Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Cattle in posts in 2015

At this time of year I like to do a summary of the posts from earlier in the year so that everyone can catch up on what they've missed.  You can find all my previous cattle posts here, and everything I know about house cows is in my house cow ebook.

Thank you so much for following my blog and leaving comments.  Please share you questions and experiences with cattle.

Homekill butcher day - tips and tricks

Homekill beef - two small beef cattle

The story of our house cows - Part 3

Cleaning a milking machine

Managing house cow body condition

Three day sickness in cattle

How to choose a home milking machine

Cattle terminology

Buying, selling and moving cattle

Molly with ear tags - no fly damage this year I hope

the herd hanging out

a freezer (or three!) full of beef

the last three wild braford gone for good!

29 quiet angus instead.... ahhhhh

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The story of our house cows - part 3

Another year has past and things have changed again for our two house cows Bella and Molly.  Catch up with part 1 and part 2, I have been waiting for the right time to write part 3, so much has happened in a year!

If you need to catch up, you can read part 1 and part 2. In summary, about five years ago we bought our first house cow, Bella and she came with a young heifer calf, Molly. Since then, Bella has had three more calves: one that died and was replaced by foster calf Romeo, then Nancy, and then another this year that died and has been replaced by foster calf Charlotte. Molly has also had three calves: Monty, Ruby and Chubby. They both had a long break between their last calves because our little bull Donald got sick and we didn’t know if they were in calf. We replaced Donald with Donald the second, which resulted in these last two calves. Confused?

eight acres: the story of our house cows part 3
Charlotte, Rosey and Chubby

When I wrote last year, the first Donald had just died, but we thought that both cows were in calf. We had dried off both cows and were waiting. After a few months we accepted that we weren’t going to have any calves, and even worse, that we wouldn’t have any raw milk for several months. This was disappointed, and in some ways I felt that we had failed as cow owners, but it was nice to have a break from milking and really didn’t have to do much to look after the cows in that time, they were just off in a neighbour’s paddock with Donald the second.

When it came close to calving time, I brought Bella back home as her udder was swollen and we thought she would calve soon. We actually had another 6 weeks to wait and poor Bella just kept swelling. I’m finding it difficult to get a lot of information about her condition, she seems to have had oedema, which can be caused by an allergic reaction to the growing baby, and mineral deficiencies. Both of the calves that died were from Lowline breed bulls, so we wonder if that is the cause. But it could be anything. I get the impression that dairy cows with this type of problem are culled, rather than doing any research to figure out why they are sick, which makes sense when you’re running a dairy farm, but I’d love to know how to help our house cow!

eight acres: the story of our house cows part 3
Molly with her calf Chubby

When Bella went into labour on a Sunday morning, we were both home and I went into the paddock with her. I saw the calf being born and I tried to revive him, but he was dead. Poor Bella, she licked him clean and mooed at him. We immediately got her two foster calves, as she had fostered Romeo so well last time this happened (I don’t know why we thought two was a good idea though). We got a Jersey heifer and a Jersey cross Australian Red heifer (Charlotte and Rosey), thinking we should take the opportunity to raise some replacement house cows rather than steers.

Unfortunately Bella was really sick this time. She took about a week to recover from the oedema and got mastitis again. Pete had to keep her in a small yard so that she didn’t walk too far away from the milk bales, because she could barely walk and waiting for her to hobble back to the bales was awful. It was not sensible to leave the foster calves with her for a couple of weeks while she was recovering.

And in that time the calves got paralysis tick poisoning! In a week they went from boisterous, active little calves to listless and unable to drink from a bottle. Pete thought they had scours, but when I tried to give one of them an electrolyte mix from a bottle, I found one tick and then another (to be fair, Pete had been feeding them from a bucket with a teat and hadn’t needed to handle them, so hadn’t noticed the ticks). At least now we know what to do for them when we find ticks.... we rolled them over and removed every tick we could find (15 on one calf!), we dosed them with nasty insecticide and put ear tags in both ears. Then bottle fed them electrolyte and Bella’s milk until they were well enough to use the bucket again. This set us back several weeks, so that even when Bella was well, the calves were not strong enough to take milk from her.

eight acres: the story of our house cows part 3
Cantankerous Bella

The calf fostering didn’t go as well as last time, maybe it was the time delay or just how ill Bella was at first. Eventually she has accepted Charlotte the more confident of the two calves, but not as forthrightly as she did with Romeo. Rosey has tried, but hasn’t been allowed to drink from either cow, so we have been milking and feeding Rosey.

Molly had her calf not long after all of that, and everything went well, in fact she was hardly “bagged up” at all, with far less swelling than her previous calves. Pete was home for the birth, which was nice and quick. Her tiny calf is part mini Hereford and Low line, so she has a different shape to the dairy animals. We started calling her Chubby and it stuck. Molly is doing a wonderful job looking after her calf and we have been making sure that Molly has plenty to eat and doesn’t lose condition as she did with her last calf.

Pete was milking both cows for a while, but then Bella got mastitis again and kicked him in the head during milking. We have since read that cows imprint very strongly when they first meet someone and keep grudges. Pete had originally tried to “discipline” Bella when we first got her, and I think maybe she is holding some resentment towards him. Sometimes she will only come into the milking bales if I’m there. Anyway, from that day Pete stopping milking her and stopped giving her grain to eat (to reduce her milk production), and stopped feeding any milk to Charlotte, so now Charlotte is milking Bella for us, and sometimes she gets kicked too.

eight acres: the story of our house cows part 3
Fresh Raw Milk is flowing again!

Its been a crazy few months and that’s why I’ve been waiting for the right time to write this update. Molly has grown into a wonderful cow, she has easy births (so far) and stands quietly in the milking bales. We’ve never had to give her antibiotics. Her only problem is a sensitivity to buffalo fly that leaves her itchy all over, and I really feel for her because I have the same problem with mosquito bites.

On the other hand, we have Bella, with two dead calves, a bad temper (possibly because she is often in pain from underlying mastitis infections, and doesn’t like Pete) and a very uncertain future. It seems unfair to breed her again and potentially put her through oedema again. But a dairy cow that can’t breed is not much use to us. While it would be nice to think she could just stay on our property as a pet, even if feed cost wasn’t an issue we would also have make sure the bull never got to her. We are left with few options, sell her (for meat, not to be breed again), shoot and bury her or eat her ourselves. None of these appeal to me at the moment.

Right now we have some time, Bella is still useful to us as a foster mother to Charlotte, but after that, we will have to make a decision. I know some people don’t bat an eyelid at sending their cow to the meat works and getting a new one. I understand that, I’m like that with nearly every other animal on the farm. With the house cows I was not prepared for this eventuality, I thought they would live here until they died. It makes me realise that we need to have plans for unhappy endings, so that we don’t come to unexpected difficult decisions.

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Raw Milk Answer Book - review

I never realised that raw milk was so controversial until after we got our house cow Bella and I found out that we couldn't share her milk.  I know most people get a house cow BECAUSE they want raw milk, but we were just interested in milk in general, I hadn't really thought about the fact that it would be raw.  We were happy to drink it raw and make cheese with the raw milk.  It was until I started reading Nourishing Traditions that I realised the benefits of raw milk and how lucky we were to have our own house cow.

If you are still trying to figure out what's going on with raw milk, this book covers everything.  I would be very surprised if there is a question that you have that is not covered by this book, although it is US-based, so there isn't any Australian specific information.  He covers the history of raw milk, the risks and benefits and making the decision to drink raw milk (he doesn't push raw milk, but advocates that everyone considers their individual situation).  Then how to get raw milk, how to check that its safe and how to discuss your decision with family.

I think in Australia its even more difficult to get raw milk, as it is not legal for farmers to sell or share unpasteurised milk.  However, if you ask around you can probably find a source of milk from a sneaky farmer or "cosmetic" milk.  At least this book would help you to understand the risks and how to assess whether the milk is likely to be safe to drink.

Personally I am convinced that raw milk makes me feel better.  I actually didn't drink much milk at all before we got Bella, some weeks we wouldn't buy any milk, other weeks it would go off before we used a litre bottle.  When we got Bella (and then started milking Molly) we always have so much milk, I got used to having a raw milk and kefir smoothie daily.  So when both cows were dry recently we started buying milk from our local organic farm, and it was of course pasteurised.  I didn't realise how ill I was feeling until we started milking again and after a few weeks of raw milk I was back to normal.  I think I would rather have no milk than drink pasteurised milk.  My kefir agrees, it nearly died on the pasteurised milk, but is slowly regrowing in the raw milk.

If you're wondering about raw milk, I recommend reading this book, it will at least help you assess whether you want to try it and how you might get it.

Do you drink raw milk?

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Cattle terminology

When reading the cattle market report, you might see something like this:

The good size yarding offered potential buyers with many pens of heavier yearling steers in forward store to fat condition.  It would appear that prices at recent physical markets have risen to producers proffering the store market over fat sales.

I thought it was time I figured out what they were talking about!  Here are a few terms that you might hear in the cattle industry, there are more in the links at the end.

eight acres: cattle terminology
three fat cows
First are they male or female?  And what age?

Bull: A male bovine with sexual organs intact and that is capable of reproduction. A mature male animal used for breeding.

Bullock - Mature castrated male cattle destined for meat production

Calf: A bovine no permanent incisor teeth, can be a male or a female with no secondary sex characteristics.

Cow: A mature female used for breeding with eight permanent incisor teeth.

Heifer: A female bovine that has not produced a calf and is under 42 months of age. After 42 months of age she is known as a 'grown heifer', unless she has had a calf, and then she is a cow.

PTIC: Pregnancy Tested in Calf – used to describe cows at a store or prime market.

Steer: A castrated male bovine showing no secondary sex characteristics.

Weaner: A young animal that has been weaned from its mother’s milk to live completely on pasture.

Yearling: Young animal, fully weaned without permanent incisor teeth. Animal does not show any secondary sex characteristics. Approximately 12 to 18 months of age.

eight acres: cattle terminology
Molly cow and her heifer calf

Types of cattle and operations

Backgrounding: Growing young cattle from the time calves are weaned until they enter a feedlot to be finished on a high protein ration.
Restocker: A producer or agent who purchases cattle/sheep/lambs and returns them to the farm - this could be for backgrounding or breeding.

Cow and calf operation: Keeping cows for the purpose of breeding and selling either weaner calves or finished beasts.

Fat or Finished stock: Animals suitable for slaughter - usually these have been fed in a feedlot, or may be mature animals, such as cull cows (older breeding cows no longer required).

Feeder steer: A steer purchased by a lot-feeder to be placed in a feedlot (generally from a backgrounding facility). Cattle specifications (entry weight, muscle and fat score, breed, age etc) are dependent on the market the animal is destined for.

Japan ox: A grown steer, weighing in excess of 500kg lwt or weighing 320 to 400kg cwt. Such animals are predominantly destined for the Japanese market.

Store Cattle - animals for beef which have been reared on one or more farms, and then are sold, either to dealers or other farmers. They are brought for finishing in feed lots, normally well-grown animals of up to two years of age 

You will see that the markets have size ranges for calves, weaners/vealers, yearlings, grown heifers and steers, cows and bulls.  Each weight class may also have a muscle score description:

Muscle score description
A: Very heavy
B: Heavy
C: Medium
D: Moderate
E: Light

Each weight class and muscle score will have an average and maximum price.

eight acres: cattle terminology
our mob of weaner steers and heifers

Types of sales

Prime sale: A regular (often weekly) physical market auction.

Store sale: A physical auction where normally cattle/sheep/lambs are bought and sold. Most of the stock offered are for breeding or future finishing.

To put all of this in context....

We did try a cow and calf operation, originally buying 25 cows and calves, and a bull through private sales.  We sold the calves as "weaners" at about 9 months old in a store sale.  The cows had more calves, which we sold.  Then when we started to run out of grass and water on the property, we sold the cows as fat or finished cows, and the bull.  Just recently, we bought a mob of weaner steers and heifers to fatten on our property (so we became backgrounders) and we will sell them as store cattle (to be fed in feed-lots).  Ideally we would like to have a smaller number of cows, and to keep the calves until they are finished on grass, because I really don't like feed-lots.

eight acres: cattle terminology
our bull with the mob of weaners

Meat and Livestock Association (MLA) glossary

Small holder series - quick guide to cattle terms

Does that help?  Are there any other cattle terms that you're still unsure about?

Monday, August 10, 2015

How to clean a milking machine

People often assume that using a milking machine would be more work that milking by hand because of the time to clean the machine.  Actually its surprisingly quick to clean after milking.  And it only occasionally needs a more thorough clean.  Much of the information you find online about cleaning milking machines refers to large scale dairies that are milking a hundred or more cows a day.  If you are only milking one or two cows you can use a simpler and quicker process, and gentler chemicals, to keep your machine clean.

The only extra-large gloves at the supermarket were pink...

After every milking, as soon as possible, we tip out the milk (either for calves or for our consumption) and clean the milking machine.  The first step is a bucket of warm soapy water (not too hot, as steam can damage the vacuum pump, and hot water can actually make the milk solids more difficult to remove), which gets sucked through the milking cups and through the machine.  We use a few drops of dishwashing detergent in the water.  We then slosh this around inside the milk can and wipe off all the hoses before tipping out the soapy water.  The next step is a rinse with a bucket of warm water (also sucked through the milking cups).  Finally we leave the milk can upside-down to drain.  This is all that is necessary after twice daily milking and takes only about 10 minutes.  If the milking machine is cleaned immediately after the milk is tipped out, this amount of cleaning is sufficient.  When the milking machine is left unwashed for longer periods (even an hour or so, if other farm chores demand attention), minerals, fat and protein from the milk will gradually form deposits called "milk stone" inside the milking machine .

About once a week, or if we haven't used the machine for a while, we give it a more thorough clean with additional chemicals to remove milk stone deposits.  It is generally recommended to use a caustic or a caustic/chlorine detergent.  You can buy specialty chemicals from a dairy supplier, but you can usually also find something suitable in the supermarket cleaning isle.  Look for a cleaner that contains Sodium Hypochlorite and Sodium Hydroxide (with minimum fragrance as you don't want your milk to taste lemon-fresh).  Both of these are strong chemicals that can damage your skin and eyes, so make sure you wear gloves and glasses while cleaning your milking machine with these chemicals.

Acid milk stone remover (based on phosphoric or nitric acid) can also be used (for example).  This would need to be purchased from a dairy supplier.  Acid cleaners are better for hard water, which tends to react with caustic cleaners and reduce their effectiveness.  Again, this is a strong chemical and care should be taken to avoid contact with skin and eyes.  You can read all about the chemistry of different cleaners here.  Never combine ammonia with acid or chlorine cleaners, as you will cause a chemical reaction, if in doubt, its best to just use one cleaner at a time.

When we do the big clean, we usually also take the opportunity to pull off all the hoses and give them a clean with a bottle brush.  We have bought a range of sizes of bottle brush, and one small one is particularly useful for cleaning the long tube between the milking machine claw and the milk can, we tie it on a piece of bailing twine and pull it through the tube a few times (hot tip from Pete, the best way to get the twine all the way down the tube is running water or compressed air).  When you first get your milking machine, its a good idea to take it apart to find out which bits you can get into the clean properly.

The queue at milking time

Do you use a milking machine?  How do you clean it?

Monday, July 13, 2015

Buying, selling and moving cattle - what are the rules?

When we first started with cattle I found the rules and regulations for buying, selling and moving cattle to be very confusing.  Here are a few tips that you may find useful.  Remember that I am no expert, I'm just telling you what I understand of the system, consider this advice from a neighbour leaning over the fence, please check the details with your local stock inspector or state department of primary industries (or equivalent).

All states and territories of Australia participate in the National Livestock and Identification System (NLIS).  This system is designed to track stock (including cattle, goats and sheep) from birth to slaughter.  Each animal has a number, each property has a number and each movement is recorded in the NLIS database, as well as on an electronic or paper waybill.

eight acres: buying, selling and moving cattle - what are the rules?

The first thing you need to do is get a Property Identification Code (PIC) for your property.  In Queensland this is free, and you can apply through the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries here.  Any property where stock are kept, including on agistment, must have a PIC.  When you have a PIC, you can register for an account in the NLIS database here.

You can now buy stock for your property.  These animals should have ear-tags with a unique NLIS number on them.  Do not buy stock that do not have ear-tags (you are just creating work for yourself!).  You must then ensure that these cattle are "transferred" onto your PIC in the NLIS database.  This can be done by either the seller or the buyer.  When you go to sell or slaughter the cattle, you will have trouble if the tag numbers are not registered on your PIC, so double-check that its been done correctly.

If you need to move stock off your property (or if you are transporting them from someone else's property) you will need a waybill.  A waybill is just a form that records the owner of the cattle, the start and destination of the journey and the type and number of animals.  You can use a generic waybill downloaded from your state department of primary industries (or equivalent) website.  If you want to sell cattle into abattoirs (even if via a sale yard), you will need to register for National Vendor Declaration (NVD) Waybills under the Meat and Livestock Associations (MLA) Livestock Production Assurance (LPA) scheme (here).  These waybills also include information about chemicals used on the cattle (and therefore their suitability for slaughter and export).  The waybill must be issued by the person who holds the PIC that the cattle are coming from.

If you're crossing cattle tick lines, you also need to get the animals inspected for ticks and possible also dip or drench the animals.  I don't know much about this side of the process as we generally try to buy tick-free or from producers who do the tick paperwork for us.

If you are planning to breed cattle, you will need your own breeder ear-tags so you can sell them.  Any animal that leaves your property to another PIC will need an NLIS tag.  I think each state is slightly different when it comes to buying ear-tags. In Queensland I have to send a form to the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries because a Biosecurity Queensland inspector must endorse each NLIS device order prior to the order being placed with a supplier or manufacturer.  I order the tags online, but many produce stores will also take your order.  The tags are printed with your PIC number and unique animal numbers.  Animals born on your property need a white tag.  If you have animals that have lost tags, you need to replace them with an orange tag.  You will also need to buy a special pair of pliers to insert the tags, and then you're locked into a certain brand of tags as the pliers will only fit one brand.

See why I was confused!  Here's a step-by-step summary:
  1. Apply for a PIC for your property
  2. Register on the NLIS database
  3. Buy cattle with NLIS ear-tags and ensure that they are transferred to your PIC in the NLIS database
  4. Check if the cattle will be crossing tick lines and what you are required to do
  5. If intending to sell cattle at saleyards, order NVD waybills through MLA
  6. Otherwise, download a waybill for your state each time you move cattle from your PIC
  7. If intending to breed cattle, order NLIS tags for your PIC (don't forget your pliers!)
  8. Try to keep the NLIS database up to date when animals have moved to or from your property, animals that have died or been slaughtered on your property, or new tags have been inserted in calves or animals that had lost tags
This system is really not tailored for small-holders who just want to raise a few head of cattle and butcher them on-farm.  Its designed for large farmers who are buying, selling and moving significant numbers of cattle multiple times.  If you are moving large number of cattle, an electronic tag reader is worth the investment.

I hope that helps and remember, I don't know what I'm talking about, so do some research about how this works in your state and make sure you're doing the right thing.  Did I miss anything?

Monday, June 15, 2015

Managing house cow body condition

Dairy cows are naturally skinnier than beef cows. They are bred to produce milk, not meat! But it can be tricky to know whether your cow is too skinny, or too fat, as both can cause serious problems.

house cow ebook - cow body condition
Bella a few weeks of calving and Molly inspecting my boot

A useful method for assessing cow condition is the “body condition score”, which is basically a method of ranking how boney a cow looks (more details with lots of photos of different cows here, see a chart for cow, horse, sheep and dog body condition here). Look at your cow and how many ribs and spine bones you can see, and how her tail sits, and give her an average score. A diary cow should be around 2.5-3, ideally you will see the back three ribs, but not the front ones.

Every cow is different though, and a cow’s body condition will change over time, early in her lactation when your cow is giving the most milk she will lose condition (get skinnier). Some cows seem to just give everything they’ve got to make more milk and get skinnier and skinnier until you dry them up (Molly has had to be dried up early both lactations because she was getting too skinny no matter what we fed her). Ideally your cow should have the opportunity to put on condition (get fatter) in the weeks before she has her next calf, and this should happen naturally as her body stops producing milk. But don’t let her get TOO fat either, as that can cause birthing difficulties.

Throughout your cow’s lactation its really important to monitor her condition and adjust her feed and milking routine to keep her in around a 2.5-3. If she does get too skinny or too fat, she won’t cycle and get into calf again. She could also have compromised health. See “Keeping a family cow” for more information on cow digestion and optimal feeding. Your cow is an expensive investment, and in order to get the most from her, you need to look after her and provide her with top quality feed. If pasture is not available, then good quality hay is essential. You may also supplement with grain for extra protein, and you MUST provide additional minerals.

If your cow losses weight suddenly with no corresponding increase in milk production or change in diet (i.e. no obvious reason for it), she is probably unwell. There are a few possible reasons, some more serious than others. If the cow seems alert and otherwise well, you might have a bit of time to eliminate some of the possibilities, but if she is clearly unwell, contact your vet immediately. The first cause that comes to mind is worms. We use copper sulphate and diatomaceous earth to worm our cows, and don’t regularly use a chemical wormer, but if a cow loses weight suddenly, you should try to get a stool sample to a vet for a worm count and the chemical wormer might be your quickest option to get that under control if you have a positive result.

Another important sign of ill health is your cow’s coat. It she is getting all the nutrients she needs, she should have a smooth, sleek coat, it will be longer in winter, but it should never be rough and patchy.

If you're new to cows you might not be familiar with how they should look, so I hope this helps to monitor the health of your house cows from their appearance.  Any questions or suggestions?

Skinny Cow (rating 2) - this is Molly just after we weaned her calf, probably on the skinny side, but the more we fed her, the more milk she made, some cows are just like that.  All we could do was wean her calf, dry her off and feed her as much hay as she could eat.  She eventually gained the weight (put on condition), but we will have to manage this with her next calf (possibly wean the calf early again).

you can see all her ribs, including the back "pin bones"

house cow ebook - cow body condition
hip bones very prominent

house cow ebook - cow body condition
tail sunken

Fat Cow (rating 3.5-4) - Bella had a year off having a calf and milking, so she got a little too fat.  This is what you would want a feeder steer to look like before going to the sale yards!  Not a cow!

house cow ebook - cow body condition
you can hardly see any ribs

hip bones not visible

tail raised

Buy my ebook "Our Experience with House Cows" on ScribdLulu and Amazon, or email on eight.acres.liz at to arrange delivery.

Reviews of "Our Experience with House Cows"

Gavin from Little Green Cheese (and The Greening of Gavin)

Monday, April 20, 2015

Three day sickness

Recently our little steer Monty was unwell.  He had the classic symptoms that we have learnt to recognise as "three-day sickness" or bovine ephemeral fever.  Just think of it as a really bad man flu.

eight acres: three day sickness in cattle
Here's Monty when he was sick, he looks depressed, doesn't he?

Three-day sickness is caused by a virus that is spread my mosquitoes and midges, so it is common in late summer, particularly following rain.  It occurs in eastern Australia (mainly QLD, NSW and NT), Asia and Africa.  The cattle show the following symptoms:
  • Depression
  • Fever
  • Lameness, muscle stiffness, reluctance to stand
  • Drooling saliva, watery eyes, runny nose
  • Reduced water and food intake
Don't ask me to explain how you can tell if a bovine is depressed, but you really can, they look so unhappy when they are sick.  We know its three-day sickness when we find an animal lying down when the others are eating, reluctant to stand when we approach, running nose and looking unhappy.  We usually try to get the animal to stand at least twice a day as they can damage their legs if they are down for too long.  We bring them water and try to move them into the shade if its hot weather.  If they are unwell for more than three days, that means its probably something worse than three-day sickness, and we would call the vet (so far this hasn't happened).  The animal will usually show improvement by day three and be back to normal on day four.

There's not much a vet can do for three-day, its just like human flu, so we wait the three days and hope the animal will recover.  Anti-inflammatory drugs are a possible treatment if a bovine is really suffering.  So far nearly all of our steers have had it once, and after that they are immune for life.  Vaccination is available, but that is mostly used for bulls, who can lose fertility due to the fever.  Cows in later pregnancy may abort.  We know that Molly has had three-day when she was younger, and its very likely that Bella has had it too, so we haven't used the vaccination.

Have your cattle suffered from three-day sickness?


Wednesday, March 18, 2015

How to choose a milking machine

If you decide that you want to use a milking machine with your house cow you are going to need to choose between a few different options. Unfortunately, you get what you pay for, so don't be tempted by a cheaper model until you understand why its cheap. If you can, go and visit someone with a milking machine, or go and see a display model, so you understand what you are buying.

house cow ebook: how to choose a milking machine

Many of the “mini” milking machines that you can buy are made for taking to shows for milking demonstrations. These are just small versions of the big milking machines found in commercial dairies. There are also some cheaper models made specifically for home milking, but we weren’t sure if they were the same quality.

Milking machine parts
Most milking machines consist of a claw, four teat cups (metal shells and rubber liners), a long milk tube, long pulsation tube, and a pulsator. The claw connects the short pulse tubes and short milk tubes from the teat cups to the long pulse tube and long milk tube. Claws are commonly made of stainless steel or plastic or both, ours is clear plastic, so we can see the milk coming out of the teat cups.

How does it work?
Milking machines use a continuous vacuum applied inside the soft liner of the teat cup to massage milk from the teat by creating a pressure difference across the teat canal. The vacuum also helps keep the teat cups attached to the cow. Air enters the pulsation chamber about once per second to allow the liner to collapse around the end of teat so that the milk is released from the teat into the cup. The four streams of milk from the teat cups are combined in the claw and flow to the collection vessel via a plastic tube. Essentially, it’s very similar to the action of squeezing and releasing used for hand-milking. 

house cow ebook: how to choose a milking machine

How to use a milking machine
To operate the milking machine we turn it on and use the valve on the claw to seal the vacuum until it builds to 15 psi. Then we get down behind the cow and release the valve as we put the first teat cup on the first teat, this causes the vacuum to release until the teat cup is sealed around the teats. We quickly put the rest of the cups on the remaining teats and the vacuum holds them up while removing the milk. We watch the udder and milk flow until we’ve taken enough milk, then we use the valve to seal the vacuum again and gently remove all the cups in one movement. We then release the vacuum and turn off the machine at minimum vacuum (around 5 psi).

Cleaning the milking machine
After milking, the milking machine is cleaned very quickly and easily by sucking up a bucket of water with a little detergent and then a bucket of clean warm water. We were told by the manufacturer to use only warm water, not even the hot water from the tap, because any vapour sucked into the vacuum pump will damage the pump. The water is then tipped on the garden and the milking machine is left to dry out until the next milking session. We bought a BBQ cover to go over the milking machine to keep it clean and out of the sun (we keep it under porch on the side of our house).

How to choose a milking machine
Milking machines are expensive, our machine cost about $1700 in 2011, but you may also be able to find a cheaper one second-hand. Now that you have a better understanding of the milking machine, you will be able to compare the options available.

Here's a few things to consider:
  • Hygiene – will you be able to quickly and easily clean the machine after milking?
  • Durability and quality of materials – is the machine good quality? is it going to last?
  • Moving parts and spare parts – generally moving parts tend to wear and may not last as long. Also, can you buy spare parts? Can you replace individual items that wear quickly like the teat cup inserts, or do you have to buy larger items, like the entire teat cup?
  • Noise levels – all of the milking machines use an electric motor on the vacuum pump, it means that you have to connect to electricity and it is quite loud. Some models may be worse than others.
  • Type of vacuum pump – different systems come with different pumps, you need to make sure that the pump will draw the required vacuum (at least 15 psi) and, if possible, find out the manufacturer. A cheap pump may not work reliably and may fail completely.
  • Warranty – how long is the warranty valid? Does it cover all parts?

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t buy a cheaper system, but its important to understand why one system is cheaper than another. We decided we wanted to spend more on a quality system that will have spare parts available, and so far that has been a good decision for us. You may want to try a cheaper system and take your chances.

What do you think?  Do you use a milking machine?  How did you choose your system?

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Raw milk and kefir

If you are interested in raw milk in Australia, please see the post on my other blog:

Even if you are not personally interested in buying and consuming raw milk, this story has implications for everyone's right to chose what we eat and drink. Most of the media show very little understanding of the complexity of raw milk and tend to portray it as “toxic” and those who would drink raw milk as “idiots”. Personally I have seen a huge amount of misinformation about raw milk in comments on news articles, and while I may be singing to the choir here, I’d like to take the opportunity to set the record straight.

Read more here....

If you want to know more about making kefir, here's another recent post from my other blog:

Most people have heard of yoghurt, but kefir, also made by fermenting milk, is less well known and just as tasty and benefitial for our health. The origins of kefir are shrouded in mystery, we may never know where it came from, but if you can get hold of some kefir grains for yourself and look after them, you will always have kefir, which has endless uses.

Read more here....