Overcoming Problems When Milking a Cow

Reader Contribution by Mary Lou Shaw

We milk our six Dutch Belted cows seasonally and usually stop by late autumn. By the time the first spring calf is born, we are delighted to again have fresh milk. The first mother this year, Connie, is a cow who was allowed to nurse her first calf and not share her milk with us. This year, she freshened a month before the next cow was due and we were eager to have her milk. She was just as sure that she didn’t want to share it. Thus, the milking season began with a conflict!

We thought we had the upper hand because it was easy to entice her into the stall. Even bribing her to put her head into the stanchion with carrots and apples went well. We were congratulating ourselves before we realized that there was a contest yet to be won.

The first trick Connie used was to simply hold her milk when we milked her. She only danced a bit when we washed, dipped and expressed milk from each teat. The calf was often at her side and she seemed pretty calm for this new experience. We didn’t realize she was already a pro.

I hand-milked, but even when her udder felt full, I would get only three to four cups for all my effort. There can be some edema in the bag the first few days, and we were patient. However, she was more patient and simply wouldn’t let us have her calf’s milk.

Friends who have an organic dairy suggested we use oxyocin (Pitocin) injections to make her let-down her milk. That didn’t feel right for our homestead for a couple of reasons. First, we want her to come willingly into the stall and stanchion, and sticking her each time with a needle when she cooperates seems counterproductive. Secondly, using even short-acting hormones doesn’t feel like what we want to do to this old-breed cow.

Our solution instead was to use warm soaks on her udder. We previously learned that washing the udder and teats with water can cause mastitis. Therefore, I attempted to warm-pack only the upper part of her bag while using a downward massaging motion.

The results have been satisfying. Although we’re not getting gallons of milk, I can milk her until her udder has softened and we are even getting some of her precious cream. The last few days I haven’t used warm packs and she has continued to share her milk. We’d call that success if she hadn’t begun a new trick during this time.

By the third or fourth time we milked her, Connie began to kick. These forward kicks were tentative at first, but quickly escalated to being hard and potentially hurtful. We had a “kick-bar” that we had used once or twice on other cows, but when we used it on large Connie, she was able to quickly send it flying. It was time to call in the troops.

I consulted a woman who runs a dairy and has decade of experience with the Dutch Belted cows. She reassured us that even in their larger dairy, restraints are sometimes used. Although their dairy has side-bars to tie ropes to, we knew that if we were able to exert pressure in front of the cow’s leg, she wouldn’t be able to kick.

We wanted a rope that was long enough to go around her, and made of smooth enough material to slide through for a quick-release knot. We bought a 12 foot nylon rope for that purpose. I had to learn to tie the knot and then we were in business.

The first few milkings puzzled Connie as she tried to step around this obstacle to kicking. I think it’s now safe to say we’ve got a peaceful milking routine. After the carrot-bribe to get her into the stanchion where she eats hay, I next tighten and tie the rope around her. I can clean her teats, milk and then dip the teats without her protesting. Her calf is usually there “helping,” and it has become a peaceful scene.

I like to think that every obstacle or problem on our homestead results in a learning situation. Certainly we already knew that patience and kindness gets us much farther than the use of force. That’s especially true with the larger animals, but for our own enjoyment, it’s true for even the poultry and pigs.

Secondly, I am so grateful that there always seem to be generous and knowledgeable people to help. I would encourage every homesteader and farmer not to hesitate to ask others for their ideas and assistance.

Finally, humor always helps. Although our “mission statement” is to help save rare breeds, I felt greedy to get some of that milk and didn’t want to wait for our regular milk cows to freshen. It’s easy to see that Connie expected her milk to be only for her calf, as it was for her firstborn. Therefore, I have to admit that it is funny to see all I am willing to do to get a share of that precious milk!

Mary Lou Shaw is an Ohio homesteader and author. Her book Growing Local Food can be purchased through MOTHER EARTH NEWS.