Cow-Calf Dairying, a Pirate's Code #6

Christine Page


I have found that the first few days after a heifer has calved are critical when it comes to creating a positive association with feeding her calf and being milked by machine. 

In this post we look at laying the foundation so that each morning can you look forward to going out to milk a happy, relaxed cow, and not dread it worrying if she will 'let down' her milk or kick you out of the parlour!

Step 3 Long-duration suckling / Share-milking

It is quite natural for a cow to instinctively want to give her milk only to her calf. So your challenge is to set up a routine that creates the same positive experience when you milk her as when her calf suckles, so that she is comfortable with both.

As covered earlier in Part Two of this series, the release of her milk, ‘let down’, is reliant upon the hormone oxytocin, the release of which is triggered by nerve impulses in the brain of the cow only when she receives a suitable positive stimulus that she associates with letting her milk down. In other words, she only lets her milk down when she wants to! So, when training a heifer, after that first milking, when she will often reflexively let down her milk, I start straight away with the future routine to help her create that positive association with milking. 

I use sheep hurdles to make a second pen (the ‘calf pen’) inside the pen where the cow and calf are. Last thing at night before bed, I go out and put the calf inside the calf pen. First, however, I encourage the calf to suckle by putting him up to his mum’s teat and squeezing some milk onto his nose. Once he’s got a full belly he can go in his pen next to his mum. The cow can see and lick her calf, which means she does not get distressed at all. It is imperative that there is fresh water and hay in the calf pen, even from day one. 

I get up early next morning, so the calf is penned for no more than 8hrs. I tie the cow up with her head next to the calf pen, so she can still see her calf. I give her food, clean her for milking and then let her calf out of the pen. The calf is, of course, hungry so I guide him to a front teat on one side. From the cow’s other side, I attach the cluster and milk the other three quarters of her udder while the calf is suckling. 

This process of sharing: I milk while the calf suckles, share-milking, works like a dream. The cow is quite happy while her calf is suckling and soon associates the cleaning of her udder and the noise of the milking machine with the let down reflex. After morning milking the calf is left with the cow all day for what I call long-duration suckling

Apart from the benefits previously discussed of a more natural rumen development, I have found over the years that setting up the routine of putting the calf in a pen next to his mum right from the start has by far the best outcomes for keeping both cow and calf happy.

Once a cow has learned this system, from her second calving on you should be able to leave the calf with the cow 24/7 for the first few weeks and still get a good let down in the parlour. However, once the calves get to around 8 weeks old, when they are capable of consuming large quantities of milk, far more than is good for them, there is a strong chance the cow will soon be coming into the parlour with a nearly empty udder. So at some point, dependent on each cow-calf pair, you need to consider going back to limiting over-night nursing, with long-duration suckling as described above. 

Step 4 Subsequent milkings

Again, using your judgement to take account of the needs of the cow and calf. Generally, from the third milking onwards I will take both cow and calf into the parlour to share-milk in exactly the way they are used to, the calf suckling one quarter while I milk the other three. Setting up your milking parlour to facilitate this is important – and will be the topic of another blog in this series! 

Cows are very much creatures of habit and once they’ve learned a routine they quickly adapt to it. They know exactly what’s going to happen when I come out at night to put the calf in the calf pen next to his mum. As I always encourage the calf to suckle before I pen it, my arrival becomes the trigger to suckle, which of course is a feel good factor for both cow and calf. 

You’ll notice throughout that I am constantly striving for a positive interaction with both the cow and calf, such that my presence and intervention are a positive stimulus. 

You can see an example of share-milking in our short 8 minute film on YouTube here.

In our next post we look at milking without the calf suckling and the logistics of parting the cows and calves in the field. 

Note: this blog has been updated in August 2018.

More in this series on Cow-Calf Dairying:
#1 Why conventional dairy cows don’t keep their calves
#2 Milk synthesis & let down
#3 Rumen development
​#4 Udder development
#5 The Smiling Tree Farm system, STEPS 1&2
#6 The Smiling Tree Farm system, STEPS 3&4 (you are here)
#7 The Smiling Tree Farm system, STEPS 5&6
#8 The Smiling Tree Farm system, STEPS 7&8

Need more help? If, having read through the Pirate's Code series you have further questions and would like more help, or you would like to keep in touch with other like-minded ethical dairy producers, why not join our small discussion forum for those wishing to practice low-impact, small-scale, high-welfare dairying aimed at both backyard house cow owners and micro-dairies. Join here

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