My life can never be boring. I have this obscene aversion to mundane house work and normal days like taking my kids to the park. Why?
I don’t know.
Polly was the result of some late night madness. Sometimes when I can’t sleep at night I stay up and peruse our local Craigs List. Why?
I don’t know.
The Farm and Garden section always calls my name. It isn’t like we don’t have close to 200 animals to care for already. And if you count the bees, you can up that to 2000. Nearly daily I have little mental hysterias trying to figure out how to fit everything into the day that needs to be done. Why, WHY, would I think of looking for more livestock?
I don’t know.
It was one of those late nights that I found an ad for a 12 month old Dexter cow whose owners lived far, far away from our home. They had raised her in hopes of training her to be a milk cow, but had bought a Jersey and decided that they had enough milk and didn’t have time to put the training into her she really needed.
So, after some emailing, a convincing talk with the hubby, a loooooong drive with the trailer, a short visit with the farm folks that owned her, and a semi easy load into the trailer, a stop by the vets for a cosmetic dehorning, another load onto the trailer and another drive home, Polly arrived.
She was a beautiful little heifer, long legged, shiny black, and extremely skittish. Kooper, our Dexter bull, fell in love instantly.
I knew that I had 9 months to get her to love me.
How do you get a cow to fall in love?
They are just like a man. They feel through their belly.
At first Polly was having none of the alfalfa treats out of my hand. The other cows would come charging up before I even got the gate open, but Polly stayed in the trees, well away from whatever mischief I held in my hands.
But slowly, over the course of a month or so, and many conversations with her cow peers that I’m sure went something like this “Stop being so stupid and come eat some of heavens goodness from our wonderful, beautiful, ever loving owner”, she began to creep closer. Soon, she would come within a few feet and stretch her neck out as long as it would go, and then stretch her tongue out as long as it would reach, just barely getting a tiny taste of the alfalfa cube I held out to her in my hand.
The thing about cows is you have to make them come to you. If you put it on the ground for them one time, they know you will do it for them every time. You have to teach them YOU hold good things.
Just as she tasted the cube, she jumped back and ran back to the tree line.
The next day things had changed. She slowly made her way up to me, slowly stretched her neck out and then her tongue, and ever so slowly inched her way towards me. She slowly wrapped her tongue around the cube and took it into her mouth.
That one alfalfa cube was all it took. We stood there for a good 30 minutes, she taking cubes from my hand, and me, ever so gently, patting her neck while she chewed, talking in sweet baby coos to her.
From this day on we had steady progress, and while she never really LOVED me, she sure as heck fire loved those cubes. By nine months later, she would let me do anything I wanted, as long as I gave her some alfalfa cubes to chew on.
In early Sept, 2012, Polly calved early in the morning. She had a gorgeous little red heifer that we named Star Creek Lotus.
I always give my first time milkers a week with their new calves to bond, and get all the “Mommy Hormones” under control.
At one week old, I separated Ms Lotus from Polly over night, where she was locked safely in the barn with the other calves and lots of good clean hay and water. This is called share milking, and it is the way we raise all our calves here on the farm. This enables the calves to bond with their dams, get lots of good milk, and grow healthy, and it lets us milk once a day and fill our fridge with liquid gold.
I had no idea how Polly would do in the stanchion. Being pet all over and rubbed on in the pasture is completely different than walking into a stanchion and having your teats squeezed! I honestly didn’t even know if I could get her to walk in the stanchion the first day.
I take a pretty laid back approach to training a cow. I really like to ease them into things, let them be comfortable with what’s happening, and know that it’s only going to bring them good things.
Polly was the third cow in line to milk that morning. And to my surprise, when cow #2 backed out of the stanchion, Polly marched right in, stuck her head in the head gate, and started chowing down on Alfalfa hay.
This might be easier than I thought!
I brought sweet little Lotus around, because it is much less likely that a cow will try to kick at you if there is a chance she might hit her calf in the process.
Lotus went to town nursing and I gingerly sat on the stool as far from Polly’s back leg as possible yet still capable to still reach her udder.
No sooner had I touched her udder that her leg came flying out so fast, I really think what I saw was my mind replaying the clip after I leaped out of the way.
I should explain something here.
Cows don’t kick like horses.
You always hear people say, ‘Don’t walk behind them! They will kick you!’ But actually, unless cows are in a run they have a very hard time kicking backwards. Cows kick straight out and to the side while standing.
Yes, right where my head sits while milking.
Take another deep breathe.
Lotus is still going to town nursing.
I reach under again and wrap my fingers around her teat and BAM! All I see blur and feel the wind whip past my nose.
Take another deep breathe, say calm and say sweet words like “It’s OK, Polly. This is good.” When I’m thinking “You STUPID COW! You almost killed me!!!”
Again, I reach down to her udder, wrap my fingers around her teat and tentatively squeeze, ready to fly back any minute. I get a good stream of milk, Polly is busy chowing on Alfalfa and Lotus is sucking away. I squeeze again, get another good stream, I squeeze again and before I can release, the foot comes like a flash, lands on my nose as I’m leaping backwards and sends me flying. The saving grace here was that I was already in a flying leap backwards to get out of the way, so, while the kick left a nasty bruise, there was no major damage.
“Enough”, said my shaking head. Day One is in the books. I open the stanchion, thank Polly for her hard work, and head to the house to drink some chamomile tea or anything that will slow my heart rate and stop my hands from shaking.
Day two goes much the same way. So do day three and day four…pretty much the next 2 weeks. There were a lot of feet flying, heads jerking, kind words spoken, ugly words thought. Thank God there were not a lot more kick contacts, a couple of arm and hand bruises, but slowly her kicks were becoming less aggressive and less frequent.
But after 2 weeks of daily near death experiences, I was beginning to think Polly would never stop kicking.
I had the option of using a flank rope on her. (If you don’t know what this is, it’s a rope tied around the waste of the cow that inhibits them from kicking), I had used this handy trick in the past, but I felt that Polly and I had a thin relationship built and I didn’t want to ruin that trust with her.
Sometimes you just have to follow your gut on these things.
If I’m not anything else in this life, I am tenacious. And sometimes being tenacious means the only way to stay the course is to follow your gut.
So, into the 3rd week we went. Early morning moos, followed by Polly marching into the stanchion right in line, chowing down just like always. I let Lotus out of the calf pen; she latched on and started sucking. I scooted the stool back and took the first squeeze, the one that normally got the biggest kick. No kick. Squeeze some more, no kick. Everything’s calm and meditative. I speak kind words of encouragement to Polly and she stands like a trooper, like she’s been a milk cow all her life and knows all about this milking business.
I remember to breath.
1.5 gallons of milk later, I realize I won.
From that point forward, Polly has improved. I no longer have to let Lotus nurse while I milk. I milk out the night’s milk while Polly eats her loved Alfalfa, and then let Lotus have her Momma the rest of the day. Polly still lets the occasional foot fly, and just this morning let out a wing-dinger of a kick and lost her turn in the stanchion after a second kick left the ground.
Polly is what I would call an intermediate trainee. She’s no longer a beginner, because she LOVES the stanchion now and knows how to stand still to be milked. But, if she’s having a bad day, say she got in a fight with her herd mates or her calf is disobeying her, (J/K), she is still prone to let a foot fly. We’ve been milking for right at 3 months now and she’s made great strides. I wouldn’t trade her for anything because she has great potential and by next calving, she’s going to be an awesome milk cow!
Polly showed how hard it can be to train a cow that has not been handled and gentled early on. She is not my first, and surely, as long as I continue to peruse Craigs List late at night, she will not be my last. She is the kind of cow that a lot of novice cow milkers get into and then call me in tears wanting to know what to do with their cow that won’t let them milk.
If there is any advice I can give a new milker, someone who is looking to add a cow to their farm, it is this: Find a cow that has already been trained to milk by someone….well….like me! Someone who has laid in the hours milking, taken the kicks, trained the cow to understand commands like “In” and “BackUp” and “Heeeeere Coooow” Someone who has taught the cow that people are to be trusted and someone who cares about the cow’s health, both physically and mentally.
While it may be a sacrifice in the pocket book now, it will reap huge rewards through your happy years together.
I have heard many sad stories from people who thought any old cow would do, the cheaper the better. Some stories of people being hurt, but mostly stories of the animal suffering because of lack of knowledge and training, many of them just sent to market because they were “untrainable” when rarely is this the case.