We've somewhat settled into having a milk cow and I thought that I’d share a post (or two or three) on the addition of a milk cow to our farm and I figured that I better do it before I got really comfortable so that I’d remember all those newbie, Idon’tknowwhattodonow! details. For those of you who don’t ever plan to own a milk cow, don’t care to know about how it works to have a family milk cow, or who are just short on time, I’ll give you the brief version. It’s going great and now you can look at the pictures. For those of you who are interested in the details or who have told me that you’d like have a cow some day, the rest is for you.
Sidenote: Because we already get asked regularly, we aren’t selling milk. We don’t have enough and don’t actually wish to get into the complications of that. It is illegal to sell milk here in Canada and while we fully and completely support those who choose to sell and purchase, it’s not something we want to get into.
Why a Highland Jersey?
I've always said that I wanted a Jersey cow because I love their creamy milk and because I've always thought they were such a pretty cow. As I started reading more about cows though, I realized that Jersey's are one of the more delicate cows to care for especially here where it tends to be cold and wet in the winter. Pretty randomly, I came across a kijiji ad for a highland/jersey cross and it all clicked into place; cross a hardier breed with the breed that I wanted. I also was drawn by the idea of getting a more manageable amount of milk as I have no plans of selling milk at this point (Yes, it is illegal here in Canada). I began chatting with a old timer farmer who told me that I'd likely have a hard time finding such a cow in this area but that he'd keep his eyes open. Then I came across the Hidden Meadow Farm blog and we began chatting as blogging friends. They raise highland cattle but also have a sweet Jersey named Ginger. Ginger is Sugar's mama and so the story goes. Sugar is my perfect highland/jersey cross that I was looking for.
Sugar is a first time mama this year and she hadn't been milked before coming here. I mentioned before that it was all a little overwhelming for me at first. I knew that I needed to milk her out once I started but she was pretty edgy and worried about her calf. I've only ever milked seasoned milk cows and while I realize even that is more than many people can say, I still felt like I had bit off more than I could chew. BUT, we took it slow and probably slightly unconventionally until Sugar got accustomed to being milked by us. Although she never kicked hard, I may have ended up on the ground once or twice while trying to balance on my silly stool and save the milk. Because we weren't milking her out but her supply was increasing I was pretty stressed about mastitis as well but I just watched closely and continue to check for any symptoms each milking. So far so good.
We are milk sharing with Copper the calf, which adds a little more work to the mix. It’s more common that the calf is separated from it’s mother and is bottle/bucket fed milk (or calf starter) from the milk. We like to keep things a natural and stress-free for the animals as possible for both them and ourselves so we have chosen to allow the calf to directly feed off his mother. We might realize later that this was a poor choice but that is what we are doing now. Our shelter set up is by no means fancy but we have a little calf pen which allows the calf to be right at his mothers head while we milk. It keeps her relaxed because he is near and keeps him from trying to suckle while we milk. Calves are messy, aggressive eaters; there is no picturesque milking while the calf feeds happening her. In the morning, we milk three quarters and leave one full quarter for Copper that he gets once we are finished. Then he stays with Mama until early afternoon and nurses during that time. Then he is separated until the evening milking when he again gets a full quarter and just before bed we separate them for the night. Of course this means we are getting less milk, but are raising a healthy calf.
We also really like it this way because it allows us some flexibility in milking. Should we be going out for the day, we can simply leave them together and he takes care of the milk so that we don’t have to worry about the evening milk. Of course we won’t always have this option but it has been great so far for the couple of times that we couldn’t do the evening milking.
We have a narrow half stall with a manger in front for the food. We tie Sugar up for milk although it has already become so routine for her that we hardly need to. Cows usually are such creatures of habit that if you give them a consistent routine, they’ll happily comply…most of the time. Sugar gets her grain and hay while we milk. Ideally, I’d like to give her a supplement other than dairy ration but am still figuring that out. Often the practice with dairy cows is to give them more dairy ration in order to have them produce a lot more milk. The thing is that their digestive system isn’t actually designed for that so we are giving her a minimal amount of 1.5 c. per milking. Keeps her happy and gives her a little added boost to her hay.
When we began milking, we were milking one handed into a jar so no milk would get wasted by her kicking the bucket over or sticking her foot right in it. We’d put our foot directly on her foot (Always milking on the left side) and our knee against her leg to prevent a sudden forward motion of her foot. We leave Sugar’s back legs loose and at first had to be watchful of her kicking the bucket but now, a few weeks later, she never kicks or really even moves unless she needs to go to the bathroom which she gives warning of ahead of time. Smart girl.
We’re milking into a large stainless steel
bucket now and rather than placing it onto the ground, I actually hold it
between my knees to keep it closer to the milk stream. That is what I find the
most comfortable but I’m also only getting a few liters a milking, this
wouldn’t work well with some of the other dairy breeds who produce a lot more
milk. In the future I could see considering a milk machine but for all its
positives at this point, I think of things like needing electricity for it, the
noise it makes, and the increased possibility of mastitis so at this point
I’m happy to use a bucket. The hardest part of hand milking was getting the strength in my wrists built up; it tends to work muscles that aren't used often in a repetitive motion.
Sugar is very gentle and quiet about milking now. As long as Copper is close by, she is happy. I've taught a friend how to milk already and both Aneliese and Cecily have milked her as well.
At this point because we have a hardy breed, we have only a three-sided shelter which is also where we milk. We have plans for a bigger barn and will work on that eventually. We’re working on a rotation system with all of our animals to keep our pastures healthy and growing so we currently have three sections fenced with electric wire. We rotate through so that animals can graze without totally eating one section down. I also spread their manure across the fields from time to time as a natural fertilizing method. We also encourage our chickens to follow the path of the larger animals by giving them scraps in specific areas. I’m getting off track here but seriously as we read and learn, this type of land maintenance is so fascinating, effective, and wise practice. Google it, really; rotational grazing.
Part of healthy raw milk, is a healthy, mostly clean environment for the milk cow. I’m going to write another post on how we actually handle the milk but for now, just a little about keeping the cow clean. I say mostly clean but if you are picturing a perfectly clean cement floored barn with a milking machine, that isn’t what we have. But I do keep the poop picked up daily in the shelter/milking area and there is always clean bedding spread, usually the scraps that Sugar doesn’t eat at milking. I found that it was getting soggy so I laid a bag of peat moss that is very absorbent over the soil, layered some hay and now I just clean the manure right off of that. I will likely need to add some peat moss from time to time after heavy rains but so far it has been very effective and inexpensive. All of that manure then goes into a composting pile to eventually fertilize my garden.
As I mentioned, we give dairy ration and hay.
Right now Sugar is grazing so isn’t eating much hay, otherwise she eats a bale
or so a day. She needs a mineral and salt lick to supplement as she likely
wouldn’t get enough naturally from our pasture. That’s also something that we
learning more about for when we reseed our pasture. And then, water. She needs
lots of fresh water. Right now we are going classy style with old bath tubs in
each section. It may not be the most attractive, but it’s cost effective and
provides her with plenty of clean water.
Why you should have a family milk cow:
If you are interested in ever getting a milk cow, I would highly recommend this book, The Family Cow. It's an older book but is very comprehensive and easy to read. It gives a good coverage of what having a milk cow entails. We've also been very thankful for a couple of experienced people whom we can email or call with our questions. It has been really wonderful having our own fresh, healthy milk every day. I’ve yet to get a good system down but at least when the milk gets old, I don’t feel bad clabbering or souring it to feed to the chickens. I’m dabbling in cheese making and we’ve been eating lots of yogurt, kefir, custards, and anything else that requires milk. I love the peaceful routine of going out in the quiet of the morning and evening to milk. Sugar is a very gentle cow with a great personality, although she does forget that she is grown up at times and kicks her heels up across the field, and she is a pleasure to work with. But, it is a BIG commitment and a lot of work. Everything thing takes time and there isn’t nearly as much opportunity for spontaneous trips. Rainy, wet days aren’t so much fun. Right now, we are saving money because we aren’t purchasing raw milk but there are always unforeseen costs. We have to consider things such as getting her bred so that she will have another calf next year and continue producing milk. There is keeping fences repaired and pens clean. It’s truly so worth it for us though. Both Dan and I really enjoy milking and even the girls are learning which is incredibly cute. I like knowing exactly what I am feeding my family and it’s a way of life that while definitely not for everyone, is so valuable.