Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Raising a Family Milk Cow Series, Pt. 3: How to Train a Heifer or Cow to Stand for Milking

     So, you have a young heifer, or a cow which has never been milked before, and want her to be your family milk cow. You grab a bucket and head out to the barn to do some milking, and, lo and behold! she kicks you over and tries to break out of the stanchion the second you touch her udder.  What went wrong?

     Well, the answer is that you have to train a cow to be milked.  This is especially important for a first freshener as she will not be used at all to having her udder touched, and may even react to her own calf.  (When Blossom first calved, we had to put her in a headlock and hang on for dear life before she would let her calf nurse.  Now any calf that has the brains to try can get a free snack from her anytime they want!)
     The difficulty level of training a milk cow depends on the cow's individual temperament and your level of patience and firmness.  Each cow is different, but some breeds are much easier to train than others.  The only cows I really have personal experience with are Jerseys, which are generally docile and easily trained.  The most dramatic example is probably the cow a relative (henceforth referred to as Cousin Frank) bought and wanted to train for milking:  she was a big, black Jersey and almost as wild as a deer.  The first time I handled her was when we got a rope on her and I helped Cousin Frank hold onto her. Now, Cousin Frank is pretty capable of handling a large animal, but even he had trouble with this creature, and when one of us, I forget which, let go of the rope to try to get a halter on her, she pulled loose and took off, without either of us having a chance to stop her.  Eventually though, they got her caught, haltered, and penned in a smaller area.  Kindness, frequent handling, and food did the rest, and in just a couple of months she was a staid, gentle milker.
    I have heard that other breeds, such as Holsteins and Dexters, are much more difficult to train, and one Jersey/ Guernsey/ Holstein cow that we milked for a while was a bit of a pain.  We were taking care of her for some friends, and for a while only my brother, Evan, could milk her because she was such a pain to get secured in the stanchion, and had a bad habit of kicking.  Eventually he figured out that singing helped calm her, so he sang to her while he milked.  (Not only did Her Majesty like to be sung to, but she had a favorite song - The Lily of the Valley - so Evan nearly sang himself hoarse just trying to milk her.)

     Now, to get down to the actual method of training.

     Before you get started, there is a major point you must understand before you ever touch your cow:  You are the boss.  You have to be the one in charge, and she has to know it.  You don't have to be mean or aggressive to get this point across, but always push her out of your space if she gets too close, and always do your level best to make her comply with whatever you are asking her to do.  If you are the boss, you can keep yourself and her safe; if she is always trying to take charge, she can get you both into a pile of trouble.

     In the first place, it helps a lot if you handle your heifers a lot when they are very young, preferably from day one.  I like to get them really calm about being touched and rubbed all over their whole body, picking up all their feet, and leading well by the time they are three or four months old.  (Tethering them away from the other cows helps a lot with this, but that's another discussion for another post.)

    If you are trying to do this with a larger cow, tethering may still be helpful, but a small pen works almost as well.  Give the cow some kind of feed that she really likes (we use alfalfa hay) and while she is eating, begin handling her.  If she is wild, she will try to escape at this point, but probably will still want the food.  If she's extremely wild, just get her to let you stand in the pen a few feet away from her while she eats, then work up to touching her while she's eating.  If she moves away, follow her, keeping a hand on her if possible (this is why it's good to have her tied up).  When she stops trying to get away, remove your hand for a few moments, then put it back and rub her again.  When she stops reacting, again remove it, then put it back and wait for her to stop reacting again.  Keep repeating this until the light turns on in her brain and she realizes that the way to get you to remove your hand, is for her to stand still.  Pretty soon she will realize that you aren't hurting her, and hopefully she will go back to eating.  Only allow her to have that treat if she allows you to keep a hand on her.  Rub her neck and back, and scratch her chin and throat - these are itchy areas that cows usually love to have rubbed.
     Don't stretch the handling session out too long, but make it long enough to make an impression on her.  Remember, cows aren't real bright animals, so it may take a while for her to get the point, but keep working and she will learn.

    When you can handle your cow without getting a dramatic reaction, get her into the stanchion.  Some cows can be led in with food; some have to be roped and dragged in, then fed.  Let her figure out that she's not going to be able to break out of the stanchion, then rub her all over and feed her some really, extra, super, special treat.  Begin feeding her only in the stanchion (supplementary feed, I mean; of course you should not limit her access to grass or hay).

     Now begin handling her udder.  This is where you are most likely to get hurt - cows can kick hard, fast, and with amazing precision.  You may want to tie her leg back.  Personally, I prefer to just watch her carefully and react quickly to any move she makes, but you certainly don't want to get a hoof in the face.  I don't like tying the leg back for training because I think it just adds one more stress to an already stressed animal, but it is definitely not cruel or unwise to tie the leg, as long as you don't crank it back so far that she's uncomfortable.  A good rule of thumb for tying the leg back is that if you can easily see both the front and back teats, when you are standing exactly in line with the center of the udder, you probably have tied her leg too far back.  You should be able to just barely see the back teat but easily reach it, when the leg is in the proper position.

     When you touch her udder, the natural reaction is for her to kick, if she's not already used to you handling it.  If her leg is not tied, keep your eye on her feet, not your hands.  If she shifts her weight to the foot furthest away from you, she is thinking about kicking, and if you watch closely, you can get out of the way as soon as she begins to pick up the near foot to kick.  Stand well to one side and near the cow's belly, then carefully and gently, but firmly, reach under and touch her udder.  If possible, keep your hand in place on the udder while she's kicking, and remove it when she stops.  If necessary for safety, doge the kick and immediately reach under again.  Don't back down at this point unless either you or the cow is in personal danger.  You want her to learn that kicking does not make you take your hand away, and that you aren't hurting her.
     The second she stops kicking, remove your hand and rub her, speaking soothingly to her, then repeat the process.  Try to get her to the point that she keeps eating while you handle her udder, and doesn't try to kick your head off the whole time.  And definitely make her let you touch her without kicking right before you end the lesson!  Always end on a good note, if at all possible.

    When she lets you touch her udder without too much kicking, begin washing her with warm water, and drying her off.  This should be a pretty easy transition from handling the udder, but some cows don't appreciate it at first.  Gradually proceed to milking her, squeezing each teat individually.  Get her used to both milking (squeezing) and stripping, or pinching the teat between your forefinger and thumb and sliding down to express the milk.

     Get her used to clattering milk buckets, and bumping on the legs and belly.  Make her position her foot properly, and hold that position.  And through it all, keep feeding her a tasty treat!

     Before long, she will figure out that milking really isn't that bad, and when she freshens and is ready to be milked, the work is already done and she can settle into a simple milking routine without too much fuss or flurry.  Eventually you may be able to milk her without even tying her up, or by just looping a rope around her neck and dropping it over the fence.  Patience, perseverance, and food can work wonders with even the wildest cow!

     In the video below, I show this method in action.  The heifer I am training is Pansy, and I handled her a lot as a young calf, therefor she does not react dramatically to the training, but the basic principles are shown.  Enjoy, and stay safe training your Family Milk Cow.