Saturday, December 11, 2010

Liquid Gold

I suppose if I thought about it for a minute, I would have known that you cannot be in milk unless you can get your cow pregnant. I have learned that being a biologist should have you knowing about all living things including animal and human medicine, forestry, and not last or least, farming. I know this because I have heard the question ‘but aren’t a biologist?’ more times than I can count.

It is true I read some textbooks in university that at the time (and likely for only hours before and during exams), I did memorize some things. It is also true that I spent more than a decade writing technical scientific papers and soon communications or policy documents on wildlife topics but they usually were lacking broader context to put it mildly.

So, yes, I had to think a minute to realize that a cow would only be in milk as long as she has recently calved and her milk has been extracted daily either by her calf or a human or powered milking machine. I also learned a few more things about milking once I had nursed babies of my own but that tale is also for another day. Suffice it to say that I now know that the amount of milk you can expect from a cow is the amount you have demanded regularly for the period following the birth of her calf. What this means, is that every year, more or less, there is a new being in the world so that we can keep demanding milk from this cow.

The dairy industry usually only keeps a cow in production for a period of 2-3 years. A lactating cow is a pretty important thing to have. Most dairy farmers will also try to get as much milk from an animal as possible. This can look like around 30L of milk, per cow, per day (with twice or three times a day milkings).

When we bought our first Jersey cow, she had a 5 month old beef cross calf still drinking from her. This situation was perfect for us. I call this the lazy man’s dairy operation. Basically, we would take milk from the cow whenever we wanted by separating the calf from his mother and leave the other regular milkings to the calf. When it was time to send dear George into the freezer for beef, we began milking once a day and stock piling frozen milk or making yogurt or cheese with any extra.

We were warned by the real dairy farmers that the cow would surely dry up with a once-a-day milking schedule. What happened was that we got around 5 litres a day for a month or two until we decided to let her body (and us) rest a while. This was plenty for us.

When our Lady had a daughter, it was only natural that we wanted to keep her and raise her as as a milking cow. We only have room for 3 or 4 animals in our barn so we continually make careful decisions about who stays and who goes. I had a dream of alternating our milking cows. Each would give birth exactly when the other would need a rest. Once again, I learned something about one's ability to have complete control on a farm.

One fine Sunday in spring, we invited some friends from the city for our first lunch out on the lawn for the year. I called them in the morning to warn them that we would be still available for a visit, but we would have to run down and check on our cow that seemed to be in the beginnings of labour. It was the first baby born on the farm that was coming in the middle of the day. Usually we would meet the calves or foals in the morning after the mother was left to her privacy overnight.

Down I ran repeatedly to the bottom of our pasture some 500m away from our lunch table to find the mother lying on her side, looking strained and uncomfortable. From my experience giving birth, this state seemed about right to me. This was until I saw the afterbirth. I ran back to describe what I saw to Rob in detail to be sure that this was not the makings of a miscarriage or still birth. We were having barbequed George for lunch that day and for some reason my guests did not partake in their piece of meat. I’m not sure I did either.

What we managed to conclude is that the calf came in the night and the coyotes we kept seeing in our pastures had taken the calf away. Having accepted that we lost the calf, we now had to manage her mother who was now increasingly less able to move and her eyes were rolling back in her head. What she had was milk fever which is a condition that causes a kind of paralysis due to an electrolyte imbalance from the birthing process. Jersey cows, especially those that are well fed (read: on the heavy side), were also more prone to this.

We called every vet we knew of but there were none available. There was a serious shortage of large animal vets in our area, despite the number of farm animals needing attention. For this reason, people began to have what they needed on hand and learned the skills to deal with their own emergencies. We were lucky to find a dairy farmer down the road who not only had the needle and the calcium required to treat the cow, but knew how to administer the solution.

Within a few hours, our dear Lady was up and walking about as though nothing had happened. The solution acts as a system recharge enabling the muscles to work normally again. We were not going to lose the mother but we had clearly lost the calf.

The next morning I awoke and as was my habit, walked over to the window overlooking the pastures on my way to the washroom. One, two, three, four, five. One, two, three….four….five! At the time, we had another mother with a calf on her, as well as a second orphan calf who was drinking from this mother. Lady looked healthy as she was strolling around the the pasture. But right next to her was another small being nursing on her udder. “Five” I exclaimed. “Five what?” Rob asked. “Five cows!” Rob told me I must have counted wrong so I counted again. Five. (By the way, the biologically correct term for one’s male cattle is bull calf or steer depending on whether the dangly bits are still intact on the male – the cow is a female, the heifer is the female calf…)

Rob made his way out to the pasture and confirmed that not only did we gain a calf sometime in the night, it was a heifer calf which is always the best possible outcome for someone hoping to expand their herd and secretly hoping they won’t have to start thinking about eating this little long-eyelashed Disney character one day. Like a deer, Lady had obviously hidden her calf somewhere amazingly inconspicuous before falling ill. What was most shocking is that we had combed the entire pasture the day before and had not found a single sign.

Since this episode, we have bought a pregnant cow, sold a cow, lost a pregnant cow, gained a supposedly pregnant cow, gained another non-pregnant cow, managed to breed her and two years later finally ended up with milk again. It took this long to make the stars align where I could once again head out to the barn with my stainless steel bucket and a pail of hot water. Fortunately this timing was probably best in that we had our own baby to feed during this time and all sorts of other demands to attend to off the farm.

Fast forward to yesterday, when I went out to the barn to feed my furry friends and noticed that our bull calf was mounting our girl that we thought was bred two months prior. These activities are usually a sign that the rider or the ridee is ovulating. Given that the rider was a boy, my assumption was that my dear Bonnie was not in fact pregnant. This is not a fun realization for someone who takes great pleasure in getting milk from her own cow.

Just as I hopefully imagined that I wasn’t interpreting the scene correctly, my girl turned to me with the most loving liquid brown eyes and in very slow motion, lifted her 800 pound self up towards the sky preparing to mount…me! I calmly told her to get down, not realizing exactly what was happening, and she backed off before she was able to make herself, um, comfortable on my shoulders. Sure enough, when the local artificial insemination breeder came a while later, he confirmed that she was indeed in heat and bred her again.

If successful, we will see her calf in mid-September. Bonnie is currently our only cow in milk and come January her calf will be leaving for the butcher. It’s always a sad time to see the mother parted from her baby, and to say goodbye, sorry and thank you to a living thing. The only saving grace is that it returns as the gift of food for our family. It will also mean the requirement to milk her regularly or decide to let her dry up and give up the resource. When we have had such trouble getting a pregnant cow to milk, it seems ludicrous to not appreciate what we have.

As cold as it can be in January, I am certain I will find myself out at the barn, perhaps before the light of day has arrived, milking Bonnie for everything she is worth. And to us she is worth nothing less than gold.


  1. Great explanation of the milking process and refreshing to see a healthy respect for our animals and all they provide for us be it meat or milk. Make no mistake all readers!... although there are exceptions to every rule, whether the herd size is 5 or 105 a truly conscientious farmer cares for and respects each and every animal during their lives on the farm. Cows are living breathing moms first and foremost and what they provide is a true gift to us all!

  2. I agree!

    I might say having a small herd can make it more difficult to properly care for your animals - I lack the experience and knowledge that comes from regularly handling many animals.

    Having not grown up in a farming environment, there is so much left to learn including a new found respect for what it takes to get a cow milking (In the past, I might have imagined they all just came that way!)


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