Monday, November 3, 2008

It was a warm, gentle evening. I sat with her in the dim light, whispering softly and caressing her for hours, but she refused my advances. My skills were surpassed only by her ability to resist me. I spent the rest of the night tormented by my failure, fearing that it might be the sign of things to come.

Buttercup, our new cow, wasn't particularly happy to be moved to her new home on our farm, and she let me know it. As I was backing the horse trailer up to our barnyard for unloading, we heard some commotion as the truck was being bounced around by the trailer. I stopped the truck and walked back to inspect.

She had managed to crawl under the divider, giving her enough room to turn around and face the back of the trailer. Determined that I wouldn't catch her, she leaped straight out of the horse trailer, right over the closed doors. Udder and all. Still stunned by the spectacle of this incredible flying cow, I was heartened to see that she was heading down towards the barnyard on her own. Maybe she saw the goats and chickens there, and knew that it looked like her kind of place. The gate to the barnyard was still closed though, so she turned around and ran out into our partially fenced pasture, where she could have easily headed for Canada if she so chose.

After a few minutes inspecting her options with me trailing behind her, she turned around and headed back towards the barnyard. Rachel opened the gate, and in she went. Step 1 was now complete. Cow delivered, not running down the highway. That's good.

Next, I had to resurrect one of the ancient milking stanchions that we found in the barn. I don't believe the previous owners ever kept milk cows, so I suspect they had probably sat there for at least 70 years. One still had latches and appeared to be workable. I would've had this ready to go before the cow, but we were really just "browsing" for a cow, and I didn't think we'd come home with one this weekend, or even this year for that matter.

Following the advice of every "homesteading" type book, I was convinced that we wanted a Jersey, a breed which is known for manageable size, gentle dispositions, and the highest butterfat content. Although I'm sure we could've eventually found one for a decent price, they're not easy to find. Shopping for livestock isn't really like going to the store where you can find exactly the brand and size you're looking for. The Jersey we looked at two weeks ago wasn't particularly gentle (she liked to kick when being milked). Imagine trying to milk a mosquito bite, and you'll have a pretty accurate idea of her teet size. There's no way we could've milked her by hand.

You also have to keep in mind that dairys don't typically sell their good cows. Most every cow on the market is there because of chronic mastitis, low milk production, a blown ligament on the udder, difficulty calving, or any of a thousand different ailments.

When we went to go look at Buttercup, I was a little skeptical of her owner's glowing description, but I figured we might at least learn a little more in going to look at her. She's an Amish raised Ayrshire - Red Holstein cross. Ayrshires are a Scottish breed which seem to be moderate in most all respects, and Holsteins (more commonly black and white) are the super-producer breed that makes up about 95% of the US dairy herd. They're big, and they produce a lot of low-butterfat milk. I wasn't particularly excited about the Holstein part, but the Ayrshire breed sounded interesting. The average cow of each breed is 1200 and 1500 pounds, both of which are much more cow than I think would be good for our farm.

Buttercup is quite small; to my untrained eye, I would guess about 800lbs. Despite what looked to me like some rough handling by her owner, she was quite mellow, and didn't kick or fidget in the least when we tried milking her by hand (which I believe was the first time for her). Her small udder hangs high (this is good -- large udders often lead to problems with infection), and her teets are small but definitely workable for hand milking. She looks healthy, so we decided that she fit the bill.

I finally had the milking stanchion ready to go, and it was now well past her usual milking time. After a few minutes of playing chase back and forth accross the barnyard, I decided to make some "fake" fencing with ropes I have hanging in the barn. I figured she wouldn't know if they were electric or not, and might respect them.

It worked -- my ropes funneled her right through the open barn door into the stall where our two goats were huddled in terror. Two furry rockets launched out into the yard, ears and udders flapping madly. As far as they're concerned, Buttercup is about the size of a tyranosaurus rex, and is probably carnivorous. They kept a very watchful eye on her today.

After getting her in the barn, I was able to get close enough to Buttercup to try milking her. I wasn't sure I would be able to get her into the stanchion at first, so just tried milking as she ate a little grain borrowed from our goats. Nothing came out but a few dribbles.

I cleaned her udder some more (warm water is supposed to encourage milk "let-down"), over and over. Still no milk. So I thought maybe I could simulate the small tugs of a milking machine. Still nothing. Rachel suggested that our generator might resemble the familiar sound of a milking machine, so I started that outside the barn. Still nothing. I moved her to the stanchion, and gave her some more grain and hay. Still nothing. I talked sweetly to her, massaged her, scratched behind her ear... and she still refused to let her milk down. After a few hours of this, I finally gave up at 9:00 and went inside to eat my first meal of the day.

I had ultimately milked perhaps one pint from a cow that should normally produce at least two gallons, which means that for all practical purposes she didn't get milked that evening. That's really bad; a missed milking will lead to production losses, and can also encourage mastitis, (a bacterial infection of the udder). I didn't sleep well, and had thoughts of spending all this money on a cow who would now go dry. She'll eat about $4/day in hay and grain, which gets really expensive when no milk is being produced.

This morning's milking went a little better -- 5 quarts. This evening she was up to 6 quarts. I imagine she'll drop a little from her previous production level, but we're pretty happy with this amount. Unless Henry can down a few gallons of milk per day, we're going to have a lot of milk.

Ultimately I would be interested in selling "cow shares" (that's the only legal way to sell raw milk in Michigan), which can be quite lucrative if you can develop a good customer base. I'll have to know what I'm doing, and this is where I'll start to learn. Until then, we'll probably be giving some milk away, dumping some, and perhaps feeding a calf or some pigs with the surplus. Rachel, of course, will be making all the cheese she wants. One big advantage to cow's milk is that it separates into cream (goat milk doesn't) so that we can make butter or ice cream.

Another advantage to cows is that I think it's easier to run a grass-based dairy than it is with goats, who prefer brush over grass (goats eat like deer do -- they prefer to nibble a bit of every bush they can get to). It's much easier to grow and manage grass. All grass diets are much healthier for the cow as well as the people who drink the milk (the dangerous strain of e. coli is a product of grain diets in ruminants, for example), but are probably a little more difficult to manage. In New Zealand, where the people are smarter than us Americans, all dairys are grass based. They don't subsidize corn the way we do here, probably because Cargill and ADM don't write their agricultural policy.

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