Photo by Kade Ludlam
When we got our first dairy cow back in 2012, I knew that we wanted to leave her calf nursing while still getting to milk her for our own uses. There were several reasons for this, mostly based on time-management and ease for myself, plus a more natural life for the calf.
With five children to care for, homeschooling, and keeping our homestead, it would be very difficult for me to commit to twice-a-day milking. And feeding a bottle calf was more work than I cared to take on. Milk-sharing would give us the opportunity to milk just once a day, and even skip a milking if needed, while also giving the baby a better, more natural start to life. So, we decided to go with it, and we have successfully used the same method for eight years now to milk not only cows, but also goats and sheep, while leaving their babies with them.
Our Process for Milk-Sharing With Baby Livestock
Our first lambing of the year has recently occurred for our dairy sheep, Autumn, and we are beginning the milk-sharing process again with her and her ewe lamb. With Autumn, we have it pretty easy, because she had a single lamb. When we have had twins or triplets, we usually sell the extra babies as bottle babies so that we are only sharing milk with one. If the mother is a really great producer, it can still be possible to get what you need with twins on. Another option, were the situation and timing to be just right, would be to adopt over a twin to another mom that is not being milked.
It is important to manage the situation properly and be sure that the baby is getting enough milk to grow well. You will need to adjust how you are managing it and how much milk you are taking as you go and do what is best for your own situation and livestock. We milk in the mornings, but the method can easily be switched up to work for evening milking. Here are the basic guidelines of how we handle milk-sharing here at Willow Creek Farm.
Weeks 0 to 2
For the first few weeks, we allow the baby to live with mom full-time and do not separate them. By about Day 5, we start some limited milking. We milk first thing in the morning, and are careful to be sure to leave some for the baby.
It is very convenient to have more than one person available at these first milking times, because we let the baby come to the stanchion during milking. This keeps mom calm, and helps with let-down. We often milk right into a jar, instead of a bucket, because the baby is right there and can cause contamination issues with the bucket. It is important, especially in the early days, to be carefully sure that the baby is getting all she or he needs and is growing well. Don’t take too much milk from mom early on, leaving the baby hungry.
After a week or so, the baby becomes a big nuisance in the milking area — climbing around and getting into everything. At that point, it is time for baby to stay in the stall while mama gets milked each morning.
Photo by Kat Ludlam
Weeks 2 to 10
By about two weeks of age, we find that the amount of milk we are getting starts to decrease. And we often find that by the time we arrive at the barn, the baby has just finished emptying mom and there is none left for us. This is the point where it is time to shift over to separating them at night. We handle the shift gradually so as not to put too much stress on mom and baby.
The first night, we go out around 2:00 AM and separate them, then milk at 6:00 AM before putting them back together. That tends to be the worst night, with the most calling and noise from both mom and baby.
If it is possible to put the baby where the mom can see it, and even smell or touch it, but not nurse it, that is ideal. We have built several different make-shift baby housing areas over the years to serve this purpose. When you have more than one dairy animal and are separating off more than one baby, it goes better because the babies have each other.
The second night, we go out at midnight and separate them off and milk at 6:00 AM again.
The third night, we do 10:00 PM. We generally stay at the 10:00 PM separating time (8 hours separate) for a few weeks. During this period of time, we are able to almost fully milk out the mother each morning while still leaving enough for baby. The mother tends to hold back some of the milk and lets the baby nurse as soon as we put them back together.
When we find that our milk amounts are decreasing and the baby is eating more and more hay and creep feeding, it is time to increase the separation time. We again separate them gradually earlier and earlier until we are keeping them apart 12 hours and together 12 hours. We completely milk the mom out each morning before we put them back together.
Photo by Kat Ludlam
Week 10 and After
By about 10 to 12 weeks of age, we find that the amount of milk we are getting is decreasing again and the baby is eating hay and grain fine on their own. Then it is time to wean them. We wean using nose rings, keeping the baby with the mom, and we go to twice-daily milking for a few weeks to keep the mother’s milk production up. Then we gradually shift back to a once-a-day milking schedule.
During the time that we are milk-sharing with the baby, we do not use teat dip on the mother after milking. We find that the baby goes right to nursing as soon as we put them back together and thus, there is no point because the baby sucks it all off anyway. However, you should probably talk to your vet about whether or not to teat dip and make your own decision.
Milk-sharing has always been a very good option for our little homestead, giving us plenty of milk for our family use, while still keeping babies with their mothers, nursing. It limits us to only having to commit to one milking per day and gives the mother and baby a more natural relationship.
Kat Ludlam is a high-altitude homesteader and owner of Willow Creek Farm in the Colorado Rockies, where she breeds landrace goats, sheep and crops accustomed to elevation. Check out Kat’s custom fiber-processing business, Willow Creek Fiber Mill, and read all of Kat’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.