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Calling all dairy farmers: milk-cow question

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There is a ton of info about dairy cows out there, but it all seems to assume that this is the 21st century. I'm writing about the Middle Ages and my peasant family has a single cow that they use for milk and butter. (Somebody else in the village has a bull they can borrow when they need a calf.)

Basically, I need to know when, why, and how long a cow would NOT give milk. Anybody know? Thanks!
#1 - July 03, 2011, 01:00 PM

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All I know is that cows don't give milk until they have had a calf. Therefore if a cow is pregnant I don't think she would be producing milk.
#2 - July 03, 2011, 03:22 PM
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It's been a while since I milked cows, and I only did so in the 20th century.  ;)

Technically, you can milk a cow until she calves again, but her milk production drops off and her udder is in better shape if you allow her to have a dry period. You could compare it to a planned shutdown in a factory, where you do maintenance on everything. The typical dry period is about two months. An astute Middle Age farmer with good animal husbandry skills might have realized this, even though his neighbors may have laughed at him for letting his cow dry up.

Poor diet will drastically decrease milk production, as will dehydration. So if you're in a Middle Age drought and there's no hay and the pasture is brown, good luck getting milk out of that poor cow. And of course there's illness. Mastitis can be so bad that it can permanently dry up one or more quarters of the udder. Grass tetany could also give you all sorts of problems, here's a link discussing that. http://www.ansc.purdue.edu/beef/articles/GrassTetanyBloat.pdf

Good luck!
#3 - July 03, 2011, 03:34 PM

I'm not much help in this department since my grandparents' small farm got rid of the cows when I was about 8 or 9.  But grandpa milked them the good old-fashioned way, and I do remember him milking the cows long after the calf was born.  I remember him saying the cow would keep milking until she got too old or had another baby, but I'm sure you're looking for more detail than that!

I also remember something about how different kinds of food were better for keeping the milk production steady. I think I remember grandpa letting  the dairy cows in certain parts of the pasture for that reason, but I was really young so don't take my word for it.  If you really need more information, I can give my grandmother a call and ask.  Or my mom might know, too.  Feel free to PM me about it if you can't find out what you're looking for.
#4 - July 03, 2011, 04:30 PM
« Last Edit: July 03, 2011, 04:32 PM by elissacruz »

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In order to keep a steady milk supply, the cow would have to be bred every 15 months or so.  The milk tends to "dry up" after about a year and then, like someone else mentioned, they keep them dry for about 2-3 months before they breed them again. So since they have an approx. 9 mo. gestation. They'd be dry for about a year.  More than likely your family would have at least two cows so they can keep a steady stream of milk coming. They'd alternate them. One would be dairy, while the other would be calving.

My husband's dad is a beef cattle rancher, but they kept a few dairy cows around and they did them the old fashioned way.  :)
#5 - July 03, 2011, 05:19 PM
« Last Edit: July 03, 2011, 05:22 PM by agentpaper »

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Agentpaper, you bring up a lot of good points. There were no guarantees in whether or not you'd get a cow to rebreed, especially when there wasn't a brucellosis vaccination or prevention/treatment of a host of other misunderstood diseases. So yeah, it'd be common sense to keep two cows in case one remained open (unbred). Especially if you had room in your barn or pasture for more than one cow.

:butbutbut  You don't have to wait to rebreed the cow until she stops lactating. My guess is that most people who relied on milk and butter production in order to make a living wouldn't have done that. They'd probably try to get a calf on the ground every spring if possible.

In 21st century milk production, when you're comparing dairy cows and their genetics for improving your own herd, figures are adjusted to a 305-day lactation period. I don't know how long that's been the standard but I'd assume that length (300 to 305 day lactation) has been around a while.

Just throwing this in here because it feels appropriate.

:cow
#6 - July 03, 2011, 08:05 PM

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I knew I'd come to the right place. Is there any topic under the sun that somebody on the Blueboards doesn't have knowledge of? You people are amazing. Thank you so much for your help. I've now got some great ways to get old Bess to dry up right when my plot calls for her to!
#7 - July 04, 2011, 07:48 AM

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I live in ranch country- and technically- a cow is not a cow until she has a calf- before that she is a heifer. Though lo
#8 - July 04, 2011, 08:59 AM

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sorry- my computer freaked out on me- was saying- though in the genereal population- we all say "cow".
#9 - July 04, 2011, 09:01 AM

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Here's a bit of info:

However, to begin producing milk, a cow must first give birth. The hormones released at birth and the sucking of the calf stimulate the cow to lactate (produce milk) for her calf. Cows produce the greatest amount of milk right after they give birth. If a cow is not milked, she will stop producing milk.

Milk is made and stored in the cow's udder, which is divided into four separate quarters, each having its own milk supply. When laden with milk, each section can be drained through one teat.

The cow produces milk on a 305-day cycle, then is "dried up" for 60 days prior to the birth of the calf. This means for 60 days of the year your cow will not be producing any milk.
#10 - July 18, 2011, 05:42 AM

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Cows will produce milk once they have had a calf. As long as they are milked regularly (usually 2 times daily), they will continue to give milk. Once they are no longer being milked regularly, their milk will dry up in 3-5 days. Dairy farmers can get good milk production for up to a year from a cow. After that, it still will give milk if milked, but production levels will fall. At that point a farmer will breed the cow and start the cycle again. Milk cows can be productive for up to 6-10 years.  Milk production can fall or dry up if the cow is not fed properly, in poor health, or no longer milked on a regular schedule.

I haven't seen lilfix on the Blueboards for awhile, but her husband has dairy cows. She might be willing to answer questions (and give better answers)!  I'll send her a note that someone has questions.

Scroll down to milk production levels. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dairy_cattle

There are also answers throughout this questionnaire: http://www.klausmeyerdairyfarms.com/assets/cow_questions.pdf
#12 - July 18, 2011, 08:42 AM

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I got ahold of lilfix. She said we covered most everything except humans can't drink cows milk for at least a week after the cow has given birth. The hormone levels are too high for us.

Admin: lilfix says she can't log on anymore, and when she tried to re-register, the system wouldn't let her or wouldn't send her an email confirmation.
#13 - July 18, 2011, 12:27 PM

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Wow, thank you all so much for these responses! I feel like I'm on much more solid ground now with making my plot plausible (at least with the part about the cow---as to the rest, it remaines to be seen!).
#14 - July 18, 2011, 03:29 PM

I grew up on a dairy farm- I was a dairy princess!  Just found my crown and sash last week and gave them to my daughter. My only claim to fame is a 5 minute news interview I did, teaching a newswoman how to hand milk a cow at the county fair.

I just wanted to reiterate that cows are bred really quickly after calving, often 6-12 weeks later. You don't wait for them to dry up before you "start the cycle" again. Essentially when you drive by a dairy and see the cows? 90% of them are pregnant. If a person has a decent herd of cows, they leave the bull with the cows at all times, they don't do like horses where you just have them 'Hook up" one time.

I'm not sure about mideval times, but nowadays a cow has about 36-48 hours with her calf and then they are seperated. The calf gets milk replacers and the cow is milked. Back then they probably left them together so that they could just milk twice daily and the calf keeps the production up. Today, cows are almost always milked 3x a day as they give more mlik that way.

#15 - July 19, 2011, 09:00 PM
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