Why hunt?

Some people may wonder why anyone would want to hunt, especially medium game like deer. Our society is virtually pre-occupied with providing entertainment–film, golf, Netflix, professional sports, etc. Why do thousands of folks head out into the woods in November and December to freeze their butts and fingers off? Our ancestors had a clear and compelling reason to hunt–to make it through the winter. We don’t.

I am confining myself to discussion of hunting Whitetail Deer–overwhelmingly the most important game species on this continent. Though I do hunt rabbits, squirrels, and doves, I consider this a different kind of hunting, one I will address at another time.

I’ve alway been fascinated by firearms, and I am pretty open minded when it comes to the kind, though I have a strongly nostalgic heart. If it’s made of steel and wood and uses combustion to propel a projectile, I like it. But change is what keeps something interesting, and after all, firearms are non-living. They are remarkable, in fact, for their durability and longevity. Any well-made firearm, if kept clean and oiled, will last almost indefinitely, easily outliving their makers and generations of owners. I have more than few firearms made in the nineteenth century which are still in fine-working condition, and they are some of my favorites. This constancy invites boredom, though. This is why most people that are fascinated with firearms are constantly messing with them, modifying them, hand-loading ammunition for them. It’s all rooted in the fact that we are alive while firearms are not. But deer…they are alive, too, well, at least until we make them dead.

Some people become quite obsessed with extracting every last bit of accuracy out of a given rifle, in a vain (in my opinion) attempt to give paper some thrill. “Only Accurate rifles are interesting” Townsend Whelen was reputed to say. But for me accuracy became boring, too. I am just not so impressed by achieving tight little groups on paper. I like it for sure, but the larger reality is that this sort of thing is very artificial. It really doesn’t take much skill to get an inherently accurate rifle, put some glass on it, prepare very exacting ammunition, and then shoot off a heavy, bagged bench into a stationary target. This sort of contest is really a matter of who is willing to commit the greatest amount of time and resources to the endeavor. I think it far more interesting and challenging to be able to hit a living, reacting, sensory target under adverse conditions. Our brain goes up against their superior senses; our weapon goes up against their superior speed, concealment, and agility in a forest-wide drama that plays out every year.

Deer are fascinating animals, like most large mammals. As fascinating as I find cattle and  all the other domestic animals, I have nearly boundless admiration for deer, which make their livings on the margins, without the direct assistance of man. In fact, they are among the few animals that get on in spite of our best efforts to eat them. The Native Americans, with all their intelligence and skill, never managed to bring deer populations down using bows and arrows. It took white man, with our firearms, to get the upper hand.

Around WWII in most of the United States Whitetail Deer populations became very low; uncontrolled hunting brought them nearly to extinction like the buffalo. So state governments began to regulate hunting to limit the destruction we could bring to deer, and with changes that came to agriculture post-war, deer populations not only rebounded, they exploded. My grandfather, father, and I were all born in Chicago. When my father was was a child in the early 1950s his father took the family to Wisconsin on a summertime mission “to see a deer” almost certainly prompted by the movie Bambi. They were unsuccessful despite much driving around in woods of Southern Wisconsin. By the time I was a child in the late 1980s, deer were overpopulating the Chicago Forest Preserves, and we watched groups of them from my high school’s grandstand.

Ironically, the decline in the use of pastures and hayfields that I routinely decry was a tremendous boon to deer, much like dumpsters and trashcans have been a great boon to coon and squirrel kind. It’s almost as if deer began to exploit the spaces vacated by sheep and cattle. As the fences were ripped out, and the beans and corn planted, tremendous food resources were created for deer. Marginal lands that were too rugged for tillage were abandoned and reverted to woodlands, a land use pattern initiated by the Conservation Reserve Program, providing ideal early succession woodland deer habitat. Deer are not truly wild anymore. They are semi-domesticated to my thinking. Their populations would be a fraction of what they are without us, but we don’t fence them in, and they flee from us.

Nowadays Whitetails positively require control, and there are a few ways to accomplish this. I am confident in asserting that re-introuduction of predators like Cougars and Wolves will not be popular, so that leaves State governments hiring professional hunters to bag thousands of them or recruiting a legion of amateur hunters to bag a few, charging each of them a small fee for the privilege of doing so (hunting licenses, deer tags, etc.). Economically speaking, the latter method is greatly preferable. Deer hunting keeps balance, while also providing the hunter with a very high-quality red meat.

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So, to summarize, I deer hunt for a few reasons:

  1. To provide a non-boring and challenging thing to do with firearms, to appreciate time in the woods
  2. To contribute to deer population control efforts, supporting state wildlife programs
  3. To furnish alternative red meat for the table.

 

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Kefir Cheese Mega Fail

Back in the spring I was exuberant after reading The Art of Natural Cheesemaking by David Asher. This sounded great! Finally, a way to make good cheese without being shackled to mail-order companies for the cultures. And the promise of all these wonderful cheeses to eat all year, even during the cow’s dry period. Alas, it was mostly a waste of time, the cheese at least; the education we received was most valuable.

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Is this mold edible, will it make you sick? I don’t know. But it tastes like crap.

Basically the method David Asher uses is to rely upon Kefir, which is a symbiotic colony of microorganisms (bacterias and yeasts, around 20 of them possibly), many of which naturally occur in raw milk. The idea is to treat the cheese in different ways to favor certain organisms in the kefir. He also uses “backslopped” whey to provide cultures in some cheeses. This all sounds so convenient and “natural” and splendid. We’re making cheese the way our ancestors did. Too bad it tastes like crap, and is certainly nothing that would endear anyone to keeping dairy animals or home-cheesemaking.

Kefir doesn’t taste good, so I am not sure why I though it would make a good tasting cheese. It is inferior flavor-wise compared to yogurt prepared from just one or two desirable cultures. I think this is the crux of the matter. Kefir has good organisms in it, which culture the milk and impart positive flavors, but it also has a chance of having bad organisms living in it as well. There are no guarantees. Kefir is not only an unstable product, changing over time under maintenance conditions, it is a non-standard product. We tried Kefir purchased from three different sources, and none of them tasted good, but one of them sure was strong and cultured anything it came into contact with.

The cheeses we make without Kefir–Paneer and Mozzarella basically–turn out fine. They are staples in may family’s diet. Paneer is undoubtedly the best meat substitute I’ve come across. I prefer it over chicken breast. And these are relatively easy cheeses to make compared to aged cheeses, both soft and hard, and are a sure thing. We’ve never had it turn out poorly. Asher’s methods for these cheeses work well, but so does everybody’s methods (Gianaclis Caldwell and Ricki Carroll are the other two major cheesemaking authors in English). There are countless instrutional sources for making these cheeses, which can even be made with store-bough pasteurized homogenized milk.

Aged cheesemaking is quite involved, a real level-up from scratch home cooking. There are more containers to wash, the recipes need to be followed much more carefully, and a whole lot more time is spent in front of hot pots of cheese curds, slowly stirring, or performing other manipulations. It practically drove my wife to despair to watch a half dozen beautiful hard cheeses change into a rainbow of colors in our cheese cave after she spent hours working on them. When we finally cut into them, and she couldn’t even eat them because the odor was so strong and rank, she almost cried. I was able to taste them. Without a doubt the most inferior cheese I’ve ever eaten…worse than even “cheese wiz” and Veleveeta” which are at least edible. And we weren’t born yesterday. Few of our cooking endeavors fail. When we brew something, it works. When we cook something, it works. When we butcher something, it works. Our milk is extremely fresh and clean, lasting weeks in its raw state, and sometimes no more than 10 minutes would elapse between the udder and the cheese pot! Our efforts and ingredients weren’t the source of failure here. It was entirely relying upon an unstable, inconsistent starter organism to ferment our cheeses.

I fault David Asher for promoting this idea of using Kefir instead of prepared, pure, and known cultures. Kefir may work for him (though he doesn’t disclose the percentages of failures he has experienced in his book and you obviously can’t taste something in a book) under his conditions and with his Kefir, but it sure doesn’t work for us, and in the end, when you consider all the expense to make cheese (the rennet, waxes, salts, straining fabric, cheese cave, the energy input, and of course the MILK) it is a small price to pay for prepared cultures that give you a reasonable assurance of a good outcome.

I see all sorts of positive reviews and raves on the internet regarding his book, but not many pictures of cheese, let alone blue ribbons. Makes me wonder.

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The Drought Breaks

This year our drought came late, and was particularly acute in the final two weeks of September. We’ve had little rain since early September, so the ground was very dry. This was probably punishment for getting all excited after the initial rain we received after hurricane Harvey; we’ve received almost no precipitation since then.

Yesterday I mowed down most of the garden for the year. Ordinarily I roto-till then sew Winter Wheat and culti-pack to provide an overwintering cover crop. But this year it was so dry that the mower was kicking up dust clouds. It would have been a disaster to have tilled in such conditions.

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Without a doubt good pasture is a far nicer scene than a field of dry soybeans. The Perennial Ryegrass held on though the drought, and with some rain, flushed into a lush green. 

So I just waited. Tomorrow I will roto-till and sew the Wheat. Indeed, the “Hessian fly free” planting date for my latitude in Indiana is October 3rd according to Purdue University, and I’ve stuck to this in the past. This year I will be a little late. The truth is that date has little to do with it. The germination of winter grains is far more dependent upon moisture and good soil-seed contact than it is dependent upon anything else. If either one of those is lacking, germination will be poor. I use a culti-packer to improve contact and just hope for rain, though I suppose with the small field of wheat I plant I could irrigate it.

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An Ode to White Clover

One of the most unheralded, yet important, plants of agricultural merit is the little White Clover plant. The Irish seem to have understood its importance. The plant which England chose to represent itself, the Rose, is beautiful no doubt, but for the most part inedible to man and beast, and has thorns. The Welsh had more sense in choosing the Leak, a praiseworthy vegetable, but hardly something one can live off. And the Scots. What can be said of people that chose a Thistle to represent them? But the Irish, or perhaps St. Patrick in alluding to the Holy Trinity, chose the cloverleaf. Clover, along with some grass, can feed a people (well, their beasts). The Irish suffered a potato blight, but I fear, a clover blight would have been the end of them.

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Fortunately White Clover is an outstandingly vigorous plant, incredibly resilient, and very productive. In some ways, it can be considered immortal. While individual White Clover plants may die, and in fact don’t live very long at all on average, they have the remarkable ability to “creep,” which is what the latin word Repens means in their taxonomic name: trifolum repens translates “creeping three leaves.” This creeping is simply the plants’ ability to issue lateral stems, or stolons, that take root and develop into another independent clover plant. Many plants have this ability, like strawberries, but none do it as aggressively as White Clover. If there is a gap where sunlight isn’t being consumed by some taller plant, you can be sure White Clover will be in there soon to make use of it. By constantly creeping the massive colony of White Clover in a pasture can live essentially forever. Only the darkest woods can overcome White Clover.

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Despite its prodigious propagative ability, White Clover has incredibly vigorous seeds as well. I seeded all my pastures (over 7 acres) with just 10 pounds of seed, about enough to fill a gallon milk jug. The seeding rate for White Clover is usually listed at 2 pounds to the acre, and this isn’t seed catalog hype, like it is with many other plants (8 pounds per acre of Red Clover is certainly hype, I’ve never had good coverage with less than 12). Because of that ability to creep, any mistakes you make in applying the seed are easily forgiven, and may even go unnoticed. The seeds are small and round, so they fling quite nicely. They also do well frost seeded.

But all of this would be pretty unremarkable if it weren’t for the secret weapon that all clovers (and all legumes) possess. After all, Kentucky Bluegrass, Canarygrass, and Bromegrass all creep. The difference is the unique symbiotic relationship legumes developed with certain bacteria. The legume provides a home, and sugar, to the bacteria. The bacteria specialize in fixing atmospheric nitrogen into useable nitrate, the building block of amino acids (which make up protein), for the legume. These bacteria are called Rhizobia and they live in little visible nodules on the roots of legumes. It is not lost on me that this symbiosis parallels the beneficent symbiosis ruminant animals have with bacteria in their rumen which break down cellulose.

Rhizobia symbiosis makes a pasture with good legume content essentially self fertilizing. A healthy, balanced pasture will take in all the nitrogen it needs from the air. The only fertilizers that will be needed are occasional inputs of various elemental fertilizers. Small amounts of lime (to provide calcium and magnesium), granite (to provide phosphorus mainly), and potash (to provide potassium). One thing White Clover cannot tolerate is a lack of these elements or an improper pH, but just about any soil can be amended to make it hospitable to White Clover, and once this is done, the fertility of the soil is highly durable and improves with time. Grains, especially corn, only wear out a soil with time. White Clover restores.

Of great benefit is the  automatic balancing of legumes and grasses in a healthy pasture. When the nitrogen availability is depleted the legumes will get the upper hand and outcompete the grasses, which cannot fix their own nitrogen. When the nitrogen is plentiful, the grasses, which grow faster, will get the upper hand on the legume. No legume competes with grass as effectively as White Clover. In fact, all the other legumes will eventually succumb to grass. Once they’ve brought the nitrogen level up, the grasses dominate, and the legumes die back. White Clover just waits, for it is immortal, and the time will come again when the nitrogen is depleted, and then it will spring forth.

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Foreground is Red Clover in its first year, and in the background is Red Clover in its 3rd year. See how the grass comes to dominate! Even Alfalfa, the most persistent, eventually succumbs to grass like this. But not White Clover.

For decades my fields were in what is known as “continuous corn.” This is the practice of planting corn every year and applying every spring the exact amount of synthetic fertilizer that crop scientists say is removed from the field by the previous corn crop. This means the field is sprayed with highly soluble nitrogen fertilizer, which suppress the native nitrogen fixing bacteria. So, when I transitioned my fields to pasture, there was not much in the way of free-living nitrogen fixing bacteria in the soil. Pretty much the ONLY nitrogen fixing bacteria was the rhizobia hitching rides on the seed of the White Clover. This gave the clover such a competitive advantage verses any grass or forb out there that it resulted in nearly a monoculture of White Clover, which can be dangerous. As I’ve alluded to before, most legumes, and each of the big three (Alfalfa, White Clover, and Red Clover) can cause bloat in ruminant livestock, a fatal condition. The best prevention for bloat is to keep the legume content under 60% in a pasture and to plant only high-quality grasses. White Clover is one of the tastiest and most palatable plants, and cattle greatly prefer it. So if the grass out there is not so good, grasses like Orchardgrass and Fescue, only White Clover may be consumed. This is why I think Ryegrass and Bluegrass, the two most palatable grasses, should be well represented in a pasture.

Another benefit of White Clover is that in addition to being the ideal pasture legume, it is also the perfect Honey Bee forage plant. White Clover produces many flowers, and they bloom pretty much continuously from early Spring through the end of Fall, providing a steady stream of very neutral tasting nectar. The plants, being small and densely distributed, are highly efficient for honeybees. Instead of traveling great distances to gather nectar and return to the hive, they can hit nearly every flower in a small patch, load up, and head back. After all, a worker bee’s life is measured in miles, not time. They fly until their wings shred up. I am convinced the decline of honey bee populations is in part caused by decreasing use of White Clover in agriculture. Alfalfa, a much bigger plant, seems more productive to the farmer, so it is grown instead. Too bad Alfalfa is poor Honey Bee forage, and even Red Clover isn’t of much use to Honey bees, either. Alfalfa has a special relationship with the (useless) Alfalfa Leaf-cutter Bee, and Red Clover has a special relationship with (useless) Bumble Bees.

White clover is usually sold in three different kinds, or eco-types. There is dwarf or “Dutch” white clover, which is very diminutive plant. It is what is usually found in lawns. And there is Ladino, which is much larger. Ladino is almost as large as Red Clover. In between is standard White Clover, which I think is the best for most purposes. It is highly stoloniferous like dwarf, yet almost as large and productive as Ladino. It works as hay and as pasture. And there are improved varieties available. The one I have used, and have been extremely impressed with, is called Kopu II. Bred in New Zealand, it is very productive, surprisingly drought tolerant, and very stoloniferous. Incredibly economical as well. It is only about $5 per acre and can be essentially immortal. Only Kentucky Bluegrass is comparably frugal.

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Indian Summer

I am not at all sure how the phrase “Indian Summer” came into use, but what it describes is a basically summer that lingers well into Autumn or one that “re-appears” after a period of Autumn-like weather. The latter case is what seems to be happening this year around here. August was unusually moist and cool and so were the first two weeks of September; I think the weather was being modulated but the series of hurricanes affecting the Southeastern United States. Now we are back to high summertime temperatures and quasi-drought conditions.

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These Indian summers are great for anyone with standing grain crops. It helps them dry down, which saves propane used to dry the grain to level required by the commodities market. Were we live this means that propane may be cheaper this “heating season” than in years when it is wetter, such is the magnitude of the “corn-drying” that occurs.

Indian summers are not so good for fall vegetables in the garden, or for summer or fall planted crops like Brassicas, Carrots, or Crimson Clover. With regular irrigation, they are growing well. Indian Summers are not so good for pastures or for hayfields either, but it is surprising to me how well they endure it. We haven’t had good rainfall in over two weeks, and there is no forecast of rain presently. The ground is dry to at least 20″ (I just dug some post holes). Yet clover and grass plants out in our pastures are blanketed with a heavy coat of dew every night. I am convinced some of this moisture runs down their stems and leaves to the roots below, and provides just enough moisture to keep them going. Compared to high summer, when the nights remain hot, and there is not much dew, many pasture plants can go dormant. They don’t seem to do that during Indian summers.

One of my favorite things about Indian summer are the pleasant evening conditions. We’re past the equinox, and the sun sets earlier now, and is at an oblique angle, so the evenings are much cooler with fewer shadows and a golden hue in the light. It sometimes produces an other-worldly look, I think.

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Two of my little daughters playing wedding in the golden light of a September evening.

 

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Family Cow breeds

The reason why we keep a Jersey is pretty simple. Jerseys are the breed most adapted to small-scale dairying or being a “family cow” because that is how they were kept on the little Isle of Jersey, where they originated, for hundreds of years (the Guernsey is similar). In fact, Jerseys were commonly tethered and moved frequently to new patches of forage long before portable electric fence was invented in a sort of small-scale, primitive version of management intensive rotational grazing. Indeed, on a small island with rather unremarkable soil, there would be no other way to do it.

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The magnificent beast, Lizzy, a bit camera shy.

Jerseys are the smallest dairy breed, eat the least amount of feed per gallon of milk produced, and have the highest butterfat content in their milk (again, Guernseys are very close in this regard). Butterfat content is a very important consideration because butter is perhaps the most important food made from milk, and there is never enough of it. There is often way too much MILK, and you are always trying to find ways to dispose of it (make cheese, feed it to monogastric livestock, fertilize the garden with it), but we’ve never had a surplus of butter.

Jerseys, of course, have their drawbacks. They are small yet high production (they produce as much or more milk than breeds much larger, and only the Holstein outproduces), so they suffer Milk Fever worse than any breed. I’ve said before they are the Porsche or Ferrari of dairy cattle. They are small, high performance, and exacting, and not has cold-hardy as bigger cattle (they are more heat tolerant than most, though). They are intelligent, too. Sometimes too much for their own good. But they like people and are tractable, which are not commonly appreciated traits.

Beef cattle, in my observation, do not like people, and are not tractable; they are always resisting, challenging, and being generally ornery. I think it is because they view us as a predator, or a potential predator. Dairy cattle, on the other hand, have had their fear of two-legged primates pretty well bred out of them. It’s hard enough to milk a nice, well-bred diary cow. I can’t imagine the trouble it must be to milk a half-bred beef cow with a psychology that half-way wants to kill you and hold up the milk for its calf. Even small cows like Jerseys are much stronger than even the strongest of men. It’s also why I would strongly avoid any cattle with horns.

Holsteins and Jerseys are by far the most common dairy cattle where I live, and practically speaking, may be the only cows available. If you are going to choose between the two and live in an ordinary climate, there is no question–the Jersey is preferable.

I happen to think that Jerseys are far from ideal as a family cow, or at least they’ve become that way since interest in them as a serious commercial breed began 30 or 40 years ago. There are basically two approaches to “improvement.” You can cross Jerseys with something like a Dexter, which is a small dual-purpose breed, and hope you get a good-producing, gentle, and hardy family-cow, and I’ve seen many good examples, but there is the risk you end up with the opposite: low Dexter production and Jersey fragility. The other approach, and the one that I think is more predictable, is to just breed Jerseys in a direction that is more appropriate for the purpose: old-line Jerseys bred to be hardy, small, very cooperative, and more moderate in production. Just for comparison, in the 1940-1950s in England, F. Newman Turner ran a commercial dairy using pedigreed Jerseys and he was pleased to get over three gallons a day from each one. Lizzy, in her first lactation, makes over 5 gallons per day, and will do that for about 300 days. I’d gladly trade a gallon a day for some increased hardiness, no looming worries of milk fever, a heavier winter coat, and a bit more backfat.

It is important to keep production at a good level, though. At a certain production point, the yield isn’t worth the trouble, and I would peg this at about 3 gallons total milked twice daily. After all, you will have to wash the milking machine every time the cow is milked. It isn’t worth it if you are getting a measly 3 quarts at a milking (which is what some Dexters make). Lizzy produces a little over 5 gallons daily, which is about the right production level relative to the size of a typical bucket milker which holds a maximum of 4 gallons. 2.5-3 gallons at each milking fills the bucket three quarters of the way, which is just about where you want it to pour off easily.

The products we most want to grown on our farm are quality family cows, sold as either heifers or as fresh cows, bred specifically for the small dairy or as a family cow. Usually one takes quite a risk in purchasing a family cow because so much rides on her. She is the ONLY cow, or one of just a few. And usually large dairy farmers who are selling a cow or two are doing so because they are eliminating the worst from their herd instead of beefing them (dairy cows don’t make as much beef as do beef cattle, so they figure they can get a better price for her sold as a “milk cow” to the unsuspecting). A problem cow is not what the inexperienced family cow owner wants. If anything, the family cow needs among the best, and that is what I want to deliver. Best isn’t necessarily a single performance factor–like milk production–either. Traits like susceptibility to bloat, milk fever, trouble calving, short working lifespan, and mastitis are even less acceptable to a family cow owner than to a large dairy, where these problems are more easily managed. Fortunately, through the scientific breakthrough of artificial insemination, semen from bulls that died in the 1960s and 1970s is still available. Bringing back these older, hardier genetics into modern Jerseys may improve their performance on the small diary or as a family cow.

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Milking a “family cow”

Since neither of the two books on keeping a family cow have much information about ACTUALLY miking a cow, I will show and tell you how we do it.

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The vacuum pump and motor are located on that wooden rail in the upper right corner. The vacuum line comes down to the stainless steel bucket in the lower right. The blue thing on top is the pulsator, which is what makes the inflations (the black rubber tubes that fit around the teat) pulse. It is connected by a narrow plastic line to the claw. The milk line (which has milk flowing in this picture) is the large diameter plastic line going from the bucket lid to the claw. The black rubber lines going from the claw to the inflations are the inflation lines (they are flexible). The stainless steel housing surrounding the inflations are called cups. The tie-up is the little piece of chain clipped to the ring on her collar with snap clip. Those rails are 2×4″ (true dimension) oak planks, much stronger than softwood studs, and are bolted to the barn’s framing. We use wheat straw bedding.

I will NOT trouble you with the matter of hand milking other than to advise against it. Maybe thirty or forty years ago it made sense. Cows produced less milk then, and their teats were large and had big holes. Today most cows have small teats with small holes and even small breeds like Jerseys produce upwards of 5 gallons daily. It takes about 45 minutes to milk our cow by hand IF you are a competent hand milker, like my wife, who hand milked a herd of goats for a decade (goats are much easier to hand milk). If you are not an expert, the cow will loose patience with you, and you won’t get the milk out, and the cow may get mastitis, and the milk will be dirty, and basically your life will be miserable. JUST DO YOURSELF A FAVOR and buy a bucket-type milking machine. They are about a thousand dollars for a one in functionally new condition (the pump and motors of good quality can be rebuilt, all other parts are replaceable or lifetime durability). DeLeval is the kind we use, but I suspect that Surge and NuPulse types work just as well. What takes 45 minutes hand takes about 5 minutes by machine, and the cow prefers it. Machines use both gentle pulsation and suction to withdraw the milk, like a calf does; the human hand uses friction and pressure to express the milk. Also, keep in mind cows have four teats while you only have two hands (goats and sheep have two teats). Milking machines have four cups, and therefore can milk all four teats (and any fewer number) simultaneously.

Obviously, hand milking did the job for the thousands of years man has kept cattle before Gustav de Leval invented his marvelous machine in the late 19th century, so if you are stubborn soul like I was, then go ahead. If you do, get a cow with big teats that produces a moderate amount of milk, like a crossbred (dairy-beef) or a cow specifically raised up to be hand milked, like many old fashioned dual-purpose breeds are (Shorthorn, Dexter, Red Poll, Normande, the Asian breeds). Stay away from Ayrshires, Brown Swiss, Jerseys, Guernseys, and especially Holsteins. These are the common dairy breeds, and today finding one good for hand milking will be difficult, and probably impossible with the latter three, because they enjoy widespread commercial popularity, and so will be bred for machine milking in a commercial dairy.

The actual milking process begins with having a place to milk. I’ve tried milking out in the field, which unless you have electricity, is a hand-milking only affair. It just isn’t a good idea despite seeming quaint. To begin with, it only works in good weather, so when the weather is bad, you have a problem. And if you milk outside and inside, then you are breaking up the routine. Cows are exceedingly habitual animals, and dislike anything disturbing their routine. And having the cow in a good state of mind is essential, because if she isn’t she wont let down her milk. So, for your sake and your cow’s sake, you should have a place sheltered from the weather to milk year round. A barn or shed would be ideal. If you live in a climate with severe winter weather, you are going to need a barn or shed to keep the cow in during foul winter weather anyway, so might as well use that. Make sure it has good lighting, even at night. Cows are not very surefooted animals, especially when they are fresh (recently began lactating). Make sure the floor is not slippery. Slick, smooth concrete can be deadly to a cow. Fortunately, many different kinds of shelter can be made adequate for the task, and for not much money.

All we’ve ever used to hold our cow, even for artificial insemination and veterinary shots, is a little chain tie up with a snap clip (this is inadequate for hoof trimming, and we hire a professional trimmer with a elaborate mobile restraint machine for the annual trim). I see cows trapped in all sorts of stanchions and other restraint devices. If your cow is that ill-behaved that you feel this sort of thing necessary, then I suggest that you or the cow have a problem. Either you are doing something that you shouldn’t be and agitating the animal, or you are allowing something like a calf or dog to cause trouble, or the cow is an ornery cow. There is a certain amount of flexibility you should have with an animal, but in the end, you need to keep in sight that you are keeping this animal for what it produces for you. One shouldn’t keep persistently ornery or dangerous animals.

Now that those preliminaries are cleared up, here is an online of the process:

  1. In the kitchen we assemble the bucket portion of the milking machine, and fill a half gallon plastic pail with a mixture or hot tap water and a small squirt of dish detergent. Two small, clean terry-cloth towels are rolled and stuffed under the handle of the miking machine.
  2. The machine and pail of detergent water are walked to the miking area, one in each hand, and set on a small table or rail near the miking station.
  3. The milking “parlor” is prepared for milking. This means the gates are opened or closed as needed, and any distractions (like a feed pan) are removed.
  4. The cow is summoned. Once the animal is in the routine of milking, and you milk at regular times, she should ready and waiting at the gate or nearby, because she will have learned that being milked is a pleasant relief for her udder and a time when she is fed a treat. Sometimes, though, like in unusual weather, you may have to go out into the pasture and call her back. Our cow knows her name (Lizzy) and comes like a dog if you call her, only not as eagerly (because cows aren’t like dogs in wanting to please “the master”). Cows come because THEY want to.
  5. Once the cow enters the miking area she should go right to the place where she is used to be being milked and put her head right into the place where she will be tied up. The truth is she shouldn’t need to be tied up, but I think of it as a precaution. The first few times you will certainly have to lead or force her into her place, but once she gets into the habit, things should work out.
  6. Once she is tied up then take one towel and saturate it with the warm, soapy water and thoroughly clean her teats and udder. Pull downwards and make sure to remove any dirt or debris there may be. Then put that towel down and never touch it until milking is over. Rinse your hands in the still clean soapy water and take the other clean dry towel and use it to dry your hands and her teats. Don’t touch anything else.
  7. Hand milk out at least five good squirts of milk from each teat. Once you do this a few times the cow should learn to “let down” her milk. You will see the teat swell and it will become very easy for large squirts to come out. This milk is always dirty and shouldn’t make its way into the machine.
  8. Now get the machine, plug in the vacuum line (the pump should be near the milking area, preferably somewhere protected and elevated), and take the claw in your non-dominant hand (left for me, which also dictates that I milk on the right flank of the cow). With your dominant hand (right for me) fold two of the inflation lines across each other on the topside of the claw. Then fold one of the inflation lines over the crossed lines.
  9. If you have a DeLeval-style claw make sure the claw stopper is in the UP position allowing milk and vacuum into the inflations. Turn on the pump. With the claw in your left hand and one remains cup in your right hand, bring the assembly under the udder of the cow and insert the free inflation onto the teat. Vacuum (we use 12-10 pounds) should pull the inflation onto the teat. Still holding the claw with your left hand, take the next inflation line as you work your way down and put it onto its teat (the order I go is front right teat, rear left teat, right rear teat, front left teat). Then the other two. Vacuum should hold them on. You will find that if you have an open inflation that doesn’t have it’s line kinked by folding it over the claw that you will loose vacuum. This is why you do it the way I’ve instructed when you are a beginner. Very skilled folks can put all four on at the same time, and use stronger vacuum, so they can get them all on at once. Strong vacuum is bad for the teats and saving 10 seconds doesn’t matter when you have 1-6 cows to milk. When you have 100 that is another story.
  10. Stand there and watch the cow for a while to make sure everything is alright. It’s a good time to scratch her. If you have another cow, your pump is strong enough, and you have another bucket, claw, and inflations, you can go ahead and start milking another cow.
  11. After a few minutes (should not take more than 8) the cow’s milk flow should be reduced to a trickle. I give the udder a quick massage (gently punching it basically) to stimulate her to let down her last bit of milk, which is the richest milk she has. Many cows will retain a residual motherly instinct to let you have all the poor, watery milk (the front milk) and hold up her hind milk (with cream) for her calf, which she expects to be returned to after milking. Massaging the udder helps overcome this residual instinct which remains in some of the most thoroughly bred dairy cattle. With half-breeds and dual-purpose, they will certainly do this, and may try and hold up all their milk if they can (and they make less, too).
  12. Pull the stopper on the claw down so the plug cuts the flow of milk and vacuum. After a second or two the inflations should release their grip on the teats because they’ve lost vacuum. Pull the whole claw assembly up making sure nothing drags thorugh bedding or on the animal. Turn off the pump. And release the vacuum by opening the stopper (push it back into the UP position). Place the assembly on the hook on the handle of the miking machine lid. Take off the vacuum line. Walk the machine to somewhere safe where it wont be disturbed by a moving cow.
  13. We give a sweet-salty treat to the cow AFTER milking. We use 12% sweet-mix from places like Rural King or Tractor Supply. Sometimes we mix in salt, mineral salt, or poloxalene (if there is high bloat hazard). It’s important to go easy with the treats. The cow is supposed to get nearly all her nutrition from the pastures. This is just a psychological treat (to make her enjoy milking) and a way to assure minerals and medicine (if needed) get into her. We also spray down the cow with essential-oil based fly repellent when the files are bad while she is eating. This whole step takes about a minute or two, and provides a time for a waxy plug to form in the teat-holes, protecting the udder from infection.
  14. Release the cow into the pasture and secure the gate and the feed barrel. We use this time to check to make sure there is water and salt outside.
  15. Walk the pail, towels, and the bucket milker into the kitchen.
  16. Remove the lid off the bucket and put the assembly and lid aside. Pour off the milk into the storage containers. We pour into half-gallon wide mouth glass canning jars through a very fine meshed, gold-plated coffee filter (which NEVER use for coffee filtration) over a stainless steel canning funnel (which fits the jars perfectly). These are much faster than paper type filters and are washable and reusable. Check for any lumps or other indicators of mastitis in the filter.
  17. Put the containers into your refrigerator or chilling container. We use our milk fridge.
  18. Wash everything. We wash our miking machine like dishes, which dish soap. Once a week we do an acid rinse with vinegar and then sterilize with bleach. Getting proper brushes and jags for cleaning the inflations and lines is of great assistance, and they cost little. It is basically a three step process after every milking. Rinse with cool water to get the bulk of the milk out. Then wash with warm soapy water. Then rinse with warm water. Hang everything up to dry face down so dust doesn’t contaminate the insides of the claw, inflations, bucket or lid.
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