Photo above by Mary Lou Shaw. Milking a family cow in a stanchion.

A reader has asked for a blog post about training heifers and cows to milk.  We will cover the spectrum from training large groups of heifers with the cow herd to training a single heifer or cow as a family cow.

Basic Stockmanship Principles

Whatever your management system, good stockmanship principles apply:

  • Cows are creatures of habit.
  • Cows learn to trust their caretakers if handled calmly and consistently.
  • It’s easier to get a cow to do something if she thinks it’s her own idea.

Cows are probably more perceptive than people think, so your general mood and approach are going to have an effect on them. By the same token, working with cows can be calming to people, so the relationship can be mutually beneficial if you design your set-up by “thinking like a cow” and always maintain an easy-going but alert attitude when working with your animals.

There is something so promising about a nice, full, fresh udder.
Here are some tips for getting the milk from the udder into the pail.

Training in a Herd

In a herd setting, it’s nice to have the springing heifers with the cow herd for at least awhile so they get used to the new surroundings.  Some dairymen run the heifers with the herd and let them come in and explore the milking parlor if they happen to. In stanchions or tie-stalls, the herdsman may assign a stall to each heifer and let them spend some time in the milking set-up that way.

When we milked 100+ cows in our herringbone parlor, we halter-trained all the heifers before calving and would lead them into the parlor for milking the first few times. This way they were used to being handled and became accustomed to being in the front stall. Actually, some of them would push their way to the front of the line once we turned them loose in the herd again. Otherwise, heifers new to the herd might hang back and feel like outsiders.

Training a Family Cow

In a family cow situation, usually a stanchion is ideal for a milking stall. If you aren’t able to lead the cow into the milking stall, you may coax her in with a treat of grain or some special hay or other feed. Ideally, she should already be familiar with the milking stall before freshening, so you aren’t trying to introduce too many new things at once. You definitely do not want to have to chase her in, or she’s likely to get riled up and distrust you more.

If you design your stanchion so you can scoot the cow’s calf to the front where the cow’s head goes, you can use the calf to coax the mom into the stanchion. Having the calf there where she can smell and lick it may also help her with letdown for milking.

It is important to develop a consistent routine, and be patient as she comes into milk. Don’t expect full production in the first few days, but just keep working with her until her production gets established and she and learns to let down for you.

What About Kicking?

It is not unusual for a cow to kick when she’s being trained to milk.  A fresh cow’s udder may be swollen and tender, and she may be startled by the new sounds and sensations. We do not punish her for kicking. Instead, we like to use a firm and gentle restraint when needed.  This can be reassuring to the cow as it helps her feel more secure. With time, she will learn to stand quietly on her own.

We use salve (our favorite is Dr. Naylor’s Udder Balm) on the cows’ teats when first fresh, in the case of cracked teats, and during bad weather. Peppermint lotion can help with swelling in a fresh udder. Both of these treatments can ease the discomfort that’s causing her to kick.  Also check for teat injuries or mastitis as these can be painful and cause the cow to kick.

Some people suggest handling her udder before a heifer freshens so she gets used to those sensations.

Calf sharing can be the answer for some family cow owners.
Photo by William Whitney.

Calf Sharing With a Family Cow

Some dairy producers and homesteaders like to raise the calves on their dams instead of feeding the calves separately by bucket or bottle. The calves certainly do great on this system, though heifer calves can end up excessively fat if they have full access to a cow that milks quite well, and you might not get as much milk as you want for sale or for your own use.  It is amazing how much milk a calf can put away by the time she is two months old.

We have found some cows do great giving milk to people and their calf, while others hold their milk up, trying to save it all for the calf.

If you want to calf share, it is best to start from the very beginning, milking the cow out at least once a day starting when the calf is 12-24 hours old. Keep this up even if the cow is not letting down for you. 

Establish a good routine for letdown. This includes doing the same pre-milking routine every time to clean the teats, milking at about the same time every day, etc. Cows are calmer and should let down milk better when they know what to expect.

We do not recommend giving shots of oxytocin, as this disrupts the cow’s natural system in several ways.

Keeping the calf in its own pen and letting it nurse the cow twice a day on a schedule can help. Then you can milk immediately after the calf nurses, while the cow is still let down, or even while the calf is nursing if you are set up for this. Some people have had success running the calf and cow together for half of the day and then penning them apart for 12 hours before milking the cow.

Milking Once or Twice a Day?

Depending on how much milk you want and your daily schedule, you can choose to milk just once a day. Depending on the cow, milking once a day could mean 20-30 percent less milk, but with half the milking labor. Moderate dairy cows like our Dutch Belted and Milking Shorthorns can do well on once-a-day milking, but extreme producers like Holsteins don’t generally perform well.

Here’s a New Zealand article weighing the pros and cons of once-a-day milking for a large dairy operation.

Questions?

We have described some of the approaches to cow training that have worked for us. You will also learn a lot from your own cows as you pay attention to their cues and adapt your techniques.

We are happy to answer specific questions if you contact us.