Never underestimate the value of a stuffed glove on the end of a stick.
It’s the go-to heifer training tool homesteader Patti Fabrick uses to avoid getting kicked when a cow is milked for the first time.
“Everybody gets kicked at least once when you work with cows,” Fabrick said. “Cows are a prey animal and will tend to run and jump or kick whenever they feel threatened.”
Or, in the case of newly lactating cows, when a hand or automatic milker touches a full udder the first time.
Anything a homesteader or dairy farmer can do to minimize that stress during the transition from heifer to cow can help prevent injuries for both the animal and human. It also greatly improves the comfort of the cow as she is being milked.
So to get a cow used to being milked, Fabrick spends time touching its udders from a safe distance out of range using the glove and stick.
That transition from heifer — a female cow that has not had a calf — to a lactating, milk-producing animal is stressful, according to Glenda Pereira, dairy specialist at University of Maine Cooperative Extension.
“There are a lot of hormones in play when they become a [milk-producing] cow,” Pereira said. “Plus getting milked for the first time is an event they have not experienced before and it can all be stressful.”
Not to mention the animal has just given birth for the first time, another stressor.
Getting the cow accustomed to having her udder and teats manipulated during milking is a good strategy, according to Pereira.
Research has also shown that familiarizing the cow with the miking set up and schedule also helps.
“Heifers with some experience in the milking parlor before they become cows and are milked showed reduced kicking behavior,” Pereira said. “It also helps with the cow ‘letting down’ her milk the first time.”
In the world of dairy animals, “letting down” is when the animal releases milk into its udder. It’s often stimulated by the release of the hormone oxytocin. Contented cows will produce more oxytocin, which, in turn, makes them feel more comfortable while being milked.
“Once the milk starts coming in they do start to settle down,” Fabrick said. “But then it’s still crazy for them to see this person coming up to them and doing all these crazy things.”
Being milked is not painful for the cow, according to Pereira. But it’s not the most pleasant thing given that the teats are swollen and sensitive.
“They just naturally want to kick at the thing coming at them and touching their sore parts,” Fabrick said.
Using the stick and glove technique — something Fabrick saw online — is not so much about getting a cow used to being touched as it is demonstrating the futility of kicking.
“Cows are very smart,” Fabrick said. “When they kick at something and nothing changes they learn that kicking won’t ever do any good so they stop.”
Some cows catch on more quickly than others, Fabrick said, but sooner or later they all figure out it’s a waste of time and effort. At that point, she said, milking can begin.
Cows are also creatures of habit and thrive on routine, according to Pereira.
“Once they know a system and have it down they don’t want to switch it,” she said. “Once a cow has her second calf she has her second lactation she knows the milking routine and even if you are 10 minutes late they will look at you like, ‘Where were you?’”
Anything that gets them to that level of comfort is positive, Pereira said.
Including a glove at the end of a stick.