Keeping the Milk Flowing

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Charlotte loving on baby Fern

One of the things that scared us the most about owning milking cows was how were we going to keep getting them pregnant. When we bought our first cow, Charlotte, she was already pregnant. So, we had some time to figure this quandary out. I was surprised to find out that many people don’t know that a cow has to give birth in order to produce milk. This process has to be repeated again and again to keep the milk flowing. Charlotte has already had two calves, first Fern and then Ellee. Both heifers are now of breeding size.

When you own a family farm on 9 acres keeping a bull is not in the equation. Besides, I’ve seen dairy bulls and I’m afraid to own one. They’re huge and often mean. They get meaner as they age, so most go to slaughter after 4-5 years. If they get too big, they can break a cow’s pelvis, that’s usually a ticket to the slaughterhouse too. Besides it wouldn’t be cost effective.

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Gene, Ellee’s papa

One option, is to find a bull and take your cows to him, what is called a Live Cover or Natural Breeding. Big Island, but not big enough for a lot of dairy bulls, especially the breed and characteristics that you want. Oh, and there is such a thing as beef bulls and dairy bulls. You could impregnate your dairy cow with a beef bull and you might get a not-so-good milker or a not-so-good steak, plus the calf wouldn’t be worth as much if you wanted to sell. However, you’d get the same amount and quality of milk from your cow.

Fern had a Live Cover once, February 6th, 2012, we brought her home and proceeded to think she was pregnant for 11 months. The gestation period of a cow is 10 month but we left some room for possibilities. After all Fern didn’t seem to be going into heat, her utter was growing and she got bigger – which turned out to just be fatter. If you do a Live Cover expect to pay for bull fees and transportation costs. This time it was $150 for the bull and $100 for the transportation. There is nothing more disappointing than to expect a calf, and to find out your cow was never pregnant.

Lucky for us, option two, there’s AI or artificial insemination. It actually sounds a lot easier than it is. Fern had two unsuccessful AIs, before we took her to a bull. On the other hand, we’ve gotten good results using AI with Charlotte.

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Fern getting her CIDR implant

Fern is currently being prepared for her AI, which is a ten day program. She has received her  CIDR (Controlled Internal Drug Release) implant.  CIDR is a big plastic T shaped device that is intravaginally inserted for 7 days. It will slowly release progesterone to her ovaries in order to synchronize her estrus (cycle). The best thing it does is give you a window to the time she should receive sperm to optimize pregnancy.

On the sixth day, a shot of PGF(TM) is given intramuscularly. This allows for regression of the corpus luteum, follicle development, estrus and ovulation. Basically, by using these drugs one is helping the cow to ovulate and maintain pregnancy.

I’ve given dogs, sheep and goats shots before and they calmly stand there and receive it. Naturally, I thought a cow would too. For such a large animal, they can’t stand a needle. We have to put them in the stanchion and lock their head in. You have to give the shot in their neck muscle. I have yet to do this slowly as they carry on so much that I barely get to test for whether I’ve hit a vein or artery before I inject. I really would like to see a professional give a cow a shot.

After seven days, I pull on the plastic string and out comes the CIDR implant from her vagina. This takes seconds but this also involves getting her into the stanchion. The next three days, will be the time Fern goes into estrus and will need to be inseminated.

We look for a standing heat during this time. This is where another cow/heifer will mount Fern and Fern stands firmly in place and lets her mount, ergo standing heat. This last for 18-20 hours. Then Fern will ovulate within 12-18 hours after estrus.

When we’ve determine that she is ready to be inseminated, we call the AI technician, who is on call. He arrives with a liquid nitrogen tank of sperm straws. An AI tech will charge anywhere from $125 to $180 depending on supplies and travel costs.

We belong to a cow group which are cow owners with one to three family cows. We collectively share the cost of maintaining the tank and the liquid nitrogen fees. In addition, we organize group purchases of sperm (which come in straws) from the mainland and share in the shipping costs. The yearly fee for the tank is $75. Straws can vary depending on breed, bull and farm. I recently bought 5 straws at $50 each (and got one free for a total of 6) from a farm in Maine. The cost to ship them in liquid nitrogen over night can cost hundreds of dollars depending on shipping departure and destination. Being in a cow group sharing shipping costs and the cost of liquid nitrogen helps make AI more affordable to each member.

Once the AI tech arrives, he will warm up the straw(s) in temperature controlled water and put them in a long stainless steel plunger that will be inserted in her vagina and with his other arm in her anus guides the plunger into her cervix and release the sperm. There are two ovaries, so 1/2 of the straw goes to one and the other 1/2 to the other. Often, one straw each for a total of two straws are used.

Next, you wait to see if she goes into another estrus which will be on the average 18 days. If she shows signs of going into full on heat, the whole AI process happens again but not the CIDR. Sometimes, she will show signs of going in heat but she still might be pregnant. If you wanted to be frugal, you could wait until the next cycle and see if she goes into estrus. There are also blood tests that can be done to determine a pregnancy and I have yet to do that but am considering learning just to be sure.

Charlotte was AI’d in January so in 10 months, around October, she will give birth to a calf. If Fern gets pregnant this go around, she will give birth at the beginning of next year. In addition, Ellee will also be AI’d after Fern. Most cow owners want heifers but prepare themselves for bull calves. On our farm, we always refer to their fetus as a she. It always helps to be clear about your intentions.

Once you know and understand the process of getting your cow(s) pregnant and hooking  up with a good cow group, the fear of having your cow impregnated and keeping the milk flowing goes away. Cow ownership can be very rewarding.  Besides the 3 gallons a day we get from Charlotte, we also make butter, buttermilk, yogurt, cheese, whey, and kefir. I think it’s fair to warn you, dear reader, that once you own a cow, you will always want to own one.

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Keeping the Milk Flowing

  1. This is super interesting, I’ve never thought about the process of getting a cow to produce milk before, what a process! Does the cow start producing milk soon after she becomes pregnant, or does it start when she gives birth? How long after giving birth will she produce milk, and will any of that be available for use since she has a baby calf to feed?

    • Hi Sam, It starts when she gives birth. In fact, Charlotte was so overburdened with milk the last time she was dripping milk before the calf was strong enough to stand and suckle. The how long depends on many variables. Charlotte gave birth 16 or so months ago and she is still giving us 2.5-3 gallons a day. This is a longer lactation (before birthing again) than we’d like but it took two attempts to AI her and they were a part by one estrus cycle. Also, she will provide more milk provided the demand is there. For instance, you get more milk if you milk twice a day than if you only milk once a day. Eventually, the milk starts tapering off. When you get such a small amount, then usually you figure it’s not worth the effort and stop milking…which I have done with goats. For instance, Clover, our doe, gave 1 gallon a day and 10 months later when I was only getting a pint, I stopped milking her. When a cow has a calf, we usually take only half. They produce far too much milk for one calf to drink. In fact, it can be dangerous to the calf to drink too much. Cows have been selectively bred for higher milk production. The weaning process, for us, takes about 6 months to completely stop, but the calf must be separated from the cow or she will try and suckle. They stay within sight of each other for their comfort. Weaning processes vary depending on sex of the calf and intended purpose for the calf.

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