Cow-Calf Dairying, a Pirate's Code #7

Christine Page


When a lamb or calf suckles, they bunt their mum's udder with their heads to stimulate release of more milk. If you are share-milking, as a calf grows this bunting can quickly become so strong that it can easily knock the cluster off the other three teats. So it's a good idea to progress to milking without the calf suckling before this point. In this post we look at how we do this at Smiling Tree and also have a recap on why we part the cows and calves for their overnight rest and how we do this in the field.

Step 5 Milking without the calf suckling

When to introduce milking without the calf suckling at the same time is a judgement call. While it may take around 2-4 weeks for a heifer, an experienced cow who knows the routine probably won't need her calf by her side at all in the parlour. You know your cows and calves, so you need to judge for yourself the best time to suit all concerned. But the sooner you can start teaching the cow that it’s OK to give her milk without her calf suckling, the easier milking time will become.

When we bring a cow and calf into the parlour for milking, the calf has to wait a minute or two while I wash the cow's udder in preparation for milking. So instead of giving the calf one quarter to suckle straight away, I put the cluster on to just three quarters, saving one for the calf, and start milking. The cow will be into the milking routine by now and the washing of her udder should have already cued the let down process, so even though her calf is not latched on to one quarter, the milk should start to gush out as normal. 

This is where using transparent silicon liners and cluster shells, and / or a clear milk bucket can be very useful indeed. You want to be able to watch the milk gushing from each quarter to see if / when your lovely cow realises her calf is not the stimulus for her milk flowing and if she then decides to put on the brakes.

You will be amazed just how proficiently a cow can turn off the taps if she is not happy! So as soon as you see a slowing of the milk flow, let the calf start suckling on the quarter you have saved for him. Within half a minute, let down should recommence. 

Some cows have no problem at all continuing to have a good let down without the calf suckling. With others, you may need the calf to assist let down or to milk without the calf suckling on alternate days until she gets the hang of it. In no time at all, you’ll be able to bring the cow into the parlour without their calf and they’ll milk no problem.

Recap… the story so far

In our first post we covered why you have much lower yields in a cow-calf dairy: cows preferentially give their milk to their calves, calves can drink a lot and it is only practical to milk once a day.

In our second post we looked at what triggers a cow to let down her milk and in Step 3 of the Smiling Tree Farm system we covered the importance of setting up a routine right from the start and how we help the cow learn to give us her milk by share-milking: suckling her calf at the same time as we milk.

In the third post, we looked at how, unlike a beef cow, a dairy cow has been bred to produce an unnaturally large quantity of milk, significantly more than a calf needs. If the calf had 24hr access to suckle, it could drink too much milk and its early rumen development could be adversely affected. We overcome this by restricting access to suckle to up to 16hrs per day. 

Step 6 Parting in the field

Remember that ‘parting’ is not separation: the cow and calf can see and touch each other, it is just that over night the calf has a barrier to prevent them suckling.

There are four main benefits of parting the cows and calves overnight right from the start:

  1. The calf has a more natural quantity of milk and, thus, better rumen development at the critical early stage in its growth.
  2. The cow and calf settle straight away into a set routine that does not change, thus preventing future stress.
  3. The calf will be hungry at milking time, so can assist the cow to learn to let down by facilitating share-milking
  4. The cow will have a full udder in the morning making that once a day milking worthwhile.

When the calves are young, and during winter months, the cows and calves can be parted over night in adjoining pens, the cows milked in the morning and then reunited with their calves for a day’s grazing before coming back in for the night. 

However, during the grazing season you will get to the stage of having the herd out grazing night and day. So at some point it will become more practical to part the calves into the next field for the night rather than in adjoining pens inside.

We mob-graze all our livestock at Smiling Tree, and having animals electric-fence trained makes parting in the field pretty straight forward. 

One simple way is to tie some baler twine across the gateway, high enough for the calves to run under but too low for the cows, who will think it is electrified. Once the calves are through the gateway, just close the gate or put back two strands of electric fence so the calves stay one side and the cows the other. 

To get them all to the gateway, set up a wide race with some electric fencing that funnels the herd towards it. Use a little food to encourage the cows to come into the race and then quietly walk amongst them to send the calves through. 

If you have followed our Pirate's Code from the start, your calves will already associate seeing you in the evening as their cue to suckle. I usually tie-in the evening parting with another small job, like setting up the next day's grazing break, so I call to the calves on passing to alert them to the evening's impending event and, by the time I return to part them, they have had their drink.

When parting a group of calves in the field, it helps if you can put an older, dry cow with them, or perhaps the dam of one of the calves that, for whatever reason, you are not currently milking. That adult presence gives the calves stability.

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
#7 The Smiling Tree Farm system, STEPS 5&6 (you are here)
#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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