How to train a cow to be your family milk cow
This is sooooooooo my department. I love working with cattle. I love working with calves. I love milking and all things home dairying.
Here’s a quick lesson in cow terminology:
- A “Cow” is a word for a female cattle (bovine) who has had a calf.
- A “Dam” is the mother of any cattle offspring.
- A “Bull” is not a cow. All “Cows” are females. So bulls are bulls, dudes, male cattle – not cows.
- A “Steer” is what would grow into a bull – except someone removed his manhood. So, he’s a steer, not a bull.
- A “Calf” is a baby cow.
- A “bull-calf” is a boy baby cattle.
- A “heifer-calf” is a girl baby cattle.
- A “Heifer” is a female cattle 1-2 years old who has not yet had a baby.
- A “First Freshener” is a heifer who just had her first calf.
- If a cow is “fresh” she is making milk.
I’m a dam.
My daughters are Heifers.
My sons, I guess, are bull-calves who will eventually turn into bulls…
DH is a retired bull.
And, none of us are fresh.
Here’s some more basic cow information:
- In order for a cow to produce milk – she must first have a calf.
- If a heifer has never had a calf, then she has never made milk (been “fresh”).
- Once a heifer has her first calf she is ready to be milked for the first time. She is a first freshener.
How to Train a Cow
I have milked several cows in my lifetime and a few goats as well. I can milk by hand. I can milk with a pump. I’ve used vacuum pumps, electric pumps and portable pumps.
I’m not afraid of an udder. I’m not afraid to milk a cow who’s never been miked before. I’m not even afraid of horns. OK, maybe I am a little afraid of horns – but that’s why we tie her head to the wall – so she can’t get to me with those big-o-gorgeous-horns.
We have purchased/ owned/ milked 3 different milk cows, but 2 of them had never had babies or been milked in their life (before me). I was the first one to ever milk them. I think this is the best scenario. With a brand new, shiny heifer who has never had a calf or been milked, you are greatly improving your odds for success, for you and your future milk cow.
Problems with older cows:
- They may have ongoing health issues you don’t know about. More on that here.
- They may be addicted to an electric milker (switching to hand milking from a lifetime on an electric milker is a recipe for disaster. More on that here).
- They may be on a twice a day milking schedule you will never be able to break (I am a once a day milker – no thank you for the second milking. How to milk once a day here).
- They are more likely to come down with things like milk fever, milk stones and need calcium tubes shoved down their throats if they are mature. More on that here.
Unfortunately, when you buy an older milk cow, there really isn’t any way to know if you are buying yourself a bunch of problems. We did our research. We contacted our vet. We milked her before we bought her. We knew the owners. We thought we did everything right. AND we bought ourselves more trouble than we knew what to do with.
If you buy a sweet, older, experienced, dairy cow you could be in for quite the ride…. speaking from experience.
It is just hard to buy a “used” cow (I think).
I think if you start fresh with a brand new, never calved, never milked before – heifer (from a trusted source) you have the potential for fewer problems. There is no history of mastitis, or milk fever or milk stones. You have a clean slate. You set the rules. You determine the milking times. You don’t begin your milk cow career married to a sick, problematic cow who is addicted to an electric milker and can’t get bred.
I know there are folks on the other side of this debate who think an experienced cow is the way to go for first timers. It’s true that old and young cows, inexperienced and newbies can all have health issues or milking problems. It is accurate that heifers can still get sick, have mastitis and cause you to get headaches as well, but far less likely.
I have not personally experienced any issues with my 2 heifers -but this is possible.
The nice thing about buying an experienced milk cow was that she knew how to act in the milk barn. This was good since I had no idea what I was doing. While I spent hours trying to figure the whole milk-the-cow thing out, she would happily stand like a statue. This was good. All her health problems, mechanical needs inability to get pregnant and her general production levels were a nightmare to manage – but her ability to stand still for hours each week was great.
My first experience with milking, the cow was the expert, I was the newbie.
Our latest 2 cows (both heifers – first fresheners, first-time mommies, never been milked before me) were the opposite. I was the experienced one (kinda) & they were the newbies.
I prefer young cows who have never been milked before because:
- I haven’t had to break bad habits.
- I haven’t walked into a cow with a staph infection, unknown problem or surprise (at least not so far *wink*)
- I haven’t had to shove
battery acidcalcium tubes down their throats.
- I haven’t had to milk them 2-3 times a day.
- I haven’t had to worry about the previous owner’s milking schedule.
- I can train my cows to a once a day milking regimen.
- I haven’t had to worry about dealing with 6 gallons of milk every day (first fresheners usually don’t make that much milk).
- I can train them to do what I want them to do.
When you are milking a cow there are things you want them to do and things you do not want them to do.
What you want your cow to do:
- Come into the milk barn
- Stand still (No kicking or stomping, shifting & adjusting is fine)
- Relax so her milk will let down
- Not flinch over loud noises (with an electric milk-pump and 4 children there’s no shortage of noises around here)
- Be submissive to you
What you don’t want:
- Stepping into the milk bucket
- Kicking off the claw (the part of the electric milker that attaches to the teats)
- Snorting (a sign of aggression)
- Shaking her head at you (another sign of aggression)
I know that not everyone will agree with the methods we use to train our milk cows. We try to take a no-nonsense approach and do not laugh at or allow any aggressive behavior. We have 4 children who work with the cows all the time. An 800-pound cow could easily hurt me or one of my children… especially Trinka (she has some impressive horns – read why she still has horns here).
Additionally, we do not have a stanchion. A stanchion is a frame that holds the head of a cow in place so she can be milked. We just tie our cows up to the wall in the milk barn for milking. We need sweet, cooperative, unaggressive milk cows.
How to get your cow’s cooperation:
• The Milk Barn
The goal is to open the door to the milk barn and have your cow come trotting in. This is what happens 99% of the time. The exception is that first week or two after they have their calf.
Even if you have milked that particular cow for 3 years and she ran to the milk barn every day of her life for milking time; after a 4-month break, she may forget all about the milk barn and why she needs to go in there. Ugh.
Seriously, it’s amazing how smart and how dumb a cow can be. If she completely forgets how to go in the milk barn here are some proven tactics:
- Grab a bucket of grain and wave it under her face. She may follow
youthe bucket right into the milk barn.
- Go out into the field and attach a lead to her harness and lead her into the barn. This also may or may not work.
- Get behind the cow and herd her into the barn.
- Get your 4 children to help you herd her into the barn (this is usually a winner).
- If those don’t work – go out to the pasture, grab the 70-pound calf and carry it into the barn. Mama will follow that calf wherever you take it. Works every time.
After coaxing her into the barn every day for a week, our cows fall right back into the routine. We just open the doors and in they come.
• Give her something tasty to eat
Yes, we feed our milk cows some grain. Not only does this keep them busy and still so I can milk them, I feel it is an important part of their diet. Go here to read more about why grain is healthy.
• Tie her up on a very short lead
I limit her movement as much as I can without a stanchion. We have a metal rod on the wall in our milk barn with a ring attached to it. I have a lead (think leash) that is clamped to my cow’s harness. I tie the other end of the lead tightly to the ring. This allows her to move her head up and down as the ring easily slides up and down the rod. She can not mover her head side to side. She can not back up or move forward.
This allows her to easily get her face in the bucket of feed on the floor and raise her head up & chew. She can see me by her side and keep an eye on what’s going on around her.
I have milked 3 different cows with this setup and have been fantastically happy with it. The cow can move her head enough to not feel too restricted, but she can’t move around too much. So, I can easily milk her.
• Know how a cow kicks and be prepared to dodge & kick back
Cows kick in a circular motion. When they kick they will use their back legs. The leg will first go back then circle out to the side and finish with a forward swing. If you know this then you can see the kick coming. When that back leg leaves the ground – look out! I don’t just get out of the way – if my cow is kicking she’s gonna get kicked back while I tell her a firm, “No!”
I do not like to get kicked.
• Know the difference between a “shift” and a “stomp”
Cows will “shift” their weight from time to time. Sometimes they just want to get comfortable. Sometimes there is a fly bugging them. Sometimes they are getting antsy and are ready to leave. Sometimes it means they are feeling under the weather they will shift around a bit when I milk them (mastitis? cut on her teat? chapping? milk stone?).
If one of my cows is shifting around a lot I look for the issue. Shifting is generally not a sign of aggression or nastiness -It may be an indication that they are getting antsy or something could be wrong. Or maybe she just needed to readjust – which is fine too.
• Discourage aggressive behavior
You are in charge, not the cow. We try to stop the aggressive behavior and make sure the cows know that we are the boss. This can be tricky when you have a nosy, bossy, pushy cow. I have one. She’s a pain.
Some really bad or threatening behaviors may include:
- Glaring at you (think bull in field)
- Stomping their feet
- Shaking or tossing their heads
- Pawing the ground
- Growling, Snorting or Blowing (Sounds like: “Ruuuummmph!”)
Anytime our cows get feisty, aggressive, pushy we are pretty good about shoving the heel of our hands into their noses and shouting, “Back!” If the cows don’t stop being ornery, we continue to thump them in the nose with the heel of our hand continuing to say, “Back! Back!”
If this sounds mean – it is not at all. We adore our cows and treat them better than most people treat their cats. We just need them to be cooperative so we can keep our family safe.
If you have tried everything and your cow is still kicking, stomping and being a general pain in the milk barn you may need to get a kick rope. I know that many people have had success with a kick rope or kick stop. I have never had to use one, but it would be an easy solution (and affordable). Go here to see how it works.
Once you have a milk cow who you have trained to submit to your authority she will be a blessing to your whole family:
- She will happily trot to the milk barn every morning to be milked.
- She will stand still and patient while you milk her.
- She will welcome scratches and love from the family.
- She will be a blessing.
Happy Milking Everyone!
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