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Lazy J5 Dexters (Debbie Davis)
Milking Dexters

©Copyright 2005 by Debbie Davis, all rights reserved may not be reprinted or copied without permission of the author.

Pictures of the milking stanchion and barn layout can be found at the bottom of this page.
 

Milking Dexters
How to Have a Milk Cow and A Life
By Debbie Davis

 
          In the fall of 2004, I was asked to give a presentation on milking Dexters for the Region 4 Meeting.  As there is much information widely available about traditional dairying and dairy breeds, I thought it would be fun to share information on "part-time" milking.  I hope you'll give it a try.

To Milk or Not to Milk, That is the Question
          A family milk cow is a wonderful thing, she provides a delicious, nutritious food for the family.  Her calf is great fun and milking is an enjoyable experience.  Until you want to go somewhere and no one is available to milk your cow.  You can't even go somewhere overnight.  The fun just ended.  The family milk cow is a twice a day chore for 300 days of the year.  But, not necessarily.  I milk my Dexter cow just a couple times a week, sometimes more and sometimes less, depending on how much milk we need. 
 
Dexter, Jerseys, and Holsteins, Oh My!
          Before beginning any milking program, you need to determine how much milk you need.  A good Dexter will supply a small family with milk for the table and the usual butter, cheese and ice cream projects.  However, if you have a very large family, or wish to make lots of cheese or other milk products, you may need more than one Dexter or a more traditional dairy breed.  The Dexter is a small dual purpose breed, designed to produce moderate amounts of both beef and milk.  She was not bred to milk like a Jersey, so don't expect her to.  Dexters are not as widely used as milker in the US, as they are in some other countries, and have not been selectively bred for dairying.  But, for most families' needs, a Dexter will fit the bill nicely.

The Facts, Ma'am, Just the Facts
          The ADCA states that Dexters give, on average, 1½ to 2 gallons a day and some cows give more, up to 5 gallons a day.  In the UK and other countries where more cows are milked and dairy records are kept, Dexters are reported to give more milk per pound of body weight than any other breed.  The milk has a high butterfat content, right up there with Jerseys, 4 to 6 percent.

My, What a Big Udder You Have
          You have determined the Dexter to be the right breed for you.  Now, you need to find a good milk cow prospect.  This is obviously a much more simple process with adult cows in milk.  If you are buying a heifer, see what her dam's udder looks like and more importantly, the udder of her sire's dam.  Heifers usually have udder very similar to that of their paternal grandmothers.  Use the same guidelines for Dexters as in other dairy breeds when judging udders.  Look for medium sized, well balanced udders.  Very large udders are often pendulous and subject to injury.  The udder should be well attached (high and wide at the rear, well forward and wide at the front).  It should not break away from the body of the animal.  Look for a properly shaped udder, with front and rear quarters close to the same size.  For the rear quarters to be somewhat larger is normal, but you want to avoid cows with very light forequarters.  The teats should be well placed and close to the same size, and not too large or too small.  It is common for the front teats to be longer and larger than the rear, this is ok, but you don't want the rear teats so small you can't grasp them.  You want them to be as uniform as possible (see the udder pictures on the Family Cow page). 

Turn Your Head and Cough
          Before your cow freshens (gives birth), have your veterinarian give her a thorough check up.  In addition, have her tested to Tuberculosis, Brucellosis, and Johne's Disease.  These tests are cheap insurance against a potential catastrophe.  Also, use only vaccines, wormers, pesticides and other medications that are approved for lactating dairy cows.

Training Camp
          Begin training your cow well in advance of freshening.  It will make your life and hers much easier.  How much training is required depends on each individual cow.  If she's a heifer you've raised, that loves to be petted and follows you around, more than half the training is done.  If she's an adult cow that hasn't been handled, there's much more to do.  Give yourself at least a couple of months training time.  Halter training is a great convenience, but not necessary, unless you will be milking your cow while she is tied up.  With the unhandled cow, begin by feeding her grain or some other treat, and find her flight zone.  Stand as close to her as you can, without her running away.  work your way closer to her, over several days.  Just stand quietly and let her eat, and talk to her.  She will let you get closer and closer.  I like to use a cane or show stick and begin to gently rub her back and shoulders with it.  She will likely run at first, but will come right back to the food.  The show stick allow you to begin touching her, but you're not crowding her, either.  When she allows this, slowly and gently run the show stick along her belly, flanks, legs and udder.  Go slow and work quietly.  Talk to her.  Don't lose your patience.  If you threaten or frighten her, you will have to start over, and she won't trust you.  Once your cow is comfortable with the show stick, work your way up to rubbing her with your hands.  At this stage, the training usually goes very quickly.  Once a cow learns how good a brushing feels, you are most of the way there.  As you are brushing her,  pay special attention to the belly, flanks, hind legs and udder.  She needs to be completely comfortable with handling in this area.  When you can handle the cow all over, she is ready to begin training for milking.

Her Stanchion in Life
          Before furthering your cow's training, you need to determine where she will be milked.  Some people tie the cow up to milk, many use a head catch of some kind and some can milk with the cow loose in her pasture.  I use a stanchion that my husband built for me.  It elevates the cow about six inches, this is really helpful when it comes to milking those short Dexters!  The stanchion is constructed of round, smooth pipe with no sharp edges.  The back side is solid plywood and the front side has a pipe running full length.  This pipe prevents the cow from stepping over sideways onto me.  There is a head catch and a manger at the front.  Wherever you choose to milk make sure the cow is secure, so she can't hurt you or herself.  A cow that is being milked for the first time will most likely be nervous and scared.  Pick a nice quiet place where she feels safe.  Noisy kids, dogs and other scary things will only frighten her more.
          These pictures show the head catch in my stanchion in the open and closed positions.  A light tug on the rope at left lifts the small piece of angle iron, quickly and easily releasing the catch.

Practice Makes Perfect
          One your have a place set up to milk your cow, begin training her to it.  I start by placing a bit of grain at the entry of the stanchion.  Every day I move it forward until the cow is eating from the manger.  I feed her from the manger fro a few days with the head catch open.  I want her to feel safe and be eager to come into the stanchion.  If I trap her right away with the head catch, then I have to start over, as she no longer want to be in the stanchion.  Brush the cow and talk quietly to her while she is eating.  She will quickly learn it ok to have the head catch closed and that she cannot escape.  Sit next to her and handle her udder and legs.  I teach my cows to move both hind legs either forward or back when I ask.  It's difficult to milk when her leg is between you and the udder.  I place my hand on the front of her leg, and apply gentle pressure until she moves the leg back.  Be prepared, the first few times she will move it quickly and often in a half kick, because she doesn't know what you want.  When she moves the leg, reward her.  I place my hand below her hock on the back of her leg to move it forward if necessary.  Cows are traditionally milked from the right side, but train her to which side is more convenient for your set-up.
          Get the cow used to you squeezing her teats and very gently stripping (squeezing the teat with the thumb and forefinger while pulling down the lent of the teat) them.  When she is close to freshening, you will often get a bit of milk or colostrum.  Don't milk it out, you want as much colostrum for the calf as possible.  Introduce her to your milk bucket, place it under her and let her get used to the sound that makes.  If your cow has a hairy udder, teach her to stand quietly for the clippers and begin clipping her before her udder is large, swollen and tender.  You and your cow are now ready to begin milking.

The Storck Has Arrived
          The first milk the cow produces is colostrum, a thick yellowish milk full of all the things the baby calf needs for immunity.  I don't usually milk the cow for the first couple of days after she has calves, unless her udder is very tight and swollen.  You can freeze the colostrum for emergencies if you do milk the cow during this time.  My system of milking is based on the idea that the cow gets to keep her calf.  I don't take it away from her to raise separately, as is traditionally done.  My stall is divided in half with a welded wire cattle panel and a gate at one end, with the entry to the stanchion at the other (see diagram at the bottom of this page).
       On the third day after calving, I begin to milk in earnest.  First, I put a flake of good hay in the manger and her pan of grain with it.  She will stand and be much more content is she has something good to eat.  Next, I get the calf into the stanchion side of the stall and place it near the manger.  Usually I halter and tie it, thus begins the calf's halter training.  The cow enters the stanchion and has her food and calf right near her head.  This makes milking much easier than if she can't see her calf.  I like to use a disposable bucket for the first couple of milkings.  It will most likely be difficult despite all of the training you've done, especially if this is the first time the cow has been milked.  If it's also her first calf, the cow will be even more nervous.  She'll probably step in, on and all over your bucket.  She will try to walk around in the stanchion and will probably try to brush your hand away with her hoof.  She may even kick.  Just watch her and try to anticipate her actions.
          The act of milking is very easy to do, but very difficult to describe.  Gently grasp the teat and squeeze the forefinger and thumb, preventing the milk from flowing back into the udder.  Squeeze the rest of the fingers, forcing the milk past the sphincter muscle of the teat.  It takes a bit of practice, but is soon mastered.
          I milk from the right side of cow.  I keep my left forearm against her rear leg and I can feel her begin to move the leg before she actually does.  When she starts to lift the leg, I can push it back and down with my forearm.  Be patient and firm.  If she's being overly difficult, give her a firm smack (never on the udder) and tell her "No."  I have used cow hobbles in the past.  They work with some cows and not with others.  I prefer to train the cow so that I don't need them, but if you decide to use them, train the cow to them before freshening.    As you continue milking, she will get the idea.  I like to end on a good note.  If she has settled down and is standing, I'll stop for the day.  Ending in a fight will make her even more nervous the next time you milk.  If you are gentle, quiet and firm, the cow will learn very quickly, and you'll be filling your bucket in no time. 

Now You're Milking
          Wash the udder and teats carefully and thoroughly.  There are many good udder wash products on the market.  Before milking, I use a mastitis test card.  I like Dr. Naylor's brand.  A stream of milk is squirted from each teat onto a different test patch on the card.  If any patch turns green, you may have a developing mastitis problem and should consult your veterinarian.  Strip cups are also used to check for mastitis problems.  A stream of milk from each quarter goes through he fine screen on the cup.  Any flaky, clotted or bloody milk is a sign of trouble.  After testing, you're ready to milk.  I tie a  piece of butter muslin cloth (gauzy cheese cloth is much too coarse) over the top of my milk bucket (use a stainless steel or food grade plastic bucket).  This cloth keep hair, debris and flies from falling into the bucket.  You'll be surprised how much dirt there is on a clean, well groomed cow.  During warm weather, I place a food grade plastic container of ice in the bucket.  This way, the milk is being chilled during milking.
          The beauty of the occasional milking method is that I take only the amount of milk I need.  I don't have to milk the cow all the way out and strip her, but can if I choose to.  The first milk drawn does not contain as much cream as the last milk.  To get the maximum amount of cream, you'll need to milk her out.
          Make the cow comfortable, give her lots of good feed, keep her calf close, and you'll both have a pleasant milking experience.

Simply Bovine
          We used to keep Jerseys and milk in the traditional manner, twice daily.  We had much more milk than we could use and we could not go anywhere as the cow HAD to be milk twice a day.  Then, we had the extra chore of raising the calf.  This was not what we really wanted to do, so we sold the Jerseys, kept our Dexters for beef and bought milk.  I want to do something different.  After speaking with some other Dexter folks who milk on an "as needed" basis, I decided to give it a try.  I picked my most gentle cow, for ease of training.  When she freshened, she had a lot of milk. I milked her daily for a while, and did not separate her and the calf at all.  I got a gallon at each milking.  The calf preferred the front teats, so I milked the rear quarters and left the front for him.  This worked very well for about a month (this is a heavy milking Dexter).  After a month, the calf was eating more and the cow wasn't producing quite as much.  I began to separate them for 3 to 4 hours.  Then I would milk out the rear quarters and some from the front.  When the calf was 2 to 3 months old, I would separate them for half a day.  At 5 months old or so, I separate them overnight and milk out the cow in the morning.  I usually milk 3 days a week, but will milk more often when making cheeses.  The calf takes care of the milking the rest of the time.  We took a week's vacation and it was so nice not to worry about the cow and calf, and just resume milking when we came back home.
          When the time comes to wean the calf, then you must make the decision to milk daily or dry the cow up.  A nice way to do it is to have two cows, calving six months apart.  Once cow is ready to dry up as the other is coming fresh.

Don't Cry Over Spilled Milk
          One problem you may run into is the cow choosing not t let her milk down.  She want the milk to be for the calf, not for you.  When she's fresh and really producing a lot, this won't be much of a problem.  But later on in her lactation, she won't be producing as much and can be very persistent in not letting you have any milk.  Keeping her calf close helps.  I tie my calf to the front of the stanchion.  The lead rope is long enough so he can reach his mother's belly, but not her udder.  He can't get in the way of my milking, but he helps me milk.  The hungry calf butts her mother's belly, she know he's hungry and the milk comes in a flood.  The calf will be your number one tool in getting the cow to let her milk down. 
          Sometimes the cow may show her displeasure with the whole situationby reliving herself in the stanchion.  Be ready to get your bucket out of the splatter zone.  My cows usually do this on the first few days, then they relax into the routine.  They will also do this when they are in heat.  That's another benefit to occasional milking, I don't bother when the cow is in heat and feeling belligerent.
          My cow's production has dropped more than it would have if I had milked her twice a day, because cows work on supply and demand.  However, it's worth it to me to  be able to go places and not have to worry about finding a cow sitter.  If you need lots of milk, this system may not work for you, but it is certainly worth a try.

Udder Delight
          Now comes the time to take care of your milk.  First, it needs to be strained.  I use a milk strainer and disposable milk filters.  They work much better than filtering the milk through cheesecloth.  They are very inexpensive and easy to use.  After the milk is strained, you can run it through a cream separator or let the cream rise naturally.  I skim the cream with a large flat serving spoon with the handle bent at a 90º angle.  Another method is to pour the milk into a gallon sized ice tea jar with a spigot at the bottom.  After the cream has risen, empty the milk out of the bottom of the jar until you get to the cream. 
          We chose to use our milk raw, after doing much research on the subject.  Pasteurization is an individual choice and must be made after weighing the risks (which are few) and the benefits (which are many).  Never use questionable or dirty milk, or milk from a cow that shows any signs of mastitis or other disease.  These websites have very good information on raw milk:
 

Eat, Drink And Be Merry
          This method of milking has been a blessing for me, I urge you to try it, too.  The milk is fresh, natural and tastes better than store bought milk.  And today's milk prices make it even better.  The calf is healthy and happy being raised by its mother.  You can take a trip and not worry about the milk cow.
          Get out there and milk that Dexter.  Why not? You're feeding and caring for her anyway.
 


Dexter cow in the stanchion,
with good feed in the manger
and her calf tied at her head. 
Ready for milking.

 

My Barn Layout (13'x21')
1 ~  Stanchion
2 ~  Manger
3 ~  Gate at rear of stanchion (to keep cow out when not in use)
4 ~  3' Walk through gate
5 ~  4' High half wall
6 ~   My end of the barn for storing milking and cow equipment
7 ~  Cow stall
8 ~  3' Walk through door
9 ~  8' Barn doors