Have a Milk Cow and A Life
the fall of 2004, I was asked to give a presentation on milking
Dexters for the Region 4 Meeting. As there is much information
widely available about traditional dairying and dairy breeds, I
thought it would be fun to share information on "part-time"
milking. I hope you'll give it a try.
To Milk or Not to Milk, That is the Question
A family milk cow is a
wonderful thing, she provides a delicious, nutritious food for the
family. Her calf is great fun and milking is an enjoyable
experience. Until you want to go somewhere and no one is available
to milk your cow. You can't even go somewhere overnight. The fun
just ended. The family milk cow is a twice a day chore for 300 days
of the year. But, not necessarily. I milk my Dexter cow just a
couple times a week, sometimes more and sometimes less, depending on
how much milk we need.
Jerseys, and Holsteins, Oh My!
beginning any milking program, you need to determine how much milk
you need. A good Dexter will supply a small family with milk for
the table and the usual butter, cheese and ice cream projects.
However, if you have a very large family, or wish to make lots of
cheese or other milk products, you may need more than one Dexter or
a more traditional dairy breed. The Dexter is a small dual purpose
breed, designed to produce moderate amounts of both beef and milk.
She was not bred to milk like a Jersey, so don't expect her to.
Dexters are not as widely used as milker in the US, as they are in
some other countries, and have not been selectively bred for
dairying. But, for most families' needs, a Dexter will fit the bill
The Facts, Ma'am, Just the Facts
ADCA states that Dexters give, on average, 1½ to 2 gallons a day and
some cows give more, up to 5 gallons a day. In the UK and other
countries where more cows are milked and dairy records are kept,
Dexters are reported to give more milk per pound of body weight than
any other breed. The milk has a high butterfat content, right up
there with Jerseys, 4 to 6 percent.
My, What a Big Udder You Have
have determined the Dexter to be the right breed for you. Now, you
need to find a good milk cow prospect. This is obviously a much
more simple process with adult cows in milk. If you are buying a
heifer, see what her dam's udder looks like and more importantly,
the udder of her sire's dam. Heifers usually have udder very
similar to that of their paternal grandmothers. Use the same
guidelines for Dexters as in other dairy breeds when judging
udders. Look for medium sized, well balanced udders. Very large
udders are often pendulous and subject to injury. The udder should
be well attached (high and wide at the rear, well forward and wide
at the front). It should not break away from the body of the
animal. Look for a properly shaped udder, with front and rear
quarters close to the same size. For the rear quarters to be
somewhat larger is normal, but you want to avoid cows with very
light forequarters. The teats should be well placed and close to
the same size, and not too large or too small. It is common for the
front teats to be longer and larger than the rear, this is ok, but
you don't want the rear teats so small you can't grasp them. You
want them to be as uniform as possible (see the udder pictures on
the Family Cow page).
Turn Your Head and Cough
your cow freshens (gives birth), have your veterinarian give her a
thorough check up. In addition, have her tested to Tuberculosis,
Brucellosis, and Johne's Disease. These tests are cheap insurance
against a potential catastrophe. Also, use only vaccines, wormers,
pesticides and other medications that are approved for lactating
training your cow well in advance of freshening. It will make your
life and hers much easier. How much training is required depends on
each individual cow. If she's a heifer you've raised, that loves to
be petted and follows you around, more than half the training is
done. If she's an adult cow that hasn't been handled, there's much
more to do. Give yourself at least a couple of months training
time. Halter training is a great convenience, but not necessary,
unless you will be milking your cow while she is tied up. With the
unhandled cow, begin by feeding her grain or some other treat, and
find her flight zone. Stand as close to her as you can, without her
running away. work your way closer to her, over several days. Just
stand quietly and let her eat, and talk to her. She will let you
get closer and closer. I like to use a cane or show stick and begin
to gently rub her back and shoulders with it. She will likely run
at first, but will come right back to the food. The show stick
allow you to begin touching her, but you're not crowding her,
either. When she allows this, slowly and gently run the show stick
along her belly, flanks, legs and udder. Go slow and work quietly.
Talk to her. Don't lose your patience. If you threaten or frighten
her, you will have to start over, and she won't trust you. Once
your cow is comfortable with the show stick, work your way up to
rubbing her with your hands. At this stage, the training usually
goes very quickly. Once a cow learns how good a brushing feels, you
are most of the way there. As you are brushing her, pay special
attention to the belly, flanks, hind legs and udder. She needs to
be completely comfortable with handling in this area. When you can
handle the cow all over, she is ready to begin training for milking.
Her Stanchion in Life
furthering your cow's training, you need to determine where she will
be milked. Some people tie the cow up to milk, many use a head
catch of some kind and some can milk with the cow loose in her
pasture. I use a stanchion that my husband built for me. It
elevates the cow about six inches, this is really helpful when it
comes to milking those short Dexters! The stanchion is constructed
of round, smooth pipe with no sharp edges. The back side is solid
plywood and the front side has a pipe running full length. This
pipe prevents the cow from stepping over sideways onto me. There is
a head catch and a manger at the front. Wherever you choose to milk
make sure the cow is secure, so she can't hurt you or herself. A
cow that is being milked for the first time will most likely be
nervous and scared. Pick a nice quiet place where she feels safe.
Noisy kids, dogs and other scary things will only frighten her more.
These pictures show the head
catch in my stanchion in the open and closed positions. A light tug
on the rope at left lifts the small piece of angle iron, quickly and
easily releasing the catch.
Practice Makes Perfect
your have a place set up to milk your cow, begin training her to
it. I start by placing a bit of grain at the entry of the
stanchion. Every day I move it forward until the cow is eating from
the manger. I feed her from the manger fro a few days with the head
catch open. I want her to feel safe and be eager to come into the
stanchion. If I trap her right away with the head catch, then I
have to start over, as she no longer want to be in the stanchion.
Brush the cow and talk quietly to her while she is eating. She will
quickly learn it ok to have the head catch closed and that she
cannot escape. Sit next to her and handle her udder and legs. I
teach my cows to move both hind legs either forward or back when I
ask. It's difficult to milk when her leg is between you and the
udder. I place my hand on the front of her leg, and apply gentle
pressure until she moves the leg back. Be prepared, the first few
times she will move it quickly and often in a half kick, because she
doesn't know what you want. When she moves the leg, reward her. I
place my hand below her hock on the back of her leg to move it
forward if necessary. Cows are traditionally milked from the right
side, but train her to which side is more convenient for your
Get the cow used to you
squeezing her teats and very gently stripping (squeezing the teat
with the thumb and forefinger while pulling down the lent of the
teat) them. When she is close to freshening, you will often get a
bit of milk or colostrum. Don't milk it out, you want as much
colostrum for the calf as possible. Introduce her to your milk
bucket, place it under her and let her get used to the sound that
makes. If your cow has a hairy udder, teach her to stand quietly
for the clippers and begin clipping her before her udder is large,
swollen and tender. You and your cow are now ready to begin
The Storck Has Arrived
first milk the cow produces is colostrum, a thick yellowish milk
full of all the things the baby calf needs for immunity. I don't
usually milk the cow for the first couple of days after she has
calves, unless her udder is very tight and swollen. You can freeze
the colostrum for emergencies if you do milk the cow during this
time. My system of milking is based on the idea that the cow gets
to keep her calf. I don't take it away from her to raise
separately, as is traditionally done. My stall is divided in half
with a welded wire cattle panel and a gate at one end, with the
entry to the stanchion at the other (see diagram at the bottom of
On the third day after calving, I begin to milk in earnest.
First, I put a flake of good hay in the manger and her pan of
grain with it. She will stand and be much more content is she
has something good to eat. Next, I get the calf into the
stanchion side of the stall and place it near the manger.
Usually I halter and tie it, thus begins the calf's halter
training. The cow enters the stanchion and has her food and
calf right near her head. This makes milking much easier than
if she can't see her calf. I like to use a disposable bucket
for the first couple of milkings. It will most likely be
difficult despite all of the training you've done, especially if
this is the first time the cow has been milked. If it's also
her first calf, the cow will be even more nervous. She'll
probably step in, on and all over your bucket. She will try to
walk around in the stanchion and will probably try to brush your
hand away with her hoof. She may even kick. Just watch her and
try to anticipate her actions.
The act of milking is
very easy to do, but very difficult to describe. Gently grasp
the teat and squeeze the forefinger and thumb, preventing the
milk from flowing back into the udder. Squeeze the rest of the
fingers, forcing the milk past the sphincter muscle of the
teat. It takes a bit of practice, but is soon mastered.
I milk from the right
side of cow. I keep my left forearm against her rear leg and I
can feel her begin to move the leg before she actually does.
When she starts to lift the leg, I can push it back and down
with my forearm. Be patient and firm. If she's being overly
difficult, give her a firm smack (never on the udder) and tell
her "No." I have used cow hobbles in the past. They work with
some cows and not with others. I prefer to train the cow so
that I don't need them, but if you decide to use them, train the
cow to them before freshening. As you continue milking, she
will get the idea. I like to end on a good note. If she has
settled down and is standing, I'll stop for the day. Ending in
a fight will make her even more nervous the next time you milk.
If you are gentle, quiet and firm, the cow will learn very
quickly, and you'll be filling your bucket in no time.
Now You're Milking
the udder and teats carefully and thoroughly. There are
many good udder wash products on the market. Before
milking, I use a mastitis test card. I like Dr. Naylor's
brand. A stream of milk is squirted from each teat onto a
different test patch on the card. If any patch turns green,
you may have a developing mastitis problem and should
consult your veterinarian. Strip cups are also used to
check for mastitis problems. A stream of milk from each
quarter goes through he fine screen on the cup. Any flaky,
clotted or bloody milk is a sign of trouble. After testing,
you're ready to milk. I tie a piece of butter muslin cloth
(gauzy cheese cloth is much too coarse) over the top of my
milk bucket (use a stainless steel or food grade plastic
bucket). This cloth keep hair, debris and flies from
falling into the bucket. You'll be surprised how much dirt
there is on a clean, well groomed cow. During warm weather,
I place a food grade plastic container of ice in the
bucket. This way, the milk is being chilled during milking.
The beauty of the
occasional milking method is that I take only the amount of
milk I need. I don't have to milk the cow all the way out
and strip her, but can if I choose to. The first milk drawn
does not contain as much cream as the last milk. To get
cream, you'll need to milk her out.
Make the cow
comfortable, give her lots of good feed, keep her calf
close, and you'll both have a pleasant milking experience.
used to keep Jerseys and milk in the traditional manner,
twice daily. We had much more milk than we could use and we
could not go anywhere as the cow HAD to be milk twice a
day. Then, we had the extra chore of raising the calf.
This was not what we really wanted to do, so we sold the
Jerseys, kept our Dexters for beef and bought milk. I want
to do something different. After speaking with some other
Dexter folks who milk on an "as needed" basis, I decided to
give it a try. I picked my most gentle cow, for ease of
training. When she freshened, she had a lot of milk. I
milked her daily for a while, and did not separate her and
the calf at all. I got a gallon at each milking. The calf
preferred the front teats, so I milked the rear quarters and
left the front for him. This worked very well for about a
month (this is a heavy milking Dexter). After a month, the
calf was eating more and the cow wasn't producing quite as
much. I began to separate them for 3 to 4 hours. Then I
would milk out the rear quarters and some from the front.
When the calf was 2 to 3 months old, I would separate them
for half a day. At 5 months old or so, I separate them
overnight and milk out the cow in the morning. I usually
milk 3 days a week, but will milk more often when making
cheeses. The calf takes care of the milking the rest of the
time. We took a week's vacation and it was so nice not to
worry about the cow and calf, and just resume milking when
we came back home.
When the time comes
to wean the calf, then you must make the decision to milk
daily or dry the cow up. A nice way to do it is to have two
cows, calving six months apart. Once cow is ready to dry up
as the other is coming fresh.
Don't Cry Over Spilled Milk
problem you may run into is the cow choosing not t let her
milk down. She want the milk to be for the calf, not for
you. When she's fresh and really producing a lot, this
won't be much of a problem. But later on in her lactation,
she won't be producing as much and can be very persistent in
not letting you have any milk. Keeping her calf close
helps. I tie my calf to the front of the stanchion. The
lead rope is long enough so he can reach his mother's belly,
but not her udder. He can't get in the way of my milking,
but he helps me milk. The hungry calf butts her mother's
belly, she know he's hungry and the milk comes in a flood.
The calf will be your number one tool in getting the cow to
let her milk down.
the cow may show her displeasure with the whole situationby
reliving herself in the stanchion. Be ready to get your
bucket out of the splatter zone. My cows usually do this on
the first few days, then they relax into the routine. They
will also do this when they are in heat. That's another
benefit to occasional milking, I don't bother when the cow
is in heat and feeling belligerent.
My cow's production
has dropped more than it would have if I had milked her
twice a day, because cows work on supply and demand.
However, it's worth it to me to be able to go places and
not have to worry about finding a cow sitter. If you need
lots of milk, this system may not work for you, but it is
certainly worth a try.
comes the time to take care of your milk. First, it needs
to be strained. I use a milk strainer and disposable milk
filters. They work much better than filtering the milk
through cheesecloth. They are very inexpensive and easy to
use. After the milk is strained, you can run it through a
cream separator or let the cream rise naturally. I skim the
cream with a large flat serving spoon with the handle bent
at a 90º angle. Another method is to pour the milk into a
gallon sized ice tea jar with a spigot at the bottom. After
the cream has risen, empty the milk out of the bottom of the
jar until you get to the cream.
We chose to use our
milk raw, after doing much research on the subject.
Pasteurization is an individual choice and must be made
after weighing the risks (which are few) and the benefits
(which are many). Never use questionable or dirty milk, or
milk from a cow that shows any signs of mastitis or other
disease. These websites have very good information on raw
Eat, Drink And Be Merry
method of milking has been a blessing for me, I urge you to
try it, too. The milk is fresh, natural and tastes better
than store bought milk. And today's milk prices make it
even better. The calf is healthy and happy being raised by
its mother. You can take a trip and not worry about the
Get out there and
milk that Dexter. Why not? You're feeding and
caring for her anyway.