Back in 2012, we considered adding some cows to our little homestead. We really thought we wanted mini jerseys. I wanted milk, Farm Guy wanted meat. After doing some research and really considering what we wanted, we decided to go with the wonderful little breed called Irish Dexter's. This wonderful bovine sounded too good to be true! They are the perfect little homestead cow! We are so happy to be the owners of this small breed of cattle. We heard that Irish Dexter's are calm, gentle, and had ease of calving. In fact vet bills aren't common. Dexter's are the smallest breed of cattle that you can get without going to miniatures. That was exactly what we wanted before we knew what we wanted! In fact, we were hoping our kids would be able to handle them. One helpful magazine article that we read was called "Ideal Small Farm Cows: Dexter Cattle."
Our first milk cow was Anna. We brought her to our farm in 2013. She was 4 years old. She came from a farm where she had been a milk cow, but the family had been having hardships where they were no longer able to milk her. She hadn't been handled much in the past year so we were not sure how this would go. Keep in mind, we were new to cattle. We had our farming friend come over and show us how to handle cattle. That helped a lot. We have been learning what works and what doesn't work ever since.
I was a little nervous about becoming a dairy lady. Does anybody even keep a milk cow these days? What would family and friends think? It took some time to decide that the health benefits far outweighed the possibility of being weird. There have definitely been some health benefits. We have noticed that we don't catch every little flu bug that is floating around our community. I am sure that having fresh raw milk and yogurt has made a difference! One nice thing about the breed of cattle we raise is that the milk is naturally homogenized, which makes it easier to digest. That means the fat globules are smaller and more dispersed in the milk.
We moved an old shed over from the neighbors and called it a barn. This shed was in such a state that we didn't know if it was worth saving. Should we just have a big old bon fire? It turns out that a new tin roof, and some interior walls have given us just the right place to have a milk stanchion. There is a place inside that works well for putting a calf at night. It has been a great little place for any farm animals that need it. Thank you neighbors!
I am so happy that I found out that I wouldn't need to milk twice a day. I also learned that I wouldn't even need to milk every day! There was a way to go on vacation and still have a milk cow. When your cow has her calf, you can separate that calf for a few hours or depending on how much milk she has, you can milk her without separating the calf. Eventually I get to the point where I separate the calf all night from the mom because otherwise there is no milk left for me the next morning. But at first, there is plenty of milk for everybody, because the cow has tons of milk and the calf is so little. I like to wait a couple days after baby calf is born to milk Mama cow, because I want mom and calf to really bond and thrive together. The exception is when mama cow has a very full udder and baby isn't relieving her enough. The best advice I read from the website, "The Prairie Homestead," was if you have ever nursed a baby or two yourself, you will understand how all this works! Kinda strange, but very true!
Back to what I was saying about separating the mama and the calf.... So if you separate them you will be able to milk Mama cow in the morning and there will be milk for your family. After you are done milking, let mama and calf back together for the day. It is easy to take a day off and not milk if your fridge is full of milk and you need a break. Also it is nice that if you don't have time to separate them at night say if you have a family function that makes it very inconvenient for you to get home at a decent time. No biggie. Mama and calf get to hang out together even more.
One way to get mama motivated to come into the barn so her calf will follow her is to train her to come when she is called. Bring out a bucket of ground oats and give her some. If you give her oats in a bucket everyday, She will love it so much that she will happily follow you to the barn. If she is on her way to following you and then forgets why she is following you, turn around and refresh her memory. Offer her some more oats. Eventually she be happy to follow you to the barn. Most of the time the calf will follow mama, then I trap the calf in the barn where there is nice clean straw. You can send the cow back out or put her in a separate pen. Most of the time I send her outside because I don't want to clean up the mess she leaves behind. Mama cow does much better if she can see her calf. We have half a door for our barn door so she can still see her baby. Less stress is good. Less loud bellering is good too!
We built this stanchion without really knowing what we wanted. But it has served it's purpose! The boards in the middle of this picture pivot on the bottom and and gets locked on the top when the small boards on the top of the stanchion fall down. Those four inch long pieces that are on top are on hinges. The middle small board is stationary. When you are done milking and want to let her out, just lift up those small boards with the hinges
It is very helpful to measure your cows head and neck before building a milk stall. It is great when their bovine head is stuck in there and they can't get it out unless you decide it is time for them to get out. Don't worry, cows can back out when it is time to leave the stanchion. I normally push on their head to back them out if they aren't in a hurry, but I am! Notice the horizontal boards that protect me in case my cow decides to be testy. I want to feel safe and know that her hoof is not going to connect with my leg as I am sitting by her. for the most part, it is not typical to have crabby Dexters, but they might have an off day and I don't want to be on the receiving end of it. Also when they are new to becoming a milk cow it is probably frightening to be in a new situation and you never know how they could react. I like knowing that if they decide to kick that they can't reach me.
We also built this milk stall up about a foot because I didn't want a back ache bending over. Make sure those boards are heavy duty with the right support. Farm Guy always like to build things that aren't going anywhere. So thankful for his amazing building skills! By the way, new skills can be learned when you have determination. Farm Guy had no building skills when we met! At least we were unaware of those skills!
Something I read that has stuck in my brain; is that your cow has the equivalent to a four year old child's brain. She is very motivated with food and will respond to a nice calm patient voice. Don't be harsh with her. Give her time to adjust. Also, if she starts getting really impatient, I will end our session just so she doesn't see the milk stall as an unhappy place that she doesn't want to be in. I have found things go really well when there is a treat of ground oats waiting for my little cow! Even alfalfa hay can work really well if it is kept as a treat.
Once you get mama cow in the milk stanchion, I wash her udder off with a warm bucket of soapy water. (This will also stimulate let down of the milk.) I don't want any straw, dirt or fecal matter in my bucket. I milk out each teat about 5 times to give to the cats. Those cats are always on the look-out for fresh milk! The reason I don't want that milk in my bucket is that I want the freshest milk possible! Maybe there could be some bacteria that I wouldn't want my family to have. So now I am ready to get my milk bucket under her.
This above picture is the back part of the stanchion. It is so helpful to have a place built on my stanchion that I can put a sliding board in front of her back legs in case she gets restless and accidentally kicks over my bucket. Trust me, that is so frustrating to have milk spilled all over the barn. The goal is to keep the bucket as clean as possible and you do not want any hooves in your precious milk! The board that is poking out slides into the slots and I make sure her feet are behind the movable board. I slide it back out when I am ready for her to leave.
Early in my dairy days, I decided to add a cloth to my milk bucket that is pretty much a curtain sheer. It keeps any cow hair or fly's from coming into contact with my newly acquired milk. Just cut one up and attach it with paper binder clips like this. The milk flows through the cloth. So helpful! I toss it in the washing machine when I am done with it.
To get milk to come out, squeeze her teat with your index and thumb to trap the milk. Then I press with my third and fourth fingers until it's empty of milk. Open your thumb and index and repeat. It took a few days to get the knack. If you decide to just get through a week of milking, you will be well on your way to being an expert with your cow. That 's what I had to do in order to work up the nerve to milk a cow. Plus that, it is so rewarding to walk back to the house with a couple quarts or more of milk! When you calf share you get a very reasonable amount of milk but baby calf gets most of it. In fact, I get less cream because mama hoards it for her baby!
When you get into the house, put another milk cloth on the top of your clean 2 quart mason jar before you pour your milk into it. There's always a chance that something snuck into your bucket that isn't milk. Then put that jar into the fridge!
Simply amazing and so very rewarding!
Here's a Proverb for you:
Better a dry crust with peace and quiet than a house full of feasting with strife.
Update since writing this post: May 2020
Because I have done a lot of milking since writing this above post and have
learned a few things, I thought I should do an update.
-- I no longer put a cloth on my bucket as I'm milking. I strain the milk when I get into the house. Here's the reason- the milk would splatter me as it would hit the cloth. I was more annoyed than anything.
-- I don't put a board in front of the cow's back feet. Some of my cows would just step over it. My only cow that would respect the board, was my cow Anna. It ended up being more stress than the benefit. I now really watch my cow's body language. I am ready to pull my bucket away in a split second. If I am milking a cow that could kick over the bucket at any moment, I will pour that liquid gold into a clean bucket that I have brought from the house. I feel less stressed knowing that most of the milk is safe. It took me a few years to figure out this trick! Maybe it can spare you you some moments of spilt milk when you could feel extreme anger towards your cow! Been there, done that!
-- Some cows that are younger are going to not going to like you milking them. They will try to put their foot in the milk bucket! They just need some time and consistency. If you can get through 7- 10 days of milking every day, you should be well on your way to having a good reliable milk cow. Make sure you have that extra clean bucket to put the milk in. That way, if they manage to kick the bucket you don't have all your hard work wasted and nothing to show for it. Before I learned this trick, there had been many times we were desperate to have some fresh raw milk in the fridge and it would end up being on the floor of the stanchion!
--Unpredictable/untrained cows require me to hold the milk bucket with one hand and milk with the other hand. After a week or two of training, I am able to milk with both hands. One of my cows who ended up being an amazing milk cow benefited from being yelled at with a loud voice so she knew I wasn't happy when she would kick at me with her back leg. For a while I had to milk her one handed but now can milk two handed with very little stress.
I am so thankful I have put in so much time to learning this skill. I really like being able to provide for my family. I have milked my cows with painful tennis elbow, carpal tunnel, rainy days and frigid wintry days. Just because something can be difficult doesn't mean you should give up. Many mornings I have not wanted to go out with my milk bucket to wash bucket and hang out with a milk cow but I walk back to the house with a grateful happy attitude. Something about being with those cows....