Milking Cows with a Bucket Milker

Reader Contribution by Steve Judge and Bob-White Systems
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The bucket milker was the first mechanized milking system to be invented, a long and painful process that began back in the 1850s. The first bucket milkers were crude and dangerous for the cow. It wasn’t until the pulsator was invented around 1900 that the first successful bucket milkers were introduced to dairy farmers in the US.

A Brief History of Bucket Milkers

During the 20th century two brands and styles of bucket milker came to dominate the market. The first was the Surge Belly Milker and its design was very innovative for its time. The bucket, claw and pulsator were combined into a single assembly that, when in use, hung from a strap that went over the back of the cow called a Surcingle.

In 1999, Surge stopped manufacturing the belly milker and a larger dairy equipment manufacturer bought the company and retired the Surge brand. However, Surge Belly Milkers have a retained a cult following and they are still being used today, primarily on small farms for both cows and goats. Replacement parts are still being manufactured for the units.

The second style of popular bucket milker was developed by DeLaval. Instead of hanging from the cow, this bucket sits on the floor beside the cow when in use. The milking claw is attached to the bucket via a milk line and the pulsator usually sits in the lid of the bucket. This style unit is still being manufactured and is the most popular style of bucket milker in use today. As the original DeLaval patents have all expired, DeLaval style bucket milkers are being manufactured and used all over the world.

Tips for Buying the Right Bucket Milker

If you plan to buy a used bucket milker, be very careful to only buy a Surge or DeLaval-style bucket. During the first half of the 20th century many companies made their own versions of belly and floor style bucket milkers. Brands included Universal, McCormick and Perfection. I suggest you avoid these off brands unless you know exactly what you are doing and know that you can upgrade them and put them into working order.

Some Universal buckets can be upgraded as lids that accommodate modern pulsators are still being manufactured for them. But they are not easy to find. Perfection Belly Milker buckets may be used with Surge lid assemblies but it isn’t “perfection”. I have had many people tell me they found a used bucket milker for a great price on eBay only to end up being stuck with an obsolete collectors item.

I also suggest you buy a good vacuum pump with at minimum a ¼ HP motor driving the pump producing, at least 5 or 6 CFM. There are many vacuum pumps on the market that were not designed to milk cows. Avoid them. A good vacuum pump should have a motor and vacuum pump, a reserve tank, a vacuum gauge, and an adjustable vacuum regulator. Don’t risk hurting your cows by buying something online that looks like a good deal but doesn’t include those components.

How to Use a Bucket Milker

Here are a few tips that may help when you use the bucket milker on your cow or cows for the first time. Don’t just bring it out to the barn and try to slap it on your terrified cow. Practice with it and learn how it works and how best to put it on your cow before you try to put it on your cow. Use you partner’s or kid’s hands as “test teats”. Have some fun with it.

Here are a few basics: The (You) vacuum gauge on your vacuum pump should read between 11 to 15 inches. Thirteen inches is generally recommended. The pulsation rate should be right around sixty pulsations per minute. A single pulsation is actually a pair of beats when you listen to it, an upbeat and a downbeat. The rate can be adjusted by turning an adjustment Allen screw on the back of the pulsator, near its base. Just don’t turn the screw too far. Turn it slowly as you listen to and time the pulsation rate. Over-turning the adjustment screw is the most common way pulsators are damaged.

I recommend locating the vacuum pump as far away from the cow as possible. I like to have mine in a separate room. The vacuum line between the pump and bucket can be just about as long as you want to make it. A longer line gives you more vacuum reserve. Or you can mount a 3-inch PVC vacuum line in your barn where you milk your cows and connected that to your vacuum pump via a vacuum line and a stall cock. Then you can install more stall cocks for your milking buckets. I also recommend installing a vacuum gauge in the vacuum line where you can easily see and monitor it.

Locating the vacuum pump outside of your milking area makes the milking environment quieter and more relaxed. But if that is impractical make sure your cow is used to the noise before you milk her. In freezing climates, it is best to have your vacuum pump in a dry area where, ideally, the temperature doesn’t go below freezing.

Introducing Cows to Machine Milking

If you have a cow that has never been milked with a machine before, you’ll need to introduce it to her slowly. Bring the bucket out to where you will be milking and put it down beside your cow.  Reassure her that it isn’t going to eat her.  Let her smell it and put the claw under her udder before you turn the vacuum pump on. The whole idea is to give your cow an opportunity to become accustomed to the sight and sound of the milking equipment before you milk her.

Don’t rush the process. You and your cow need to be relaxed. I raise my calves in the milking barn so they learn the sights and sounds of the barn from day one. Milking for them is usually an easy adjustment.

Prep the cow the same way as you would if you were going to milk her by hand. When you put the claw on her udder start with the rear teat furthest away from you and continue on to the front teat closest to you. Because you practiced the process previously, you should know how to attach the claw without sucking too much air and losing your vacuum. If the pulsator stops beating close the claw, relax and allow the pulsator to start beating again. You’ll figure it out. Learning how to machine milk is a bit like learning how to drive a car. There is a lot to remember at first, but soon it becomes routine.

Do not overfill your bucket with milk. It is best to empty your bucket after each cow unless you are sure it can hold the milk from the next cow. You do not want the vacuum pump to suck up milk. If you do you will have to stop and flush it out. How you do that depends on the style of the vacuum pump you have. Better to be safe than sorry.

Cleaning Bucket Milkers

Cleaning bucket milkers is a process I don’t enjoy. When I was kid, I was trained to break down all three bucket milkers we used after each milking and scrub all of the parts.  That included pulling the inflations out of the shells. When done, everything was hung to dry. The old water heater in the milk house was coal-fired, so the water was scalding hot. The process took about an hour and I was usually hungry or tired or both.

These days, most people don’t break down the claws after each milking. They simply put the claw into a pail full of water and cleaning solutions and suck them into the milking bucket and scrub it with a hand brush (again be careful not to overfill the bucket and suck water into your vacuum pump). Always follow the instructions on the labels of your cleaning and sanitizing solutions in regard to water temperature and dilution rates.

I do suggest completely breaking down your claw, inflations and shells once a week for a complete cleaning and to check for milk residue. Clean the milk line as well.

It is important to replace your inflations as recommended by the manufacturer. Most rubber inflations should be replaced every 1,200 milkings or sooner if they are damaged.  I replace my inflations twice per year even though that is less than 600 milkings for me. Silicone inflations and silicone milk lines last a lot longer. Change them as recommended by the manufacturer.

I firmly believe that the advantages of using a bucket milker over hand milking include a better and more consistent milk-out and the ability to do other chores while your cow is milking. I do not agree with people who say hand milking is better for a cow than machine milking, as long as you have the proper milking equipment and it is set up and maintained properly. The basic technology has been around for over a century and it has been refined and improved to the point where it is extremely reliable and gentle on the cows.

Next up: milking with a pipeline and a discussion about “over milking” verses “under milking.”

Steve Judge is a long-time dairy farmer and micro-dairy expert at Bob-White Systems. Driven by a passion for the Slow Food movement and a desire for communities to enjoy locally produced, Steve’s goal is to create appropriately scaled dairy technology and equipment that will give small-scale dairy farmers the opportunity to sell safe, farm fresh milk and dairy products directly from their farms to friends and neighbors. Read all of Steve’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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