Milking the Family Cow

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"The Family Cow Handbook," by author Philip Hasheider takes you through the process of buying, feeding and milking the family cow.
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Milking by hand may take significantly more time than by machine, but many dairy farmers consider it to have a therapeutic effect on the stress of the day. 

The following is an excerpt from The Family Cow Handbook by Philip Hasheider (Voyageur Press, 2011). Milking the family cow and experiencing the simple joys that come with it are explained in this incredible book. You will learn the do’s and don’ts  of buying a cow, milking, feeding and much more. The excerpt below, from Chapter 7, “Milking: Adjusting Your Cow and Yourself to the Process,” touches on the basics of milking the family cow.

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EARTH NEWS store: 
Family Cow Handbook

A family cow can
bring great personal satisfaction and enjoyment. Just having her around and
attending to her can become a daily pleasure.

Yes, your cow needs daily attention, and you must provide
the basic care to sustain her and promote growth and good health. Still, cows
are remarkable creatures. Left to their own devices, they can live fairly well
on their own with little outside help. Their survival instincts can be to your
advantage. In normal circumstances and with a healthy animal, you won’t need to
babysit her too often. After providing her with water, shelter, and whatever
feed she can graze, she can be left alone for most of the day.

In return, she’ll reward you with her milk, often considered
nature’s most perfect food. That’s not a bad trade.

Making Milk Starts with a Calf

The initiation of lactation, or milking, begins with your
cow giving birth. Before this happens, you’ll need to make several decisions.
If you buy a pregnant cow that is dry (not milking), your process will be quite
different than if you purchase a cow that is in lactation (giving milk).

If she is dry, which I recommend, you will have some time to
get her acclimated to your farm and you can plan your milking routine. If she
is giving milk, you’ll need to put your milking plan into action when she

A dairy cow is typically milked twice each day, seven days a
week, until she is dried off in anticipation of her next calf. Peak milk
production occurs in the first three to four months after calving. It is a
standard lactation curve: high early on and then tapering off. Feed quality and
availability, weather and climate conditions, and udder and body health are
factors that affect production levels. There is no rule or law that says you
have to milk her twice a day, once a day, or even at all. Nor is there any
regulation that states what hour of the day she should be milked. These are all
decisions that you make.

Whether you have one cow or more, there are three basic
options for the milk produced: drink it, sell it, or turn it into another
product. What you do with your cow’s milk determines how many times a day you
milk her. The more milk you need, the more often you milk her. It may not be
three times a day, but twice a day is a good option for many families. If you
plan to use a lot of milk, whether for drinking, for cheese-making, for
butter-making, or for making other products, you’ll need more milk. In that
case, keep your cow in full production as long as you can. If you need less
milk than planned, you can reduce the number of milkings each day with no adverse

Dairy cows have the ability to adjust their production to
the demand for it. Taking nature’s view in the wild, if the calf required more
milk, the cow would increase her production. If the calf needed less milk, she
would instinctively lower the amount she produced because it wasn’t required.
This instinct has stayed with the domesticated cow.

The udder tissue acts like a sensor to the pressures
produced by the volume of milk in the udder. A long period of constant pressure
where little or no milk is removed is a signal to the tissue to decrease

Set a Daily Milking Schedule

Will you milk your cow once a day? Twice a day? How will
this fit into your work or family schedule? Your cow is adaptable. You can milk
her morning, noon, or night. She can adjust to a 12-hour cycle, or a 16-hour and
8-hour milking schedule. Cows are creatures of habit and will adapt to the
hours you maintain for milking,
whether noon and midnight, five o’clock in the morning and five o’clock at
night, or something in between.

Decreasing the number of milkings per day causes a reduction
in milk yield. Skipping one milking a week reduces total yield by about 5 to 10
percent. Milking once daily cuts the yield by half in first-calf heifers and by
40 percent in older cows.

If you raise your cow’s calf, it could free up your
schedule. If you need to be gone for a few days, with no one able to milk your
cow, the calf will help you out. Just give your cow access to hay or pasture
and let the calf nurse until you get home and resume your milking schedule.

Milking Your Cow

Learning to milk a cow is like learning to ride a bicycle.
It may be a struggle and feel awkward the first few times. But once you learn,
you’ll wonder why you ever thought it was hard. In fact, milking is easy enough
to learn that other members of your family might like to get in on it. Everyone
in your family can learn and take turns in the rotation. You may be surprised
at how quickly your cow adapts to each individual who milks her.

Starting with a Dry Cow

I suggest buying your first cow when she is dry. She could
be due to calve in a few days or in several months. Either way, a dry cow will
allow you to train her to accept the pen or stall where she’ll be milked and to
become accustomed to you.

Have a bedded pen ready with hay and water where your new
cow can lie down after her trip to your farm. This will be a calming way for
her to relax her first night at a new home. Most cows settle in quickly,
particularly if handled gently and quietly.

Use her adaptability and desire for routine to help her find
her milking place and be comfortable with it. Let her do this at least twice a
day, at the times you plan to milk her. If you have a stanchion stall or
head-lock in her pen, start to train her by having her put her head through.
You can sprinkle some grain in front of her and let her decide to poke her head
through to lock it. This will condition her to look for the sweet-tasting
grains as a reward. She will adapt to this routine after a couple days of
practice and even look forward to coming into her stall. This lets her settle
into a familiar pattern that will make the days after calving less stressful
for her and for you. She can adapt to close confinement during the milking if
she hasn’t had that experience before. By allowing her to become acquainted
with a comfortable and calm atmosphere, you will also provide yourself with a
pleasant area to work.

Some homesteaders like to hand-milk their cow in the pasture
in order to enjoy the outdoor experience. Listening to the rhythm of milk
stripping into a metal pail while watching the evening sunset or morning
sunrise may be the dream you’ve held. This will work if your cow is tethered
and very docile. But any quick moves or surprises by something in the pasture
can result in spilled milk.

Bringing your cow onto your farm before she calves also
allows you time to get her acclimated to her new surroundings, feed, pasture,
stable, family members, cats, and, perhaps, an expressive family dog.

Work with your cow while she is tied up eating grain or hay.
Use a soft hairbrush and move alongside and gently brush her back, rump, and
sides. This will calm her and let her get used to your presence. Talk to her as
you brush her or have a radio on playing at a soft or moderate level. The more
she becomes accustomed to your presence, family members, or pets before her calving,
the less likely she will be disturbed or agitated afterward–when you want to
milk her.

While there are no guarantees, buying a cow that appears calm
and docile is the best assurance that she will be that way once she arrives at
your farm. Yet, even though she may be calm upon arrival, the birth of a calf
can alter some cows’ attitudes toward you or anyone else that may appear as a
threat to her calf. You will need to be aware of her attitude toward you before
or after calving and the first time you milk her.

Most cows are calm enough to share their calf with you and
will express physical or vocal interest in what you are doing with her calf. On
rare occasions, however, cows assert their protection in ways that are
injurious to their handlers. Be calm, be alert, and be safe until you
understand her attitude. Training your cow to be in your presence before she
calves will go a long way in reassuring her of your intentions.

The first milking session after calving is a time of
introduction to your methods. Your cow should go easily into the milking stall
if she’s been trained to do so beforehand. Making the decision to separate your
cow from her newborn calf for the first milking depends on how much space is
available. Three of you can occupy it at one time, if desired. The arrangement
or location of the milking stall in relation to the calving area, and whether
your cow seems attached to her calf, are factors too. Most importantly, keep
yourself safe. Avoid spaces where you can become wedged against a wall or gate
and be crushed if she moves from side to side. Give yourself room to move away
from an ungrateful cow if she decides to kick at you. Close quarters make it
more difficult to evade swinging legs directed at perceived pests.

By mid-lactation, your cow will understand the milking
process. She’ll generally accept her new surroundings with little fuss,
especially if she has some feed to distract her. Her main concern may be how
you milk her, whether by hand or machine.

Ways to Milk 

There are two ways to milk a cow: by hand or by machine.
Your idyllic view of hand-milking may be one of your reasons for buying a
family cow. It can create a close bond between a cow and a human, but it also
can seem an arduous task at the beginning.

Don’t be discouraged. But realize that hand-milking a cow
that gives forty pounds of milk a day, or twenty pounds each milking, is
roughly five gallons.

This will take some time out of your day to do a complete
milk-out. It will test the strength of your arm and hand muscles. You may need
to stop periodically during your first sessions to let your muscles relax, but
practice will make you stronger. Over time, your muscles will increase in both
strength and stamina. After the cramps in your hands and arms are a thing of
the past, you’ll look back and realize it is better exercise than joining a
health club or mimicking the latest exercise video.

Hand-milking is easier if your cow has teats between two and
four inches in length. Teats shorter than two inches are difficult to fully
grasp with four fingers. While they work well with a milking machine, short
teats only allow for your thumb and first two fingers of each hand to be used.
This makes hand-milking more difficult than it should be. Teats that are more
than four inches in length are not ideal, but they’re at least better for
hand-milking than machine-milking because of the design of many teat cup liners
that are part of the milker. A median teat size will make full use of your fingers
and hands during the squeezing motion needed.

You can become an expert hand-milker in a very short time.
You’ll develop a rhythm that suits you and your cow, and the daily milking may
be time of peace and quiet. Call it meditation by milking. But whatever name
you call it, it can have a therapeutic effect on daily stress. Experience is
the best teacher, and you will quickly learn that long, slow strokes yield more
milk in a shorter time than short, fast hand strokes.

If your time is at a premium or your physical ability is a
major concern, a portable milking machine could be your answer. Maybe you’re
just not up to milking by hand. Regardless of the reasons, you don’t need to
feel guilty about using a machine. Portable milking units are available and
affordable. They accomplish the milking in a very short time. They achieve a
complete milk-out and are easy to clean and store until the next use.

Where hand-milking may take upwards an hour each time at first,
a milking machine can accomplish the same result in five to eight minutes. This
eliminates the physical stress on your arms and hands. If your cow is already
accustomed to a milking unit being attached to her teats, you should experience
few problems in milking her. Switching a machine-milked cow to hand-milking is
more challenging than switching a hand-milked cow to a machine.

A milk machine unit operates most effectively when there are
four working teat structures, although they can be successfully used on cows
that have only three or even two healthy quarters. A machine works on the same
principle as hand-milking in that it extracts milk from the udder. But it does
so using the pull of a vacuum instead of the forced extraction used in

A milking machine uses a power source to drive a motor
attached to a pump that creates a vacuum that travels along a hollow tube to
the inside of the teat cup. The teat cups are composed of a rigid outer shell
of stainless steel or plastic that holds a soft inner rubber liner called the
inflation. The space between the outer shell and the inner liner is called the
pulse chamber. A continuous vacuum alone would not milk the cow. It would only
draw the milk to the bottom of the teat canal, where it would sit as well as
drawing blood from the surrounding vessels to the teat ends. An electric
pulsation device causes an intermittent break in the continuous tug, and this
creates the squeezing and massaging of the teat structure that draws the milk
out, much like hand-milking.

The machine works in two parts, the front two quarters and
the rear quarters, and the electric pulsations alternate between the front and
back. As the front quarters are being milked, the back quarters are at rest,
and this alternation continues until she is finished.

The vacuum cycle creates a squeezing motion of the rubber
teat cup liners, mimicking your hand squeezes against the teats. It also
massages the teat structure, while the vacuum within the teat cup draws the
milk from the teats while being squeezed. The milk flows into a cluster uniting
all four teat cups and then through a tube directing the milk into a milk

There are many different makes and models of milking
machines, but they all operate on the same principles. Talk with a local dairy
equipment supplier to learn about the machines that may be available if you
decide hand-milking isn’t for you. The supplier can tell you about maintenance,
availability, and service in order to keep your machine in good working
condition. The beauty of it is that if the machine fails or the power goes out,
you can go back to your original plan of hand-milking.

Keeping Her Udder Healthy 

Your cow’s udder is where fluid milk collects before it
becomes available to you or her calf. Her udder is divided into four separate
compartments referred to as quarters. Each consists of soft, pliable tissue
made up of millions of minute pockets of alveoli that resemble micro-grape
clusters. These clusters reside in the thousands of branches of the small milk
ducts that are part of a larger milk duct system leading to the milk gland
cistern. Almost all of the milk a cow is going to give at one milking is in the
alveoli and ducts leading to the cisterns when milking begins. The alveoli have
been using the mix of fermentation ingredients in the cow’s bloodstream during
the previous few hours to produce milk. Milk synthesis occurs in the epithelial
cells lining the alveoli. Within the epithelial cells, milk fat is produced in
small, well-defined droplets. These droplets merge as the move toward the
central lumen of the alveolus and enlarge. Protein molecules are made the same

At a certain point, each alveoli becomes full and the
pressure created then in each cell becomes so great that milk production ceases
within it. This is why it is possible to get more milk from a cow through three
milkings daily; fewer alveoli shut down and instead continually make more milk.

Each of the four quarters is separate, and there is no
transfer of fluids between one to another through the membranes. This
discreteness is one reason that three can continue to function even if an
injury or infection, such as mastitis, destroys the production in the other
one. There is, however, a difference in the amount of milk produced by the front
and rear quarters. About 60 percent of the normal total milk yield will be
produced by the two rear quarters.

Within each quarter and located toward the bottom is an area
referred to as the annular fold; this leads to the teat cistern where the milk
collects before entering the teat canal. Milk is held from exiting the teat by
the sphincter muscle, which acts like a sealing band at the teat end.

Milk extraction from an udder is aided by the cow’s hormonal
response to stimulation of her udder, either by you or her calf, and regardless
if milked by hand or machine.

Manual udder stimulation by applying warm water, a calf
sucking, or hand massaging sends a signal to a cow’s brain that initiates a
release of oxytocin. This is a quick-acting but short-lived hormone that, once
released in her pituitary gland, travels through her bloodstream. When oxytocin
enters her udder, it causes the secretory tissues and alveoli cells to
contract, squeezing out the fluid milk molecules trapped within them. These
milk molecules enter the numerous pathways, each becoming larger as they near
the teat canal, much like small roadways feeding into superhighways.

This movement of the milk into the teat canals is referred
to as “milk letdown.” The effect of oxytocin generally lasts about ten minutes.
After that time, its effects become negligible. By then, however, the milk has
been released from the cells and is waiting to get out of the teat end.

Milking machines typically do the best job in completely
removing milk from a cow’s udder. Hand-milking, if performed long enough, can
accomplish the same thing. A calf will become full before all the milk has been
removed from the udder. This presents a couple of options: you can finish by
hand or by machine for your own use, or you can remove all the milk yourself
and then feed the daily amount needed by the calf separately. Removing the calf
from the cow soon after birth will require that you provide it with nutrition
rather than the calf seeking its own from its mother. It’s a choice whether you
want to let the calf nurse or not. Do you need all the milk? If so, then you
probably won’t want the calf to have it.

Feeding the calf by hand several times a day will let you
monitor its intake and observe it for any signs of illness. Bottle-feeding a
calf has been done successfully for generations and is no less a humane
practice than having it try to feed itself and not succeeding.

Milking by Hand

Hand-milking is a simple procedure. You will either become
adept at it quickly, or you will soon get a milking machine. It is best to milk
with short fingernails to reduce the risk of surprising your cow by
accidentally digging into her teats. Also, remove any finger rings or wrist
jewelry as these often get in the way of milking and are easily dirtied.

Let your cow know that you are beside her or are approaching
so she’s not startled or surprised by your sudden presence. Talk to her, pet
her, rub her, and do everything you can to create a comfortable atmosphere at
milking time.

Sit on a stool or plastic pail to one side of your cow.
Don’t sit behind the cow.

The side approach is best for several reasons. Two teats are
close to you, and you can lean against the cow’s flank for support and
discourage her from lifting her leg. Trying to come at a cow from behind her is
awkward, and you can only reach the hind two teats. You then are left with the
front two teats located on opposite sides still to be addressed. Finally, a
cow’s kicking motion involves leg movement slightly to the side before she
straightens her leg out in full force toward the back. This happens in a split
second. If you do something that causes her to kick, you will likely receive
less of an impact if sitting on the side of the cow than in back of her. A
direct blow can lead to serious injury. A full-force kick in the face by a
cow’s hard hoof likely means a trip to the dentist, hospital, or both, if not

Once you are situated on your stool, it’s essential to clean
the teats before you begin milking. This ensures milk let down, but even more
importantly it prevents udder infection. Mix warm water with a disinfectant
such as a mild dishwashing liquid, household chlorine bleach, or similar
product. Dip a clean cloth rag or a sturdy paper towel into the water and
gently clean around the sides of each teat to remove all mud, dirt, manure, or
other foreign matter. Pay close attention to cleaning the end of each teat
thoroughly. Rub the sides and back of the udder to help stimulate milk let
down. When all the dirt has been removed from the teat sides and ends, use a
fresh cloth or paper towel to dry them off. Proper sanitation is the best
insurance against introducing microorganisms to the teat canal. Very quickly
the udder will become tighter as the released milk starts to collect in the gland

Proper hand-milking technique is to hold the top part of the
teat near where it attaches to the udder. Hold the teat firmly between your
thumb and first finger and then squeeze them together. This traps the milk
within the teat canal and prevents its escape back up into the udder cistern.
Then bring your other fingers together, one at a time, in a downward direction,
squeezing them together and forcing the milk out of the teat end and toward the

A proper technique involves squeezing the milk out rather
than pulling it out. Pulling constantly on the teats will irritate your cow and
you’ll likely receive one of those sideways foot messages.

When you first practice hand-milking, you may need to milk a
single teat at a time. Ultimately, your goal is to milk two teats at a time, in
alternating strokes. After squeezing the milk out, release your grip and let
the teat canal refill with milk. This should happen instantly. Once you have
mastered milking two teats at a time, you can alternate each hand motion to
develop a rhythm until you’ve emptied two quarters.

Then move to the other side of the cow and repeat the
milking process for those two quarters. Unless your cow has gotten dirt, mud,
or manure on her udder while you were working one side, you won’t need to
rewash the unfinished teats before you start.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from
The Family Cow Handbook: A Guide to Keeping a Milk Cow, published by Voyageur Press, 2011. Buy this book from our store:The Family Cow Handbook: A Guide to Keeping a Milk Cow.