How I Share-Milk

Bo & Thumbelina can see each other through the gate, so they don't get too upset about the separation.
Bo & Thumbelina can see each other through the gate, so they don’t get too upset about the separation.

We had a fine start to our 2016 calving season when BoPeep kicked off the New Year with a lovely little heifer, Thumbelina, on Jan. 5.  The dreaded milk rationing that happens during Bo’s dry period is over, and the natives are rejoicing in the abundance of milk again.  I’ve been at this share-milking thing for a good while now, and looking back over my previous milking posts, I realized I do things a bit differently now.  Through trial & error over the years, I’ve found a share-milking routine that I & my cows are quite happy with, so this seemed like a good time to share it here.

If you’re not already familiar with the term, “share-milking” refers to the practice of leaving the calf with the cow part-time, so that you’re sharing the milk with the calf, usually milking only once a day.  There are many different ways to share-milk, as different things work for different people in different situations, and so you just have to figure out what works best for you & your cow.  This is the method that works best for me.

I bring Thumbelina into the parlor through the people door.
I bring Thumbelina into the parlor through the people door.


I leave the calf run with momma during the day, and generally separate them overnight, for about 12 hours.  For the first couple weeks after calving, separating that long is not only not necessary, it’s actually rather hard on the calf.  So during that time, I only separate the calf for a couple hours right before I want to milk, just to be sure baby doesn’t “beat me to it”.  I need the calf to nurse during milking for the cow to let down her milk, so baby has to be hungry (more on this later).  With Thumbelina this year, she is still, at 2 weeks, just nursing a couple minutes (can’t be taking more than a quart at a time!) every couple hours, so this stage, of separating only for a short time, will probably last quite a while.

Cow & calf are both more content during the separation if they can see each other.  I like to have the calf penned, with a gate between them that they can see through.  In cold weather, I use the stall in the barn.  During warm weather, we have some “goat panels” we can use to make a little calf pen out in the pasture.  There is much less bellowing this way than if there is a solid door or divider between them & they can’t see each other.

Thumbelina tied & waiting while Bo comes into the parlor.
Thumbelina tied & waiting while Bo comes into the parlor.

Milking Time

In the morning, momma & baby are awaiting my arrival at the barn.  I will go in the milking parlor & get things set up, pour feed in mom’s trough, put the machine together, etc.  Then I will let the cow into the waiting area outside the parlor, which is their cue to go to the bathroom, since my girls learn I don’t approve of peeing & pooping inside the parlor!  While mom takes care of business there, I go bring baby into the parlor awhile.  The calf gets haltered & tied at the front on the stanchion, which helps to keep the cow happy.

Thumbelina gets her breakfast.
Thumbelina gets her breakfast.

Once everything is ready, I let the cow into the parlor, and chain her in the stanchion.  I clean up her teats, using disinfectant teat wipes, and hook the machine up to “my side” of her udder.  I then untie baby, so she can nurse the other half of the udder for breakfast.  This also causes the cow to let down, so I am able to get all the milk out of my half.  Of course, at this point with Thumbelina, she doesn’t come close to emptying out her side of Bo’s udder.  So once she is done nursing, I clean up the two teats she sucked, and then put the milker inflations on that side also, to milk Bo out the rest of the way.

Everybody Leaves the Parlor Happy!

I clean Bo's left-side teats to finish milking after Thumbelina is done nursing & has wandered off.
I clean Bo’s left-side teats to finish milking after Thumbelina is done nursing & has wandered off.

This has become my mantra.  I want everybody to leave the parlor happy.  I have milk in the fridge, so I am happy.  Baby has a belly full of milk, so baby is happy.  The cow knows she has done her job well, and more importantly, that her baby has had breakfast, so the cow is happy.  This is a successful milking session!

Some people want to take all the milk & not let the calf nurse at all, except maybe a minute to induce let-down.  Then they turn the cow out with an empty udder, along with a baby with an empty belly, and the cow is kicking at a starving calf who is trying to chew up her empty udder.  Cow & calf are both miserable for several hours until her body has produced enough milk for baby to finally have a meal again.  I don’t think this is fair to either animal, and I refuse to take this approach.

Bo leaves the parlor happy, her job well done. "Good girl, thank you!"
Bo leaves the parlor happy, her job well done. “Good girl, thank you!”

I see quite a few benefits to the method I use.  The cow lets down fully & her udder can be cleaned out, which keeps the milk moving through the udder & helps prevent the risk of mastitis.  By milking out one side of the udder, I can get a very good estimate of my cow’s total daily production (just multiply “my take” x 4).  Once the calf can keep up with the cow’s production, I can skip days, so I’m not tied down to milking every day.  And of course, everybody leaves the parlor happy!

So, that is how share-milking is done here at Hope Refuge Farm.  Though I’ve used BoPeep, my Jersey/Dexter cross, as an example here, I milk my purebred Dexters the same way.  They all have seemed content with this method of share-milking, and the calves grow well as they’re still getting adequate milk.

Happy Milking!

3 thoughts on “How I Share-Milk

  1. Thank you for this detailed description of your process! We are early on in the process, but I hope to copy what you’re doing here. One thing that’s really slowing me down is the barn we have. It is very old and very rickety, so we have been hesitant to put a lot of work into it. We have two young Dexter cows, who had their 2nd calves last month. Last night I put the calves on the other side of the barn, in an effort to capture more of the milk in the morning.

    Well at 4 am, the cows had broken out of the barn, because they were convinced they’d left their babies in the pasture! They were right there – across a pallet fence – but it was dark and they couldn’t see them. I had to go let out the babies before the bellowing cows woke the world.

    I understand the animals thrive on routine, and perhaps I’ve “missed the boat” with these little ones. Do you have to start separating right away, or can I keep working on this? I’d like to try separating them again tonight.




    1. Hi Becky. No, you’ve not missed the boat, just keep at it. The cows will figure out where you’ve put the calves, especially if you let them see you doing it. Even so, be prepared for them to still bellow every morning when they think it’s time for their babies to eat breakfast. It’s OK…nobody’s going to die. They’ll eventually figure out the routine. Good luck!


  2. OK, thanks, I feel reassured. We bought this place with it’s ancient barn and paddock already in place, and had the cattle delivered the week we got possession! I guess I was eager. Now, I know I should have at least given a bit of thought to the barn layout before it was covered in animals. Well, I’ll get there eventually. The cows have tamed right down and I am able to milk for a few minutes while they graze in the mornings, then they get tired of me and walk off.


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