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I know, I know...a homestead doesn't feel complete with out a milk animal, but it's so intimidating! What used to be common place is now thought of as burdensome and challenging. It's become so foreign to us that we worry about how we would handle being so close to such a large animal, how would we handle being tied down to milking her EVERY day, and how do we handle such a vulnerable product such as raw milk. I've been there and done that and can tell you that not only will you overcome these worries quickly, but you'll soon learn to love the idea of milking every day and it will become such a part of your life that you'll have no idea how you would live without it.
The first thing you need to do is decide what type of animal you want to milk. I would suggest not contemplating the size of the animal, but rather the taste of the milk. A lot of people feel a goat would be easier to handle, but if you don't like the taste of goat's milk then this is not the best option. You will learn to handle any animal you choose, so start by buying some milk from different species and breeds and decide what you want to drink. From here on we'll assume a milk cow.
The next thing you need to do is find your animal! I wouldn't worry about registered breeders because this should have little bearing on the production from a home milker. Instead, the easiest way to get started would be to find someone selling an experienced home milk cow. They will be used to being handled, but always keep in mind the real reason that the animal is being sold. Ask about their age, calving history, diet and health. Ask specifically if they have ever had mastitis (a common illness in lactating animals that can be reoccurring or leave permanent scarring) and what was done about it. Home milk cows usually have a pretty easy life and so they can be around for a long time. It is possible that the cow is being sold because they are old and their udder is wearing out, they are not breeding back, or they have a history of illness. If these things concern you, then start with a bred heifer. A heifer has never had a calf before, so has never been milked. You will start with a clean history, but you will have the challenge of teaching her how to be milked. In both cases, I would inquire about whether they were bred with natural service from a bull or artificially inseminated. Some cows that have only been AI'd can have a more difficult time with natural breeding if this is what you will be doing in the future. A cow will usually milk for about 10 months, then take two months off in preparation of having her next calf which will start her next lactation cycle. You will have to have her bred every year to keep her milking.
Often times the person selling the cow can deliver them to you for a fee, otherwise you can always find someone on Craig's List, etc. who provides this service, so if you don't have a trailer don't let this stop you. You will have to have fencing ready for your cow however. This also does not have to be a big deal because cows train easily to portable electric fencing. You can buy step-in posts and reels online and set up a paddock in a half hour! Also have a water bucket with float valve hooked up. Lactating animals need lots of fresh clean water in order to make milk! Grazing animals can produce milk on grass, but find out what the cow is used to eating and have it ready. If you wish to change their diet, then do it gradually. Providing feed, even if it's only a treat, will be an aid in getting the animal used to you. Sweet feed (a low cost grain mixed with molasses) is like cow candy! They will warm up to you quickly for a bit of this.
If your cow is already in milk, then ask about and follow the same schedule and procedure she is used to. Milk at the same time of day, sit on the same side, etc. Again, make changes gradually. Having a designated area to milk will help the cow figure out the routine. They are creatures of habit and before long she will be waiting for you at the gate when you come out to milk. Use a halter and lead if she is used to it to get her to the milking area. Otherwise, try putting a bucket of feed down, let her find it, slowly approach and pet her so she gets used to you. Slowly move the bucket closer to the milking area. Soon she will see you coming with the bucket and will follow you any where for it! This same process can be used for a bred heifer. Get her warmed up to you long before she calves. Even practice having her stand in the milking area with you poking around her udder and sitting next to her, etc.
You really don't need much equipment to milk. You could simply walk the cow under some sort of shelter (you'll appreciate a roof on a rainy day) and put down some food to distract her or you could build an actual stall that holds her in. In time she will be happy to be milked and will stand still without any prompting. You can also sit on a bucket or buy a milking chair, which is short and will get you at the right height so your arms don't wear out as much. You will need to purchase supplies for cleaning the udder. There are moistened wipes, like baby wipes, to clean the udder of dirt or you could use a slightly damp towel. Then you would strip out each teat by squirting a bit of milk on the ground. The first milk has the highest bacteria count so discard this on the ground. Then you would dip each teat in a pre-dip solution which disinfects. After that you will put your stainless steel pail under the udder. Stainless steel is non-porous and will not harbor bacteria. Makes sure the pail is seamless so that milk residue does not get trapped in the seam. Your bucket should have been sterilized and covered until this point to keep it clean. Now you milk!! The most comfortable position would be to rest your forehead on the cows side. This also stops her from inadvertently swishing you in the eye with her tail. Milking is very difficult to explain in words but this video below might help. After she is done, cover the milk pail and secure it away from the cow so it doesn't get knocked over. The final post-dip is usually an iodine type dip applied to the teat to close the orifice so that nothing gets in it to cause infection. Give your cow a good scratch and "thank you" and then send her back to pasture. Bring your milk in the house, pour it through a filter and refrigerate immediately.
Hand milking a cow might take you about 30-45 minutes. You can speed this up significantly by purchasing a surge milker which will have you done in 10 minutes. A home milk cow will produce very well if milked just once day, so you could even do it after you get home from work! It is more common place to milk twice a day though - once in the morning and once in the evening, but my experience tells me this is not necessary. A lot of people feel like these daily milkings on a set schedule will tie them down. I learned to love milking time and you get so close to your milk cow that she becomes a pet. In the same way that you feed your dog every morning, you will also do the chore of milking the cow. We look forward to it every day in the same way that we look forward to seeing the other animals on the farm. The day just doesn't really start until we are greeted by Maggie! Of course, if you are overly concerned with this, then purchase a cow with her calf and share the milk. Once the cow calves, put the calf in a stall at night. Allow the mama to roam nearby so they can touch noses and be close. In the morning, milk the cow and then turn the calf out with her. The calf will nurse all day and get all they need to grow. At night, when you put the calf up, the cow will continue to produce milk which you will take in the morning. If you can't get to milking some day, then just let the calf nurse. You will get less milk if you are sharing, but we find a cow produces more than we can use anyway. Also, you gain beef when the calf grows up.
Although it seems like a big commitment, you will figure it out and will learn to love milking. You will also learn to love the seemingly endless supply of fresh and delicious milk for drinking or making great things like cheese, yogurt, and ice cream!
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