until the next use.

Where hand-milking may take upwards an hour each time at first, a milking machine can accomplish the same result in five to eight minutes. This eliminates the physical stress on your arms and hands. If your cow is already accustomed to a milking unit being attached to her teats, you should experience few problems in milking her. Switching a machine-milked cow to hand-milking is more challenging than switching a hand-milked cow to a machine.

A milk machine unit operates most effectively when there are four working teat structures, although they can be successfully used on cows that have only three or even two healthy quarters. A machine works on the same principle as hand-milking in that it extracts milk from the udder. But it does so using the pull of a vacuum instead of the forced extraction used in hand-milking.

A milking machine uses a power source to drive a motor attached to a pump that creates a vacuum that travels along a hollow tube to the inside of the teat cup. The teat cups are composed of a rigid outer shell of stainless steel or plastic that holds a soft inner rubber liner called the inflation. The space between the outer shell and the inner liner is called the pulse chamber. A continuous vacuum alone would not milk the cow. It would only draw the milk to the bottom of the teat canal, where it would sit as well as drawing blood from the surrounding vessels to the teat ends. An electric pulsation device causes an intermittent break in the continuous tug, and this creates the squeezing and massaging of the teat structure that draws the milk out, much like hand-milking.

The machine works in two parts, the front two quarters and the rear quarters, and the electric pulsations alternate between the front and back. As the front quarters are being milked, the back quarters are at rest, and this alternation continues until she is finished.

The vacuum cycle creates a squeezing motion of the rubber teat cup liners, mimicking your hand squeezes against the teats. It also massages the teat structure, while the vacuum within the teat cup draws the milk from the teats while being squeezed. The milk flows into a cluster uniting all four teat cups and then through a tube directing the milk into a milk bucket.

There are many different makes and models of milking machines, but they all operate on the same principles. Talk with a local dairy equipment supplier to learn about the machines that may be available if you decide hand-milking isn’t for you. The supplier can tell you about maintenance, availability, and service in order to keep your machine in good working condition. The beauty of it is that if the machine fails or the power goes out, you can go back to your original plan of hand-milking.

Keeping Her Udder Healthy 

Your cow’s udder is where fluid milk collects before it becomes available to you or her calf. Her udder is divided into four separate compartments referred to as quarters. Each consists of soft, pliable tissue made up of millions of minute pockets of alveoli that resemble micro-grape clusters. These clusters reside in the thousands of branches of the small milk ducts that are part of a larger milk duct system leading to the milk gland cistern. Almost all of the milk a cow is going to give at one milking is in the alveoli and ducts leading to the cisterns when milking begins. The alveoli have been using the mix of fermentation ingredients in the cow’s bloodstream during the previous few hours to produce milk. Milk synthesis occurs in the epithelial cells lining the alveoli. Within the epithelial cells, milk fat is produced in small, well-defined droplets. These droplets merge as the move toward the central lumen of the alveolus and enlarge. Protein molecules are made the same way.

At a certain point, each alveoli becomes full and the pressure created then in each cell becomes so great that milk production ceases within it. This is why it is possible to get more milk from a cow through three milkings daily; fewer alveoli shut down and instead continually make more milk.

Each of the four quarters is separate, and there is no transfer of fluids between one to another through the membranes. This discreteness is one reason that three can continue to function even if an injury or infection, such as mastitis, destroys the production in the other one. There is, however, a difference in the amount of milk produced by the front and rear quarters. About 60 percent of the normal total milk yield will be produced by the two rear quarters.

Within each quarter and located toward the bottom is an area referred to as the annular fold; this leads to the teat cistern where the milk collects before entering the teat canal. Milk is held from exiting the teat by the sphincter muscle, which acts like a sealing band at the teat end.

Milk extraction from an udder is aided by the cow’s hormonal response to stimulation of her udder, either by you or her calf, and regardless if milked by hand or machine.

Manual udder stimulation by applying warm water, a calf sucking, or hand massaging sends a signal to a cow’s brain that initiates a release of oxytocin. This is a quick-acting but short-lived hormone that, once released in her pituitary gland, travels through her bloodstream. When oxytocin enters her udder, it causes the secretory tissues and alveoli cells to contract, squeezing out the fluid milk molecules trapped within them. These milk molecules enter the numerous pathways, each becoming larger as they near the teat canal, much like small roadways feeding into superhighways.

This movement of the milk into the teat canals is referred to as “milk letdown.” The effect of oxytocin generally lasts about ten minutes. After that time, its effects become negligible. By then, however, the milk has been released from the cells and is waiting to get out of the teat end.

Milking machines typically do the best job in completely removing milk from a cow’s udder. Hand-milking, if performed long enough, can accomplish the same thing. A calf will become full before all the milk has been removed from the udder. This presents a couple of options: you can finish by hand or by machine for your own use, or you can remove all the milk yourself and then feed the daily amount needed by the calf separately. Removing the calf from the cow soon after birth will require that you provide it with nutrition rather than the calf seeking its own from its mother. It’s a choice whether you want to let the calf nurse or not. Do you need all the milk? If so, then you probably won’t want the calf to have it.

Feeding the calf by hand several times a day will let you monitor its intake and observe it for any signs of illness. Bottle-feeding a calf has been done successfully for generations and is no less a humane practice than having it try to feed itself and not succeeding.

Milking by Hand

Hand-milking is a simple procedure. You will either become adept at it quickly, or you will soon get a milking machine. It is best to milk with short fingernails to reduce the risk of surprising your cow by accidentally digging into her teats. Also, remove any finger rings or wrist jewelry as these often get in the way of milking and are easily dirtied.

Let your cow know that you are beside her or are approaching so she’s not startled or surprised by your sudden presence. Talk to her, pet her, rub her, and do everything you can to create a comfortable atmosphere at milking time.

Sit on a stool or plastic pail to one side of your cow. Don’t sit behind the cow.

The side approach is best for several reasons. Two teats are close to you, and you can lean against the cow’s flank for support and discourage her from lifting her leg. Trying to come at a cow from behind her is awkward, and you can only reach the hind two teats. You then are left with the front two teats located on opposite sides still to be addressed. Finally, a cow’s kicking motion involves leg movement slightly to the side before she straightens her leg out in full force toward the back. This happens in a split second. If you do something that causes her to kick, you will likely receive less of an impact if sitting on the side of the cow than in back of her. A direct blow can lead to serious injury. A full-force kick in the face by a cow’s hard hoof likely means a trip to the dentist, hospital, or both, if not worse.

Once you are situated on your stool, it’s essential to clean the teats before you begin milking. This ensures milk let down, but even more importantly it prevents udder infection. Mix warm water with a disinfectant such as a mild dishwashing liquid, household chlorine bleach, or similar product. Dip a clean cloth rag or a sturdy paper towel into the water and gently clean around the sides of each teat to remove all mud, dirt, manure, or other foreign matter. Pay close attention to cleaning the end of each teat thoroughly. Rub the sides and back of the udder to help stimulate milk let down. When all the dirt has been removed from the teat sides and ends, use a fresh cloth or paper towel to dry them off. Proper sanitation is the best insurance against introducing microorganisms to the teat canal. Very quickly the udder will become tighter as the released milk starts to collect in the gland cisterns.

Proper hand-milking technique is to hold the top part of the teat near where it attaches to the udder. Hold the teat firmly between your thumb and first finger and then squeeze them together. This traps the milk within the teat canal and prevents its escape back up into the udder cistern. Then bring your other fingers together, one at a time, in a downward direction, squeezing them together and forcing the milk out of the teat end and toward the pail.

A proper technique involves squeezing the milk out rather than pulling it out. Pulling constantly on the teats will irritate your cow and you’ll likely receive one of those sideways foot messages.

When you first practice hand-milking, you may need to milk a single teat at a time. Ultimately, your goal is to milk two teats at a time, in alternating strokes. After squeezing the milk out, release your grip and let the teat canal refill with milk. This should happen instantly. Once you have mastered milking two teats at a time, you can alternate each hand motion to develop a rhythm until you’ve emptied two quarters.

Then move to the other side of the cow and repeat the milking process for those two quarters. Unless your cow has gotten dirt, mud, or manure on her udder while you were working one side, you won’t need to rewash the unfinished teats before you start.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Family Cow Handbook: A Guide to Keeping a Milk Cow, published by Voyageur Press, 2011. Buy this book from our store: The Family Cow Handbook: A Guide to Keeping a Milk Cow.