The Human Milking Machine: Hand-Milking Dairy Cows

Reader Contribution by Steve Judge and Bob-White Systems
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by Pexels/Jefferson Lucena
My wife, Wendy, is Danish. Her mom often told us about her grandmother who worked as a milkmaid on a dairy in Denmark before milking machines were invented. Evidently her hands would become so hot after hours of hand milking that she would cool them by holding them on the stones in the walls of the dairy between cows. If you have ever milked cows by hand for any length of time, you know exactly how she felt.

I milked my cows by hand for a couple of years on the first farm I owned, a small hill farm in western Massachusetts. Then, I rented a larger dairy barn down the road that was equipped with a vacuum pump and milking machines. I raised my heifers at my farm and when they calved I would walk them two miles through the woods and across meadows to the barn I rented. I have very pleasant memories associated with those walks, especially the ones I took through the snowy woods.

When I first started milking cows by hand, I used muscles in my forearms that I never knew existed. Though I was young and fit as a fiddle back then, those muscles hurt for a couple of weeks before they finally became conditioned to the motion. If you plan to milk your cows by hand and haven’t done so before, be ready for some burning forearms. I know people who get their arms in shape for hand milking by squeezing tennis balls.

Hand milking is a good way to way to bond with your cows. It is also a calm and meditative experience. But personally I think it is a waste of my most valuable commodity: time. Before safe and reliable milking machines were invented around 1900, a cow might give a half a gallon per milking. Today, a good Jersey cow can give 4 or 5 gallons or more per milking.

My cows average around 2 1/2 gallons per milking. Getting that much milk out of a cow by hand takes time, maybe a 1/2-hour per cow or more and that whole time you are stuck under the cow and can’t do anything else.

If you milk your cows with a good machine milker, it takes about 5 to 10 minutes per cow. And while your cow is milking you can do other chores. Multi-tasking is essential on a small herd dairy. I need to get my chores done quickly so I can go to my day job. But regardless, this blog post is about milking cows by hand, so I will assume your decision to do so is well thought out.

Milking Dairy Cows by Hand

Frequency. Many people who milk by hand also milk just once per day. That makes sense if you cows don’t produce a lot of milk or you let your calves nurse on your cows or don’t feed any grain. It’s your farm. You will find your own way.

Prepping the cows. Prepping a cow to be milked by hand or machine is essentially the same process. Let your cow relax where she will be milked and make sure there are no loose clumps of hair dirt or manure hanging off her hindquarters or udder that can drop into your milking pail as you milk. A quick brushing or currycombing before milking will relax both you and your cow. If your cow is a little jumpy feed her a little grain or good quality hay to give something else to focus on.

Sanitation. Make sure your hands are clean when you prep your cow’s udder for milking. Some people like to wear milking gloves that help reduce the spread of bacteria and infections. I use an iodine teat dip.

Begin milking. First, I dip the cow’s teats with a teat dipper, starting with the teats furthest away from me. Before the dip dries, I hand start each teat with a few squirts and look at the quality of the milk as I check the cow’s udder. This stimulates the cow to “let down” and the first few squirts of milk usually contain the most bacteria. Some farmers squirt the milk into a strip cup to check for garget (clots of jelly like milk) that is evidence of mastitis.

Safety. If the cow’s milk looks or smells unusual in any way, stop and try to figure out why. Regardless, always discard any tainted milk and keep doing so until the milk returns to normal. If the cow’s udder is swollen or painful, address the condition immediately. Call the vet if need be and listen to his or her advice.

After I “start” the cow I’ll wipe and dry her teats with a paper towel. Never, ever wipe, clean, or dry multiple cows with one towel or rag or use a single pail of water to wash the teats of multiple cows. Doing so can easily spread bacteria and mastitis from cow to cow, especially Staph A mastitis. It is a very bad habit.

The grip. When I am sure the cow has let down and her teats are full of milk, I will start milking her. The grip you choose when hand milking depends on what works for you. The benefits of the “thumbs in” or the “thumbs out” grips were often the subject of hot debate among dairy farmers before the invention of the milking machine. Essentially, the process is very similar to squeezing toothpaste out of a toothpaste tube. However it still takes everyone who is learning how to hand milk at least a few tries before they get the hang of it and the process become routine.

Squeeze. Most people who are learning how to hand milk are worried about hurting the cow or injuring her teats and udder, as well they should be. It is a delicate area. And a cow that has recently calved can have a swollen and painful udder, especially if it is her first calving. But if you have ever seen a calf nurse a cow you know that their teats and udders are pretty rugged. Plus, the cow will let you know if you are making her uncomfortable. I have found that it is more effective to squeeze the teats than it is to pull down on them. And squeezing is the motion that tests the muscles in your forearms.

The pail. Squirt the milk into a squeaky-clean stainless steel pail that is ideally equipped a stainless milking screen and or top that partially covers the pail’s opening. Both can catch any debris before it falls into the milk. Keeping the milk clean as possible is essential. If your cow is producing lots of milk empty your pail from time time into a larger container so you don’t loose all of it if she kicks the pail over. All cows do occasionally. If your cow is fidgety have a helper scratch her tail head or curry her. That will help her to relax.

When is milking done? Knowing when the cow is done (or empty) when you hand milk is easy. She is done when the udder is slack and the milk stops coming out. It may a bit difficult to tell when a cow is done if she is fresh and her udder is swollen. It is just a matter of knowing your cows. When my cows are done milking I check each quarter to make sure they are all soft and milked out. Then, I dip my their teats again and I leave the teat dip on so it can dry. I don’t wipe it off.

Again, as I mentioned in my previous blog Producing Safe and Delicious Milk, quickly cool your milk and stir it or agitate at least a couple of times a hour. That is easy when you have a bulk tank, not so easy if you don’t.

Next up: Milking with a pipeline milker.

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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