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Transitioning An Older Cow To A "Family Milk Cow"

Spirit Grove Farm - by Tammy Marr

Photo by Dusan Smetana Photography

Ella is 5 years old and has never been milked. She was not a pet.  Ella was a well kept girl who had just not been acquainted at all with the life of a dairy cow.

My first step in such a case is just to acquaint them to the parlor. I feel that especially with an older girl it takes a little preparation and patience to transition her into a ‘ milk cow ‘ and maintain the trust and stress  free environment I demand.

I introduce slowly, step by step and begin the morning after they arrive.

Step 1 : Just get her to come in the milking stanchion on her own for some grain. Eventually, the draw and promise of the grain will prove too much and she will come in. Give it a day or two.

Step 2: Just let her enjoy her grain, undisturbed, head gate open or untied if you are using a halter. At this point, I call it a successful day even if it’s morning.  I never want to overload them and have to start from square one because i freaked them out and she went back to refusing to come in.

Step 3 : close the head catch or secure your lead if using halter. If the cow is calm, move to step 4. Ella was not calm. She needed to work through the idea of the head catch. It is really important that they work through and relax completely ( ie..eating grain again ) before releasing them and that this is ALL they are dealing with at this stage. If you release a cow while she is struggling, it is tantamount to telling her that if she fights, she will break free. Never release a cow while she is struggling unless it is a matter of her safety.

I like them to realize that being restrained does not equate to something unpleasant in the parlor. Restraint usually equals some form of care or vetting a cow is not fond of. My opinion is that a 5 year old cow who has never experienced milking before is going to have a much harder time psychologically absorbing what is going on and will have a higher level of stress and/or fear than a heifer who has not had as many life experiences. That is why I prefer to acquaint them slowly and with respect to their feelings at this age.

Step 4: Handle her while in head catch or while secured with lead.

Most cows have been on pasture and are not accustomed to being handled.  The simple act of handling a cow extensively such as is required with milking is very stressful and alien to them.  I start by scratching her head and face gently as she is eating.  If she pulls away,  do the same and reintroduce the petting when she turns her attention back to the grain. Touching her face accomplishes two things: it introduces her to your touch in a direct manner and it gets her used to being in close proximity with you.

As she assimilates to accepting that touch, I move to her back and run my hand lightly along her spine and ribs, talking gentle reassurances as I do.  Again, pulling away if she shows signs of stress.  It may take two or three sessions of this to get to the point where you can handle her without complaint or fear.

*DO NOT stand directly behind or in the line of side swipes from her hooves as you handle her if she is not accustomed to touch as you move through this process*

I DO NOT touch her udder at this point.  That may earn you a swift and dangerous kick at this early stage.   It is my belief through research and observation that the udder is the most personal place one can touch a cow after she calves.  I reserve that touch for when I actually intend to milk her.  That’s an ALL IN touch in the bovine world.

Lastly in introducing touch, I open the stanchion or release her tie off once she is comfortable with my petting (and before she finishes her grain) and continue to run my hand across her back.  There will be times in milking your new cow that you must handle them without restraint.  I don’t want them to think the only time they will be touched is when they have no choice in the matter.  Not all dairy cows are ‘ pets ‘, even on the smallest of farms.  I also make it a point to pat her backside and give her a ” good girl ” each time she leaves the parlor.  For safety’s sake, always walk out to one side or the other of your cow, never directly behind her.

Step 5 : introducing any further restraint or kick stop you intend to employ.

( I no longer use restraints unless I have a freaky natured or dangerous tempered  cow on my hands, but did with every first milker when I was new to training to keep myself safe until I was comfortable with the process. )

Always secure your cow first.

If you intend to use a kick stop bar or additional restraint to the head catch, this is the time to employ that introduction.  Do your measurements with the bar using the holes on the outsides of the apparatus prior to putting on the cow after she is in the stanchion by holding beside her.

Most have push button adjusting holes on the top and bottom to fit perfectly under the skin around the  cow’s lower flank and over the cow’s spine at the hip area.   The bar should fit snug enough not to slide much and fall off, but not too tightly to be uncomfortable or pinch and pull.  I have made the mistake of having it too loose and had it fall on my head as I put on the milking head of the machine.  It’s heavy metal.  It hurts if it hits your head and leaves a goose egg.

There are two basic types of anti -kick devices on the general market: an adjustable one -sided bar and a two-sided pincher style.    Choose the one that best suits your needs.  I find that the two-sided devices do not fit the smaller stature cows well as they are designed with larger bovines in mind and although they are adjustable, the arch does not sit well on the smaller cows.  The ‘ pincher ‘ type design sits better on standard sized cows, but is hard to manipulate with my small hands and arthritis.  I use the single sided, adjustable kick stop.

The two most important things to remember when using an anti-kick device of any kind on your cow are as follows:  ALWAYS  remove the device   BEFORE you release the cow .  

Serious and often irreversible injury occurs when a cow is set out with the device in place and begins to jump around and flail when she cannot properly move around in it. Secondly, always adjust the kick-stop device properly to your cow for safety and comfort–yours and the cow’s. If too tight, it can disrupt circulation to the cow’s leg or udder, if too loose it can create a situation where you or the cow may become injured by the tool.

So, for this step, just get your girl secured and employ the kick devise. Handle her gently and talk to her.  Let her eat her grain.  Remove the kick device first, then release her.

I leave it at that for the day but usually try to do it both milking times; getting accustomed to restraints is a lot to bear.

Step 6 : The sounds of the parlor

The next time I bring her in I have the milk machine ready to turn on whether i am milking anyone else of not.  It is sitting in it’s proper place so she sees it when she comes to the entry way.   Usually, this will be enough to stop a cow in her tracks.  It is a new object in her sight.  She may back away, approach it with caution and sniff it before deciding to come in.  She may even decide not to come in.  Sometimes seeing a new thing in the parlor is a deal breaker even for a seasoned cow.  Be patient.  If necessary, show her a scoop of grain and start coaxing her in again just like in the beginning.  If she doesn’t come in the time you need her to, close the door and come back later just like before.  She’ll come eventually.

If you don’t use a machine, put out your stool, your wagon, whatever you use in your milking chores that would normally be in or near your parlor in it’s designated place.  While she is in the stanchion move about the parlor making the usual movements and noise you would create while going through the motions.  It is not necessary to exaggerate these noises or movements, to acquaint her with the normal activities of milking time is the goal.

Once in the stanchion, go through your necessary steps to prepare her and make her ( and you ) comfortable and safe because this time you will turn on the machine.  The noise of the machine sends some cows into convulsions.  Some don’t care at all.  If she doesn’t seem to mind the machine, go to step 6.

Step 6 : Hand milk your cow

I recommend hand milking your older cow the first time whether you intend to use a machine or not.  This helps her transition to a family dairy cow more easily by introducing the idea of being milked from a gentler perspective. If you are using restraints, make sure they are secure.  Make certain your cow has sufficient grain in her stanchion.  

Get your bucket and udder supplies. Gently run your hand down the cow’s side to the udder and let her know your intention.  Clean the udder.  Begin to hand milk your cow.  Do this while being as quiet and subtle with your movements as possible , praising her if you like.    The idea is not to fully milk her out this first go , but to get her used to having her udder manipulated and hearing the machine at the same time.   If she tolerates the milking process well, go ahead and milk her out.  If she is thoroughly resistant, I milk her with frequent breaks as needed for her safety and mine for a short period of time. After I have milked the first time if she’s calm ( always wait for her to settle before moving on)  I remove all restraints, turn the machine off , pet her a bit , then release her, allowing her to finish her grain unrestrained and in peace.

*If she takes to being milked by hand well, the next time you milk introduce your machine if you intend to use one–even if it is the same day; If you hand milk in the morning and normally do an afternoon milking, use the machine in the afternoon.*

I always walk out with my cow until they know the routine, even though the parlor has a corral that  leads right out to the cow yards. It  reinforces the idea that I am leading the show and that I have their best interests at heart and will always return them to the herd.

Step 7: Use your machine or fully milk your cow.

Go through your necessary steps  to secure and prepare your cow for milking.

Once ready, turn on your machine or get to milking.  I find that doing this without hesitation or explanation at this stage is the best way.  She has already been introduced to all the different aspects and is familiar with all of the components of being milked and every sight and sound and sensation that it entails aside from having a machine put on her.  If you’re using a machine , the only way to introduce that milking head is to go ‘ all in ‘ and put it on her.  She likely won’t appreciate it, but my experience has been that the comfort you have provided by preparing her mind for all that is going on aside from that one experience will temper her reaction and recovery time.  With this particular girl, the mental preparation I afforded her through this gentle introduction combined with her accepting nature made it a very stress free procedure for both of us.  

By day four into her training and the fifth day of her residency here Ella is now a fully trained and contented ‘ family milk cow ‘ in about 80 minutes total time invested:  10 minutes or less twice daily for 4 days.

The differences in training an older cow and a first freshener for me would be subtle:

  •  I would introduce the first freshener to being comfortable being near or better yet in the parlor through the last stages of her pregnancy when the opportunity presented itself–ie…she was near the parlor door, or I had the time to coax her in.

  • I would go through as many of the steps as possible while she ate a tiny bit of grain each time she progressed through one, moving to the next: including working my way up to handling her udder and eventually even cleaning it.

  • I would milk her out completely  her first post-calving time by hand and even possibly, if she fully accepted the hand milking, switch to machine during the first milking.

A first freshener under my training will have a lot of time in the parlor under her belt  already in small intervals and would, therefore, fly through most of the latter steps of her post-calving training fairly quickly without much incident.  There are exceptions to the rule; I had one spoiled rotten heifer who was very comfortable in the parlor / stanchion and with being handled but  was determined to take my head off no matter what when it came to having the machine applied.  Her training to the machine ended up taking a couple of weeks although she was 100% accepting of hand-milking.  I’ve seen that happen with  ‘ cold trained ‘ heifers as well  and with much more frequency.  Indeed, it is only logical that a cow  unfamiliar with the goings-on is more likely to have extended periods of resistance and stress, which has led me to devote myself to the gentler way of training.   It is to the individual bovine how the training will progress, but if one removes most of the fear and stress factors from the cow herself, it stands to reason that it will only go more smoothly for both farmer and cow.

It is important to realize that there will almost always be some degree of resistance as your cow adjusts to the idea of each step.  Learning the difference between normal resistance and high level fear / stress is key. Below are a few examples.

* When my cow is working through the normal indicators of adjustment to a process, I step back and let her deal with it as long as she progresses towards settling down *

Normal signs of resistance in the parlor:

  • shifting weight in stanchion

  • pulling back with moderate force and twisting head against head latch in stanchion

  • kicking at hand with back hooves when touching udder

  • swishing tail

  • occasional low-tone moos

  • looking around / trying to turn around

  • moving head up and down in head catch / against tie-off

  • smacking you with tail

  • stomping feet

  • temporary bucking  ( brief and occasional )

  • twisting head in stanchion

Abnormal signs of stress:

  • loud continual mooing

  • coughing or strangling sounds

  •  drooling / foaming

  • sustained head thrashing against head latch ( lasts for more than 10 seconds is a good rule of thumb)

  • trying to fall on floor

  • twisting her entire body in attempts to get free

  • ongoing bucking

  • lack of focus ( wild eyed, horrified look )

  • quivering and shaking

When I see any of these indications that the session has gone bad, I end the training.  NEVER attempt to release a cow that is in a panic state !!! Always wait for her to settle  !! Attempting to release her while she is in such a state could result in serious injuries to yourself or your cow !!!  ( the only time I release a bovine in a dangerous state of mind is when she is in mortal danger: she has become entrapped or such and is at risk of serious injury.)  

Releasing her in a panicked state of mind also ends your session on a poor note.  You want her to know that when she is calm and  cooperative, she will be released and that her time in the parlor ended well.  Before resorting to releasing her, attempt to settle her by removing what set her off if possible.  Also offer her comfort in the form of assurances and a favorite treat.  Redirect her mind if possible.

Ella, this former pasture girl began to wait for me at the parlor gate when she saw me coming the very week she started her training.  It took me only a few days  days to train this girl in a completely stress-free way.  She was sold to me as a cow who had always delivered on pasture and had not been handled.  She now views the parlor as a place of peace and comfort, where she will receive grain and relief from her heavy udder.  If training is done with patience,   it will be for your girls too.

Resources: ( I could not possibly list all of my resources for this model, but these are a solid few )

  • Understanding animal stress helps improve production efficiency (The Scientists tell me)  by Marilyn Brown

  • Keeping a family cow  by   Joann S. Grohman

  • Behavioral Principals of Livestock Handling by Temple Grandin

  • Animals Make us human by Temple Grandin

  • Temple Grandin : How the girl who loved cows embraced autism and changed the world by Sy Montgomery

  • Why and How to read a cow or bull : *( brief but good observation of bovine body language )*

  • Using behaviour to assess animal welfare ( MS Dawkins 2004 )

  •  The Behaviour of Cattle by  J. L. Albright

  •  Principles of Psychology by Marc Breedlove


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