Friday, March 2, 2012

The Novice Milkmaid and the Family Cow: My First Five Months (Part 1, The Challenges)

The dew sparkles on the grass on a balmy spring morning.  A glossy cow moos softly by the pasture gate, eager for you to come and empty her full-to-overflowing udder.  She's a gentle, affectionate creature who thinks of you as her second baby and is grateful for the relief when you milk her.  Fresh foaming milk hisses into your gleaming stainless steel pail, and your kitchen fills with glorious dairy delights:  cheeses, butters, and creams.

That's the dream, right?  That's the idealistic vision I pictured when I got my cow, a six-year-old Guernsey named Thistle, five months ago.  Sure, I knew that keeping a milk cow was going to be a big commitment, but I understood what I was getting into---or so I thought.  The seven months of challenges I faced just to choose and buy my cow should have been a reminder that nothing ever goes quite as smoothly as you might hope.

Like so many other prospective cow owners, I imagined that perfect relationship with an affectionate, motherly cow who wanted nothing more than to nourish me and my family like so many well-loved calves.

What I got was a 1,400-lb. bundle of beef, bone, and brains who tolerates me with the cool politeness usually reserved for overbearing mother-in-laws who insist on showing up for lengthy visits without calling first.  ("Oh, it's you.  Again.  How... nice.")  She looks forward to milking time the way city office workers look forward to Monday-morning rush-hour commutes---as a tedious impediment to her getting on with the rest of her day.  Far from being grateful for the relief I provide when I milk her, she rolls her eyes, sighs dramatically, and makes a great point of letting me know what an EFFORT it is not to fidget, and am I not done YET?

Although our story so far has been no fairy tale, I have come to like and respect Thistle quite a lot.  It amuses me that many of the ways she frustrates me most are the very ways that she is just like me:  reserved, stubborn, independent, stoic for lengthy periods but prone to dramatic meltdowns if pushed too far.

The challenges have been many and varied.  If I had done this when I first started farming, it would have been completely overwhelming.  I would have given up in despair and sworn never to keep a cow again.  But the past seven years of farming must have honed my confidence and determination, because despite the aches, pains, injuries, tears, sicknesses, and worries, at no point in these first five months of cow ownership have I regretted my choice to bring Thistle here to live with us.

Though there have been many more challenges than I had expected, ultimately they have been manageable---even if it didn't always feel like it at the time.  The past five months have been a crash course in what it is to own a cow...  only with a bit more actual CRASHING than I might have wanted.

Dreaming fairy tale daydreams about the perfect cow is wonderful when all you're doing is dreaming.  But if you plan to take the next step to try and make the dream come true, it's good to know ahead of time what the day to day reality can really be like.  If you've ever dreamed of buying a family milk cow of your own, maybe reading about my experiences might help you know what kinds of challenges you can expect during the difficult transition time of the first few months. 

So here goes:

Challenge #1:  Getting Acquainted

When Thistle arrived, my first concern was to get to know her and put her at ease with having me around so she'd be relaxed and easy to handle once it was time to start milking her.  I had the foresight to put her directly into a small paddock with an attached stall area rather than releasing her into a larger pasture area.  In her small paddock, she had no choice but to let me get close to her.

For the first couple of weeks, I spent as much time with her as I could, just hanging out and talking with her.  Bringing her apples, cleaning her stall, raking her paddock, scrubbing her water trough.  Letting her see, hear, and smell me on a regular basis, so I was no longer a stranger.  Not asking much of her except that she occasionally let me touch her.

I also spent lots of time watching her, trying to learn her body language, so I could understand when she tried to tell me things.  This was harder than I expected.  I've had many years of experience with horses, but I quickly learned:  Cows are not horses.  The body language and social interactions are very different.  Half the time I had no idea what Thistle was thinking or communicating, though I got the impression she was thinking quite a lot.  She's much more intelligent than I'd expected a cow to be, but in a reserved, self-contained sort of way.  She was not nearly as open about expressing her thoughts or as interested in obtaining my approval as a horse would be.  Or maybe she is, and I just can't read her yet.

I spent a lot of time encouraging her to let me approach and touch her.  I had no intention of letting her out of her small paddock until she gave me the impression that I would be able to catch her again once she was released into the larger pasture.

She was not thrilled with being touched or petted, but when I insisted, she tolerated it. There were a few itchy spots she like to have scratched, and apples made her very cheerful.  We were well on our way to getting acquainted.  Now we just had to wait for her calf to be born.

Challenge #2:  Calving

I didn't know exactly when the calf was due, only that it should arrive sometime in October.  As you may recall, I posted photos of Thistle's udder, trying to guess from her changing shape when the calf might be born.  Most of my more experienced cow farmer friends said it looked like Thistle was still several weeks away from calving.

That was my estimate too.  On October 10th, one week after I posted those previous photos, I planned to go out and take new pictures of her udder, and continue to take new pictures each week, showing her progressing development as her calving time neared.

However, when I went out that morning to take the next batch of photos, I got a big surprise:  There was the calf, already born!

(The calf is not filthy muddy as it appears in this photo.  All that black stuff is dry, clean stone dust sand that got stuck everywhere the fur was damp with birthing fluids)

As calving challenges go, this was an easy one!  Although I was not at all prepared for the calf to arrive so soon, the birth happened without any help or intervention on my part, and I didn't even have to spend days or weeks pacing around anxiously wondering, "Will today be the day?"

Challenge #3:  The Newborn Calf

It was not all going to go that smoothly, though.  The calf didn't get up right away.  I'm used to my Icelandic sheep, where the lambs are usually up and nursing within 5 minutes of birth.  I understood from some of my cow-owning friends that calves often take longer, so I tried to be patient and let nature take its course.  But it was a cool, drizzly day, and as the hours passed, I became concerned.

However Thistle, fresh from giving birth, was acting a bit wild-eyed and unpredictable, and I didn't feel comfortable going into that small paddock with her and her newborn calf, in case she saw me as a threat and felt she had to be protective.  I took a chance that once her placenta passed, her hormones would stabilize a bit and she would calm down enough that I could go in and help the calf without endangering my life.

Fortunately, I was right.  As soon as the placenta passed, Thistle lost that crazed look and returned to her normal self.  The calf had been trying to get to its feet, but so far had not succeeded.  In the cool, damp weather, it was also beginning to shiver, so I knew I had to intervene and get some colostrum into it as soon as possible.  Which meant the scariest challenge yet:  I, with absolutely zero experience, had to milk my cow for the very first time!

While I was gathering my courage for that very important task, I tied Thistle in her soon-to-be milking area and got my husband to help me hoist/haul/drag the heavy calf into the barn where it could warm up on a bed of dry hay under a heat lamp.

I also snuck a peek under the calf's tail, and was thrilled to discover:  It was a girl!  If I could help her survive, we'd have a gorgeous Guernsey heifer to go with our cow!

In hopes of getting a heifer calf, I had a name already picked out:  Ivy.

Challenge #4:  First Milking and Colostrum

A surgeon scrubbing up for a risky operation could not have been more anxious and serious than I was as I got all my milking supplies ready for the first time.

The brand new stainless steel milk tote stood ready on the kitchen counter, with the huge stainless steel milk strainer in place on top of it.  Did I put that filter in correctly?  I guess I'd find out once I poured the milk through!

My stainless steel milking bucket in one hand, and my tote of supplies in the other, I nervously went to the barn where Thistle stood tied in the milking area.  We don't have a stanchion, but since Thistle was an experienced milker, I figured (hoped!) we could get by just tying her next to a wall.

After some fumbling around, and a bit of dismayed astonishment at just how much hand strength was required to squeeze those full teats, I managed to start milking for the first time.  The colostrum was thick and yellow, with a gluey consistency that made it hard to get out.  Having seen Thistle's wild-eyed behavior just an hour or two earlier, I was also a little cautious about having to sit down and tuck myself right up beside that big wall of muscle and bone.  But luckily, Thistle had calmed down since passing the placenta and was perfectly well behaved.

Though, as expected, my hands got very tired, I managed to milk out a lot of rich colostrum.  Some I bottle fed to the calf right away, the rest I refrigerated to save for the next feeding.  This is what a half gallon of fresh Guernsey colostrum looks like:

Challenge #5:  Contracted Tendons

Even with the calf now warm and fed, we were not yet in the clear.  She was having the worst time standing up.  Again, I was mentally comparing her to the lambs, kids, and foals that had been born here, and all of them seemed to progress from wobbly newborn to frisking baby much more quickly than Ivy did.

Her ankles, particularly on the hind feet, had almost no flexibility, and the tendons were slightly contracted so that if we did help her to her feet, she had to balance on her toes with her heels slightly off the ground.  Her walk was stiff and wobbly, and even after a few days, she didn't seem to be getting any better.

When I asked for advice on the Keeping A Family Cow forum, someone suggested Ivy's problem could be selenium deficiency.  I'd seen selenium deficiency in lambs before, and it never looked quite like this, but I had Bo-Se (injectable liquid selenium) on hand in my veterinary cupboard, and I figured it couldn't hurt to try it.

Within 12 hours of administering the shot, I began to see some improvement, and within a few days Ivy was completely better.

Challenge #6:   The Great Calcium Drench Disaster

Before Thistle arrived, I had of course been reading everything I could about cow care.  In general, that's a good thing to do, except that after reading book after book and website after website discussing all the things that could potentially go wrong, I started to get a little paranoid.

I especially grew concerned reading about milk fever, which is more apt to hit mature cows.  Because Thistle is a mature cow and I didn't know much about her history, I decided to err on the side of caution and give her a calcium drench after she calved to hopefully stave off any chance of milk fever.

I had read that the calcium drenches can be kind of caustic, but I imagined that meant "sting the throat like a shot of strong whiskey" not "burn the throat like a glass of Draino."  Unfortunately, I imagined wrong.

The moment I poured that drench down her throat, my cow, whom I'd worked so hard to get to trust me, staggered away from me in terror, and for weeks afterwards, would run away rather than letting me anywhere near her head.

In addition, her throat was so sore from the drench that she stopped eating and drinking for 2 whole days.  She wasn't sick or lethargic, and she acted like she WANTED to eat, but it hurt too much to swallow.  I asked my vet about it, and he said, "Oh yes, that stuff is like battery acid.  It really burns!"  Great!  Now you tell me!  Stupid calcium drench!

In future, I will NOT give calcium drench as a preventative.  I will only treat for milk fever if and when actual symptoms appear.

Challenge #7:  Where's the Milk?

Naturally, with not eating or drinking for 2 days, Thistle's milk production dropped to almost nothing.  I diligently milked her twice a day at 12 hour intervals, for as much as an hour each time, but for days I got only about 1/4 cup per milking.  After that, her production began to improve slightly, but it was very erratic.  I might get a quart at one milking and only a few tablespoons the next.

On top of that, although she had no sign of injury or mastitis, one of her teats gave only blood for the first couple of weeks.  It was gory and gross.  The milk pail looked like something filled at a slaughterhouse.  As Thistle's production slowly increased, the milk diluted the blood and turned pink.  So even after all my efforts, the milk was still not drinkable.

I worked and worked and WORKED at it, but it took weeks before Thistle was giving even a moderately respectable amount of milk, and even then it was not predictable.  At best, she might give 2 gallons at a milking, but the next day she might give only half a gallon.

This was a problem because we had intended Thistle to earn her keep and help the farm make a little extra money by starting a cow share program with her.  But if I couldn't predict from one day to the next how much milk might be available, there was no way to figure out what would be a fair split for the cow share owners.

So for now we have had to abandon the cow share idea, and although she is rather costly to keep, Thistle is not able to help earn any income.  Perhaps she'll do better next time around, and if not, there's always Ivy, who will be ready to have a calf in a couple of years.

Challenge #8:  Bottle Feeding

Because of Thistle's nonexistent milk production in the first days after she calved, we had to break down and buy milk replacer for Ivy, and I had to bottle feed her twice a day.

This was not a terrible burden.  Ivy took to the bottle very easily, and I enjoyed feeding her.  By milking Thistle myself and then bottle feeding Ivy, I was able to keep track of exactly how much Thistle was producing and exactly how much Ivy was eating.  With all the problems they'd been having, it was good to be able to monitor them both very closely.

Before Ivy was born, I had debated whether I would bottle feed or share milk with the calf.  I had weighed the pros and cons and decided to avoid the biggest potential share-milking cons (enthusiastic calf cutting up the cow's teats with her teeth, and cow not wanting to let her milk down for her human milker if she knows her calf will be nursing later) by raising Ivy completely on the bottle, but feeding her with her mother's milk instead of formula, as soon as her mother was producing enough.

Challenge #9:  Tendonitis

Alas, even that painstakingly thought out decision was not to be the final one.  Milking a cow is hard work, especially for a novice.  Especially with a cow whose production is poor so that you have to really keep working at her to get any milk at all.

Twice every day, 12 hours apart, I would spend 45-60 minutes milking.  Imagine using one of those hand-squeezing exercise gadgets and doing roughly 5,000 reps per day with each hand, 7 days a week.  It was a workout!  I lost 10 lbs. in the first 3 weeks of milking.  My hands and arms ached like crazy.  I took soothing Epsom salt baths.  I took Advil.  Every night I slathered myself in BenGay from fingertip to elbow, hoping to ease the ache long enough for the muscles to get stronger.

But the trouble was, every 12 hours I had to go out and strain the muscles all over again.  They never had a chance to rest and heal.  When my fingers started going numb for hours at a time, I knew something had to change.

Challenge #10:  Share Milking

My solution?  Let the calf take over half the work.  If I milked the cow every morning and the calf nursed every evening, that would at least give my poor strained hands twice as long to recover before they had to milk again.

My cow-owner friends assured me that leaving Ivy with Thistle for longer periods of time would allow Ivy to nurse more often, which in turn would stimulate Thistle to produce more milk.  So for a couple of months I would turn Ivy out to pasture with her mom right after my morning milking and let her stay until just before bed time.

This did ease the pain in my hands somewhat, but it produced new challenges of its own.  For starters, now that Thistle had her calf with her, she saw no reason whatsoever to EVER come in from pasture.  Calling and rattling her grain bucket held no enticement for her.  When I would go out to try to lead her in, she would gallop in the other direction.

Ivy, having been bottle fed for the first several weeks of her life, still thought of me as her first mother and Thistle as her second mother, so it was possible to catch Ivy and lead her in, with Thistle following anxiously behind.  When Thistle got wise to that, however, she started deliberately herding Ivy away from me and teaching her to run whenever I approached.  Bad, BAD habit!

Challenge #11:  Where Does the Time Go?

I had known that getting a dairy cow was going to be a big commitment.  And I knew that, being a novice, I would have a steep learning curve before I was able to truly settle into a good routine.  But I really wasn't prepared for the sheer number of hours and hours and HOURS (and days and weeks and months) it would take.

Between the feeding, watering, stall mucking and bedding, moving the cow in and out of pasture, moving the calf in and out of wherever the cow was for her share milking time, washing up and preparing for milking, milking, cleaning up after milking, and taking care of the milk, it was taking me approximately 3 hours per day, 7 days a week, of chores that I had not had before I got the cow.  In other words, the cow took up more of my time than all of the rest of the animals combined.  And that didn't even count the time it took for me to actually DO anything with the milk, like making butter, ice cream, or cheese.

For the entire winter, the cow became the project that ate my life.  I fell behind on all my business correspondence, I fell behind on all my creative projects and sales.  For several months, I did nothing but try to survive the onslaught of COW.

Challenge #12:  Let-Down

Fortunately, share milking with Ivy did stimulate Thistle to produce more milk.  It also allowed my tendonitis to ease a bit, and gradually my hands and arms got stronger.  I have a killer handshake grip now, and you should feel my arm muscles!

But, true to form, this advance didn't come without a corresponding challenge.  I was getting about 1.5 gallons of milk at my morning milking, and Ivy was getting the rest.  But Thistle's production was still extremely erratic.  Occasionally, I might get 2 gallons.  More often, her production might mysteriously drop to only half a gallon, only to rebound up to three times that the following day. 

For quite a while, I didn't know what the problem was.  Considering she was getting exactly the same food, water, and milking schedule every day, I couldn't figure out what was going on.  I had read that sometimes a cow's production will drop when she is in heat, but unless Thistle was going into heat 4-5 times a month, that was no explanation.

Over time, I saw another thing that concerned me:  Just when Thistle's production should have been peaking, it was slowly, ever so slowly, decreasing instead. It wasn't that she wasn't getting enough to eat.  In fact, at a time when most cows are starting to lose weight, Thistle was actually getting fatter.

Finally it dawned on me that she was doing just what the "cons" of share milking predicted she might do.  She knew she was going to be nursing her calf later, so she was holding back and not fully letting her milk down for me.  But she had done it so gradually---as the weeks went by holding back a little more and giving me a little less, but always giving me SOME---that I didn't recognize that's what she was doing.

Discussions on online cow forums showed me a trick to get around this:  I would tie Thistle in the milking area, bring Ivy in and let her start to nurse, which would stimulate Thistle to fully let down her milk.  Then I would do my milking---what glorious abundance of milk was suddenly mine!---before turning Ivy out with her mom again.

Ivy, who had been getting way more than her share of the milk all this time, was growing super fast.  According to my Dairy Cow Weight tape, the average weight for a 3 month old Guernsey heifer is 177 lbs.  At 3 months old, Ivy weighed 300 lbs!

She did not like it one bit when I pulled her away from her mother so that I could do my milking.  She quickly grew to resent it very much, and made sure to crash around in the adjacent stall, making as much fuss as possible the whole time I was "stealing" her dinner.

Challenge #13:  Udder Injuries

Ivy's appetite continued to grow just as fast as she did.  By the time she was 3 months old she would nurse so aggressively I would regularly find scrapes on Thistle's teats from Ivy's teeth.  Sometimes I had to be careful not to squeeze a sore teat the wrong way, or Thistle would stomp and let me know it hurt.

Then one evening Thistle came in from pasture with a full udder, as if Ivy had not nursed all day.  Concerned about her overfull udder, I immediately went and got my milking supplies.  But when tried to milk her, she let loose with one hind foot, slammed me a good one in the thigh and knocked me off my stool onto the ground.  Alarmed by the racket, she started kicking the bucket, the stool, and everything in sight.

I yelled at her and spanked her for kicking, but I could see what the problem was.  Ivy had bit one of her teats too hard, gave her a big cut, and it was EXTREMELY sore, to the point that she hadn't let Ivy nurse at all.

I was badly shaken and bruised from this unexpected battle, and a little freaked out about having to go back and try again.  But leaving her udder unmilked was a sure ticket to mastitis.  So, after several unsuccessful attempts to milk the sore teat by hand as I normally did, two more large painful bruises from getting kicked, and a disastrously failed attempt to use my KickStop device which caused Thistle to go completely berserk, I finally dug out the Udderly EZ milker I had purchased several years ago for collecting colostrum from my sheep.

According to most experienced dairy people I know, the Udderly EZ is not really recommended for long-term use because it uses direct suction not fluctuating suction, which can put too much stress on the teat opening and eventually cause damage.  But in this case it was a lifesaver.  Because it uses only suction and doesn't physically manipulate the sore teat, I guess it didn't hurt as much, so she let me use it without kicking.

Twice a day, I was able to get most of the milk out of that teat with the Udderly EZ, while milking the other 3 quarters by hand as usual.  After a few uses, I did see that the Udderly EZ was beginning to cause stress on the teat opening, because when Thistle let her milk down, milk would start streaming out of that teat onto the ground, something it had never done before.

It seemed to take forever for the cut to heal, but eventually it did.  Fortunately, once this ordeal was over and the cut on the teat was healed up again, I was able to stop using the Udderly EZ.  After several days of normal milking, the teat stopped streaming milk at let down and went back to normal.

Challenge #14:  Mastitis

Meanwhile, the whole time this was going on, there was also a problem with the opposite quarter from the injured teat.  I don't know what happened to it, but on the same day that Thistle came in with the cut on her right rear teat, the left front quarter suddenly developed some hard places in it.

It didn't seem hot or sore at first, but the milk production from that quarter grew even skimpier than usual, and as the days passed the hard lumpy area got bigger and eventually Thistle started acting like it was a little sore.

I read up on everything I could find about mastitis.  I massaged the udder with peppermint lotion or cayenne/tea tree oil/lard salve at every milking.  I added extra selenium and vitamin C to Thistle's diet as a support/preventative measure.

The quarter never got hotter than normal, and the milk that did come out of it seemed perfectly normal, with no lumps or strings at all.  I did the California Mastitis Test, and got only the very faintest reaction from that quarter---just the slightest thickening that quickly disappeared.

I sent a sample of milk to a nearby lab.  The results came back with a moderate somatic cell count, but when they tried to test for bacteria to determine what was causing the problem, their culture came back with no growth. 

I bought a carton of the Today mastitis treatment, and treated the problem quarter for several days.  I was nervous about the idea of trying to squirt medicine up into the teat duct, but it turned out to be easy, and Thistle didn't act as if she even noticed that I had done anything.  However, the treatment didn't really seem to help, so I left off, and just continued with the peppermint lotion massages, which did seem to help a little.

Everyone told me that I should leave the calf with Thistle because the calf's frequent nursing would help prevent or cure any mastitis that was brewing.  Thistle would kick Ivy off the cut teat, but Ivy quickly learned to leave that one alone and just nurse from the other three.

I had mixed feelings about leaving Ivy on Thistle after all this, because she was still scraping up the healthy teats with her teeth from time to time and I was worried she would inflict another more serious injury.  But honestly, I was a little freaked out after getting kicked so badly that first day, and I figured if anyone was going to get kicked, better the calf than me! 

Challenge #15:  Weaning

It took several weeks, but the injured teat eventually healed and the mastitis in the other quarter was slowly subsiding.  I didn't dare keep Ivy nursing any longer, for fear she would injure her mother yet again.  Even though I hadn't planned to wean Ivy at 3.5 months old, now it seemed to be the safest course.

The trouble was, a calf weaned before 6 months can't survive on just grass.  She needs grain.  But even though Ivy was quite old enough to eat grain, she didn't like it.  She wanted milk.  I let her transition gradually over a few days, but ultimately I didn't want to risk Thistle's udder any longer.  Ivy would have to learn to like grain.

It was sad and funny watching her try to eat it for the first week or so.  Her lips would get this tense, disgusted curl to them while she would halfheartedly nibble on the calf starter grain.  It was like a little girl who had always feasted on cupcakes and ice cream for breakfast being suddenly forced to eat yucky old oatmeal.  She's such a little diva, she made a huge production of how sadly mistreated she was.

Of course, fast forward a few weeks, and now she leaps and dances all around with excitement when she knows I'm bringing her lovely, delicious grain.  Silly girl!

Challenge #16:  Foster Calf

But wait!  With Ivy weaned, and Thistle's udder back on the road to health, that left me once again having to take over milking twice a day.  Sure, my hands were stronger now and didn't ache quite so much as they did at the beginning, but before long the tendonitis reappeared and I started waking up in the morning with numb fingers again.

Plus, if Ivy was weaned, and Thistle's production was too erratic for us to start a cow share program with her, what was I going to do with all the milk?  Our refrigerator was filling up, and I just couldn't stand the thought of spending so much effort to get that milk, only to feed it to our pigs (who don't really need any fattening.  They are fat enough already!).  But milking twice a day in addition to all the other farm chores left me very little time or energy to attempt the long, time consuming recipes in my cheese making books, no matter how much I would have liked to.

I thought briefly about whether I should get a milking machine to ease the burden of time and energy that milking demanded.  But milking machines are very expensive.  I scoured the internet comparing different models, and the one I thought was best would cost me $1,500.  I just couldn't justify that kind of investment right now.  We don't really have a safe place to store one at the moment, nor a convenient place for the necessary cleaning they require.  Plus, I didn't go into farming because I liked to work with lots of noisy machines.  I may have to invest in a milking machine someday, but I decided that now was not the time.

Instead, I decided that maybe Thistle help could earn her keep by raising another calf for us, one that we would eventually put in the freezer for beef.  I searched around on Craigslist, and finally found a farm a few hours from here that had a 3-day old Holstein bull calf for sale for $75.

We figured he'd be a playmate for Ivy, who dearly wanted somebody to play calf games with, and he wouldn't cost us much of anything to feed, because he'd just be drinking Thistle's excess milk.

Challenge #17:  Scours

When we arrived at the farm to pick up the new calf---big surprise!---it didn't turn out exactly as we had hoped.  They only had one calf available, and he had obvious signs of scours.  Though I knew that scours in calves is very common (though Ivy had never suffered from them) and nearly always treatable, I would certainly have preferred not to take a scouring calf.  Still, we had just driven for 3 hours, and had another 3 hour drive to get home again.  I didn't want it to be for nothing.

So we took the little guy (whom we named Misha) home and hoped for the best.  We tucked him in the barn on a pile of dry bedding and shone a heat lamp on him to keep him warm.  Because Thistle was still not fully healed from her teat injury and mastitis, we had decided to err on the safe side and bought a bag of milk replacer to have on hand just in case the mastitis flared up again and for some reason Thistle didn't have enough to feed the new calf for a while.  So I gave him a bottle that first night and figured we'd let him meet Thistle in the morning.

The next day, sure enough, Misha's scours were worse than ever.  Since many types of scours are caused by bacteria or viruses that can be contagious to other animals, I decided against letting Mischa meet Thistle or Ivy until he was feeling better, and I tried to always wash my hands thoroughly between tending him and tending the other cows.

Unfortunately, my efforts weren't good enough.  For 2 weeks, Misha had scours nonstop.  In addition to bottle feeding him twice a day, I also had to go out 2 additional times a day to feed him large volumes of electrolytes to keep him hydrated.  Then Ivy and Thistle started scouring as well.

Then, worst of all, first Ken and then I caught the same bug.  Based on the symptoms of both cattle and humans, we figured it was probably e-coli.  The symptoms were the same for man and beast:  2 weeks of diarrhea, weakness, and total exhaustion.  I grew to have more sympathy for what the poor little calf had to go through.  At the worst of it, my exhaustion was so great that even just lying on the couch watching TV seemed to strenuous.  All I wanted to do was sleep.

So, my little labor-saving calf who was supposed to ease my burden by taking over my milking chores didn't exactly turn out to be labor saving.  It took probably about a month and a half for all of us to get back to good health again. 

Challenge #18:  Tantrums

The first night we got Misha home, it was already dark, but Thistle acted VERY interested in him as we hauled him past her paddock to tuck him safely in the barn for the night.

But by the time we finally introduced the two of them the meeting didn't go smoothly.  Once Thistle saw him in the daylight, she decided she hated him and wanted nothing to do with him.  I tied her up in her milking area and tried to get her to let him nurse there, but she threw an absolute kicking fit and I was worried she was going to kill him.

So now, instead of the new calf saving me time and easing my milking chores, instead I was going to have to STILL keep milking twice a day AND start bottle feeding a calf again.

To top it all off, Thistle was still so annoyed about the calf that when I sat down to milk her myself, she threw another complete tantrum and kicking fit at me.  Having already gone through this once before with her, I knew I could not let it continue.  This time she was not doing it because she was in pain with a sore teat.  She was just in a really pissy temper.

I'd already read all about how to discipline a kicking cow on the Keeping a Family Cow forum.  The cow has to learn that you are the boss of the milking area, not them, and that aggressive behavior is NOT acceptable.  When they kick you, you "kick" them back by rapping the offending leg with a dowel or broomstick.

So I grabbed a stick, and the next time Thistle kicked me, I yelled "NO!" and whacked her leg.  She kicked again harder, so I whacked her again harder.  And she kicked and I whacked and shekickedandIwhacked ANDSHEKICKEDANDIWHACKED until I'm sure we looked like a couple of angry drama queens having a drunken slap-fest.

When Thistle stopped kicking, I petted her, gave her a minute to quiet down, and proceeded to milk as usual.  Although, I must admit I felt like I was taking my life in my hands just to sit down next to her after the way she had behaved.

The next day, milking went fine.  The day after, it was Return to Bitch-Slap City.  By that point, between battling with Thistle and dealing with the sick calf, I was so completely overwhelmed with this whole cow thing, that after milking was done, I came in the house in tears.  Until you do it, you have no idea how stressful and frightening it can be to have to go out twice a day, 7 days a week and spend an hour putting your face and body right up within inches of a 1400 lb. animal that is intent on driving her hoof through your head.

And if you're ever going to make progress, you can't act any differently.  You have to pet her and tell her she's a fine cow and that everything is going to be fine, and you have to exude a sense of calm confidence, no matter how many purple hoof-shaped bruises you're wearing on your thighs from the day before.

That was our lowest point.  After our second knock-down-drag-out, we turned a corner in our relationship.  It took some time for us to regain the trust we'd lost.  For a week or two, I carried my broomstick with me and laid it on the ground by her hind feet as a reminder for her while I milked.  I couldn't help but flinch every time she lifted a foot.  Thistle would flinch and jump any time anything bumped the metal milking pail and made a clang. My flinching made her flinch and her flinching made me flinch, and neither of us wanted to go down that road again.

I would pet her and reassure her that it was okay, and I'd move the pail out of her way so she could shift her feet into a more comfortable position if she needed to.  Gradually, we started to relax and trust each other again.  And this time we were more in tune with each other's communications.  If she needed to rearrange her feet half way through the milking session, I'd stop and let her.  If I accidentally pinched or poked her in a way she didn't like while I was milking, she would gently swish her tail against the back of my head instead of trying to kick my face in.

And with this new found mutual respect, we even came to an understanding about the foster calf.  "He is NOT my baby," Thistle insisted.

I said, "I know he's not your baby.  He's not supposed to be your baby.  He is MY milking machine.  You don't have to love this calf and you don't have to take care of him.  But when  you are tied up in your milking area, you DO have to let him nurse."

For a while I would hold the broomstick in front of Thistle's hind legs while Misha nursed, so that if she tried to kick him, she would bump the stick and get a reminder.  Eventually, that was no longer necessary.  Thistle accepted my interpretation:  The calf was simply a more efficient milking machine than I was, so he got her through the milking session more quickly, which was not a bad thing.

Even after almost 2 months, I still leave her tied up while he nurses, and stay fairly nearby to take him away when he's done.  And true to my new communication ability with Thistle, I try to be alert to when SHE thinks he should be done and not leave him on her much longer than that.  In return, she usually remembers that she's not supposed to kick him, even if she thinks its time for him to stop.

Challenge #19:  Navel Ill

The exact day that Misha finally recovered from his 2-week bout with the scours, he came up with a new problem:  Overnight, a swelling suddenly appeared around his navel.  After feeling and poking at it enough to determine it was not an umbilical hernia, I was able to be sure that it was indeed Navel Ill.

Back to the internet I went to see what the recommended treatment was.  Based on what I found out, I embarked on giving him a course of antibiotics:  relatively high doses of Penicillin twice a day for as long as it took for the swelling to go away, which turned out to be a little over a week.

Penicillin I already had on hand, so that was no big deal.  But now that Misha was over the debilitating weakness of his scours, he was getting stronger and livelier.  Ken was away at work all day every day, and I was here by myself.  It was a challenge holding a large, active calf still enough to give him a shot twice a day, especially after he came to expect it and want to get away from me.

Fortunately, despite the difficulties, I managed the injections well enough, and caught the infection early enough that the infection didn't spread to Misha's joints or organs.  Eventually he recovered from this problem too, and became a frisky, healthy calf.

Challenge #20:  The Self-Weaning Calf

Unbelievably, things on the cow front quieted down for a while after all the previous problems subsided.  While I was still weak from my bout with e-coli, Misha had recovered from his enough that I was able to have him take over the milking chores for me entirely for a few weeks.  It was a nice break.

But just recently there have been a few days when Misha just plain didn't want to nurse when milking time came around.  After dealing with Ivy who would have been happy to live entirely on milk for the rest of her life, it was bewildering to see a calf that didn't really want any milk.

Misha has been a CHAMPION eater, ever since day one.  Even at three days old, suffering from scours and just introduced to a brand new home, when we snugged him down beside some hay bales to keep him warm, he turned and started eating them!

When I bottle fed him, he didn't care if it was formula or real milk in the bottle.  Either one was fine with him.  By the time he was over his scours and pastured with Ivy, he was eating grass and stealing her grain at every opportunity.  He would eat anything!

So his occasional lack of enthusiasm for milk was perplexing.  The first time it happened, I think he had just over-indulged in stealing Ivy's calf starter grain and given himself a tummy ache.  But it happened a couple more times shortly after that.  It seems that as his ability to digest solid foods increases, he happily stuffs himself with them all day, and so is less desperate for milk at feeding time.

So he has been getting finicky.  If he's not super hungry, he doesn't show much enthusiasm for nursing.  If Thistle happens to lie down on a pile of manure at some point during the day, and Misha thinks she smells like poo, he'll turn up his nose and walk away.  It's very odd.

When that happens, I have to be ready to jump in and do the milking instead.  Which is fine if I've planned it, but less convenient if I had planned to let Misha do it.  There's poor Thistle tied in the milking area, already letting her milk down, and Misha walks away.  Then I have to run in the house, wash up, wash the milking pail, get the hot soapy water for washing Thistle's udder, and rush back out to start the milking.  It's not exactly the most efficient way to get the job done.

And of course, it leads us right back up to Challenge #12 again, with Thistle not being willing (or able?) to let down her milk as fully for me as she does for the calf.  So I'm back to struggling and coaxing and nudging and squeezing, trying to get her to let down her milk.  Which, eventually will probably lead me back to Challenge #9 again.

I expect that in another month or two I'll have to decide AGAIN whether to get yet another young foster calf to help with the milking, or if I really do need to invest in a milking machine now.  I suspect that Thistle would have more consistent let down and production with a milking machine, but I just don't have the budget to get one right now.  On the other hand, there's a limit to how many foster calves my pastures can handle during the summer too.

In a normal year, Thistle would be half way through her milking cycle by now, and we'd be thinking about drying her off come August.  However, I decided not to breed her back right away, but instead milk her right around the year so that we could breed her back for a Spring 2013 calf instead of a Fall 2012 calf.  So whatever the challenges are with Thistle's milk production, I have to continue adjusting and readjusting as necessary to get us through another 10 months.

I'm sure it will continue to be an adventure!


Keisha said...

Moo moo! I like cows. :)

Rosie said...

Sheesh! Thank you for posting. We're currently on the market for a family cow as well and I think your story makes it that much more realistic. It seems as if I'm desperately going to have to sign on to the Keeping a Family Cow forum. Things will get better!

Heidi H said...

Love this. It is very helpful considering we are thinking of a cow. Also, I didn't know about the E-Z milker, that is what I use on my goats. I haven't noticed a problem like you described, but I definitely will keep a better eye out.

thecrazysheeplady said...

Oh. My. Goodness. Beautiful pictures though :-).

T. Cupp said...

Great post! I will be sharing it with others in the future. It's hard to get folks to see beyond the idealistic dreams of owning a cow. For many, it's something that must be experienced before they can truly understand. However, you have written this post in such a manner that it is not only delightful reading but it also gives one of the most detailed accounts of the joys and heartaches that I have read condensed so that it can be easily shared with prospective cow owners.

Poetryqn said...

Holy crap! (was that too New York?)I don't think I'll ever look at a piece of cheese the same way again. (and yes, I eat artisanal cheese) Like you, I had always assumed a blissful relationship between cow and maid. Now? Zounds! You are going straight to heaven, Nancy.

Anonymous said...

Wow Nancy! I had no idea how confusing and crazy it was for you when you got your cow!


V.R. Leavitt said...

Wow!!! Whoever thought cow ownership could be so insane! :-)

Leecia Price said...

Nancy, I stumbled across your blog recently and subscribed...I'm so glad I did. This is an amazing post as well as your Part II. I think you suggest that you grew up on a dairy farm?? That would explain why you are tough as nails...I so admire your patience and determination. I had dairy goats for a short time and will get them again...And if I ever, for a second, thought that a cow might be easier than 3 or so dairy goats, I'll never think that again. Fortunately I love goat milk/cheese but I know some folks prefer cow milk. Good luck and I look forward to more informative posts.

Leecia Price