Drying off Your Milk Cow
I’ve seen lots of questions lately from first time milkers regarding drying off milk cows. I’ve also seen lots of advice. I thought I’d share my two cents here. Let me preface the following advice by saying, I am not a vet. I do a lot of research and reading on anything farm related that I can get my hands on and try to make the most educated decision possible. This is simply my opinion and what has worked best for us.
Since long-term milk production is a human invention, and not the natural order of things, we have to ensure we don’t wear our girls out. This involves giving them, and you, a few months of rest. Most cows wean their calves around six months of age, and the calf’s demands on the milk spigot gradually drops as it eats more grass. With human intervention, a healthy lactation cycle should run around 10 months.
So, now that you have the spigot turned on, how do you turn it off? The options usually go something like this: 1) Milk them out the last time completely and treat them with a dry cow antibiotic; 2) Milk them in ever-lengthening intervals; 3) Milk them every other day; and 4) Just stop milking. We run our farm using organic practices, so we do not use any of the artificial means to dry off our cows which means option number one is out. Running a farm and having full-time jobs means we must run on a schedule, so option number two probably isn’t the best option either. This leaves us with options three and four.
The simplest and easiest way to dry a cow off is to just stop milking (option 4). Seriously, just stop milking her. No, buts … just stop milking her. This works for our Brown Swiss, Jolene (Jo), or any of the Dexters. The Brown Swiss or Dexter breeds naturally start drying themselves off. The amount of milk we get towards the end of their lactation cycle is not worth the effort to milk them! When we notice she is starting to dry herself off, we just simply stop milking and keep an eye on her. If you choose this method, do not milk them out halfway after a few days “just to ease some of the pressure”. The pressure in their udders is the signal for the cow’s mammary glands to stop producing milk. If you relieve it intermittently, her glands are signaled to start producing milk again. Without stimulation, her udders will start to reduce in about a week. She’ll be a little uncomfortable for a few days as her bag fills up, but since there’s no demand, her system will shut down production pretty quickly. Her bag will continue to look full for several months. If you find it necessary to check on her in the meantime, please be extra vigilant not to bump her udders in any way. This will stimulate a letdown, and the process starts all over again.
Our Jersey Devon cross, Artemis, is a different story and leads us to option three. Jo and the Dexters get down to a half-gallon or so before you say, “ok, I’m wasting my time here”. Artemis turns everything into milk! Her milk production equals her input. We have already cut back on her goodies to get her down to a gallon and a half and a once a day milking, so the plan for Artemis is to cut down on her volume a little more before drying her off. We will continue to milk her once a day until she is about 75 days away from calving. We will then milk her every other day for the next two weeks and then just stop milking her. We are deviating from our normal just stop milking theory because of her volume capability and out of selfishness. I am going to miss my fresh milk! Hopefully, I have enough stock piled to get us through!
Now for all of the buts: “But, I’m worried she’ll get sick”; “But, don’t I have to xxx”; “But, what about mastitis”, and the list goes on. You can do a few things to ensure better success. As mentioned before, make sure her volume is down before drying her off, and cut way down on any treats she is given to milk. All of our animals are pastured raised with few supplements. Our lactating cows do get supplements. We provide them timothy hay, beet pellets, kelp, and apple cider vinegar at milking. Never alfalfa or grain. Grass and grain cannot both be properly digested at the same time. Grain should only be fed as an emergency fall black plan (drought). Alfalfa fosters mastitis. Legumes, particularly alfalfa, are high in oestrogenic substances. Turning legumes into silage does not reduce the oestrogenic properties responsible for fostering mastitis. An intake of a large quantity of oestrogenic legumes encourage premature development of the udder tissue and increases the incidence of environmental mastitis.
Since we don’t feed grain, cutting out grain or high protein diets is never a problem for us. If you do feed your milk cow grain or other types of high protein diets, again you should definitely cut it way back to dry her off. If you have the option, try to keep drying cows off good pasture. We have two really nice hay pastures and another currently getting rehabbed that isn't up to par yet. When drying off, the cows are on the pasture not seeded yet. This does help with reducing milk production and from getting fat or over conditioned before or during their dry period. If kelp is not part of your cow’s normal diet, start now. Dry kelp meal helps boost the cow’s immunity, thus enhancing the fight against mastitis bacteria. Aim for a daily dose of 2 oz of the meal.
It’s a good idea to handle and visit your dry milk cows just as you would when they are in milk. This makes it much easier for both of you when it’s milking time again. It also keeps you in tune with her health. Supply meets demand, so just stop demanding. Don’t over complicate it or overthink it.