(Approximately an 8 minute read)
There's something so peaceful about hand milking, about being in the presence of a calm cow, who is calm, in part, because her calf is with her. And there's something so "right" about bringing that billy full of warm, frothy, just-out-of-the-cow milk into my kitchen.
There's something about cows that feels good to a person who is willing let go of whatever they think they know, in order to soak up some of whatever it is the cows know.
Cows just are. They are this tremendously calm, soothing presence, without words, and without hurry, complications, or worry.
And whatever it is that cows are, is somehow very good for a person who’s willing to let go of what they know (or think they know) in order to soak up some of whatever it is that the cow knows.
Or perhaps it’s not what the cow knows, but just what the cow is.
Pixie is the name of the cow in this story. She’s a black cow, with a few white patches on her. She’s half Freisian, and half Jersey. She’s one of our two milkers, and at the time of writing this she has a large steer (castrated bull) calf named Pixer.
Most afternoons one of us walks down to where Pixie is grazing with Pixer and her older daughter, Pixlet, and walks them back up to the cow shed. In the cow shed, Pixer goes into a stall with hay and water where he will spend the night, and his mother and sister have a drink and then walk back out to graze again.
Next morning I go to milk Pixie. Sometimes she’s there waiting; often she’s down the paddock, still grazing. Sometimes if she’s grazing, I go get her so I can milk right away, other times I do some of the other animal jobs first, and she ambles up when she's ready.
When its milking time, Pixie stands in the shed waiting for me to let Pixer out of his stall. He comes in a rush, goes around to Pixie’s side, and gets to work.
I arrange things so that he starts on Pixies “near” side – her left side, and he always chooses the front teat first.
5 ways a calf can help with the milking
There are two options for cleaning a cow's udder: wash it, or have the calf wash it.
I like option two, because the calf leaves the teat pliable, clean, and healthy, and still teeming with friendly, protective bacteria.
There are lots of advantages, in my opinion, to using a calf—preferably the cow’s own calf—to start the milking process off. Here five of them.
1. The cow is relaxed.
A cow whose own calf is nursing, is a relaxed cow. A relaxed cow is much more pleasant to milk than a tense one.
She stands still, instead of fidgeting, kicking, lashing her tail (anyone who has ever received a mouthful or an eyeful of shit encrusted cow tail knows just what I’m on about) and doing her best to put her foot in the lovely white milk you have just so carefully collected.
In Pixie’s case, the presence of her calf eliminates the need for any restraint at all. She just stands in the middle of the shed, waiting serenely for me and Pixer to be done.
2. The cow lets her milk down for the calf, so she's much easier to milk and you get creamier milk.
A cow who is standing for her calf to nurse, lets her milk down. Often the milk will actually start dripping or streaming from the udder when the cow sees her calf after a separation. (If you are a mama who has successfully breast fed a baby, you know just what I mean.)
The "let down reflex" also means that all of the thinner "fore milk" (see below) will be used up by the calf, and more of the creamy "hind milk" ends up in the milk bucket.
Without the let down reflex (which is a result of oxytocin, the mammalian bonding hormone) a good proportion of the cow's milk is simply going to remain in the udder.
3. The calf cleans the cows udder for me.
To get the dust or muck off a cow’s udder, there are two options that I know of – wash it, or have the calf wash it.
I like option two. Eliminates all kinds of fiddling with buckets and stuff.
Having the calf clean the teats for me eliminates the need for unfriendly soaps that strip away the protective bacteria on the cow’s skin, leaving her more vulnerable to infections and soreness.
Rather than leaving the skin of the udder and teat cold and damp and stripped of its natural micro biome, the calf leaves the teat pliable, supple, clean, and healthy, and still teeming with friendly, protective bacteria.
Of course, the calf does not leave the teat sterile, but I’m not into “scorched earth” sanitation. My approach to sanitation usually involves enlisting the help of friendly bacteria to help me keep unfriendly bacteria in check, rather than wiping out everything in the vicinity.
I do sterilize all my milking equipment, but when the surface in question is a living surface (ie, the skin of a cow’s udder) I prefer to allow it to keep its protective micro-biome intact whenever possible.
4. The calf strips away the stale milk for me.
A cow's milk is teeming with the exact antibodies her calf needs to protect him from unfriendly bacteria in his environment.
These protective antibodies are good for whoever else drinks the milk too, so long as it has not been pasteurized.
After going overnight without being milked, the udder is congested, and there’s lots of fore milk. Fore milk is the name given to the first milk to come out of an udder (or breast) after no nursing or milking has happened for a while.
Fore milk is more watery and less appealing than the milk that comes a bit later. It’s also the milk that will contain any traces of unfriendly bacteria lurking near the milk duct orifices (fancy term for the holes that the milk comes out of, and that bacteria can occasionally climb in through).
Some of the fore milk and any unfriendly bugs are stripped away by the calf, who is fully equipped to deal with the bugs without any risks to his health. His mother’s milk is teeming with the exact antibodies he needs to protect him from whatever unfriendly bacteria are on or in her udder.
(These protective antibodies are good for whoever is drinking the milk, not just the calf. And they are destroyed by pasteurization, which is one of several reasons I prefer to drink my milk raw, so long as I know where it came from.)
5. The calf takes care of the milk when I don't feel like milking.
This is a big one.
Dairy farmers, bless their hardworking souls, have to milk morning and night 365 days of the year. But I milk when I feel like it, and let the calf have all the milk when I don't.
The best of both worlds – our own fresh healthy clean milk whenever we want it, and a sleep in whenever we want it.
Our milking routine
So, back to Pixer and Pixie and me, and our milking routine
Pixer and I have a comfortable system for sharing the milk, and Pixie stands quietly, chewing her cud, without the need for any form of restraint. (Chewing the cud is part of the cow’s digestive process, and is also an indicator of contentment and well-being.)
When Pixer has the milk is flowing nicely and has drawn off the first of the watery “foremilk,” from the front left teat, I send him around to the other side, wipe Pixie’s teat with a clean rag, and start milking – squirting the milk directly into a sterilized jar.
I hold the jar in one hand, and milk with the other. The milk doesn’t have to travel through a long series of hoses and joints that have to be cleaned with unfriendly chemicals; it just squirts through the air – from the inside of the cow to the inside of my clean jar, without coming into contact with anything else on the way.
And because it’s a narrow mouthed jar, it’s much harder for undesirable foreign bodies to find their way in there.
I could milk faster if I used two hands, and sometimes I do, holding the jar between my knees. But I don't get greedy and try to milk with two hands into a bucket. I've found that the extra volume in a wide open bucket is not worth the jostling and fiddling required to keep foreign materials out of it, as when the calf butts the cow vigorously to rearrange her feet so he can reach a different teat, or because he wants the milk to come down faster.
After one jarful from the left front (which I empty into a stainless steel billycan standing nearby), I reach a bit further under and push Pixer’s nose away from the front right teat – by now he's drawn off some of the fore milk from that teat, leaving it clean and ready for me.
Pixer moves to the back two quarters while I take some milk from the right front.
Somewhere around the time I’m on my second jarful from the right front quarter, Pixer gets restless, because the back teats are not as capacious as the front ones and he thinks he’s running out of milk.
So then I come back to working on the front left, leaving the other three teats to him.
By the time large, greedy Pixer is getting full, I’m approaching about four or five liters of milk, which is plenty to meet our daily needs and freeze some for when we don't feel like milking, or don't have a cow in milk.
The real food thrill
Real food is food that connects me and my family, along with Pixie’s warm, steady presence and the dirt under my fingernails, to the land that feeds us.
At the end of milking I have a stainless steel billycan full of foamy, frothy white milk. The thrill of that warm milk, just minutes out of the cow, direct from the inside of her teat to the inside of a sterilized jar, never leaves me.
It’s a thrill that’s closely related to the thrill of a warm egg, the bloom just dried on it, taken from a clean nest.
Or the mystery and magic of the living bacteria that transforms cabbage into sauerkraut in clean jars, just along the bench from the sourdough starter that starts the bread dough off on its journey from sloppy flour and water, to bubbly bread dough, to fresh bread.
And its closely related to the thrill of bringing a basket into the house filled with food from the garden, complete with caterpillars on the leaves, spiders in the flowers, and with soil still clinging to the bulbs of radish or beetroot.
I don't know exactly what to call the sense of deep rightness I feel when I carry a clean billycan of just-from-the-cow milk to my kitchen sink where I’ll strain it into bottles and then nestle it into the freezer to chill down fast.
But until I think of a better way to describe it, I could call it the thrill of real food.
Real food is food that connects me and my family, along with Pixie’s warm, steady presence and the dirt under my fingernails, viscerally and intimately to the land I stand upon.
Thanks for reading!
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