This month marks the year anniversary of something very great, my friends. Something so great that it's benefit to our homestead is truly immeasurable.
That is, the year anniversary of owning our dairy cow, Sally Belle.
Sally came to us last October from a wonderful family – and after the saga that we went through trying to get Kula pregnant, we were ready to welcome Sally with open arms.
She had only been a member of our farm for 4 hours before it was time for us to milk her – and not just milk her for the first time, but milk a cow in general for the first time.
That first milking was rough.
Secretly, as I carried that pail of liquid gold full of hair, poo, dirt, and tears up to the house that first night, I thought to myself:
Self, what on earth have you done.
To say it was a steep learning curve would be a understatement. Radical life shift would be more accurate.
Since that first milking a year ago, Stuart and I have milked Sally no less than 730 times.
SEVEN HUNDRED AND THIRTY TIMES.
730 times, we have washed her udder and gave it a few gently love bumps to initiate milk let down.
730 times, we have pulled our three-legged stool up to her side and gently stroked her back leg as we sat down.
730 times, we have carried a bucket of raw milk up to the house for processing (that is, apart from the handful of times we've spilt the bucket before finishing). (Read more about handling raw milk)
And in that 730 times, I've learned a few valuable lessons about owning and managing a dairy cow that I'd like to share with you. Because, let's face it, experience is the very best teacher. And after 730 times milking, I'd like to think I'm at least somewhat experienced in this department – be it good or bad experience.
10 Most Important Lessons Learned About Milking A Family Cow
1. Never take your eyes off the back hooves.
Back in my novice milking days, as soon as I felt comfortable, I've lovingly glance at the hills… at the chickens grazing the ground… at Sally's face as she bobbed up and down in her grain bucket… or at the company I was keeping in the milking parlor. No sooner had I glanced away before a hoof would end up in my milking bucket. One time, that even caused her to slip in the milk, fall down on her belly, and may a grand ‘ol show of the entire incident.
Lesson learned. DON'T LOOK UP FROM THE BUCKET.
Even if your cow is docile and stands well, like Sally. Even if you think she won't. Even if she hasn't before. All it takes is one small lift of her foot to send the entire milking down to funky town. Now that we've learned to recognize signs of an impending kick, such as her shifting her weight to the opposite leg, it's easy to anticipate when one is coming – even though they're rare. Occasionally, it happens. And it ain't no fun for anyone.
Keep focused. Keep your eyes on the task at hand. Not everything is meant to be multi-tasked. This is one of those.
2. Never make sudden changes.
Dairy cows are very sensitive animals, thriving on routine and predictability. The times we've mixed up Sally's routine too quickly have been the times that we've heavily paid for it. For example, thinking we were doing her a favor, we bought a stall mat to stick in her milking parlor for added comfort and cleanliness during milkings. Girlfriend was havin' none of it. She wouldn't look at it, wouldn't smell it, and certainly wouldn't stand on it for a milking.
All in all, it ended up taking us an entire week to introduce it to her stall. Each day, little by little, we drug it further into the parlor. Eventually, she got used to it and would stand on it, although wearily for the first few days.
Whether change is coming in the form of new cows in the pen, new hay, new milkers, new milking equipment, etc. it's imperative that this change happens gradually. A surprised dairy cow is not a happy dairy cow. So be patient with the ‘ol hags.
3. Never give into their demands.
If they won't stand for you after they've finished their feed and you let them get away with it, eventually they won't stand for you at all.
If they get ornery and start kicking at you without being gently reminded that's not okay, you'll soon be in for a hoof battle every milking.
Dairy cows are sort of like teenagers. Give 'em an inch and they'll take a mile. One must stand their ground.
4. Always double-check the gate.
Not sure how I expand on this one… except to say that when one finds their dairy cow bedded down up by their front porch, romping around a nearby orchard, or munching on the neighbors weed patch, one tends to check gates and (ahem) loose fence posts more often than previously.
Always. Always. Always. ALWAYS. DOUBLE CHECK THE GATE.
5. Expect breeding to take a while.
Frankly, this one sorta makes me want to cry. Still. Our first dairy cow, Kula, was never successfully bred and ended up (how shall we say gently…) in the freezer. After three breeding sessions with a bull and a handful of failed artificial insemination attempts, we had to cut our financial losses. We're a small artisan farm. Every unproducing animal matters.
Sally has also proven slightly difficult to get bred, though I feel we're closer now than we were before. Since our first attempt with a bull in which she never settled, we've learned slightly different techniques to handling breeding sessions that can help boost the results. We've also started Sally on a mineral program in an attempt to balance any deficiencies she may have been suffering with.
All this to say, who would've thunk that getting a single cow pregnant could be so challenging! When the entire investment of a farm's dairy program is tied up in one cow, it's a hefty responsibility and weight that comes along with annual breeding the family cow. And it's not a subject to be taken lightly.
Have a breeding program in place.
Have a plan.
And expect it to take multiple attempts. And then some.
6. Prepare to groom.
Grooming, to a dairy cow, is love. You + a groomed cow = true love 4ever. A nice, soft bristled brush is as good as a dozen roses.
When Sally first came to Beatha Fonn, it took us a few weeks to get used to each other. Taking some advice from one of my favorite home dairy books, I began taking the time to calmly brush Sally down before each milking. Lo and behold, the ‘ol girl came around.
And all it took was a bit of love.
7. Be consistent and constant.
45 minutes off of schedule means a lot to a dairy cow. Like we've previously talked about, they thrive on routine. Stuart and I are very careful to be consistent in not only the time that we milk but also the way that we milk. There is a set routine to it all that allows Sally to feel comfortable in our consistency. We're the only two people that have milked her from start to finish over the past year. We are her caretakers. We are her constants. And that's the way, uh huh uh huh, she likes it, uh huh uh huh.
8. Take the beatings like a champ.
You're probably going to get your feet stepped on. And you may get kicked in the knee. And you'll definitely end up with a whip, I mean tail, in your eye a time or two thousand. There will probably be times she'll ram you with her head. Or you'll fall off your milking stool after she shifts the weight of her belly into you when she's annoyed.
Get up. Dust your shoulders off. And get back to milking.
9. Go ahead and cry over spilt milk.
Raw milk that's been hand squeezed from a family cow is legit. It's the real deal. And I'd be lying if I said that I didn't cry the first time I ended up with a spilt milk bucket. When something has such value, such importance, and has been worked so hard for, it's okay to cry when it's lost.
We milk a cow daily because we value the product. We value it so much that we're willing to (literally) pour our blood, sweat, and tears all that caring for a bovine requires. It's a lot. And raw milk is it's ultimate goal.
That milk is to be appreciated, man.
10. Be prepared for an organic relationship.
Like anything in nature, a relationship with an animal is organic. It's changing. It's not cut and dry. Milking Sally every day has taught us to be flexible, to go with the good days and with the bad days.
Every morning and afternoon, when Stuart or I comes back from milking, the other always asks “How was Sally?” Much like humans, cows have better days than others. And this organic relationships is just that – organic. It's not a math problem to be solved. It's not a calculation to plug into a calculator. It's shifting, shaking, and evolving every day.
The experience of owning Sally and milking a family cow twice per day is like nothing I've ever experienced before. It's completely counter-cultural to choose a path of greater resistance. The path of owning a family cow is littered with discouragement, difficulty, complications, and frustration. I'd be lying if I said that a few choice words hadn't been known to fly in the milking parlor. Just sayin'.
But along that path littered with challenges comes the greater reward. Whether that reward comes in getting to see the sunrise every morning, being mindful of God's creation, enjoying as many tall glasses of raw milk as we'd wish, engraining ourselves with responsibility, learning to care for something other than ourselves, providing our pigs with unlimited quantities of rich milk, or getting to experience an intimate relationship with a 1,000 pound animal.
The rewards outweigh the challenges 1,000 to 1.
It doesn't mean that it's always easy or enjoyable. It means it's totally and completely worth it.
More of my posts on Cows and Dairy:
- How to Move a Cow to Once a Day Milking
- How to Tell When a Cow Will Calve
- Our new cow Cecelia
- My beloved Sally