"We must achieve the character and acquire the skills to live much poorer than we do. We must waste less. We must do more for ourselves and for each other. It is either that or continue merely to think and talk about changes that we are inviting catastrophe to make. The great obstacle is simply this: the conviction that we cannot change because we are dependant on what is wrong. But that is the addict's excuse, and we know that it will not do."
—Wendell Berry

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Training house cows

Many people I speak to, even those on a farm, have little idea how much preparation is involved in milking a cow. Just as you train a dog to come, sit and generally obey so must a cow be trained before she can be milked. Often I speak to folks who have tried to simply drive the cow into the bales when they want to begin milking, only to find she fights like hell! They come to the conclusion that their cow is no good as a milker and that hand milking is incredibly difficult. The cow is sold and they pass their bad experience along to others as lore.

What a waste.

So, to answer questions and prevent further problems for new dairymen and women (you know who you are!) I will tell you what works for us.

First purchase your cow, but if at all possible you should purchase a heifer not yet in calf. Failing that, purchase a cow that has only just been put to the bull for the first time, and only recently at that. This is because you will need that valuable time before the birth to train your cow. She must learn to tolerate being touched, driven and bailed. She should learn to come when called and should be used to a set daily routine. Cows are most definitely an animal of routine.
So first you get your heifer (and I am assuming you follow my advice so I will refer to a heifer hereafter) used to being fed from a bucket twice daily. Feed her a few scoops of chaff with a little molasses as a treat, about six litres of chaff and one cupful of molasses but use your own common sense. (If you have no common sense and cannot work it out for yourself, please move back to the city where you are always told what to do). Feed her in the place you intend to milk her. I strongly recommend constructing a good set of milking bales and not head bales, a well trained cow should not need her head restrained but only a place to stand where she can eat her feed while being milked. next you will gently pat and touch her as she is eating, perhaps even brush her down. Your heifer should feel relaxed and secure at all times, no surprises or loud noises. This should take a month or more. Next you should sit quietly beside her in the milking position and brush her side until you can touch her udder. Expect her to shy away at first, possibly even kick. Persevere and if at all possible do not use a leg rope. Some cows never lose the kicking urge and will need the near side leg roped back, but not off the ground please as this is cruel in the extreme, just enough to prevent kicking. This step should take another one to two months.
Now what you have been doing all this time is training not only the heifer but also yourself to milking. You will end up milking twice a day, every day and this is not negotiable! You are getting a chance to back out now if the routine is not for you. You must milk at roughly twelve hour intervals, say 6am and 6pm or thereabouts. An hours leeway is not out of the question as long as it is the same each time.
When your heifer is old enough, put her to the bull. Think about the calf you want too. If you are after meat then you will want a meat breed bull. A good dairy breed heifer calf is worth a fair bit of money as a house cow as you will know having just bought one. You can cover many costs this way. A dairy breed bull calf is close to financially worthless though. Fatten him as you can, turn him into yearling beef and be done with it.
After nine months pregnancy your heifer is now a cow and she drops her calf. The first week of milk is a substance called colostrum and contains antibodies fit for the calf but not much good for us to drink so let her feed her calf. You still keep up the daily routine though. After the first week or so you will begin milking your cow once per day. The rest goes to the calf. To do this I prefer to lock up the calf overnight away from the cow. In the morning she will be full and you can milk her out before you let the calf out. Make sure you completely strip her out (remove all milk in the udder) for her health, otherwise she may contract a disease known as mastitis and this can do permanent damage or even kill the cow. After she has been milked she and the calf spend the day together and he drinks his fill. I have raised many calves this way now and they have never once had a problem. Both cow and calf will quickly become used to the routine. Make sure you put your cow to the bull when she next comes on heat or failing that the month after.
At four months or so I like to wean the calf from his mum. Place him in another paddock where he cannot get to his mother. Beware him drinking through the fence and I have often witnessed this. Two fences between mother and calf are preferred. Out of earshot is even better. Expect a couple of nights of bellowing. Now that the calf is no longer drinking half the milk you will need to milk twice daily, morning and evening. You will be milking until six weeks before she is due to drop her next calf. Then you must dry her up (stop her lactating). The easiest way to do this is to simply stop milking her and cut her feed by half. As soon as she no longer "bags up" (has milk in her udder) you can resume the usual amount of feed, in fact a pregnant cow may need extra feed if your grazing is less than good. You will continue the routine exactly the same in all seasons, milking or not. Then she will drop her next calf and the routine continues. Happy milking!


  1. Hi Ulf
    As you say it is easier to train a heifer from when she is younger but it isn't impossible to train a cow on her first or second calf or even older ones. It just takes patience and a lot of time, but it is possible. The fresh milk is worth it though.
    Unless you have high protein irrigated pasture, it is also good to add some grain to the feed mix to give even better and more milk.
    One point to remember is the milking shed is a no-no for dogs, especially when the calf is young. That will upset the mother no end.
    If you have visitors, only let them near the milking shed after the cow is settled with them being around. Strangers nearby upset the cow very quickly.
    Happy drinking fresh milk and making great looking cheeses Ulf....and icecream....and whatever else you are doing with it.

  2. I agree absolutely Jim. I have once had the dubious pleasure of having to train an older house cow. As you say, I takes a lot of patience and time. I was kicked quite a lot with that one.