We didn’t come to this house planning to own a cow. We thought of pigs and chickens, but a cow seemed a step too far! Then we were informed by our eldest son that his boss, at the farm where he worked, had a cow that would be just right for us, and she was in calf. It seemed that maybe we were being led in this direction? Months past and we prayed about whether or not this was a good idea.
Phil was particularly keen because he had read that the cow was the centre of the smallholding. We understood that the cow provided the milk, butter, cream and cheese as well as surplus milk going to the pigs. Her manure would go on the vegetable garden and we could raise her calves for meat. In theory we could see the advantages. The disadvantages were ever present in our mind though. We were very conscious of the extra work and responsibility that owning a cow and her calf would bring.
As the time for the calf to be born was drawing nearer, we had to make a decision. Mary (as she was already named), could be sold for beef, or could come and live and work with us. Christopher, our son who farms, held our hands throughout the decision. He volunteered to build her pen, fix the fences, bring silage over from the farm where he works and teach us to milk her. This son to whom we have taught so much, has now taught us! With the decision agreed upon Mary came to live here.
Her calving was thankfully easy, and Martha the calf arrived unaided. I did need to give a little hand though, to help the calf to begin suckling. My breastfeeding experience came in handy, as I understood the need for Lansinoh, the dangers of mastitis and the need for mum and baby to get off to a good start 🙂. Within a few days the early feeding glitches were ironed out. Next it was time to learn how to milk her. We had been lent a portable milker. This proved to be invaluable, as we weren’t very efficient at hand milking! We now have bought one of our own.
In the early days we milked Mary twice daily, but after a while reduced it to once, as her calf’s needs increased. We now milk once a day in the mornings, around 8.30 am.
At first we got ALOT of milk, around 15 litres, we didn’t know what to do with it all. Her cream was like pure Cornish clotted cream for the first couple of months, and then as her calf grew it changed to something more like double cream. We have had a go at making butter and mozzarella and regularly make our own yoghurt.
Once her calf grew to about 6 months, we noticed the amount of milk we were getting was dwindling. Her calf was filling out and not leaving us with much. We asked some farm friends and they recommended trying a nose flap, to encourage her to wean. In the dairy industry the calves are weaned at about 6-8 weeks, so we knew that she was able to move on without causing her any harm. This plan was thwarted though, as Martha expertly figured out how to feed with it on, so it was back to the drawing board. Next we were recommended a weaning spike, but this was no deterrent and a tilt of her head meant easy access to milk was resumed! Our last hope was separating them over night. So once we began to feel the cooler air of autumn we knew it was time to bring them into the covered pen. Christopher built an addition for Martha to sleep in at night, with a gate between the two of them. This technique proved successful. Martha has continued to feed all day and then at night she sleeps in the pen next to Mary. Mary has a peaceful night’s sleep and the following morning she is ready to be milked.
We get between 4 and 7 litres of milk now each day. This is the perfect amount for our family’s milk and yoghurt needs, with some left over to share with our neighbours from time to time. We have chosen to pasteurise the milk, although, once we no longer have young children we might leave it raw.
The work of milking, washing up the milker, pasteurising, feeding, bedding and bottling takes about one and a half hours a day. Phil, who had previously only owned one gerbil, joyfully takes on the bulk of this work. I often stand amazed at the changes I see in him. I married a man who was very happy to sit on a commuter train every morning of the week, and now he spends his mornings milking a cow! He has really embraced everything about this life, but I do feel a particular warmth when I watch him pat Mary, as he wishes her good morning. There a respect between the two of them. Mary is very strong, but she understands who’s boss. Phil is equally respectful of her hormones and natural instincts and gives her space when she needs it. (He has obviously learnt much from being married to me😉.)
We love owning Mary and Martha and are very grateful that God has provided all the support we have needed to learn to care for them. Our next task is to help get her back in calf. Phil is now learning about the hormonal cycles of a cow and has the AI (artificial insemination) man on speed dial. Hopefully next month we’ll time it just right. We’ll keep you posted.