This post may contain affiliate links. I may earn an affiliate commission if you click on a link and purchase an item at no additional cost to you. All opinions are my own.
Enjoy the benefits of calf sharing while providing your family with nutritious raw milk. Calf share and milk once a day! The process is simple and beneficial to everyone involved, including the calf!
If you’re looking to purchase a new milk cow, check out my guide to buying a family milk cow!
What is Calf Sharing (or milk sharing)?
Calf sharing simply is keeping your milk cow and calf together, and utilizing the calf to maintain a healthy milking routine.
Before you read on, I need to say that each cow is different, each family’s needs are different, and the environment plays a heavy part in this as well. Finding the routine that is best for you and your family’s cow/calf may take time, but it’s worth it. You will also find that your ‘routine’ and expectations need to be flexible. They need to change with your cow’s needs or her calf’s needs. The cow and calf’s health should always be the top priority when calf-sharing.
Calf Sharing Methods
There are different methods of calf sharing. Two that I am familiar with are separating the calf completely from the cow, and only allowing the calf to nurse 2-3 times a day. The second is to allow the calf to be with the cow at all times. Only separating them at night so that you milk once a day in the morning. The latter is my favored method. It is the one I find the most simplistic and stress-free for both myself and the cow/calf.
Benefits of Calf Sharing
It’s true that keeping a milk cow is a big commitment regardless if you calf share or not. Calf sharing allows more flexibility in your schedule, as opposed to weaning the calf and milking your cow twice a day from freshening until you dry her up.
The second benefit, at least for me, is less wasted milk. I know what my family needs and then the rest is cleaned up by the calf.
The third, and sweetest benefit, is keeping the cow and her calf together. They develop a strong bond and, I believe, are so much healthier with each other’s companionship.
Fourth, is the calf’s nutrition. For our Black Angus cattle, we leave the calves on their mothers for at least 8 months. The calves always grow better and are healthier when they are fed with their own mother’s milk. If you are planning on keeping your calf as a future milk cow, or for beef, keeping the calf on the cow longer will greatly benefit your calf’s health.
When To Begin Calf Sharing
Your cow is about ready to calve, you’ve been waiting patiently (or not so patiently, if you’re like me!) with milking gear sterilized and ready for weeks. She finally does surprise you with that sweet doe-eyed baby (or babies!)…now what?
Just like humans, a cow first produces colostrum. This is the nutrient-rich sticky yellow substance that is so incredibly critical for the calf’s health. This is the time to let Momma and baby bond. It is also a time for the calf to get as much colostrum as it can. It’s your job right now to make sure you see the cow licking the calf. You also need to make sure the calf gets up and nurses.
Keep An Eye on Her Udder the first 24 Hours
During the first day, you need to carefully monitor the new calf. There is no need to try to milk the cow out just yet. Watch her over the next 24 hours. If her bag starts to look painfully tight and she seems uncomfortable, then her milk has come in and you need to begin to milk her out.
She may be tender, so be prepared for her not standing for you to just walk up and milk her. The combination of hormones and edema will make for an uncomfortable first few days, especially if this is her first calf. A halter (if she is halter broke) or head catch may be necessary to restrain her. Sometimes my cows are so appreciative of relief that they’ll let me milk them out in the pasture, unrestrained, but that’s not always the case.
Dairy Cows Would Not Survive In the ‘Wild’
One thing to remember, is that dairy cattle are bred for high milk production. They are dependent on humans to help them maintain a healthy udder. If they were out in nature and produced such a high quantity of milk, they would most likely develop milk fever or mastitis. If we let ‘nature take its course’, nature wouldn’t be very kind to them. It is our job, as their caretakers, to stay ahead of any problems that come from an udder that isn’t emptied out.
I usually start milking on day two. Make sure the calf is up and nursing, and if the calf hasn’t nursed yet (always make sure the calf is nursing on day one) you’ll need to leave some in the udder for it.
Do not go any longer than 2-3 days before starting to milk her out. You want your cow to be comfortable and the calf to be able to nurse easily. I milk morning and night for the first two months, always making sure the calf has enough.
When To Separate
Typically, I do not separate the cow and calf at all during the first two months. This will depend on your cow’s production and the calf’s needs. Watch them both carefully before you decide to start separating them.
When the calf is two months old, I begin the transition to once-a-day (OAD) milking. This transition needs to be slow and spread out over two weeks’ time. Any sudden changes could cause your cow to develop mastitis, or upset the calf’s digestive system.
The process of transition to OAD milking for me looks like this:
Begin milking earlier in the evenings so that the time between the evening and the next morning milking gets spread out further and further.
Next, I start to take less and less milk at the evening milkings.
The final step is to lock the calf up at night where it will be safe and feel safe. When you are separating a calf from its mother, keep in mind that it will spook easier. Make sure the enclosure is safe for the calf. Also make sure that it will not get caught in fencing or anything that could injure it.
Separating The Calf
always separate my cow and calf by two fences. I’ve learned my lesson many times (when I forget to close that second gate!) that a cow is so dedicated to her calf that she’ll get up close to the fence and let her calf nurse through the fence. After those incidences, I’ve come out to an udder that is half empty.
This is a great time to begin halter breaking the calf, if you haven’t already. Whenever I bring my cow in for milking, I also give the calf a little bit of grain and slip a halter over her head. She is then tied to the fence and learns pretty quickly to yield to an immovable object.
Supply & Demand
Another really important thing to keep in mind is ‘supply and demand.’ If you want your cow to keep producing, then you need to strip her out every time you milk her (if the calf is not nursing as much anymore. If your calf still runs up and nurses your cow as soon as you let them back together, then you don’t need to worry about this as much. As the calf grows it will start to eat more of what the cow eats and won’t be quite as dependent on the cow’s milk.
During the cold months, depending on our family’s milk needs, I will occasionally leave the calf with the cow all night. Usually she is completely nursed out in the morning, especially if it’s a really cold night. But even with the calf on her all night, I always check the cow’s udder in the morning and finish milking her out if need be.
While the calf is growing there is an eb and flow of milk demand on the cow. When the cow first freshens, the calf will not be able to clean her udder out. As the calf grows it grows it will require more milk.
The cow reaches her peak milk production around 3 months, which makes perfect sense in how God designed them – the cow peaks when the calf requires the most milk. As the calf continues to grow and its digestive system develops, it will begin to eat more grass and grains and will depend less on the cow to meet its nutritional needs.
A big factor to keep in mind is keeping feed in front of your cow at all times. When you separate the cow and calf at night, the cow needs to have constant access to feed and water. The calf should also have access to feed and water while it is away from the cow.
Things to Watch For
You should always keep an eye on your cow’s udder and behavior whether you’re calf sharing or not. I know when my cow is acting off. It’s better to be pro-active than to end up treating a case of mastitis or milk fever.
Mid-Lactation Milk Fever – while this is a more rare occurrence than early lactation milk fever, it is still something to watch for, especially if your cow is still producing a large quantity of milk. Do the research. Read up on the signs of milk fever and how to be prepared. I always have calcium boluses and a bolus gun on hand. Have your vet instruct you on how to safely use them. If you aren’t confident giving a bolus, then you need to have your vet’s phone number handy at all times during calving.
Always watch the calf
I recently had an incident that made me thankful I keep such a close eye on them. We had an extremely cold night (-30 F!) so I had left the calf with the cow. The next morning, the cow was slow to come in for her grain and the calf was slow to get up, which isn’t normal. I also noticed that the cow’s udder had not been sucked out even though they were both together all night. Warning bells instantly went off.
We were able to doctor the calf (a blessing of her being halter broke and that we didn’t have to get her in the squeeze chute) and on the mend right away. I also milked 2 gallons out of the cow’s udder that morning. Had I not been keeping a close eye on them, the calf could have become much sicker (especially in the extreme cold temps that week), and the cow could have developed a case of mastitis or at least a VERY sore udder had I not milked her out. It always pays to be proactive!
In the past I have had cows that for whatever reason decide they’d rather save half of their milk for their calves. One of these cows had twins, so I can understand her viewpoint a little! It can be very frustrating though as the milkmaid if your cow isn’t letting down. It is harder to milk and your quality of milk isn’t near as good as when they let down all the rich creamy milk!
Here are two tricks to try to help her relax and accept you as her best friend. First, you want to be her buddy. Before she calves, you should be out in her pen giving her a little grain every day, brushing her down, and finding all of those gooooood scratching spots. She will soon become your BFF and will know that she can trust you.
Get In A Routine
Cows LOVE routine. They thrive on routine. If you get her in a good routine of brushing her down when she first comes in to get her grain and brushing her udder down really well before you wash her, that will help her develop a trust with you and will HOPEFULLY help her to release that lovely oxytocin that encourages letdown. Washing her udder with warm water may also help her to relax and let down. If you’d like to see what my daily milking routine looks like you can read this post.
The second option, and more cumbersome, is to bring her calf in when you’re ready to milk. Let the calf suck to initiate letdown and then pull the calf off once you see that she’s let down. Obviously, this only works if the calf is hungry and small enough that you can move it around easily. Pulling a big calf off of a cow when it’s hungry is not easy task and gets old quick!
If you’re watching your cow and calf closely, you’ll know when the calf isn’t nursing. There could be several reasons for this, and while I won’t diagnose it here for you, I will give you a couple thoughts that will help give you direction as you problem solve.
Although cows only have a bottom set of incisor teeth, the calves can still get really hard on a cow’s quarters. You will notice cuts or tears on the quarters. The weather can play a big role in this as well. Cold winter winds can dry out and chap the sensitive skin. The cow could be sore and kicking them calf off when it tried to nurse.
The quarters should be conditioned with udder cream or balm 1-2 times a day. If you are already separating the calf and your cow gets sore quarters, the best time to apply the salve is right after you’ve separate them so that the cow has time to heal before the calf cleans the salve off.
It is very important to always condition your cow’s udder and keep the skin healthy. I like to use a lanolin-based udder cream that also protects from frost. Calves can be hard on a cow’s udder, so it’s important to stay on top of this if you are calf sharing.
Sharing is Caring (and the calf will thank you!)
Calf sharing requires diligence and consistency, but it is a very rewarding system for all involved – your family, your cow, and her calf.
I hope this gave you a clearer picture of what it looks like to calf share. If you have any questions, you are always welcome to ask questions below, email me, or send me a message on Instagram @downacowtrail. I’ll be happy to help you!