Beginning, Ending, and Rest
ows calving on grass is a pretty sight. Or barring that, in our old free-range days, calving in the woods on clean dirt in a place of their choosing. Note I said clean dirt. Not barnyard dirt. If a cow is left to her own devices and not confined most of the time they will go to a quiet and clean place to give birth.
Jane has been working hard since last May 29th, like any dairy cow. She’s given birth, raised her calf, re-bred on schedule, given us gallons of milk and pounds of butter. Now it’s time for a break for her before she calves again June 1st or thereabouts.
I’m at the two-week mark of drying her up and the process has went great so far. I’m old school, and I just quit milking. Of course, you have to wait until the cow is producing under three gallons a day, or two is better. Drying off is a function of the endocrine system and if you keep playing around with the milking schedule the cow keeps producing in anticipation of being milked. You want your cow to stop producing milk so you need to stop milking her. Pretty simple. And made even simpler with a seasonal calving schedule. Drying a cow off during the spring flush or on good summer grass is a nightmare. Grass produces a lot of milk even in late lactation.
Unfortunately these days with milk available year round in the store, most folks who want to go out on their own and get a family cow, assume that it’s pretty easy to have milk year round. Well yes and no. Year round fresh milk is a luxury of our modern times. Mileage will vary, not just milk mileage, but healthy cow mileage. It never ceases to amaze me how a person who decides they are against factory farming or feedlots, and then seeks out a small farmer to provide milk and meat, will then go on to want these seasonal products supplied year round? Really, and then the farmers who are willing to provide the “seasonal ” products year round? I actually think a large dairy is more equipped to deal with year round calving, I know I said it, and my foodie and small farm friends (I’m both those things too) will think I’m crazy for being a turncoat. But think of the cow, all you have to do is milk and take the money. The cow has to give birth, lactate and rebreed within 60 to 90 days to have a calf every year. Not the easiest thing to do when you’re in a negative energy balance. We’ve already done a disservice to the dairy cow by breeding her to produce so much milk to the detriment of her health, so why add insult to injury and ask her to do that in winter? A friend asked tried me about this very subject the other day, hence the blog post. She thought that my milking Jane in winter was the same as her having a calf in winter…ummm, hmmm, this friend has children so she understands that having a one month old kid is a whole lot different than a toddler. So I explained it, and asked if I could explain the facts on the blog, she was okay with that as long as I didn’t call her out. After all, what are friends for beside blog material? I’d much rather write about saving salamander egg clusters from the straw delivery, but this is important too ;)
All kidding aside, early lactation is very stressful on the cow, production is high and possibly climbing to the three-month mark until leveling off, if a cow is grazing (her natural diet) and getting a little supplemental feed for energy she should be able to weather the storm of birth, hormones, and milk production. But the more you chip away at the natural process the harder it is to prop up. Don’t have good grass? Buy hay, where does the hay come from? Here most local hay is hard put to support a high producing dairy cow so “better” hay comes from the high production areas east of the mountains. It’s sunnier there and with irrigation you can get multiple cuttings from the same piece of ground, it makes good economic sense if you’re a hay farmer. But there is the fact that it may be fertilized with high potassium fertilizers, or bio-solids. The high potassium feeds can wreak havoc on the metabolism of a dairy cow. It’s so hard to know what you’re getting when you buy hay from an area different than your own. Free-choice minerals can make up some of the difference, but that means a salad bar mineral set up and then still you don’t know what imbalance you may or may not be dealing with in the feed.
So yes I have milked Jane in the winter, but she is on the waning side of her lactation. Some cows produce steadily after their peak at the three-month mark, others decline. I’m fine with the decline, and it is by design. If I know a cow on hay (dry feed) will produce less, then it makes perfect sense to plan my breeding, calving, milking and dry-off schedule around that.
I wanted a longer dry period for Jane than the standard 6 – 8 week interval that is common on dairies or on many small farms. I would like to see her in better body condition and she’s not going to gain while milking.
My procedure was as follows:
♥ Stop milking.
♥ Do your dry cow antibiotic treatment at this time. Optional, depending on what you want to live with.
♥ Stop high protein feeds. ( I don’t feed this way, but that would mean, dairy ration, alfalfa or eastern orchard grass hay.)
♥ I don’t do anything to stimulate milk letdown. Jane does not get to go the milking area to eat, I don’t wash her off, or fondle her udder except to check for any obvious signs of mastitis.
♥ Monitor twice a day for heat, redness, or tenderness. I do this with light touch on each quarter of her udder feeling for anything abnormal. You may see some leaking but that should subside in about two days. If not, your cow is probably on lush grass or giving more than 3 gallons a day – rethink your drying off strategy if that is the case.
♥ Don’t be tempted to milk if the cow looks uncomfortable. She will be for a few days, and she will expect her routine to continue. To alleviate some of the missing routine stress, I feed Jane at the same time, just in a different area. She gave up on me by the third day, now I have to ring the cow bell to get her to come to dinner. Vacation time.
I happen to believe fresh milk is a luxury, so I treat it that way. I will forgo creme fraiche in my tomato soup, or cream in my coffee, savor one more week of stored milk, luxuriate in the cessation of milking chores, and I will anxiously await the next calf from Jane, when the whole cycle begins again.