Share Milking with Nurse Cows
Most commercial dairies separate calves from their mothers shortly after their birth. The calves are given bottles of their mothers’ colostrum and later fed on milk from the dairy. Most commercial dairy cows have no idea what it is like to mother a calf. They are simply valued for the milk that they provide for the farmer.
However small farmers who own dairy cows often buck this trend. They prefer to allow things to unfold a little more naturally on their farms. Many of them practice a calf-raising technique called “share-milking.”
Share Milking Basics
In share milking, the farmer allows the calf to stay with the mother. Of course in the first few days, a calf needs all of the colostrum it can drink. Once the cow’s milk comes in, the calf can get its tummy full and still leave plenty for the farmer and his family. At this point, the farmer can milk just once a day with the calf helping to keep the udder empty and soft.
As the calf grows, the farmer may find that the calf is drinking far more than his fair share of the milk. Once the calf is around 3 to 4 weeks of age, the farmer may opt to separate the calf from the mother cow for 10-12 hours per day. The cow may be put up in a barn at night and milked in the morning. The farmer may leave one quarter for the calf or just not milk her out completely. During the daytime, the calf is given free access to the cow, and being separated for half of the day doesn’t hurt the calf at all, despite both mother and the calf’s complaints.
Interestingly, some commercial dairies are using share milking procedures with very little impact to their bottom lines. They don’t have as much labor expense with once a day milking, the calves grow up healthier, and the cows are more content.
Advantages of Share Milking
Practicing share milking has its advantages. First, the calf can empty a cow’s udder completely, something that new hand-milkers may struggle with during the first couple weeks of milking. If a cow has severe swelling in her udder shortly after giving birth, bringing in an older calf (about 2 months or more) alongside the newborn to help nurse the cow can help farmers avoid problems caused by insufficient milk removal, like mastitis.
Second, and most attractive for hobby farmers, share-milking gives the farmer a significant amount of flexibility. If the calf is old enough to keep his mama milked out, farmers who share-milk can milk when they feel like it, rather than every day. Some farmers graft extra calves on to their cows specifically to give them a break from the milking routine. Sometimes, they can even go out of town for a few days if they need to and depend on the calf to keep the cow’s udder healthy. When a farmer needs milk, he simply puts the cow in the barn for the night and milks the next morning.
Last, calves that are raised with share milking will grow bigger. They will have an unlimited supply of milk to sip on all day. Farmers don’t have to constantly be filling and feeding bottles to bottle calves three or four times per day.
Advantages of Bottle Feeding
However, there are some farmers who prefer to bottle feed their baby calves. While they may leave the calf on the cow for a few days, they will then bottle-feed the calf, milking the mother cow twice a day.
Some farmers who sell raw milk need to get as much milk as they can to pay the bills. While the calf is still consuming the milk that he needs, usually about a gallon a day, they need to keep as much milk for humans as they can.
Other hobby farmers, especially those who have heifer calves, prefer to bottle feed to help tame their calves and make them friendly. Bottle calves have frequent human interaction and be easier to handle than those who are raised on the cow.
Some dairy farmers bottle feed because some young calves can be quite rough on their mothers’ udders and teats, butting and sometimes scraping her with their teeth. Cows who are prone to mastitis may not be the best candidates for share-milking because of the roughness of some calves.
If you have a calf that is hurting the cow’s udder or chewing her teats, you may want to try a hybrid approach rather than bottle feeding it. You can allow the cow and calf to be together 2 or 3 times every day for about 15 or 20 minutes. This can help reduce your workload. You may, however, need to buy an extra calf or two if the calf is unable to completely empty the cow’s udder.
Above all, be flexible. Every now and then you will find a cow who dislikes nursing her calf, so you will need to bottle feed the calf. Sometimes a mother cow will die or dry up prematurely. Just keep an eye on your cow and calf and try to make the best decision for your situation. If you are unsure about how to handle a situation, ask an experienced farmer for advice.