Drying Up the Cow



Maybelle awaiting her last milking for a while.

Maybelle awaiting her last milking for a while.

It’s that time of the year again — yes, spring, but that wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. This is also the time of year when the milk cow should be dried up to give her a break before she has to raise another calf. You dry up a cow by not milking — most people just stop milking when daily production is two gallons or less, and the cow’s body quits producing as demand goes away. Milk production puts a big demand on a cow and dairy cows produce much longer than they would if they were in the wild. Most cows wean their calves by the age of six months and the calf’s demands on the milk spigot have been gradually dropping as it eats more grass and hay. Since long-term milk production is a human invention and not the natural order of things, we have to take extra steps to make sure we don’t wear the animals out. To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, the average longevity of a dairy cow in the United States is four lactations. Since many dairy cows are bred at 12 to 13 months to calve nine months later, that means by the time a commercial dairy cow is six (at the latest), she’s on her way to slaughter. In practice, most dairies slaughter cows at age four because by then total milk production has dropped enough that it’s not economical to feed them because feed costs are so high. Cows could live 20 years, producing a calf almost every year, if we didn’t try to push them for maximum production in such an artificial fashion. What’s interesting and sad about this practice is that the high production is mostly water. When cows are milked once a day — most commercial dairies milk twice a day – total production drops about 30 percent, but butterfat content and milk solids don’t change.

Green grass, shade and a chance to rest -- what more could a milk cow ask?

Green grass, shade and a chance to rest — what more could a milk cow ask?

Anyway, back to drying up the cow. We have been gradually cutting back on Maybelle’s groceries to get her ready to dry up. The more groceries she gets, the more she puts into milk production. When she’s milking, she usually gets a couple of #10 cans of grain screenings twice a day. If I think she needs more carbs, I may add several cups of molasses to her grain — she loves that! We feed free choice grain hay — a mix of oats, wheat and barley — as well as some alfalfa hay for extra protein and vitamins, and supplement her with minerals, kelp and salt. That’s the fall/winter ration; in summer it’s usually just grass, plus supplements. We like our cows to be on pasture for at least a month before they calve, as they get a wide range of nutrients during a period when they’re providing maximum nutrition to that calf in their bodies. I started decreasing her grain in early March and Maybelle finished the last of her alfalfa about a week ago. Alfalfa is a high calcium feed, and you don’t want a cow on a high calcium diet just before she calves as it increases the risk of milk fever — a calcium imbalance in the cow’s blood stream. You also want her milk production to slow down so she won’t be too uncomfortable during the initial stages of the drying up process. Her production has been gradually dropping from about 2-2/12 gallons a day when she was on full grain rations plus alfalfa; this afternoon she was down to a gallon, so today was the last milking until after she calves. She’ll be a little uncomfortable for a few days as her bag will fill up and get tight, but since there’s no demand, her system will shut down production pretty quickly.

When the cow is dry you have four choices: forgo milk and milk products entirely, buy commercial products at the grocery, buy raw milk at the health food store (although some groceries have it) or stock up on what you can. Although milk and fresh buttermilk freeze well, they take up a lot of freezer space, and that can be a problem when you’re looking to freeze enough for two months. We go through about a gallon of milk a day around here, so there’s no way we can freeze enough to tide us over. Cream may separate, but if you want the cream to dollop in your coffee, you just have to stir or shake it before you use it. Frozen cream doesn’t whip well, however. If you want whipped cream, it’s better to whip it first, dollop it onto a baking sheet and freeze the dollops, then package in a plastic bag. Cream cheese and butter, well-wrapped, are good for several months — butter freezes and lasts extremely well. Sour cream is iffy — you can use it in soups and such, but it usually doesn’t make a very good dip once it’s been frozen. Cottage cheese doesn’t freeze well unless it’s in something like lasagna. By the way, my comments apply to raw milk products, which are very different from the commercial pasteurized, stabilized, homogenized cultured glop that comes in a plastic carton.

Although I could live without milk to drink, hubby goes into withdrawal, so I may buy either raw milk or commercial milk depending on the state of availability and my bank account. But I do freeze lots of butter and cream and may freeze cream cheese if I have enough space. I’m pretty well stocked up for butter, so most of the cream for the next week or so will go in the freezer to last until we have a new calf and a fresh dairy cow to milk around June.

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4 Responses to Drying Up the Cow

  1. Rosemary says:

    We haven’t milked our cow for 1 weeks. We milked her out after a week of no milking and she keeps seeming to produce. It doesn’t appear like she is drying up and she hasn’t been milked for 2 weeks. What do we do ?

    • Bee says:

      When you dry up a cow, you have to stop milking and stay stopped. Her bag will get quite full, as it takes at least two weeks for the hormonal changes to kick in and turn off milk production. Each time you milk her, it restarts the system. You can help with the drying-up process by cutting back on high carbohydrate foods like grain, and if she’s on rich pasture or alfalfa, switch her to grass hay. Her bag will continue to look full for several months. This is a useful website for questions related to milk cows: http://familycow.proboards.com/ The members include a number of highly-experienced folks who are great resources. Many vets these days have little experience with milk cows unless they work in areas with a large dairy population, and few people keep a milk cow any more; we’re the only ones in our rural town who have a family cow.

  2. Beth says:

    Hi, Just wondering… when you start to dry up your cow, is there less cream in the milk?

    • Bee says:

      It depends on the cow and other factors, Beth. In most cases, the proportion of cream stays about the same, but the overall volume decreases. A cow typically produces the most milk and cream in the first three months or so after she calves, as that’s when her baby is most dependent on her milk. After three months, the calf’s diet contains increasing amounts of grass and hay, so the calf nurses less, and mama’s milk production decreases as demand decreases. If you’re milking, you can trick the cow’s body into producing more milk for a longer period, but it’s hard on the cow (which is why commercial milk cows are usually worn out by the time they’re four or five). A high-producing cow will have more cream throughout her lactation. Maybelle is not a real heavy producer and I only milk once a day — in the first three months after she calves, she gives about three or four gallons a day. By the time we’re ready to dry her up, she’s usually down to about a gallon a day. Each gallon contains about 2 cups of cream.

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