Let Down
Let Down


by Dave Heinlein of Lopez Island, WA

I started milking for our household dairy needs a number of years ago. Back then a long time Islander told me that it wasn’t a good idea to leave the calf with the cow if I wanted milk. He said that the best way was to raise the calf away from the cow to eliminate their bonding.

“That way she’ ll not hold back milk and cream for the calf when you milk her. You’ ll get all she has and can then feed some back to the calf.”

I have no reason to doubt Larry’s experience, but I just can’t cozy up to the idea of raising a cow’s calf for her. I feel that it is important for the calf to be raised by its dam. If her instinct is to hold back then I need to accept it because I don’t know what I might do to change her mind.

The answer came in a Small Farmer’s Journal article, ‘How to Keep & Milk a Cow’ written by Ida Livingston. She wrote:

“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.”

AH HA! I can’t change the cow’s mind, but I can work with her instinct. Larry told me about the hold-back reality and now the Livingstons present a solution. Ida’s article was just the ‘kick in the pants’ I needed to find out for myself.

Let Down

We have a small herd of American Milking Devon cattle. Ruby (2nd lactation, 4 years old) is this year’s milk cow, her calf Ivan is my ‘let-down helper.’ Beginning when the calf was about 3 weeks old, I separated him from his dam at night and milked only in the morning. Initially I only took part of the milk and gradually increased my take until I was milking her ‘dry’ when the calf was around 8 weeks old. They run together all day until evening separation. I have been satisfied that I am getting all the milk, even though Larry said that I would not, and at times the production doesn’t seem proportionate to the udder’s appearance. I was thinking:

“Maybe she is holding back, but the flow went from a stream, to a fine squirt, to a dribble and then nothing. The teats are flaccid and no longer plump. She must be empty. Even if she is holding back, how much could that really be? I can’t imagine it to be much.”

Ivan is now 8 weeks old (June ’22) and I have an intriguing suggestion to work with. Ruby is ready. It’s time to get on with it and see what happens!

If you haven’t milked with the calf’s help, and wonder about this ‘hold back/ let down business,’ you need to give it a try! What follows is a description of my initial efforts including some recommendations:

1. I keep Ruby and Ivan separated for about 12 hours each night. They remain separate until I have milked all four quarters ‘dry.’ Just like my description above.

2. Now I bring Ivan in. He is hungry and will come for the udder like a little freight train. It has been best to empty the pail, or at least guard it well until he settles into position.

3. Ivan needs to be on the side opposite from me and my stool. He goes straight for the front left teat – this is great for me as I milk Ruby from the right side. So now that he has his preferred teat it’s time for me to get milking the other three. Our relative positions work well. As he is sucking the left front I can reach through to the left rear teat with my right hand and simultaneously shield the right front from his grabbing mouth. The right rear is an easy do with the left hand. He gets all the milk in the left front, this seems only fair, as he is my key to LET DOWN.

4. I do my best to keep him off of my chosen teats. Once he grabs one, it is literally too slippery to hold onto. When he does ‘steal one’ it’s time to admit the loss and let it go, OR get out one of the dry cloths I have stuffed into my shirt pocket. I use it to rub the slimed teat dry, guarding the others while doing so, then I get on with it again.

5. At 8 weeks old, Ivan packs a pretty good wallop when he butts Ruby’s udder to get her to let down more milk. Each butt will easily pop her teats right out of my hands. Quickness counts for a lot here – regain the grips before he slimes up one of the momentarily accessible teats. If he gets a hold of one, it’s time to put that dry cloth to work again.

6. I have found it important to be aware of the pail position and keep it on my side of center line. There are two reasons for this. First off, some of Ivan’s udder butts stimulate a left leg jerk reaction from Ruby which can (has) knocked over the pail. Second, once Ivan has a good flow going on ‘his teat’ he drools and slobbers a lot! It just wants to get into the pail.

7. It came clear very early in this game that a full set of arthritic fingers is no match for a wrap-around tongue with suction. Ivan can empty his quarter much faster than I can even think of emptying one, let alone three, quarters. When he is empty he ‘crosses the line’ to help me. A back hand bop in the nose (it does take more than one) proves to be sufficient discouragement. Once he leaves, it’s time to put a slobber cloth to work for the last time, clean the back of my hand, and get the milking finished.

Through all this butting, poking, squeezing, sucking, drooling, bopping, & wiping Ruby stands patiently. Her eyes half closed she chews her cud with a peaceful expression on her face. I call it Contented Calmness. She is much more than just a milk producer. She sets a challenging example for me each morning I milk her. Contented Calmness – How far into my day can I honor this way of being?


For the first 30 seconds or so of each of these tag-team milking sessions it seems as though Ivan’s help isn’t working. But, the let-down does come gradually. It is a bit like priming a pump. Dribbles, squirts, stream, then flow, the teats seem to open up (there has been a few good butts to the udder by now), with full flow as big as you can imagine. LET DOWN IS HERE!

Can she really hold back a significant amount of milk?

Here are some milk production numbers from this exercise with Ivan and Ruby. The weights are in pounds listed below. The first number is pounds from milking all four quarters “dry” before Ivan’s help. The second number is pounds from 3 quarters as Ivan primes the pump on the fourth one. The third number is the total pounds of milk in the pail for the morning.

Two isolated days:
4.3 + 6.1 = 10.4
5.8 + 6.5 = 12.3

Three consecutive days:
6.7 + 6.7 = 13.4
4.3 + 6.5 = 10.8
7.3 + 6.7 = 14.0

YES! She can hold back a significant amount of milk!!

Let Down

On all but one day I got more milk from 3 quarters with Ivan’s help than Ruby allowed me from 4 before his help. At this point in her lactation she has a ‘hold back’ capacity of about 6.5 lbs. on 3 quarters. So, it seems that if I milk her out solo and leave all the let down for Ivan, he is going to get about a gallon of very creamy milk held back special for him. Ruby changed my mind – no need to leave milk for the calf in the early weeks of separation. Mama has it handled – she makes sure that he is going to get his share!

The above volumes of milk may not seem like a big deal, but as a triple purpose breed Milking Devons do not produce volumes similar to the dairy breeds. They are generalists, very hearty, and a great homestead breed. They are able to do well on marginal forage. Marginal forage is what we grow best in our island climate and soils. Except for a small scoop (3-4 pounds) of organic alfalfa pellets each morning for Ruby, what we can grow and harvest is what our herd must work with. Free choice salt, kelp meal, and minerals are available at all times.

Here is the big deal for my wife Beckie and me. For now, three consecutive days, with Ivan’s help, produces in excess of 30 pounds of milk. As our cheese maker, Beckie has found no negative results from making cheeses with raw milk that is 48 hours old if it has been cooled down immediately after milking. She has the cheese pots ready to go on the third day, that morning’s milk is filtered and goes straight to the pot.

Let Down

Ruby’s milk is very rich and alive with bacteria beneficial to the cheese making process and is quite creamy. Each of the 2 quart jars pictured above will have about 11/3 cups of cream on top once cooled. All that is needed to make a great homestead style cheese with 30 to 35 pounds of this raw milk is 1/32nd teaspoon of freeze dried culture, a little salt, and one drop of rennet per pound of milk. As the cheeses age in the cellar the mold forms on the rind giving each its own unique characteristics.

We will continue to use Ivan’s help for the milk needed to make enough cheese to last until next summer. I may skip some days, milk solo, or use Ivan’s let-down help to keep us in drinking milk, coffee cream, soft cheeses, cream cheese, and ice cream. Until we dry Ruby off, we won’t be without these fabulous rich creamy taste treats… …THIS IS EXCITING!

If you don’t milk a cow as part of your farming life, our excitement may seem a bit overboard. In that case, let me put our feelings in the context of a few other momentous farming events. This new milking flexibility is every bit as wonderful and satisfying as the first dinner of the season that includes new potatoes and peas, the taste of that first vine ripened tomato, or getting the last of the hay in. At 70 (plus a little) we find that the simple things in life bring the most satisfaction. And some of those are truly exciting discoveries! Regardless of your age, if you are living a life that includes raising, growing, harvesting and preserving your own food, you can appreciate our enthusiasm.

With gratitude I thank Lynn Miller and all the SFJ staff, the Livingstons, Beckie, Ruby & Ivan. Lastly, thanks to our old bull George. His attention to detail last summer brought Ivan and this lactation into being.