The Best Approach to Milking Cows is Consistency
How to Start Dairy Farming on Your Homestead
By John Hibma – What could be more satisfying, more rewarding than owning your own cow? Milking cows yields milk daily for your table. You could make your own butter, cheese and yogurt. And the very best of all—all the homemade ice cream you can eat.
But folks who might be considering the notion of keeping a cow at home for their private milk supply must first and foremost be aware that milk is a perishable product and if not properly handled, will most definitely make them ill. There is no reason to fear raw, unpasteurized milk or processed products made from raw milk provided the entire process of milking cows on your homestead, and handling and refrigerating the milk is done with scrupulous care and fastidious attention to cleanliness. (If there is any doubt as to the cleanliness of raw milk, as a safety precaution, you should pasteurize that milk.)
With the assurance and confidence that the milk from your cow is safe to drink, you may now regard the experience of having your own cow as an adventure. Yes, owning and taking care of a beast that weighs in at, the very least, 1,000 pounds comes with guaranteed challenges. Cows are big animals, requiring adequate facilities for both housing and milking. Cows can’t just be pushed around—especially when these half-ton animals don’t want to be moved. She must be milked in a timely manner to maintain consistent milk production. If she’s not fed correctly her health and milk production will suffer, and your experience with a dairy cow will deteriorate into a lot of extra expense, frustration and disappointment. Simply put, if you want to milk your own cow you had better be prepared to do it right.
Chris Newton grew up on a farm in Missouri and learned how to milk cows as a youngster. He and his wife Mavis moved to New England a number of years ago; she as a teacher and he as a hospital administrator. A dream of the Newtons was to eventually buy a small farm, and on that farm, they would have a cow that would provide them with fresh milk daily. The Newtons found a farm in Connecticut, and proceeded to purchase a cow—a Jersey cow named Bambi—from a dairy farm in Rhode Island.
At first, Bambi wasn’t too happy about her new home and especially didn’t like Newton milking her by hand twice each day. Up until that time she had been milked by electric milking machines and even though Newton was experienced at milking cows by hand (a dying art, by the way), Bambi was thinking that this was not right.
Newton explained that cows are creatures of habit and changing locations, homes and routines are very stressful for them. Changes of any kind have to be introduced slowly and gently because when a cow gets spooked or confused she can become unpredictable and even dangerous if she chooses to kick or run. A cow can kick really hard, and when you’re milking cows, you’re in a very vulnerable place and can get hurt. Treat your cow with gentleness and respect and they will soon reciprocate.
You must have a special place, preferably in a barn, for milking cows. And cows must learn that they will be milked daily. Newton had a place all prepared for Bambi when he bought her. Within a week after moving to her new home, Bambi had accepted her new surroundings.
Milking cows is a daily chore—365 days a year. In order for cows to continuously provide a steady supply of milk, they must be milked twice each day—once in the morning and once in the evening. You may choose to milk your cow by hand if you are strong enough to do so. Most, though, should milk their cow with a portable milking machine. Vacuum pumps must be well maintained to ensure proper suction to the cow’s teat ends. The milking equipment must be spotlessly clean before use and washed thoroughly in very hot water and disinfected with chlorine to minimize the chances of transmitting bacteria to the cow’s udder and causing mastitis.
Either way, if milking by hand or with a machine, when milking cows, great attention must be paid to sanitation. The skin of the teats is sensitive and vulnerable to chafing and cracking just as our hands will crack in the cold, dry winter weather or if the skin is constantly wet from moisture. Cracked skin on a teat is a perfect hiding place for bacteria that can infect the udder and affect the quality of the milk. A veterinarian or dairy supply source can advise you on the types of sanitizers and skin products to use on a cow’s teats and udder. Your cow is a living creature that relies completely on you for her proper care just as your pet dog or cat does. Even though she’s big and clumsy, she’s still fragile in many ways, and a case of mastitis is painful and sometimes even life threatening, not to mention the milk produced is unfit for consumption.
Cows are natural herbivores and happiest when they’re outside grazing on pasture. If you are looking to keep a cow, an acre of good quality pasture will keep most cows fed well during the spring, summer and fall months. Pasturing is always preferable to keeping her locked up in a barn all day. While grass from a pasture (during the growing season) or hay will often provide enough nutrition for the single family cow, mineral and vitamin supplementation are necessary for a cow’s continued good health. Consult with an animal feed professional or a veterinarian for more details on diets.
Cows don’t like to stand out in the rain, so for foul weather she should have access to a shelter where she can stay dry. A cow needs about 100 square feet of room (10′ x 10′) to be comfortable in, and any type of shelter you may provide should be designed so it can be easily cleaned.
There is a “birds and bees” element to keeping a cow productive. In order for cows to produce milk and to continue to produce milk, they must become pregnant and then continue to produce a calf about every year or so during their entire life. The process of insemination, whether artificially or by natural means, is another aspect of taking care of your cow. There will be expenses involved with getting a cow pregnant and you must plan accordingly.
For Chris Newton, the entire reason for having his own milking cow was for the fresh milk and cream. Handling the milk after milking Bambi is every bit as important as following correct milking procedures. Once milk is out of the udder and exposed to air, bacteria begin invading it and compromise its quality. Milk, fresh from the cow, is still at the body temperature of the cow—about 101°F. It should be immediately filtered and refrigerated. Keeping milk at or below 50°F will significantly reduce bacterial growth and prolong its shelf life.
Always plan on milking cows into a sanitized, stainless steel bucket. Any transferring should again be made with stain-less steel receptacles or extremely clean plastic or poly-plastic vessels. There are many types of buckets, containers and filtering apparatus on the market.
Of course, fresh milk also means fresh cream that rises to the top of the milk. Even though that cream was intended by Mother Nature to be nourishment to a baby calf, milk fat can be consumed in moderation by we humans, allowing for a multitude of uses for cream. Dairy products are still considered to be the best sources of calcium and potassium of any foods available.
The Newtons will take their freshly filtered milk, place it in a large bowl in the refrigerator, allowing the cream to rise to the top. Later Mavis will ladle the cream off and make butter with it. You may also choose to make whipped cream for that special dessert. Or you might take the whole milk and try your hand at making cheese or yogurt. The milk from Jersey cows such as Bambi have the highest butterfat content of any cow breed, allowing that milk to yield the most butter and cheese compared to other breeds.
Be prepared for lots of milk from a healthy cow for many years. Bambi is now 13 years old. Each year, immediately after she gives birth to a calf, she produces 10 gallons of milk every day for many weeks. That’s a lot of milk to drink. That’s a lot of butter to churn and, most importantly, that’s a lot of ice cream to eat.
Originally published in the May/June 2010 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal.