There are many things I didn't know how to do as a farmer before the situation was upon me. Lambing, for example. Do you know how many lambings I'd played midwife to prior to owning a sheep that was lambing? Zero. Definitely learned that one on the fly. Same goes for our breeding Old Spots (who, by the way, are taking their sweet ‘ol time giving me piglets this year). Poor Ginny's belly is practically dragging on the ground and she still hasn't delivered…
Point being, sometimes as a homesteader, you just gotta learn on the fly. We lost Sally before we ever had the chance to properly develop a milk-sharing habit with her and her calf, so this go with Cece was our first take at it. But after 8 months of a successful ritual, I thought I may as well share, lest any of you find yourself it the same position.
Meet Pepper – the calf born to Cece last May and the beautiful and a wonderful combination of her parents. Her mother, my beloved Jersey girl and her father, a beautiful Dexter bull named ‘Hiro'.
Since last May, we've been milk sharing our supply with Pepper. Pepper continues to get nutrient-dense milk that helps to develop a healthy rumen and we get a few hefty perks as well. Milk sharing is just that – we share our milk with the baby.
But how does one go about milk sharing with a calf? I'm so glad you asked. Because that's exactly what I wanted to talk about today. It's like it was meant to be!
Why Would We Milk Share
- Relief from milking: To me, there is one great advantage to milk sharing – you have a built in milker! With Pepper still nursing, we've been able to take Sunday mornings off from milking, leave town for the weekend, or just have a lazy morning and decide not to milk. Without a calf, we're required to milk at the exact same time each day, zero breaks. With a calf nursing, we're able to leave town and milk as we wish.
- Lowers Risk of Mastitis: Mastitis can easily come on when a cow is left with milk in her bag or is milked improperly. You've got to striiiiiip every drop of milk out of the cow to prevent risk of infection and ensure each teat is milked thoroughly and evenly. With a calf, they do the clean up. We milk out as much or as little as we'd like and put the cow and the calf back together. The calf will immediately nurse and strip the remaining milk, should we decide we don't need it. Calves are incredibly efficient at nursing, and thus, help prevent infections.
- We get a healthy calf: Calves that nurse longer perform better. Much like babies! They grow a superior gut-flora that will serve them well for their remaining days. Because Pepper is a heifer that will be kept for breeding and milking purposes, it's important to us that she remain as healthy and vibrant as possible for the long-haul.
The Downside To Milk Sharing
- It's more work: And it is. Milk-sharing requires you to separate the cow and calf for part of the day which means you need at least two pens. It also means that someone (Stuart) has to go out at night in the dark and in the cold to separate the cow and the calf. Even if it's snowing. Even if it's icy. No separation means no milk the next morning, so work we must.
- Calves get the best: Cows have an incredible ability to control their milk and will often do so in favor of the calf, giving them the richest portion. Cece has been pretty easy for us, as far as letting her milk down, but I've heard stories of cows that simply will not let it down for anyone other than the calf. I can always tell she's holding a bit back for Pepper at the end of milking, but that's just her being a good Mama, so I don't mind. I'd do the same.
How To Milk Share
Blah blah, Shaye, we get it. But how do we do it? It's dead simple.
- Separate the cow and the calf for 12 hours.
- Reunite them for 12 hours.
So here's how that looks for us. We arise in the morning, sip a cup of coffee and eat poached eggs over toast. The world is beautiful and the sun is out. After a deeply satisfying breakfast and another cuppa, we head up to the barn with four littles in tow, because them learning the value of farm chores is of the upmost importance. We halter Cece and walk her to the milking stanchion and begin the beautiful ritual of hand milking into a cold, stainless steel pail. Even the toddler takes a turn. After ten minutes, we're left with a frothy pail of beautifully rich milk, slightly yellowed from the amount of Jersey cream included. Cece and Pepper are then reunited, where Pepper eagerly cleans up what's left in the udder. They'll hang out together all today, Pepper nursing at will, until after supper time, when they're separated into different pens for the night. Pretty easy, huh?
People often ask how we manage to have a dairy animal with normal life commitments. This is how. We only milk once a day, which takes no more than ten or fifteen minutes, and we can take a break whenever we need to. It's enough to keep us flush with as much milk as we'd like and none is getting wasted or thrown to the pigs (enjoyable for them, but not efficient for us). Cece is a first-time Mama and, thus, is producing slightly less than she will as an experienced cow. Even with that, and even with milk sharing, we walk away with a gallon and a half of beautiful raw milk daily.
That's good stuff, baby.