How To Keep and Milk a Cow
(and How Not To Milk a Cow)
by Ida Livingston of Davis City, IA
The family milk cow has followed the small farmer through the ages and lives on yet today. She comes in many colors, sizes and dispositions. As with any animal, she comes with the dignity of her own personality and characteristics. Every cow I have ever had or milked has been unique in her own way. Some I have loved and some, well, not so much.
We lost our family milk cow when I was 7 or 8 and spent the next few years just buying our milk from the store. After a span of time and a move across the state this changed again. Dad was driving down the road one day and noticed a small farm sporting a dairy cow in their pasture. He whipped in the driveway and acquainted himself with the family and brought home some milk. For a couple years, since it was not legal to buy or sell raw milk, we just “rented the jug.” This was until the heifer we bought from them came fresh and we had our own milk.
Our new milk cow was half Jersey and half Hereford. She gave plenty of milk for our family and had good strong calves. When our now-friends’ cow was dry in preparation for calving, they would rent our jars and when our cow was dry, we’d rent theirs.
At 13, I began milking across from Dad. We usually milked 2 people on a cow. Dad believed the faster the cow was milked out the longer and more stable she sustained her milk production. There is some truth to this. Once I learned to milk to his satisfaction my brother took his place, and he became the new trainee. As then did each of my siblings over the years.
Our days began and ended with our chores. Anna and I would usually milk while the boys fed and harnessed the horses and fed the pigs. Sometimes they’d help with the milking depending on how many cows we were milking. If I was distracted by moving the bucket or something, Emanuel would reach across and deftly snag a teat and press it flat up against the udder. Then I was groping around looking for the teat until I realized he did it to me again. He’d be rewarded with a drenching spray of milk in his direction. Which we did to each other more than we should. Emanuel was also well known for showing visitors the “star at the end of the teat.” As they bent down for a look, he turned the teat up for a squirt to the face. Everyone needs a brother.
Milking was a skill we took for granted. We noticed this when we had visitors who followed us around while we did our chores and volunteered to help milk. The struggle to get milk out of a teat for the unaccustomed was normal and expected. When some friends from California were spending a few weeks in the area one year, their son Matthew ended up at the milk barn with us one evening. With shock we saw him sit down and milk just as good as the rest of us! Who would have thought?! Then I remembered, they’d had dairy goats at one time…
It really doesn’t take much to milk a cow. Although I have milked many a cow without one, it is best to have a stanchion. A stanchion is wooden or metal bars that allow one side to open so the cow can put her head through it and then closes and locks in place so she cannot leave until released. Sometimes one can find metal ones at an auction, but a person can make wooden ones that service just as well. Before Dad made our wooden stanchion, we just kept a halter on the cow and tied her to a post with a lead rope and fed her grain in a tub. It works but she has more freedom of movement and thus can be more challenging to milk.
The first time I visited a farm that had Dexter cattle I was struck not just by how short the cows were but by the farmer’s stanchion. They had a ramp and platform to elevate the cow so they could milk her with ease. A novel idea.
Your milking parlor will also need some sort of milking stool. Khoke likes a short 2-legged stool. My father prefers a “three-legged” stool. It is a T-shaped stool with one leg, the other two legs are his. An upturned milk crate works too. Too tall of a stool is uncomfortable, especially when milking a short cow.
Although we did not use these when I was learning to milk, Khoke has and uses kickers on most of the cows he milks. It essentially hobbles them so they cannot kick. If nothing else, it does help keep them from stepping around very much.
Any kind of bucket works to milk into, I suppose. Plastic buckets are harder to sanitize. Most of the home milkers I have known will use stainless steel buckets. Sure, they are expensive, but they are worth it. The best size to get is the heavy gauge 13-quart stainless steel buckets. Don’t get cheap buckets. You get what you pay for. Expect to pay $50 or more for a good bucket.
Our cow Daisy, a Jersey-Guernsey-Milking Shorthorn cross, gave more milk than would fit in a 13-quart pail. So my father got a 16-quart pail. But we ended up hardly being able to even use it. The bucket was tall, and her udder was low.
Every milk parlor needs a container of Bag Balm. It is an udder cream that helps heal cracked, cut or chapped teats. Teats do not have a lot of blood circulation and can be slow to heal. I like to moisten the teats and then lock the moisture in with a layer of balm. Chapped teats are common in the winter. There are a number of ways a cow can injure herself as well, cuts from thorns or barbed wire, a cow with a large pendulous udder may sometimes accidentally step on her teats as she tries to get up. Cuts need to heal as soon as possible and are frustrating for both milker and cow.
Many feed stores or home and garden stores will carry one or more brands of bag balm. They usually come in an 8 oz. tin; the Bag Balm brand is in a green tin. The balms are good for your own hands as well when they become chapped from the elements.
I have also made my own homemade udder creams. Any herbal salve recipe should work. I simply take tallow, lard, or cooking oil and heat with the herbs of my choice to infuse the properties into the oil. This depends on what I have available, but I like to at least have comfrey in it. Then I add enough beeswax to stiffen the oils into a salve when it cools. This is the basics of almost any salve recipe. You do not have to have fancy oils, though you can if you want to. The oils, (especially if applied after the teats are slightly moistened), seal in that moisture, the beeswax gives it staying power, and the herbs are just extra. The herbs can be omitted, and the bag balm will still work as it aids the body to heal itself, the herbs simply help. I find if I have comfrey in the salve, injured teats can sometimes take half the time to heal. Just use what you have available to you. My favorite herbs to use for this are comfrey, yarrow, peppermint and oregano (don’t overdo the oregano, it is strong), and I use any of these I have on hand. Tea Tree salve is another good one. No, I am not enclosing a recipe, I don’t want people to get stuck in the rut of using only my recipe. Use any soothing salve recipe and know you can substitute less expensive base oils for what the recipe calls for.
Heading out of the house to milk I would always take at least half a gallon of water in the milk pail with me, and a rag. At the barn, I would call for the cows and put grain in the troughs. A cow that is a feed hog will come to the barn right away answering your call. A cow that doesn’t care about feed, one must fetch.
Once the cows arrived, I’d lock them in their stanchions and sit down and begin cleaning the udder. I’d pour some water out of the bucket onto the rag and wipe the teats in turn, pouring more water on the rag as necessary. Then I’d squeeze a firm squirt or two onto the ground from each teat to flush out any extra bacteria that may be near the teat hole.
I grew up milking with the bucket on the ground and my milking partner and I both milked into it. Khoke always milked solo and pinched the bucket between his knees to milk into. This helps narrow the chance of the cow upsetting the bucket.
To milk, I would grasp the teat with as many fingers as I could. Short teats can sometimes only fit one or two, and long teats can be grasped by my whole hand. Described in slow motion, I would hold each teat in a fist and constrict first the index finger to keep the milk from going back into the chamber and then squeezing the rest of the teat to force the milk out in a stream. This keeps the milk from going back up into the udder and forces it out in a stream.
I have seen people try to strip milk out of a teat by pinching their finger(s) and thumb together and sliding it down the length of the teat. This is both slow and tends to cause too much friction which can chap or irritate the skin on the teats. Try to keep your fingernails clipped short. Your cow will not stand very still if you are pinching her with your nails.
Do not be discouraged if it seems to take forever when you first begin. It is like learning to ride a bike or how to type, tedious and laborious, requiring concentration that slowly gives way to a fluid motion as your muscle memory is built. All beginner milkers go through this. My dad learned to milk when he was 6, Khoke did at 12, and my neighbor in his 20’s, their struggle to learn it was the same and quickly overcome. Once you have it down, you have it for life. My grandmother, on a visit once, sat down to milk to see if she still could, Even with a 30-plus year leave, she could still milk just fine.
When my siblings and I finally learned how to milk without having to engage our attention, we would talk or often sing. Singing is actually calming to the cows, probably because the cows are calmed by a person relaxed enough to sing while milking. They really don’t care if you hit the notes or can carry a tune.
Milking into an open bucket allows any sort of thing to fall into it. Immediately after milking, the cows would be released and the bucket taken to the house to be strained. My folks always used t-shirts cut into squares to strain the milk into. This worked very well. We’d rinse the milk out of the cloth and then when Mom washed them, she’d put the straining cloths in a pot on the stove and boil them briefly before washing them in soapy, light bleach water.
Once strained the milk stores best in glass jars and chilled right away. Milk can also be run through a cream separator. This works best before the milk has chilled.
Back in the milk parlor where you will find yourself daily, you may find that your cow can have one of many possible bad habits. Some of these are certainly her fault but some of them may be yours.
Cows love consistency. Same stanchion every time, same schedule, same food, same milker milking on the same side every time.
Some cows by nature are more temperamental than others. My father used to say, “Animals are like their owners.” The measure of truth in this is if you are jumpy and easily excited it can make your animals nervous and then jumpy and easily excited. If you are consistent, mellow and unruffled, your animals will feel more secure and will respond in a calm, unruffled manner. That said, there are cows that simply are more temperamental; however, you can diminish this as much as possible by your responses.
Life is rarely perfectly consistent for any length of time, and there will be variables pop up. There are also things that naturally can make a cow cross, like flies, hot weather, an impatient milker, barnyard issues with other animals or any number of other things. A cross cow can exhibit bad behavior in various forms. They can poop/pee while you are trying to milk. Especially if you train them to do this. Yes, you can inadvertently train a cow to do so.
When a cow poops or pees while you are milking it is natural to move the bucket and step away from the cow. A really annoying cow may notice this and take a small bathroom break every 2 minutes for the entire duration of milking. Instead, wear a set of chore clothes expected to get dirty, move the pail aside to keep any splatters from getting in the milk but keep your hands on her teats. Most cows do not do this on purpose, at least not on purpose right away, but can get there by accidental “training’’ by their milker.
Another way to cut down on bathroom breaks in the milk parlor is not to usher the cow into the stanchion immediately after she stands up. In the morning cows are often laying down dozing or resting. Usually within 5 minutes of standing they will relieve themselves. If you stanchion her before she has a chance to do so it will happen in the parlor. Just stand her up and give her 10 minutes or so before bringing her in to milk. This gives you time to do another chore in the meantime.
As I have said, each cow has her own personality. They are capable of a whole range of emotions and responses to the things that they feel. They are very capable of expressing annoyance to what feels like inconveniences to them (changes in schedule, feed, milker, etc.), with anything from mildly irritating to outright uncooperative behavior.
One of my least favorite irritations was being smacked by the tail. Daisy would express her annoyance by smacking me with her tail every twenty seconds. The worst was when it was wet. She could hit me just right and the end of her tail would whip around my face and into my eyes. Boy, did that sting! Got her tail tied to her leg for it too.
To tie a cow’s tail, one should never tie it to a post or a wall. Sooner or later, you will forget to untie it before you unlock the stanchion. Always tie her tail to her own leg. This way, if you forget, it will at least not pull her tail off. Just put her back in the stanchion and untie the tail.
Maintain good fences and do not underfeed your cow. A cow can be inadvertently “trained” to escape almost any wire fence. This begins with poor fences. Once she knows how to go through a poor fence and what is on the other side (your cabbages or the neighbors’ corn), she can and may attempt crossing through better fences. Loose cows, besides the annoyance, are very dangerous on roads.
If you have a well-trained escape artist, it can be difficult to correct. An aggressive electric or barbed wire fence is usually necessary. I have never had a cow like this, but I have seen pastures with a grazing cow dragging a length of wood or board. This is a chronic escape cow. She has a length of rope clipped to her halter, dragging a 5-6 ft board with the rope tied to the board in the middle. This way, if/when she slips through the fence, the board hangs up in the fence and won’t go through and there she is “tied” until found. This at least keeps her from wandering off or getting on the road. It also discourages the behavior by eliminating the reward. It is best to just not have a cow like this and to have good fences at the get-go.
Another (rare) thing seen in cattle is when a calf was not properly weaned and tries to nurse on other cows. Most cows will kick off anything but their own calf. But there are cows who will let anyone nurse freely, even other adult cows (or steers). In this case you can get a special “nose-ring” that clips in the nose of the wean-resistant bovine. It has blunt spikes that face out and when the wearer goes to nurse, these spikes poke the udder of the enabling cow. This is painful and she will kick out and the overgrown calf is re-weaned. This nose-ring may have to stay on as long as these two cows are pastured together.
Buying a Cow
If you have decided you want to buy a cow, there are lots of good reasons for doing so, but now what? Where do you get one? Where do you find that cow that everyone loves? How much will she cost?
There are several options. You can find a dairy, preferably Jersey or Brown Swiss dairy and not Holstein. Holsteins give a lot of milk but poor butterfat content. You’ll spend twice as much time milking for a poorer quality milk. That doesn’t mean that she will be cheaper either.
Many dairies have cows that they have culled and want to sell for one reason or another. We bought two Brown Swiss cows from a dairy whose partnership dissolved, and half the cows were being sold. A cow may be culled because she doesn’t produce enough milk for their standards. That is okay. You probably don’t want 8 gallons or more of milk a day anyway. At least not right away. Sometimes the udder and/or teats are not shaped right to accommodate the milking machines and she can be culled for this as well.
You can also sometimes find a cow on Craigslist. Be sure you go to the farm and see the cow milked and/or handled. Find out why she is being sold. Sometimes the farmer simply has too many cows, sometimes the cow is just getting old, sometimes the cow has a bad habit, you will want to know. Some bad habits you can live with and some not. You can also ask around an Amish community. They will sometimes have cows for sale. Again, be sure to find out why the cow is being sold.
When I was in my teens we got to where we had too many cows. We decided to sell Penny, a half Jersey, half Hereford, middle aged cow. Dad advertised her and got a call from a man named David who wanted to start a Jersey dairy. He first wanted to accustom his family to cows by having just a home milk cow to begin with.
David drove down to our place to see her. My sister and I brought her in from the pasture and milked her. Before he left, he paid for her and arranged to pick her up. After he had bought her, he said, “I’m not sure why I even came today. Before I left the house, I had already decided I wasn’t going to buy her because she wasn’t full Jersey like I had wanted.” Dad asked him what changed his mind. David replied, “When I watched your barefooted daughters milk her, I knew Penny would be a safe cow for my family and I no longer cared if she was purebred.”
This is a wisdom that should not be overlooked. Any cow can be milked. Even a beef cow can be milked, they will not produce as much milk or butterfat usually, but they certainly lactate and if docile enough, can be milked. More important than the breed of the cow is her temperament. Is it a right fit for your family?
My personal favorite is a cross bred cow. Almost any dairy stock with a quarter to half beef stock in its bloodline. Full dairy cows tend to look gaunt and can have more delicate health. Most of them will never look fat, the more you feed them the more milk they will produce. I have heard however that you can feed beet pulp to cattle, and it will help them maintain body mass and not affect milk production. A cow that has a little beef in her genetics will usually make a hardier cow without compromising her milk production too much (for home use standards).
If you want to support a rare breed and get a cow from a breeder, go to their farm, and see the cow handled before you commit. There are many worthy breeds who need support. But only buy from responsible and honest breeders.
Many years ago, Khoke’s parents decided to go with Devons for their family cow. They bought a Devon cow named Margaret and a bull named Hurricane from a breeder who evidently saw them coming. Once home they found to their dismay that Margaret was not only unmanageable but dangerous to people. And Hurricane shot more blanks than bullets. Margaret herself only ever had one live calf, the rest were deformed or did not carry to term.
This does not define the Devon breed, but it does define the irresponsible and dishonest breeder who was willing to sell unmanageable animals at an exorbitant price to people who did not know what to look for.
Twenty years later, Khoke still has some Devons, as they really are a good all-purpose cow. Though now in recent years we have begun switching over to Brown Swiss for the higher volume of milk and butterfat. We have to milk fewer cows to get the milk I need for cheese-making this way.
No matter what breed you settle on, buy only safe animals. The difference is not usually the breed but how they are handled and if they are bred responsibly. Flightiness and aggression can be genetic, but it is more often caused by ill treatment or neglect. I have seen Dexter cattle who were sweet as lambs and Dexters that made you wonder if they were crossed with deer, they were so flighty. Buy no animals sight unseen.
How much you can expect to pay can vary greatly. Supply and demand are a factor, but so is the age of a cow, if she is bred, and the reason why she is being sold. You can pay up to $2,000-$3,500 for a cow from a dairy. If you pick up a Jersey or mixed breed cow from the Amish or small farmer, you can expect to pay anywhere from $800 to $1,500. Any one of several reasons can affect the cost.
If you have the patience for it, see if you can buy a heifer calf. This is the most cost effective. Gentle her and raise her yourself. I have raised many calves and they turned into the gentlest cows that I have ever handled.
The age of a cow is certainly a factor to consider. But her quality of life will definitely affect how she ages. On our farm we could expect our cows to be healthy and productive to at least 15, sometimes longer. Daisy was 18 when she died. How many calves a cow has had and how hard she is pushed to produce will affect what her age really means. I can remember Millie, a short, pot-bellied, 13-year-old Jersey, kicking up her heels like a calf when turned out on spring pasture; she was old but happy and healthy.
Most mega-dairy cows only live 4.5 to 6 years old. They are fed an unnaturally heavy grain (and hormone) diet. The demand on their body to produce milk is so great it takes the calcium out of their bones and prematurely ages them. Usually by 6 years old they have declined to the point where they are sent to slaughter. This to a cow whose natural life expectancy is 15-20 years.
Buying an old cow will sometimes be just what you need to buy time to raise a heifer. The benefit of an old cow is they know the ropes. Not much training is necessary. Unless it happens to be a wily old cow.
Breeding a Cow
A cow that has calved will regain her heat cycle usually 1-2 months after she has calved. Instead of just re-breeding her right away, think about when you would like her to calve and wait if necessary. You may want to plan your vacation for when she is dry and not milking. I prefer to have my cows freshen in either the spring or the fall. The flies are aggressive in the summer on a newborn calf, and a calf can freeze in our northern winter. Even if they don’t actually freeze, I don’t like to see little calves shivering.
A cow will come into heat on average every three weeks. Technically it can be as short as 18 days and as long as 24, but it is usually closer to 21. They are actually only in standing heat one day, but they may have a day coming in and a day going out. This means she may behave erratically for up to 3 days. If she is a lone cow she may stand at the gate or fence and bawl all day, and she may be uncooperative at milking. During this time a cow will stand to be mounted and will mount almost anything else. Even you. Be wary around a cow in heat. It isn’t common but it can and has happened. Don’t ask me how I know.
If you have a heifer being bred for the first time it is best to wait until she is at least 18 months old to breed her. Her heat cycles will begin before this, they usually start before they are a year old. Breeding them too young can not only compromise the health of the heifer and her calf but also endangers their life.
When breeding a heifer or a cow with a history of difficult labor, look for a “heifer bull.” Some breeds of bulls, or even individuals within a breed, throw small calves with small heads. Breeds such as Holstein, Brown Swiss, Charolais, or even Hereford are known for throwing larger calves. Unless you are actually breeding a Brown Swiss or Holstein heifer, it is best to avoid these bulls the first time around. Other breeds, such as Jersey and Angus are known for throwing smaller calves on average.
It is not very practical to go through the trouble of keeping a bull if you only have one or two cows. Unless of course, you have no alternatives. It is best when a bull can be borrowed or shared with others. If there is an Amish community near you, ask if they have a dairy bull in their community one could use. Sometimes it is available for a fee and sometimes not.
My dad would buy bull calves and raise them up to butcher. He let them get old enough to service the cows once or twice and then they became burgers. In the meantime, another bull calf would be being raised.
If you do find a bull to service your cow, be mindful of size differences. A very large bull can break down a small cow or heifer. This is when the cow cannot support his weight and is injured.
There are those who do not have the time, energy, or means to deal with a bull so they artificially inseminate their cows. I have to admit, AI, the principle of it, bugs me a little. I get it, people use it to keep from having a bull and it is a good way to improve genetics in a herd, both are primary reasons why it is so popular.
I worked at a small Jersey dairy in southwest Tennessee at one point. The dairy owner switched from keeping a bull to having his cows AI’d. Looking over the stats on the bull semen he had bought, some of the bulls boasted over 29,000 heifers they had fathered. Over 29,000. I am sure there are bulls with much more than that. Those numbers mean something. The breed as a whole has a gene pool that is getting smaller with every generation. Limited genetic diversity has never been a good thing for the long term survival of any species.
Once your cow is bred, mark on your calendar when she was in heat. Sometimes a cow will not take the first time. If that happens, she’ll be in heat again in 3 weeks. Try again. If it takes several heat cycles for her to take, she may be unhealthy, and you need to make sure she has quality forage or hay and a mineral block. Note that if your pasture has sheep, a mineral block formulated for cattle will have too much copper and is toxic to sheep.
When Bessy doesn’t come back into heat, mark on your calendar when her last heat cycle was. Now calculate her due date from that date. The average gestation for cattle is 283 days. This is average, it varies slightly by breed. The average gestation for a Jersey is 279 days, Dexters hit the average at 283 days, but a Brown Swiss is 290 days.
Just because your cow is due on April 10th does not mean she will calve then. It is common for cows to deliver anywhere from 10 days before to 10 days after their due date. Further variance is less common and may mean an incorrect due date.
You do not have to breed your cow every year. If you have a regulated schedule and milk her out thoroughly and quickly, she can maintain a decent amount of milk for 2 years or more. Aside from getting calves, the purpose of breeding your cow is to keep her lactating. And maybe to keep her from being such a knothead every 3 weeks when she hits her heat cycle.
Drying Her Off
So, Bessy is bred now. You can keep milking her up to 6-8 weeks before she is due to calve. At this point she needs to be dried off or quit lactating. She needs this time for her mammary glands to prepare for the coming calf.
A lot of people milk their cow up to the date she needs to be dried off and then inject some Dry Cow (a medication that is supposed to treat any possible existing mastitis) into her teat canal and then turn her out to pasture not to be milked again until she delivers. No! Don’t do it this way! She isn’t a faucet that just turns off.
The abrupt dry off method is very uncomfortable for the cow, not to mention unhealthy. There are a lot of “three-titters” out there because of this. Her bag engorges with milk and she can end up with mastitis. Since she is not being handled every day this can get out of hand and the infection can cause scar tissue in the chamber or teat canal that can block the teat permanently. The blocked chamber may no longer lactate or, just as bad, be extremely hard to milk out. I have seen several cases of both happen at the dairy where I had worked.
There is a better way. About 10 weeks before Bessy is due, start cutting her back. Cut her grain back, it only promotes milk production and will make a fat difficult-to-deliver calf. At the same time start skipping every other milking. After a week or so, don’t milk her out entirely when you do milk her, leave about a quarter of her milk in her. After a few days, only milk her out halfway. What you are doing is helping her body ease into the dry off. At this point within a few days of only milking her out halfway I would turn her out to pasture to not milk her again until she freshens. She will still have a bag full of milk but her body will adjust easier. The idea is to lower production as much as possible to reduce the stress of drying off and thus lower the chance of mastitis. I have never seen a cow have any problems or lasting damage doing it this way. You may have to adjust this process to fit the needs of your cow.
When your cow gets close to delivery the skin on either side of her tail will look rather sunken. When she is ready to go into labor she will usually go to a far corner of the pasture, somewhere remote, separating herself from the rest of the herd. She will try to calve in private if possible. When you think she is close (don’t go entirely by your calendar, calves don’t pay any more attention to dates than human babies do), you need to check on her a couple times a day. If you can manage it, get up once a night to check on her.
Heifers don’t understand what is happening. They can do a lot of pacing and may stand up and lay down again a dozen times or more when in labor. A seasoned cow knows the ropes and doesn’t get too excited.
If you happen to be there for the main event, you should see feet come out first. The black or dark top of the hooves should be up. It should be followed soon by a little wet nose and head. You can grab the feet and help her by pulling, time it by pulling when she pushes. If you see the white underside of hooves facing up, this is a problem. It means the calf is coming out backwards. You are looking at back feet. The problem with this is when the calf comes out backwards, as it passes through the birth canal, the umbilical cord gets pinched and cuts off the blood flow to the calf. This can stimulate the calf to take a breath and suck amniotic fluid into its lungs and then die. It is best if this calf can be pulled as quickly as possible. When the cow pushes, pull those calf legs and help her get it out quickly. Then wipe off the calf’s face and see if there is any fluid to clear out of its mouth.
I mentioned the breach calf scenario, but it is not a common occurrence. It can and does happen, but in the 30 years that I have been around cows, I have never had a milk cow do this. We have had a couple do it in our 100 head beef herd. Khoke has helped oversee the calving of a 400 head herd for several years and has pulled several in this condition.
Checking on your cow and noting when she goes into labor is helpful. She will not usually need any assistance. But if she is in heavy labor for a long time and not making progress, she could have complications. The calf could be in a position impossible to deliver, or the calf could be too large for her to deliver without assistance. Remember, you can always call the vet for advice. They may or may not have to come out, they may also be able to tell you what to do if it isn’t too serious. That is, if you are actually willing to put your arm in the backend of a cow. They are going to want to know how long she has been in labor and her present condition (level of exhaustion).
Most of the time none of this is necessary, you will come out and find that she has delivered the calf without an audience. If her calf looks healthy, try not to interfere too much. There are a couple things you can do though. Once the calf is on the ground the cow will lick it off. Licking stimulates the calf, and it also initiates the cow’s bond to her calf. If she doesn’t seem interested in her calf, sprinkle some sweet-smelling powdered milk replacer or dehydrated molasses on the calf to help interest her in getting started.
After a while the calf will stagger to its feet and try to nurse. Some newborn calves have a better internal honing device that helps them zero in on the udder. Other calves benefit from a little assistance. Make sure the calf has sucked as soon as possible. This can also help stimulate the release of the afterbirth.
It is recommended to spray the navel with some iodine spray. This helps prevent navel ill, an infection that can set into their bones and cause premature arthritis, it is also called joint ill. We had a steer with this, he was only a year old and as lame with arthritis in all of his joints as a 20-year old cow.
If left to herself, a cow will eat the afterbirth. This is gross but quite natural. Aside from a natural instinct to remove the evidence of a weak newborn from predators, the placenta is also full of nutrients for the cow. That said, there is also nothing wrong with just burying it.
Make note that some cows can be aggressive and protective over their calf. Just be careful around a new mother. If she acts aggressive, try not to get between her and the calf, and picking her calf up may not be advisable in such a case. However, if you are having inclement weather, they should be brought into the barn or some sort of shelter. It is usually easier to push the calf where you want it to go and have the mother follow, she will be very interested in following her calf. If the cow is docile, the calf can be carried. Carrying a calf is wrapping your arms around its front and back legs with your arms just below its neck and tail. Do not cradle them on their back.
Although not necessarily common, milk fever is prevalent enough among dairy cows that it needs some discussion. If you ever see a full blown case, you will never forget it. A cow sprawled on the ground with its head and neck twisted back, writhing in agony. Don’t go for your gun. This is curable and surprisingly quickly. Do call the vet right away.
Milk fever is a calcium deficiency. It usually happens, if it is going to, in the first 3 days after birth. Technically it can happen anywhere from 2 weeks before she calves, during active labor, to two weeks after she calves. These are rare among the rare. At the dairy, I found a cow in full blown milk fever and in labor. Poor thing! It was remedied as quickly as possible.
Your cow is flush with new milk after delivery. If she is a heavy producer this sudden flush can drop her calcium to fatal levels. When the vet shows up they will administer one, sometimes two, pints of calcium straight into her jugular as an IV. The result is amazing and almost immediate. In a matter of minutes, she will be up and walking. And shivering. That liquid calcium just came out of a fridge and went directly into her bloodstream. Brrr! She will warm up shortly.
There are a few things a person can do to help prevent milk fever. First off, when she freshens, do not milk her out entirely right away. Just milk enough to take the pressure off. Milking her out completely makes her body try to produce more milk to replace what was milked out. This can contribute to a calcium deficiency. At the same time it is good to milk enough to relieve the pressure, this helps reduce the edema that often accompanies a newly freshened cow. Edema makes the udder look more engorged than it really is, it is a hard swelling that can feel tight and sometimes doughy to the touch.
Keep an eye on a cow that has calved shortly after being turned out to spring pasture. Good hay has more concentrated nutrition than watery, fast growing spring grass. We learned this with our cow Millie. We should have supplemented her with more hay.
Your best cow is the most likely to come down with milk fever. A good volume of milk with high butterfat. This is the cow to watch. As a cow ages she also becomes more susceptible. I have only seen milk fever in full dairy stock though it could technically happen to any cow. Daisy was getting up in her years and happened to be carrying twins. One day, late in her term, she laid down and would not get up. The vet said she had a slow form of milk fever. He got us several tubes of oral calcium, which we gave her a tube every day or so until after she calved. Oral calcium works for the slow form of milk fever. Most cases however, are sudden and need immediate IV treatment.
Mastitis is an infection of the udder. It can affect one chamber or all the chambers. It can be caused by a wide range of things. lt can be caused by an injury, being kicked, or butted by another cow. If a cow has a loose teat canal that drips milk when her udder is full, bacteria can travel up the canal and begin an infection in the chamber. Sometimes it is caused by a cow not being milked out well enough. Some cows are more sensitive to this than others.
A tell-tale sign of mastitis is clots in the milk. Most dairies will strip a few squirts out of each teat into a mastitis detection cup, the milk clots don’t go through the plastic screen. A mild case you will only notice when you strain the milk, a very serious case you can actually feel the clots pass as you milk your cow. A bad case can also be accompanied by a swollen udder that has an elevated temperature.
People often treat mastitis with antibiotics. This works. However, I have seen many cases of mastitis over the years and have found that almost all cases can be treated without them. I have always treated it with a little extra attention and care. One must take extra care when milking to strip every last bit of milk out. If it is a bad case, milk her out 3-4 times a day. Taking extra care at milking her out this way will usually clear a case of mastitis in a couple days, a persistent case may take a week.
Most cows rarely get mastitis. However, I have come across a number of cows over the years who have what I would call chronic mastitis. Any little thing can set it off for them and we had to be extra careful. It is up to you if you want to keep a cow with chronic mastitis and the extra work it takes to keep her.
Acute mastitis is a very rare and serious form of mastitis. It can lead to what is called “blue-tit mastitis,” which is gangrenous. The teat can look blue and feel cold. Once the cow has this, the best-case scenario is she will lose a chamber, worst is she will die. And she will die if she is not medicated aggressively by a vet. When mastitis gets this far it can easily be fatal. The only case I have actually seen was on an ewe, and I caught it too late to save her. If she has a calf on her, take it off, you do not want it to be spread to the other chambers. Be careful when milking her to not spread the bacteria to the other chambers.
Calves are another wonderful benefit of the family milk cow. Whether it is a new heifer to gentle and raise or a soon-to-be steer named Burger Boy. They can also simply be sold either before or after they are weaned.
About 1 in 200 will be a set of twins. If the twins are fraternal, the female calf is almost always sterile. She is called a “free martin” and viewed as a steer.
It is important that the new calf drink its mother’s colostrum. The first milk. It is very thick and often a deep yellow. It tastes terrible. To me, anyway. I find it difficult to drink a newly freshened cow’s milk until at least 5 days after she has calved. There will be more colostrum than the calf can drink. As you milk a little of it out to release pressure in the udder, save some and freeze it in pint sized containers. Keep a gallon or two frozen in case of emergencies (orphaned or newborn purchased calves). It will keep up to a year in the freezer and then it will need to be replaced.
There are two primary approaches to dealing with a new calf. Besides selling it outright. The first is to remove the calf from its mother and bottle or bucket feed it. The other is to keep the calf on its mother. Each system has its benefits and shortfalls.
When I was growing up, we bottle fed, or more accurately, bucket fed our calves. After 3 days we removed the calf from its mother and kept it in a box stall. The cow and calf would bawl for a few days but soon adjust to the new routine. We found that if we left the calf on longer than 3 days it took them much longer to adjust.
The calf would be bucket fed morning and night. We would take warm milk straight from the cow to the calf pen. There I would back the calf into a corner and dip my fingers in the bucket to coat them with milk and then stick one or two into the calf’s mouth and it would suck on them. Then I would lower it into the milk and the calf would drink the milk while sucking on my fingers. It is the trick to get them to start drinking out of a bucket.
As soon as I could manage it, I would try easing my fingers out of their mouth so the calf would just drink on its own. But I have had many calves who refused to drink on their own without sucking on my finger. These took weeks to get them to drink independently. An easy calf takes only a couple sessions.
The bucket method sounds easy enough on paper. Then there is reality. The first few days I ended up wearing most of the milk. In the dictionary I am sure you can find a description of this under the word ‘exasperation.’ First, it is simply that the calf doesn’t understand what is going on or how to cooperate. It is also the calf’s natural instinct to butt the udder when it wants more milk. Some calves are worse than others. This butting instinct, with a bucket, can certainly splash milk all over a person. For this, the bottle is easier. To me though, it seems easier to wean a calf using the bucket method.
After about 3 weeks or so we began keeping a little grain and hay in the pen for the calf to nibble on if it wished. I would also keep a bucket of water in there too. Dairy calves can technically be weaned as young as 6 weeks old. There are those who have weaned them at 4 or 5 weeks, but it is simply not good for them. The young weaning age is usually done when a person has been buying expensive milk replacer. I personally believe they should be weaned no younger than 8 weeks old. In practice, Khoke and I wean our calves no earlier than 4 months old. This makes very strong, healthy calves. We do this with calves we leave part-time on their mother.
Bull Calf Caution
The benefit of bottle/bucket feeding a calf is that it can become much gentler and tamer. These make excellent milk cows. Daisy used to put her chin on my shoulder so I could scratch her neck easier. A word of caution, tame heifers are wonderful, but gentling bull calves is not always advisable. Sure, they will be sweet and mild calves, but they usually wind up being very aggressive bulls. They do not develop a healthy respect for people.
One of the many calves I have raised was a little bull calf named Toby. I bottle fed him with a couple lambs I was doing at the same time. He would make me laugh when he would try to imitate the lambs’ stiff legged bouncing hops. Toby would just fall over when he tried. I quit laughing though when he got bigger. He was a potential man killer. Very dangerous. It was not safe to enter his pasture without our dogs with us. Keep an aloof relationship with bull calves, and never trust a bull no matter how docile he is. It is a good way to become a statistic. It is best to just shift the little bull calves into neutral and make them steers unless you are keeping it for a bull on purpose.
Sharing the Cow With the Calf
The other popular method for feeding calves is to leave them on their mother. Khoke prefers this method and it is the one we practice.
When a cow calves, Khoke leaves the calf on her for about 2 weeks. The first 4 days he just milks her out enough to release some pressure from her udder. There is no way a newborn calf can drink all the milk a dairy cow can produce. By the 3rd or 4th day after delivery, we begin milking the cow out fully. She is milked out entirely and we get whatever the calf has left for us.
After about 2 weeks, we begin putting the calf in a pen at night. In the morning, the cow is milked out completely and the calf is let out to be with her for the day. Yes, the udder is empty, and the calf is hungry; this stimulates the cow to maintain a good milk production. The calf will have more than enough milk over the course of the day.
Around 4 weeks or so the calf will sometimes decide it wants to choose whether to go to the barn or not and play catch-me-if-you-can. For this we have become very grateful for our Blue Heeler dogs, Silas and Ruby, either of which are more than happy to round up wayward bovine children.
As I mentioned earlier, we wean our calves at 4-5 months old doing this method. Yes, we could technically wean them earlier, but we have been impressed with the health of our calves doing it this way. To wean them, we leave them in their night pen for about a week. This is simply to let the cow know where her calf is during the separation, so she doesn’t try to jump any fences looking for it. After a week we like to move the calf to a pasture that does not border his mother’s. If this is not possible, he may need to stay in the stall for a couple months. Being re-exposed to his mother too early is a great recipe for a failed weaning; it is harder the second time. Sometimes these turn into one of those who try to nurse after they have reached maturity.
As with anything there are benefits and pitfalls to this method. Some of the downsides of keeping the calf on the cow as I have described are that I see more chapping of the teats and a person has to stay on top of putting bag balm on the teats in the winter. They also sometimes have cuts on the teats from the calves’ teeth. The calves are typically not as tame with this method unless you take the extra effort to give the calf some attention and handling.
Another drawback is we have had some trouble with some of the cows not letting down their milk. They will hold it up trying to save it for the calf. Make note that a calf getting a half day’s worth of milk is getting plenty. Most mature milk cows will produce at least 2 gallons of milk twice a day, more is not uncommon. This makes a fat calf, even getting only half of this. When Khoke can’t get the cow to let any more milk down, he will sometimes let the calf out to nurse on one teat while he milks the others.
Among the benefits of this method is the ability to just leave the calf on the cow if you want to travel two states away to grandma’s house for Thanksgiving. It can be difficult to find people who can chore for you that also know how to milk. You can graft a new calf onto the cow after junior is weaned. Bull calves are usually available to buy from most dairies.
Many dairies have “day old” calves for sale. These can be anywhere from one day to two weeks old. The price for these can range widely, the laws of supply and demand have a lot of influence. I have seen anywhere from $75 – $250.
These calves may need some special care. First of all, DO NOT OVERFEED THEM. These calves have a high mortality rate. There is shipping stress, and then some dairies ship the calves out before they have even nursed once (this is not every dairy). They are understandably quite hungry. A well meaning but ignorant person, out of compassion, feeds the calf all the milk it will hold. Some calves will die within 24 hours of this feeding. It is the short road to extreme scours.
Tell yourself, “hungry is healthy.” At least to begin with. I would give one of these calves only 8 ounces of milk upon arrival home. A couple hours later, give it another 8 ounces. Give it 8 ounces of milk every 2-3 hours for the first day. Unless the calf is in danger of actual starvation it should be able to fast overnight. In the morning check and see how firm its stool is. If the stool is thin with diarrhea, it is developing scours and you need to cut its milk back. It is okay if it is a little soft, just not watery. Keep a close eye on this. Scours is the leading cause of death in young calves.
Don’t forget to be giving the calf colostrum. It is best if it already had it from its mother. If you do not know, do not assume that it has. Hopefully you have some frozen colostrum you can use. Some dairies are thoughtful and keep colostrum frozen for those who ask for it. Don’t be afraid to ask. If you do not have colostrum, you can buy a colostrum replacer, some feed stores may carry it, if not, your vet probably has it. I like my calves to have at least a half-gallon of colostrum over the course of 2 days. I have not always had that much, and I work with what I have.
If the stool is okay, you can begin to slowly increase how much you feed them. If you can only feed them twice a day because of work, still do not feed them more than a pint at a time the 2nd day. Slowly increase the amount over the course of the next few days. If the stool becomes watery, back off how much you are giving immediately. I try to work it up to about a half-gallon of milk twice a day by 7-10 days old.
After I feed the calf, I like to rub her vigorously. Rub her back, neck, up and down her legs. This promotes circulation and stimulates its digestive system. I have often had them deliver a bowel movement right after a rubdown.
Cold milk really isn’t good for calves. Warm the milk to 100 degrees. Do not overheat it. Milk has enzymes in it to help the calf digest the milk. If you heat the milk to too high of a temperature, it kills these enzymes, and the calf can become constipated. So, if you accidentally heated the milk too hot (120 degrees or more), discard the milk and reheat new.
A bad case of scours is difficult to treat. It is the biggest threat to calves under a month old. Usually they are reduced to nearly starvation rations, sometimes taken off milk completely and given only electrolytes. Basically, a bovine Gatorade. The hope is to starve the harmful bacteria while keeping the calf alive. This can help when the gut bacteria are out of whack, or the calf has a bacterial infection. The trouble is that scours is not always caused by bacteria. There are multiple causes. The actual cause of death from scours is usually dehydration.
A couple years ago we had a wet spring, and our beef herd had a problem with scours among the calves. It is very uncommon to have it as widespread as we had it that spring. Southern Iowa has a lot of cattle, and our neighbors were all having the same problem. Early on, Khoke came across a calf that looked so bad, he was not sure if it was going to make it through the night. He came into the house to talk about what we should do about it. I told him I used to treat scours in lambs with Pepto Bismol. My friend Deborah Miller was there, and she suggested trying Slippery Elm, which is sometimes used as an herbal alternative to Pepto Bismol.
It did not hurt to try it, so Khoke went out and cut down a Red Elm sapling and stripped some of the inner bark. I simmered it on the stove until it congealed into that characteristic Slippery Elm slime. I put it in a pint jar and Khoke took it to the barn. Once it cooled, he took a 12cc syringe (with no needle) and squirted about a cup of the solution down the calf’s throat. In the morning, the calf had perked up some. We continued treating it once or twice a day for 4-5 days. The calf made a full recovery and never had to be separated from his mother. We ended up having several more turn up with scours, all of which were treated and recovered. Our neighbors took the route the vet offered, electrolytes and antibiotics, and lost most of the calves that came down with the scours.
A lot of people view herbal alternatives as just a bunch of hocus pocus, but of all the scour remedies I have tried over the last 20 years, the Slippery Elm works the best. I have noticed no ill side effects. We have it growing here, it is also called Red Elm. I keep a pillowcase full of peeled inner bark. We do not need it often but have it for when we do. One could use powdered Slippery Elm; I am sure it can be found at most herbal supply outlets. I would still simmer it in water until the water congeals a little and administer it as a liquid. It may or may not work dry, your calf is battling dehydration already and the dry powder will only draw away more precious fluid.
Homemade Electrolyte Solutions
If you need electrolytes right now and your local stores are not open, here is a couple recipes to get you through.
9 cups water
2 tbsp sugar
1 generous tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
2 tbsp molasses
4 cups water
1 tbsp salt
1 tbsp baking soda
1/4 cup corn syrup or moistened sugar
Grafting a Calf onto a Cow
A cow will not normally accept a calf that is not her own. One must be careful in this process because a cow can injure or even kill a calf she has not accepted. If you have bought a calf, I would personally wait a week and make sure the calf is stable before attempting to graft it onto a cow.
One of the best ways to graft a calf onto a cow that is not its mother, is to pen them in close quarters together. In a relatively small pen, panel off a corner securely for the calf and put him in it. The calf must not be able to escape, nor must the cow be able to injure it. The point is for the cow to be with the calf in close quarters where she must smell him all day, every day. Twice a day the cow is stanchioned, and the calf allowed to nurse. Help the calf keep from being kicked. Then put the calf back in the paneled corner and the cow in the pen.
By drinking the cow’s milk, the calf begins to take on the smell of the cow. This helps a cow identify a calf as hers. In a matter of days, she will begin to accept it and call to it. Once you are sure she has bonded, they can be turned out to pasture together. Most cases take less than a week, but a stubborn cow can take up to 2 weeks before accepting the calf. If the calf happens to be the same color as her last calf, this will help.
Training a Heifer to be Milked
Don’t keep your heifers in with a bull thinking that they won’t begin their heat cycle until they are old enough to be bred. Their heat cycle can begin before they are a year old, and they should be at least 18 months old before they are bred. A healthy, well-fed 18 months old.
So, your heifer is bred now. Now you have 9 months worth of days counting down until she kicks you off your stool. There are ways of preventing this, fortunately.
The best way is to have gentled her from birth. Handling her as a calf regularly, rubbing her back, scratching her neck, running your hands down her legs and across her belly and mini udder. Getting her used to being touched. Making this normal and not threatening. This is the best way.
But suppose that did not happen and now you have a wary if not wild heifer. Start working with her as soon as you can! First, at milking time every day, bring her in and feed her a little grain in the stanchion. You do not have to close and lock the stanchion right away. Just get her used to the routine of coming in and being fed. Not too much grain. You do not want a fat calf that is hard to deliver.
A feed hog is the easiest kind to work with. They will put up with a lot for grain. If your heifer is not interested in grain, mix it with a little dried molasses to make it smell more tempting. Most feed stores should be able to get this for you.
Make sure your heifer actually puts her head in the stanchion and doesn’t try to eat the grain from around it somehow. After she is used to coming in and eating out of the stanchion, you can start closing and locking it. After doing this a couple times, you can begin getting her used to being touched, her neck, her back, her legs. Gently, slowly. In time her belly and udder. Just get her used to being touched. If you rush things too fast, you are bound to get kicked. By the time she delivers, she needs to be used to the routine of coming in and being stanchioned and handled. This goes a long way.
After the calf is born, it can be helpful to usher the calf up near the head of the stanchion while its mother is locked in. This way she can see and smell it and not be anxious over its safety while you are milking.
Pinching the bucket between your knees can help prevent the bucket from being kicked over or stepped in. Both of which are obviously undesirable. Devices like ‘kickers’ can also be used to keep the feet where they belong.
Try to keep the routine as regular as possible, especially for training a heifer. Also keep things as low key as possible. Even if she messes up and kicks the bucket, or you. Getting upset will only make her anxious and that won’t help either of you.
A neighbor in Tennessee once asked my dad if he would be willing to train one of his freshened Jersey heifers to be milked. He had too many coming fresh at once he said. At the time we could use the extra milk, so Dad agreed.
This heifer turned out to be altogether different from the mild heifers we hand raised. She could drum you on the chest with her hoof 15 times in less than 2 seconds. She was a kicker like I had never seen.
She was also not a feed hog and would not willingly go into a stanchion. She had already had her calf so the pre-maternal training was too late. We had to wrestle her into the stanchion every time for the first week or two. The only good thing was the fact that she was a young Jersey and so she was small and not heavy or strong enough to be able to drag the two people holding on to her halter.
She was a pill and probably more trouble than she was worth. She eventually settled down to where she was agreeable and cooperative. When James came by to pick her up a few months later, he was most grateful for the change in her. Only then did he admit with a chuckle that he had privately called her Tornado because of how unmanageable she had been.
Speak their Language
Monty Roberts has a large following of people who have embraced his concept of “joining up” with horses. What he is doing is speaking to them in a language they can understand. Cattle have their own language. A lot could actually be said about this but there is one primary point I would like to make. Whether it is with people or with animals, when we do not share a verbal language we rely heavily on cues taken from body language. Whether you pay attention to this or not, your animals do.
Khoke works with horses and cows a lot and when training a person new to animal husbandry, they will sooner or later start getting the “speak their language” lessons. Cows will always have a lead cow and a pecking order. They must always view you as the lead cow above their own lead cow. The cattle defer to the lead cow. Your cows will defer to you if they respect you. Most milk cows are docile enough that this is not an issue. But if you have an aggressive or assertive cow, she can injure you if she does not respect you. Expect them to respect you. Any cow that will challenge a person is dangerous. Don’t confuse an easy-going cow too lazy to get out of your way with one that won’t move simply to challenge you. Having been pinned against a cattle panel between the horns of an aggressive cow, I can tell you things go much smoother for everyone if the cow respects you.
How much pasture is it going to take to maintain a cow? That can vary widely depending on where you live. If you live in the Midwestern or Eastern United States it can take 1.2 to 2 acres per cow. If you head out west there are places that take anywhere from 10 acres to over 100 to maintain a cow. The landscape there is more rugged and arid. There are places even in the East where the soil is so poor it can take up to 4 acres per cow to support a cow-calf pair for 12 months. For those who do not need much milk and/or have limited pasture, many have turned to raising Dexter cattle. Dexters are miniature cattle.
If you have sheep and/or horses grazing with your cow, be mindful that horses and sheep can bite grass off at the ground, shorter than a cow can reach. If your pasture gets too short, then animals will forage on things that they would not normally eat, some of which is toxic.
Keep invasive pasture weeds cut back. My father, inspired by a neighbor in his youth, would scythe down the pasture weeds in the morning while my siblings and I were choring. Dad didn’t want to brush hog the pasture because the good grass would get leveled along with the weeds. So, he would spend half an hour of his morning scything down the invasive perilla growing in patches around the pasture. And of course, cutting out the ragweed before the pollen season hit.
Khoke and I have found that practicing the intensive rotational grazing method has helped us optimize our pastures. Intensive rotational grazing is having a concentrated number of animals that are rotated through a number of small pasture lots. Depending on the lot size and number of animals, they may spend a day or week in each lot before being rotated to the next lot. Most people practicing this method use an electric fence. We live off grid, so our transition has been slower as we establish this grazing principle with permanent fences. Even with what we have done so far, we have noticed a big difference in our pastures. Intensive rotational grazing improves soil fertility and builds up the pasture and it seems we are able to support more animals on fewer acres, and those acres are healthier for it.
To maintain optimal health, your cow(s) needs free access to salt (and water), preferably a mineral block or blend of some kind. We use Redmond Agriculture Mineral Salt. It comes in a 50 pound bag. It is a good idea to talk to your local extension agent and find out what the local mineral levels are. Some minerals do not need to be supplemented.
Mineral deficiencies show up with a whole range of symptoms that a person could talk about all day long. Among other things, it can lead to deformities in calves. I had a neighbor once who had a calf born without an upper jaw. It looked kind of like a bulldog.
Living here in the Goiter Belt, we have little to no natural sources for iodine and other minerals found prevalently near the ocean. Following a tip from another farmer we began to supplement our minerals with kelp. We free fed it in the covered mineral feeders out in the pasture. Interestingly we noticed a dramatic drop in pink eye.
We have a lot of trouble with pink eye in this area. There are herds of cattle that freckle the fields up and down our roads and pink eye is spread by flies. Once a cow has had pink eye, they are immune to it. You can vaccinate for it, or you can treat it when it shows up. We found we had a much lower incidence of pink eye in our calves when their mothers had free access to kelp for the entire pregnancy and while lactating.
Minerals do not “cure” anything except mineral deficiencies. What they can do however is help optimize the body’s health to where it is functioning as it should and then it is capable of maintaining its own defenses. An immune system can handle most of what is thrown at it if it doesn’t have its hands tied.
Anyone who graduates from vet school will have a general idea of how to treat most animals. Most veterinarians have a particular specialty. There are small animal, exotic animal, and large animal vets, and then they sometimes specialize further. When a doctor goes to school, they learn how to treat only one species, humans. When a vet goes to school they are learning about dozens of species. It would be really hard to know about every possible thing they would ever encounter.
We drive over an hour south into Missouri to see Dr. Larry Letner when we have an issue with one of our horses. He is worth driving as far as it takes. We had a neighbor driving a wagon who was hit from behind by a distracted driver. One of the horses was uninjured, the other horse had some muscles in her haunch completely severed. The local vet was called out and only gave her some antibiotics and told us to just let it heal as it would. The horse would never have worked again. We were not satisfied with that answer. We loaded Willow into a horse trailer and took her to Dr. Letner. His son, also a large animal vet, sewed her up beautifully and she recovered well.
There are also veterinarians who specialize in ruminants and even more specifically, cattle. If you feel you need to consult a dairy vet but do not know where to find one, call a dairy and ask them who they consult. There are some things really worth consulting someone who specializes in that field. If your local vet gives you a diagnosis you are not satisfied with you can get a second opinion.
Not everything will need an office visit or house call, sometimes all you need is advice. House calls are expensive, and vets are also often very busy. In my experience, the veterinarians I have consulted have always been very helpful, giving advice freely, telling me how to take care of the problem myself if it is at all possible.
Many years ago, I lost a favorite ewe to blue-tit mastitis. I didn’t know what I was looking at or dealing with until it was too late. I told myself I would never let myself be in that situation again. I ordered a whole stack of reference books. Not that I have read them all cover to cover, but I pull them off my shelves when I have an animal exhibit symptoms that puzzle me. It was not an attempt to never go to the vet again. It was to help me know if and when to call.
The Merck Manual is among the books on my shelves. It is pretty well an exhaustive guide, if you can read it; you may need a medical dictionary on hand as you read it. I like books written by veterinarians for the layman. They break it all down to where all of us without a medical degree can understand it. A couple I have and recommend are Veterinary Guide for Animal Owners by C.E. Spaulding DVM and Jackie Clay, and Alternative Treatments for Ruminant Animals, by Paul Dettloff DVM. Paul Dettloff has one of the most interesting prefaces to his book that I have ever read. He briefly summarizes the evolution of dairy farming, starting with small dairies in the 40’s, through changes in policies, regulation, medication, trends, and economics that paved the way to the mega-dairies that abound today, along with their abuses.
When you are looking into buying reference books, get several. It is always helpful to have them for cross references. No written work is complete, although the Merck Manual does its best to try to be. Some problems you may face are regional. Toxic plants, local mineral deficiencies, and some diseases are more prevalent in certain regions. The vet is writing about what he knows and his personal experience. You will find their opinions on how to treat an issue can vary widely. Reference books help you inform yourself and then you can do what you feel is right for your situation.
A good place to buy home dairy supplies is the Hoegger Supply Company. They actually specialize in goats, but they carry a number of things very useful for the home dairy, such as cheese making supplies. Valley Vet Supply is a catalog where you can buy almost anything you need outside of a veterinarian license. Valley Vet Supply, (1118 Pony Express Hwy) PO Box 504, Marysville, KS 66508, and their phone number is 800-419-9524.
Agriculture is a culture and agribusiness is a business. The former is a relationship with the land and livestock. The latter is a pursuit of profit at all cost. The cost is great. The ravaging of the soil, polluting the waterways and the inhumane treatment of animals.
Having your own animals provide the needs for your family brings you not only in touch with the source of your food, but allows you to have a relationship with it. This relationship enriches one’s life in ways we do not always foresee. Memories are made of animals much loved, and memories of animals not-so-loved. The latter memories are often the funny ones, after enough time has passed to not grimace when you think of the time the cow pooped on you or some other equally frustrating experience. All of our relationships enrich our life and take it to the level of really living. Not just watching someone else live their life on a screen in one’s hand. Let your life be lived and lived well.