We had two calves born in late 2021, and our original plan was to have them nurse for at least 6 months, while sharing the milk with us. We let the calves have all the milk over the winter, so we could take a break from milking during the cold weather. In the spring of 2022 we began separating the calves from their dams first thing in the morning, milking in the evening and then reuniting the calves and cows overnight.
As Orion approached the 6 month mark, his dam (Mulberry) was losing condition (getting too thin) so we decided to separate her indefinitely and milk her once per day while working on getting her weight up a bit. We put Orion in with the other cow (Moonbeam) and her heifer calf (Starlight).
We expected Orion would try to nurse Moonbeam, but we weren’t sure if she would allow it. Since he was just a week or so shy of 6 months old, we were okay with him weaning if that happened. Moonbeam went on to nurse him, while still nursing her own calf, and a couple of months later we borrowed a bull so she was also pregnant again while nursing these two large calves. We were very impressed with her ability to hold her condition through it all!
Fast forward to the spring of 2023 and it’s time to wean the bull! Moonbeam was able to wean her own calf Starlight when she was around 15 months old, but Orion persisted in nursing longer. He is now 15 months old as well.
Weaning a calf and drying off a cow don’t typically occur simultaneously, but when a 15 month old bull is nursing, and the cow is approaching the last two months of her current pregnancy, time is of the essence! Ideally, we want to give the cow a break from lactating and we want to make sure her next calf is not competing with a much larger animal for the colostrum that is crucial for its survival.
We used the “fence line weaning” method, meaning that the calf is on the other side of a shared fence from the cow. We used two hot wires – one at a height to prevent nursing and the other at a height to prevent him stepping over into the cow’s paddock. In our experience, all the cows are much more at ease with separation when they are near each other and can even continue to have physical contact with each other over the fence (like in the video below).
Since we hadn’t been milking Moonbeam for several months before starting the weaning/drying off process, I wasn’t sure how much milk she was currently making.
After 24 hours I checked her udder visually to get an idea of how much milk appeared to be building up. It was getting fuller but was not uncomfortably tight from what I could see.
After 48 hours I set her up for milking as her udder was becoming tight all over. She carries her milk high, and at that point it looked full all over and her highest producing quarter felt like it had a clogged duct (but was not hot, which would indicate infection).
I massaged her udder and milked 1/2 gallon to relieve the pressure, but left plenty of milk behind. The more milk you take out the more milk the cow’s body will continue to make. Decreasing demand tells her body to slow down production. In the past I’ve done a much slower drying off (which I preferred and felt was less of a shock to the cow) but we started closer to calving this time and went faster.
I kept an eye on her and the clogged duct and milked again another 48 hours later; this time less than 1 quart, just enough for the udder to feel a little softer. The clogged duct is still there but softer and still not hot. Overall her udder is much less tight and I don’t think she needs to be milked again but I will keep an eye on her and relieve pressure only if necessary until she’s dried off. We won’t have the bull in with her again until her nursing relationship with her new calf is well established and we’re ready for her to become pregnant again!
If you have anything to add to this topic or questions you’d like to ask, we have a discussion on this topic in the Holistic Homestead Course Forum!