Training a house cow

by Elizabeth Beavis
We have had Molly since she was about 4-5 weeks old, she came here with Bella nearly two years ago now, they are both pure Jersey cows. At first Molly was a crazy, flighty calf, that ran from us every afternoon when we wanted to lock her away from Bella, so that we could milk Bella in the morning. Eventually she got to know and enjoy the afternoon bucket of grain and would follow me into her calf yard. We used that opportunity to get her used to being handled by us. Its certainly been worth all those afternoons stroking her as she ate her grain, she is quite tame, but not as tame as Bella, who was bottle raised. Some cow books advise you to bottle raise your house cow, to make sure she's tame, but that is a lot of work, and I think Molly has grown up big and strong because she was nursed by Bella for over a year. We wouldn't have kept it up for that long if we were bottle feeding her!

Baby Molly with Bella
When Molly started to come on heat at around 9 months old, she used to ignore Bella for a couple days and we had to milk instead. After a few times we decided to just let Molly wean herself, she was about 14 months old when we let her go with Donald the Dexter bull. The plan was that because Donald is very small, we are guaranteed very small calves, which is good for our small Jersey cows. Since then, Molly has been just one of the herd and hasn't had so much attention from us, so she was getting a bit wild again.
Bella with one-year-old Molly (still with shaggy calf coat)
About 2 months before we expected Molly to calve, we started to train her to eat her grain in the milking bales. We got her to come up to the yard with Bella. Bella would go in first and have her grain, and then it was Molly's turn. Molly was quite comfortable in the bales and I was able to stroke her all over, including her udder. She wasn't so impressed when we put the chain across the back of the bales so she couldn't just back out at any time she pleased, but she got used to it eventually. Even with all this training, we were worried that Molly would be difficult to milk.
Molly a coupe of days before she gave birth
A few days before Molly’s due date, we put her in a small paddock close to the house, so we could keep an eye on her. I wonder if she knew what all the fuss was about, we were checking her several times a day! Finally on the 282nd day of her pregnancy, Pete went to check on Molly early in the morning and came back to say she might be in labour. We had breakfast, and by the time we went back out, there was a little calf on the ground. Molly was very pleased with herself and mooing gently to the calf and licking him all over. She let me get close enough to confirm that he was a “him”. As she licked him he made several attempts to stand, getting stronger each time. It is amazing to see how strong and capable they are only 15 minutes after birth.

Everything was going well, except that Molly refused to give him a drink. He was looking everywhere for her teat, but every time he got close to her udder, she would move away or give him a gentle kick. We tried putting her in the milking bales and moving him in behind, but still no success. Finally we decided to give him some of the colostrum that we froze from Bella and just leave the two of them to figure it out. I felt better knowing that he had a little bit in his belly to keep him going until Molly figured out that her role as Mumma Cow is to provide the milk!
Molly with newborn Monty
The next morning I went out with the bottle again, and the little calf was not interested, he also had a suspiciously round belly. That’s when we knew that Molly had let him have a drink.

The next job was to persuade Molly to let us milk her. The worst part was getting her into the milking bales as she didn’t want to leave her calf. Lucky he was tiny at first and we could carry him up to the front of the bales to be near her. She also did not particularly appreciate the milking machine, but didn't try very hard to kick it off and actually was more cooperative than Bella was at first. She kept trying to climb out the front of the bales, so we had to put up a barrier (she is a bit taller than Bella and can stick her head over the grain trough). We managed to milk her on the afternoon after she gave birth. We got about 5 L of colostrum from her, which we froze for future calves. She is still getting used to the idea of leaving her calf and coming into the milking bales, we will get there eventually, we just have to be more stubborn than the cow!

Bella has never been terribly cooperative about the milking machine, even though she came from a commercial dairy and was milked twice a day for several years, so she should be used to it, its a bit easier when the cows are all wedged in next to each other!  The best method we found is to have two people put the cups on so you can hold them up until the vacuum establishes. Then you have one person at the back of the bales with the machine, ready to rescue the teat cups if she starts kicking them off, and one person on the side, where the cow can see them (this is usually me), trying to calm the cow by talking gently and stroking her back. If she does try to kick at the machine, the person at the side can put pressure on her back and hips, so that it is physically difficult for her to kick. Bella only gives us trouble when she first has her calf, after a while we just get a little kick at the end to help us off with the cups.

Monty at two-days-old
Lots of people suggested to us to tie the cow’s leg. Trying to put a strap around Bella’s leg only resulted in more ferocious kicking and she nearly fell over in the bales. We find its best to leave the cow’s leg alone, but it obviously works for some people!

If you want to know more, this is an excellent article on milking a house cow.  

Do you have a house cow? Any tips for training? And what to do in the early days after the calf is born?

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