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Beginning, Ending, and Rest

March 21, 2013

Cows 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 & Blake - May 2012

Jane & Blake – May 2012

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.

Drying up

Drying up

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.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. March 21, 2013 5:37 pm

    Jane is being such a trooper. And i know I have said it before but she is a beautiful cow too just gorgeous. I guess with Daisy giving four gallons a day with beet shreds as her supplement we have a ways to go. Have a lovely day and thank you for the advice on drying up. We will have to do it sooner or later.. c

    • March 21, 2013 6:34 pm

      C, it would be better too if you make sure she is settled before you dry her off. Just in case 🙂

  2. 3cows permalink
    March 21, 2013 6:49 pm

    I totally agree with your on this. When we got our cows about 3 years ago, they were all bred for late fall / early winter calves. It has taken some time to come around, but after this round of calving, (1 in late Nov of 2012, 1 in the next 2 weeks and 1 will calve in early May) their will be no more cold weather calving. Our bull went to freezer camp and i won’t get a replacement until I am ready to let them breed back. — Aug / September-ish to have early summer calves in 2014. I believe it will make a huge difference in their overall hardiness and condition. Calving in winter is just harder on them than it should be and it takes a couple months to build them back up that would not be needed with summer calves. (They are getting older and so am I and milking 3 cows in winter is hard on me too!

    • March 21, 2013 8:32 pm

      3cows, I agree, by the time I don’t want to go out and milk during the cold snaps, the calf is large enough to milk for me. Nothing like having a relief milker that doesn’t complain 😉 This works good for me too, to have all the calving done at the same time, & same breeding time.

      Cows are resilient and can survive harsh temperatures, but maybe instead of just surviving, we need to think of thriving. I do not miss earlier spring calving at all. No one ever sees wild animals having babies during the cold weather… .

      You’ll be glad you switched!

  3. March 21, 2013 7:07 pm

    This is good timing for me as we had a really dry summer and only just got some decent rain, and decent grass. We noticed the change in the milk at the same time, suddenly we were getting double the milk, even though we feed a small grain ration. When we dried Bella last time it was at the end of winter, so she didn’t have much milk. We now have Bella’s calf Molly about to calf, and we have them timed 6 months apart. We are hoping to manage them so that we have milk all year. I had not considered the issue that you talk about and we will have to very careful about when Molly is dried up following her lactation. I think we can manage it, we have a different climate here, we just have to be aware of the natural cycles and be flexible. The grass here seems to depend more on when the rain comes than what season it is, so you can’t plan ahead too far! Its funny here in Australia that most dairy farmers calve all year round and milk supply is stead all year, whereas in New Zealand there is a 6 week period where all the cows are dried off and they don’t provide any milk to the factories.

    • March 21, 2013 8:36 pm

      Liz, that is interesting – here seasonal dairies are a rarity, the milk supply is constant. I used to do two cows, like your plan, but always had a hard time managing the overlap the odd dry off. Rain here is a constant – 9 months of wet, and 3 months of dry so succulent feed is pretty easy to come by. And that is made worse/better by rotational grazing.

      I’m not getting any younger and it’s nice to have a break 🙂

      Can’t wait to hear about Molly’s calf!

  4. March 22, 2013 1:46 am

    We have goats for milk, and I plan to do the same thing. This is our first kidding season, and I believe it was way to early; too cold. So this fall, I won’t breed until late fall, giving us kids in May. I also plan to let the doe dry up before we breed, so she’ll be in good shape for the deed. Eventually (when we get another doe) we plan to breed in late fall and March, so we’ll have milk most of the year, each goat providing it for six months of the year.

    Thanks for the drying off tips. I imagine goats would be similar to cows.

  5. Chris permalink
    March 22, 2013 7:09 am


  6. March 22, 2013 9:35 am

    Oh the things I have to learn and the glory of getting to learn them from you.

  7. Rodney permalink
    March 22, 2013 10:56 am

    What a great photo! I have helped deliver a colt one time years ago and was amazed but you really captured a great photo! Awesome! Thanks for posting.


  8. March 22, 2013 12:19 pm

    I only have two chickens in the city. But, I try to take good care of them. I never thought about all this and cows getting a rest and becoming stonger/healthier for the new pregnancy. I absolutely love my hens and feed them good things, no chicken food, and free range them. Today I put up a silly post!

    That cow looks content in the pasture, doing what she does where she wants to.

  9. March 27, 2013 1:16 pm

    Great read.
    We are proud new owners of a sweet heifer calf born yesterday to my Jersey,we cross her Highland.
    So I guess we are just getting ready to start milking! Love,love,love milk!!!!

  10. Janet permalink
    March 31, 2013 8:18 pm

    Always love reading all of your blogs, I learn so much! Thanks for taking the time to share your knowledge with all of us! Glad Jane is drying up nicely. I am sure you are enjoying the break! I know my hands are….. so do you just not have any milk or cream until she freshens again?

  11. April 4, 2013 4:10 pm

    I am curious about the salamander egg clusters from your straw delivery!!!

    • April 5, 2013 8:02 am

      Bluejeanqueen, I do need to post about them, now they have frogs for company. Some tads have hatched but I haven’t seen any salamanders yet.

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