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Lactation and the Let-down Factor in Dexters

There are similarities and stark differences between the Dexter and other breeds of milking cows regarding lactation and the let down response. As with all cattle breeds a healthy lactation is generally 305 days with a 60 day dry off period.

Typically a cow will be pregnant by the time you reach your last milking day and will need to devote her energy and nourishment to the new little one on the way so plan on milking for 305 days or less but

if your cow has not been bred again continue to milk her for as long as you can which could be up to two years or more.

The quantity of milk or rate of lactation for a Dexter is different than with commercial breeds of dairy cows. The amount of milk that you can expect from a Dexter will change during the lactation period depending on how you’re handling her calf. In my experience with separating calves by night at two o

r three weeks old, and then separating by day at two months old (with a healthy two hour socialization time for mom and baby after each nursing session in the milk parlor), there will be a series of lactation stages.

Even though we say a cow may give two or three or 4 gallons a day, this is a bit misleading, because no cow will be giving the same amount of milk consistently throughout the lactation period. These figures may come from an average over the entire lactation period. Like other breeds of dairy cows peak milk production will occur within 4 to 6 weeks after calving. This is your best harvest time. Enjoy it and appreciate it since it does not last!

For the Dexter cow this level will continue to decrease gradually. If your cow is re-bred she will decrease again around one month after conception. This rate then will continue until the calf is weaned at five or six months with variations due to the let-down challenges along the way. Once the calf stops taking half of the milk supply you will see more milk in your milk bucket for a while but this quantity may or may not continue depending on your individual cow and her let-down response. This brings us to the fun and games of trying to get our Dexter cow to let down her milk for us.

The let down process by which a cow will release the milk from her memory tissues occurs when the mammary gland is stimulated. It is an involuntary function, or so they say...but with some smart conniving Dexters, I wonder about how involuntary it really is. I have some clever milkers and I do believe it is their last defense to keep me from getting what I set out to achieve, especially when the calf is weaned and mother is not happy about it.

But let’s assume she is not in control a

nd the let-down is involuntary. Whether it is or not, the fact is a Dexter has a very strong ability to withhold her milk. If you are separating your calf, and meeting up with the calf on the other side of your cow during the milking sessions, you will know exactly what I mean. If you begin milking before the calf gets there, you will be able to take only so much milk and then it will stop flowing. You can try just about anything - message her, singing to her, giving her more treats, and you may get a few more drops, but typically she will tighten that bag right up and hold onto it until her calf gets there.

This is where I part company with those who think let-down is involuntary. I believe it is a survival mechanism to make sure that calf is going to be fed. Once the calf is in the milk parlor and begins to suck, oh my, the dam breaks in there she goes! All the milk she has to give starts flowing until she is emptied out.

If you are hand milking this is a problem because that calf will get to your side before you are able to milk her out. If you are using a bucket milker you will be fine because you can cover both teats on your side of the cow and a calf won’t be able to take it. (By the way, when I milk, I use a machine/pump bucket milker system with a goat set up. Typically 4 inflations (cups) are used for cattle, but because I share one side of the udder with the calf during milking, I use only two inflations)

But when the calf is three or four months old it will not be satisfied with staying on its side of the fence. After that, you will have

to figure out ingenious ways to keep it from sucking from your side. I have done all s

orts of things, but the best idea that worked was to tie the calf on a leash during milking and position her mother so the calf can only reach its side of the cow. The calf may wiggle and jump trying, but it cannot reach the two teats on my side.

So what to do about the let down dilemma? It is not going to be a bother so much while the calf is nursing, because the calf will nudge and push on the udder to release her milk flow. But when the calf is weaned, you are on your own! You can pretend you are a calf and push-up on the udder, nuzzle up to the cow and be very bovine like, but I can tell you right now it won’t get you very far. And this was a big worry for me when I first started milking because I thought the cow would for sure dry up.

Well don’t fear, she will not dry up. What sh

e will do is withhold that milk from you for a few milking sessions until she gets over the weaning woes, and then she will relax and start giving it to you again. But this is one stage where your milk production will decrease. Even though you are getting more because the calf is gone, production will start to decrease overall because she knows that calf is no longer needing to be fed. But keep milking her, even if she is withholding from you. Even when you may only get a small amount, make sure you keep milking her. The stimulus of your milking will ensure that once she relaxes and start letting down again for you, her milk will return. She can’t hold it forever and she won’t. So have faith, and relax. Your relaxation will help her to calm down too.

After weaning and let-down relaxes, you will have a steady quantity of milk up until late lactation. Be aware that this is real life we are dealing with and Dexters are known for their intelligence and ability to outsmart us. Some of them will try every way to resist us if they are so inclined. Be patient with them and make it fun. They know when we are stressed, and when we are happy!

If you decide to remove your calf from the mother immediately after birth (which some people do and which I do not recommend), then you will not run into the let-down issues. But I urge you to consider the welfare of the calf and her mother, their social and health needs, and the need for that calf

to develop in a secure, happy environment. A calf needs a mother, just like a child needs a mother. The first few months of a calf’s life set up the temperament and behavior patterns for life. If you want a healthy happy family cow, the best thing is to let its mother do the mothering, and you take over at weaning. A calf needs to suck, it needs to be licked by its mother. A calf needs to learn how to eat with mother, and needs the security of her bovine influence. I feel very strongly about this, and hope that you will not put the desire for more milk and less hassle over the needs of the herd. A cow carries her calf for nine months. Who are we to take that little one away from her? It is her property until the calf is self-sufficient. The dairy industry does not put a cows needs first, but we can. We can make a difference. We can begin a new dairy model so that people can have respect for the dairy industry again.

It means the whole world to a cow to caress her calf, keep it warm, and communicate with it. When you begin separating your calves for milking, you will see what I mean. The gentle care a Dexter cow gives her calf is exemplified when they part company as they are separated. I have never seen a more humble committed parent, yet one who knows she must leave her offspring. She is obedient to me by leaving the pen, yet she languishes as she leaves. She will tur

n her head to speak her gentle good night to her cat it is a heartbreaking moment, and one that shows me that cattle are far more than a commodity. To separate them at all is difficult, but to pull them apart permanently, before they get a chance to know each other and to bond, in my mind is criminal.

Some breeders may think calves who are bottle-fed become closer companions or better milkers for their new owners. But they are disregarding the dignity of bovine behavior, and their social needs that affect their health and well-being. I would never feel OK about taking milk from a cow that I had caused such suffering. It would not be worth it in the long run to drink that milk. But when calves can stay with their mothers, we are all happy and blessed, cows and people alike! If you give her calf quality time at weaning, and you bond with the calf at that time, the calf will be a healthier adult because of the loving days she has spent with her mother. Enjoy milking and be blessed!

Written by Rose Marie Belforti

Rose has owned and milked Dexters for years. In 2018 Rose retired from commercial cheese making at her Fingerlakes Dexter Creamery in PA and is now raising and milking Dexters for her own personal consumption and enjoyment in Fredricksburg,Texas


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