When 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.