Milking on Your Schedule – Cows are Flexible

Up at 5 AM. winter and summer, to let the cows into the milking parlor, clean the equipment and wash the building down, then repeat again in the evening — such is the life of the dairy farmer. Stop the madness! A new breed of dairy farmer, however, is challenging long-held assumptions about milking frequency. Called Once A Day or OAD milking, this method has benefits to both the farmer and the animals.

jersey_milk_cow_udderOne of our Jersey cows enjoys the pasture in the afternoon, as she fills up her milk reserves in her udder before the nightly milking.

Cows produce milk for their calves; humans got involved in the process when someone figured out that milk could supply us with important nutrients, and be turned into other foods such as butter, cheese and yogurt. The traditional system relies on removing the calf from the cow and bottle-feeding it with milk or milk replacer, while the rest of the cow’s production is reserved for humans. Many farmers operate on rigid schedules, milking 12 hours apart throughout a cow’s lactation period. Traditional wisdom also says that if cows weren’t milked twice a day on a regular schedule, mastitis and other problems would result. It turns out, however, that cows are very flexible about the process, and can adapt to a wide variety of milking schedules. The key is to keep the cow producing milk throughout her lactation period, whether through hand milking, machine milking, by allowing one or more calves to nurse, or combining the methods.

When a farmer wants to raise a calf and have milk for family use, or to sell, the calf is allowed to nurse for the first five to seven days. This allows the calf to receive colostrum, the first product of the lactation. Colostrum provides antibodies and other vital nutrients to populate the calf’s digestive system and provide immunity to disease. Cows will adapt their production to demand — within reason — so about a week after birth, the farmer begins to milk the cow by hand or machine. A well-nourished cow will produce enough for both her calf and the milking. She needs plenty of grass or hay and a good source of water, as well as minerals and salt. As the calf grows older, the farmer might pen it away from the cow for a few hours to increase the milk supply for the house or to sell. Once the calf is weaned, the cow’s entire production goes to the house or is sold. This system readily lends itself to OAD milking, and since the calf helps keep the cow’s udder from becoming over full, the farmer can milk not only OAD butat irregular intervals.

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If the farmer sells the calf or chooses to bottle feed the calf, OAD milking is still an option. In early lactation, some cows that are heavy producers might need to be milked twice a day for a while. The cow will adjust to the demands placed on her, however, so if the farmer milks once a day, she will drop her production to meet that demand. In this situation, the farmer has some flexibility in terms of the milking schedule and might milk one day at 5 AM and the next at 9 AM. However, some cows are creatures of habit, and prefer a fairly regular schedule. Highly irregular milking schedules — eight-hour intervals one day, 12 the next and 10 the next, for example — may result in loss of production in some cows.

Cows on OAD milking often eat less — a savings in feed — and are better able to maintain their condition than cows on a traditional milking schedule. Although OAD milking can result in lower total volume of milk, the milk solids, protein and fat in the milk actually increase. Most of the extra production in traditional milking is actually water.

The point of OAD milking is quality. Cows on OAD milking can stick to grass or hay — the natural diet of a ruminant. Cows remain healthier when they don’t eat corn, other grains and soy typically fed to increase production in traditional commercial herds. They can more easily maintain body condition on forage alone. We feel the calves are also healthier when raised in a more humane, natural situation, and the farmer isn’t tied down to a bottle-feeding schedule. Commercial farmers are paid for the quantity of milk they produce rather than the quality. Twice-a-day milking means more money, but it also means more labor expense, and cows in a high production system often have more health problems and shorter lives. Small farmers with one or two cows don’t need to produce to commercial standards and the flexibility of OAD milking is a great benefit on a diversified small farm. Milk in the morning, milk at night, or just turn the calf in with the cow when you need to go out of town for a weekend, and the farmer can actually have a life outside the milking parlor!

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Farmer Guy May 26, 2014 Milking Cows