Editor’s note: Don’t miss the first part of this series, “Everything You Need To Know To Raise Dairy Cattle On The Homestead.”
Your dreams of milking your own cow have finally been realized! Your cow has recently freshened, or a cow already in milk has just been delivered to your farm. Your cow seems healthy and happy, and you can scarcely wait to begin milking. This is when your dream can quickly become a nightmare, however, if you do not know what you are doing. This guide is intended to help those who are new to milking transition smoothly so they can enjoy the dairying experience.
Milking Your Cow
You may be one of the lucky ones with an ideal cow that never fusses or kicks, but likely your cow will have some issues. Most cows will not kick at you maliciously or try to escape, but cows are immense creatures of habit; until they are used to you and the milking experience they will be nervous. This phase will pass quickly, but here are a few tricks I have learned the hard way to make the experience more enjoyable.
In order to milk safely, all you will need is a head-gate or stanchion, clean hands, and a sterile bucket. Most homesteaders milk this way, and for many it works quite well. Many people also choose to use milking machines. This is much quicker and easier on your hands, but requires more maintenance to keep the machines running. If you own or have access to a cattle chute, you can also milk with the cow confined this way. Cattle chutes will make milking a breeze, but they are prohibitively expensive and most people will not have access to one.
The best (and simplest) way to improve a cow’s behavior while milking is to feed grain in the parlor. Cows are highly motivated by food, and grain is like candy to them. If you desire, you can also use an anti-kicking device to ensure that your cow never forms this bad habit. Hobbles, kickbars, and rope tie-offs are all effective and cheap anti-kicking measures. Some cows figure out how to circumvent these devices, so unfortunately you may have to experiment to find what works for you. Our family has had good luck with hobbles, but we did own a Jersey at one point who learned how to get out of them. Just be patient and wary until you find a restraint that works for your cow.
To start milking, gently wash and rinse the teats, then dry them completely with a paper towel. Some cows will let down their milk right away, but most will take about a minute. Gently massaging the udder will encourage let down. Once she is ready, firmly grip the teats and squeeze and pull down with a smooth movement, or attach the vacuum machines. Milking should only take a few minutes, especially if the cow is young. Once you have finished milking, clean and dry the cow’s udder again or keep her standing in the stall for a few more minutes. It takes a short while for the teat duct to close again, and this is a prime time for bacteria to enter the udder and cause mastitis.
If you raise the calf with the cow’s milk, you will likely only milk once a day. I would recommend keeping the calf and cow separated overnight and milking first thing in the morning. This is a low-maintenance method that should yield plenty of milk for the average family.
Milk Safety and Usage
The most important aspect of milking is the cleanliness of your operation. Raw milk can be safe and wholesome without the need for pasteurization, but you will need to be exacting about hygiene in the barn to achieve this result.
The first thing to do is to inspect is your milking equipment. All containers should be stainless steel and should be disinfected with diluted bleach. A dairy acid cleaner should be used as well to remove mineral deposits. The acid can be purchased at most farm supply stores. You can store your milk in stainless steel or glass containers in the refrigerator.
The most important thing to do to ensure milk safety is to cool the milk as quickly as possible and to keep it at a stable temperature. Our family put the milk can into an ice bath for about 20 minutes and then immediately into glass milk jugs in the refrigerator. Our neighbor puts the milk can into a chest freezer during milking since he milks with vacuum machines. This is the most important aspect of milk safety and will increase the lifespan of your milk significantly.
If you desire to pasteurize your milk, this can be done very easily on the stovetop. Heat your milk in a stainless steel double boiler to 140 degrees Fahrenheit and hold the milk at this temperature for 35 minutes. After 35 minutes, dump the milk into a container and put it in an ice bath. Stir constantly until the milk cools to 40 degree Fahrenheit. Pasteurization does improve the safety of milk by killing bacteria, but improper technique is more dangerous than merely keeping the milk cold. The milk needs to be rapidly cooled as soon as pasteurization is complete for the milk to remain safe!
Once you have cooled and possibly pasteurized your milk, you can skim the cream off for butter or other dairy creations. To do this, you can let your milk stand in the refrigerator for several hours and skim the cream layer off with a ladle, or you can purchase a cream separator. Once you have separated the milk, you can drink or bake with the skim and craft all sorts of delectable creations with the cream!
Breeding Back Your Cow
Most dairy farmers try to have their cows give birth every 12 months. You will be able to go longer than this if you do not want a calf every year, but milk production will decrease the longer you milk. Your cow may also be rambunctious and unmanageable when she comes into heat, so breeding her quickly will take care of this problem. I would strongly recommend breeding your cow to a beef bull for three reasons:
- Beef bulls often have much milder and safer temperaments than dairy bulls.
- The calving ease for beef is much better than dairy, since beef cows are often left alone on feed lots with minimal care. This can lead to lower vet bills and increase the chance of having a live birth.
- A half-beef calf will be easier to sell if you desire, or will make excellent beef for your table.
Whether you decide to use the services of another bull, use AI, or purchase your own, breeding your cow in a timely manner ensures that you will have fresh, wholesome milk again soon!