Faith Schlabach is part of grassroots movement to reclaim foundation genetics of dairy cattle.
The family cow: a gold mine of nutritious products, a possible money-saver and income-bringer, and a bovine pet. She has to be milked twice a day—rain or shine, hot or cold, convenient or not. Or does she? Milking once a day is a viable option for milk-cow owners worldwide.
When I was growing up on a family farm where we always had at least one cow in milk at all times, twice-a-day milking was the one and only option. Morning and evening, in the rain, snow or heat of summer sun, my sisters and I would trudge out with buckets in hand to do our duty for cow and family. I vowed that once I grew up, I would never milk again; however, when my husband and I acquired our hobby farm, I began longing for a milk cow. With our busy schedules, we couldn’t imagine milking twice a day, so the dream languished until one day while chatting with a neighbor, we stumbled upon the concept of once-a-day milking.
A Case for Once-a-Day Milking
While the twice-a-day milking routine of my childhood is still the accepted practice, I’ve come across authoritative studies from New Zealand and U.S. commercial and micro-dairy experiments supporting once-a-day milking, and a strong grassroots movement is in the works. Suzanne McMinn, who writes about her cow on her website, Chickens in the Road, says, "It is, in fact, an idea taking hold among dairy producers who are rethinking the labor/cost versus end product of milking two (and for dairy producers, sometimes three) times a day when they can get better milk and a better cow—at lower cost and labor—by milking once a day.” In reality, an ever-increasing number of hobby farmers are successfully milking their cows OAD.
Let’s face it—not many people look around and say, "Hey, I have too much free time on my hands, so I think I’ll buy a milk cow.” According to McMinn, "It’s so much less daunting to consider a cow if you only have to milk once a day … . It’s a commitment, and it’s work, but it can fit into today’s families.”
Faith Schlabach, of Misty Morning Farms, concurs. "I love [OAD milking] because, honestly, if we had to continue TAD, I don’t know that we would have made it. There are times in life when it’s just so busy!”
"Once-a-day made a huge difference in our daily lives,” says Jersey-cow owner Debra Gates. "I’m the only [hand] milker and was having a great deal of problems with arthritis and carpal tunnel as a new milker. OAD made it possible for me to heal my hands while continuing to milk. The other benefit was freeing up morning chore time on the days we work.”
Besides obvious savings in time and energy, once-a-day milking lowers feed costs because most OAD cows receive grain only when milking. Depending on the quality of your forage and the amount it takes your individual cow to maintain her milk supply and body condition, this ration could be as small as a couple of cups as a reward for coming in to be milked.
Cow and calf health can also benefit. Many people who milk once a day do so in conjunction with a calf. In fact, share-milking is a wonderful example of three-way synergy. The calf-cow bond is strong, the calf receives the nutrients and motherly attention it needs to thrive while helping to effectively empty the udder, and the hobby farmer is not only saved the time of bottle-feeding but is also able to utilize the calf as an ally in time management and milk production, with the added bonus of ultimately providing meat, another milk cow, or income from sales.
Share-milking facilitates a strong calf-cow bond in addition to other health benefits.
Top Concerns: Cow Health and Production
Concerns about OAD generally center on udder health and milk-production loss. Stacey A. Hamilton, PhD, an extension dairy specialist and pasture-based animal science instructor at the University of Missouri Southwest Research Center, reports that he has not seen increased incidents of mastitis (infection of the mammary gland or udder) in cows being milked once daily. Rather, he explains that individual genetics appear to play the largest role in a cow’s tendency to contract mastitis, though cow management, herd health and barn hygiene are also factors.
While a cow might be at higher risk for mastitis when milk volume is at its peak during the first few weeks of freshening and during the drying-off period (also a time when the cow’s milk bag might become very full), it’s inaccurate to assume that every time a cow’s udder is tight and full, she’s headed for a bout of mastitis (unless the udder is in a chronic state of being overfull, at which point any bacteria present could proliferate in the stagnant milk). As a side note, Hamilton says that with a case of mastitis, in addition to treating the specific bacteria, the more often you can empty the udder, the sooner the cow will recover.
He adds, "Having a calf nursing six to eight times a day plus OAD milking is going to be more effective than milking TAD, as many do.” Share-milkers can do this with ease. Others might need to milk twice or more per day until an infection clears.
While it’s true that OAD milking will reduce milk volume, cutting milking frequency in half does not result in half the milk. When Mark McAfee, of Organic Pastures Dairy Company, near Fresno, Calif., introduced OAD milking to his operation, he found that production dropped by 15 to 20 percent. This finding is consistent with what other cow owners have experienced. Depending on the breed and where a cow is in her lactation cycle, most will produce an average of 2 to 5 gallons per day when milked TAD, whereas an OAD schedule would result in 1½ to 4 gallons. According to Hamilton, the decline in volume is more than offset by a rise in milk solids and protein and a tremendous decrease in feed costs.
McAfee cites many benefits that supersede the decrease in milk.
"We had a decrease in stress on the farm for workers and here at the dairy,” he says. "It became very calm, very quiet. We saved money on labor, and we only milked OAD.”
Research supports McAfee’s findings: A study conducted in 2007 by Dexcel, a New Zealand-based dairy-research organization, and Livestock Improvement Corporation, Ltd., a New Zealand-based dairy cooperative, states that cows are happier and healthier on OAD, as is the milking staff. An article titled "Milking Once a Day” in Hay and Forage quotes dairyman Cliff Hawbacker as saying, "The once-a-day cow is a different cow. It’s more relaxed. Being milked is like a walk in the park; it’s not a job now.”
Making the Transition
Transitioning from milking twice a day to once a day is not rocket science.
"Bringing down a cow’s production is the same process whether you are bringing it down [from TAD] to ultimately dry the cow off or bringing it down to move to once-a-day milking,” McMinn says. "Moving to OAD rather than drying off simply means when you get to the level of milking you want to keep up, you stop the reduction there and maintain that level.”
How and what you feed plays a role, too.
"You can’t feed your cows too richly and do OAD,” Schlabach says. "If you go out to the barn and that cow’s udder is tight—I mean tight as a drum—she needs to be milked twice a day for a while. Maybe she has just freshened or else you’re feeding her too richly and you need to back off the grain or the alfalfa.”
"The load on the cow goes down, so the need for feed also goes down,” McMinn says. "I feed my cows fairly generously. They’re on pasture most of the year; hay in the winter. I give them grain when I’m milking—during milking. If they’re only milking once a day, they are fed grain once a day. During periods when I’m milking twice a day, they’re fed grain twice a day.”
No newborn dairy calf will be able to drink all the milk its mother makes, especially if she’s a big producer. For example, when our own Jersey cow, Rosie, freshened, she was giving more than 5 gallons a day while having the calf with her around the clock. So for the initial four to six weeks, we continued to milk her completely out twice a day, knowing that her baby would get plenty between milkings. As the calf grew and began taking more milk, we got a bit less per milking until about two months into lactation, at which point the evening milkings were yielding around 1/2 gallon. At this point, we began skipping this second milking. The next morning, Rosie would give a generous 2 or 3 gallons while still nursing a calf full time, but her bag was not overly full. We’d successfully transitioned to OAD.
We continued share-milking, inevitably reaching the time when Rosie’s peak production passed and her baby was big enough to handle her current volume. At this point, we were on easy street. Two or three times a week, we’d shut the calf up in the evening, then milk Rosie the following morning. Depending on what time we separated them, we would milk out 1 to 2 gallons, leaving the rest for the calf. Because the calf was the bovine equivalent of a Dyson vacuum cleaner, we weren’t concerned about completely emptying Rosie’s udder. With the calf’s full cooperation, we were able to milk only when we wanted.
When we weaned that calf, we discovered that Rosie was still giving nearly 3 gallons of milk a day, so we grafted on a 3-day-old foster calf from a local dairy and went back to milking TAD for a time. As the new calf grew, we repeated the previous regimen, fully transitioning over a shorter period of time due to Rosie’s lower production.
For those who have no calf or have weaned the calf but would like to transition to OAD milking rather than grafting on a second calf, a slightly different process applies the same principles. Begin by stretching out the time between milking sessions. If you’d rather keep the morning milking, milk at 8 a.m. and again between 3:30 and 4 p.m. instead of the usual 6 p.m. session. This second milking will yield less than usual, while the udder might be quite tight for the morning session. This tightness helps signal the cow’s body to make less milk next time. Because you would not transition a cow that is fighting an udder infection, you don’t need to be overly concerned about stripping every last drop. Milk the cow until it’s almost empty—leaving a little will also help the udder adjust to a lower demand.
Do this for several days or until the udder is not drum-tight in the morning. Subtract another couple hours from the afternoon milking, moving it earlier in the day. While monitoring udder health, hold to this schedule for several more days, milking at approximately 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. until once again, the udder is not overly full in the morning. Subtract two to three more hours from the interval between milkings, and repeat the process. At this point, you should be able to drop to OAD milking, as the cow will have regulated her milk supply to meet the level of demand. If an evening milking time fits your schedule better, use the same procedure to arrive at OAD by moving the morning milking time later by increments. Or milk at noon—cows don’t care, as long as you’re consistent.
Milking OAD might be a bit untraditional, but hobby farmers are inventive and adventurous, as a rule. Considering the positive impact on scheduling, feed costs, milk management, and cow and calf health, you’re now armed with the knowledge to implement this innovation and introduce OAD milking to your hobby farm!
About the Author: Leslie J. Wyatt is the author of more than 200 stories and articles in publications including Cat Fancy and Writer’s Guide to 2012, as well as three historical novels for middle-graders. She and her husband own a 22-acre hobby farm in Missouri, where they’ve enjoyed Rosie, their Jersey milk cow; three horses; assorted barn cats; a fluctuating population of chickens; and an aging collie named Skye. Find Wyatt at her blog or her website.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2013 issue of Hobby Farms.