Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Drying up the cows

The first year we milked, we had meetings at my house each month.  Steve, the farmer whose pastures and milking equipment we rented, came to the meetings and helped us learn about milking as a grass farmer.  He dries up his whole herd in November.  We didn't want to do that, because we didn't want to have to revert to store bought milk or get raw milk from a farmer who fed grain and who wasn't organic.  Steve explained that we had to dry up the cows at some point to give them a rest before they freshen (that means have a calf) in the spring.  We asked how we should do that, would we milk every other day, then every third day, to gradually dry them off?  He said, "No, you just quit milking them."

In concert, every woman in the room threw her arms across her breasts and moaned!  Then we looked at one another and burst out laughing.  Steve, a bachelor farmer, didn't get it.  But I'm sure every woman reading this does!!  When we explained to him why that sounded like a painful proposition, he said it doesn't give them pain - they just start directing the calories that they eat toward making that calf instead of making milk.

So in February we schedule that rest for the girls, and for the people on the milking crew.  Our cows are bred to freshen in April, May and June.  They cannot continue to give milk unless they have a calf every year.  Cows are pregnant for nine months, just like humans.  The schedule looks like this:  The cows freshen in the spring.  They are all dried up between February 1 and February 15, no matter when they freshened.   

Quattro freshens every year on time.  She is not a great milker, but she is a great breeder!  That is important, because she is giving milk right from the start.  Compare that with Rosie, who is a fantastic milker but who is slipping a little each year.  She is older and not as fertile as she was.  She didn't freshen until July.  Since we dry up the whole herd in February, then that is just lost milk - nothing from Rosie in April, May and June, while Quattro was giving her milk every day.  So that makes up for her low quantity of milk.  Over the full period of lactation, Quattro probably gives nearly as much milk as Rosie.  Also, she is having calves in the spring, when we can add them to our herd.  We only keep calves for ourselves that are born in April.

The calves that are born later are put up for sale.  We have a waiting list for them, too.  We have already earned a reputation for having healthy animals.  The bull calves go to people who will raise them as breeding stock or who will raise them for meat.  We can be picky about who we sell to, and we avoid selling to people who are going to raise them to sell to feed lots.  I am an omnivore, but I care about how an animal is raised.  Feed lots are not the way to raise beeves.  They should roam free, grass fed, until their day comes.  I'm climbing on my soap box again now, but just remember that when you buy commercial meat, you are buying feedlot factory farm meat.  Go for that grass fed beef.  Pay a little more.  It is better for you, and it is better for the animal.  I do believe that the animal's state of mind affects the meat.

Anyway, back to drying up the cows.  Our girls are definitely in their downturn now.  They are putting more of their energy and the calories they consume to making calves and less into making milk.  We are getting less than half the amount of milk we were getting in early July, right after Rosie freshened.  But that is natural, it is how things happen in the real world.  Our shareholders understand that they are not getting their milk from a supermarket, but are getting what their own cows provide.  That means a lot of milk in spring and summer, and less and less as the cold weather sets in.  Then in February, it is NO milk.  This is why we encourage our shareholders to freeze some milk while production is high, or to learn to make cheeses that freeze well, or to make and freeze butter.

This is our third year, and our shareholders are getting the hang of it.  Some of the new shareholders complain about the drop in milk production, forgetting about all those weeks when they were getting way over the average, even after it is thoroughly explained when they join.  And some of them drop out.  But there is always someone else waiting to get on board, and so we continue to increase the number of dedicated shareholders who understand that at some level, they become farmers when they become shareholders in our association, that they become dependent on the largess of their own cows.  I enjoy seeing the change in attitude many have towards food and farming once they become part of this group.  They are the ones who are delighted when we have a good milking day and they are blessed with an extra half quart of milk.  They are the ones who hold that winter milk jar up to the light and notice that as the milk declines, the cream increases, and they may have a jar that is nearly one third cream!

My mission on this farm initially was to provide myself with wholesome organic food.  Now I am helping to provide it to many other people, through the milk - for which I provide the building, equipment and pastures - and through my organic greenhouse plants and the good food from my garden.  It is a satisfying life.  I do not remember being happier than I am now.  Maybe becoming a full time farmer was an accident, but it was a GOOD accident, a very good accident indeed.

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