A Brief History of Milking Cows by Hand

Reader Contribution by Steve Judge
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There are essentially two ways to milk a cow. The first is the age-old practice of milking by hand. The second is by machine with buckets and pipeline milkers. More on this second method in my next blog. Cows, goats, sheep, water buffalo, camels and, even, horses have been successfully milked by hand for thousands of years. I milked my first cows by hand back in the 1970s. Milking a cow by hand is not as easy as it may first appear, so it’s best to know what you are getting into before you take on this important farming task.  

Get your technique down. There are a couple of different grips and techniques you can use, which before machine milking, were a matter of great debate.  I think the most important thing you can do when hand milking is to squeeze the milk out without pulling down excessively on the teat. It’s similar to getting tooth paste out of a tooth paste tube.  

Practice. Find a patient and tolerant cow to practice on when you are first learning. Once you learn the skill it becomes second nature.    

Get in shape. My wife’s great-great-grandmother was a milkmaid in Denmark. Stories of her having to take breaks between cows to rest her hands on the cool stone walls of the milking stable for relief have been passed down through our family for generations. When you first begin milking a cow by hand, you will find muscles in your hands and forearms that you seem to only use when you hand milk. Until they get into shape, your arms will burn.

Keep everything clean. If you milk by hand, it is imperative to keep your cows and their udder clean. You don’t want manure or bedding falling into the milk bucket. Everything you use—the bucket, utensils and vessels that will come into contact with the milk—must be squeaky clean. 

Cool the milk quickly. The milk must be cooled down to 38-40 degrees within a couple of hours after you finish milking. 

Stir the milk. It also helps to stir the milk occasionally unless you want to skim off the cream.  Keeping the cream and milk mixed will help extend the milk’s shelf life and fresh flavor. 

Consider the time investment. Cows used to make much less milk than they do now.  If a cow produced one gallon of milk per day, as most did before WW2, you could milk her out by hand twice per day. But, today’s cows routinely produce five gallons of milk per day, and milking one out twice a day can take a long time—up to an hour or more. Unfortunately, you can’t do anything else when you are hand milking. Plus, you can only milk two of the four quarters of the udder at one time because you only have two hands. If you decide to milk by hand, it helps to be a good day dreamer.

Is Milking by Hand Really Better?

Some people still contend that hand milking is more gentle on the cow than machine milking. I disagree. I think this is a misperception resulting from the horrendous mechanical milking machines developed in the 19th century (More on Early Cow Milking Machines here). They could do — and did — a lot of damage to cows’ udder. Today’s modern milking machines are the result of a century of research and development. When properly set up, adjusted and operated, they are very gentle — far gentler than a nursing calf to its mother’s teats and udder. Calves can be very rough and sometimes make their mother’s teats bleed. If you have the time to let the calf stay with its mother to nurse once a day, then it may make sense for you to avoid the investment of a milking machine and milk by hand.

At the end of the day, hand milking is a personal choice for every farmer. Think about the time investment, the number of cows that must be milked and the amount of additional work you have to get done on and off the farm. If your cows are relaxed and your forearms are in good shape, it can be a very rhythmic and soothing experience for you and for the cow. Happy Milking!

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