Keeping an Older Cow

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Keeping an older cow can be an easy endeavor.
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Keeping cow companions helps keep them happier.
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Quality feed is important for your aging cow.
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Breeding Bessy to a smaller bull will help her throw smaller calves.
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Be sure your old cow has access to nutritious forage in the warm months.
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Monitor your cows' behavior on a daily basis to pick up on any changes.
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Keep your cow in good health to keep her around for awhile longer.

For the homesteader and small-scale ag producer, bringing home a heifer calf to raise for home dairy production and herd building is an excitement second to none. Such possibility! So many opportunities!

Thousands of wholesome, nutritious gallons later, that heifer has morphed into a cow that is regrettably but undoubtedly past her prime. She is fixed in her opinions, sags a bit, has the temperament of a marshmallow — but heaven help you if she steps on your foot, because that thousand-pound marshmallow goes nowhere in a hurry. Nobody is ever ready to let dear old Bessy go, but here’s a little secret: You don’t have to. Keeping an older cow healthy and productive takes more work than it does to manage her younger sisters or even her calves, but it’s entirely possible. Here’s what you can expect when you put together your management plan.

Better breeding

The old cow ain’t what she used to be. As Bessy gets older, it can be harder and harder to tell when she comes into heat — and sometimes, that’s because she isn’t coming into heat at all. Even when she has come into heat (yay!) and you’ve gotten the AI guy out in time (double yay!), she may not “take” the first time. Or the second, or the third.

It will be very helpful for you to start keeping close records of heat dates and breeding. If you’ve had Bessy bred, get her pregnancy tested as soon as possible. Don’t wait until she’s far enough along to be palpated. Jump the gun and get blood or milk samples tested as early as 28 days after breeding, because every day counts. If the test is positive, you’re out a couple bucks. If it’s negative, you’ve missed only one heat period instead of three or four.

Getting your girl bred on time is critical, because once the days start to shorten, you may not have another chance until spring. Although cows typically cycle all year, an older Bessy may have collected a few age- or health-related problems (including feed inefficiency, but more on that below). In the harder winter months, these problems often mean she’ll be far less likely to come into heat, her optimal breeding window within that heat will be shorter, or she may be less likely to take to breeding. The good news? The surplus green grass and balmy weather during the summer equate to better nutrition and less stress, which in turn equates to better breeding efficiency.

Bottom line, keep an eye on Bessy’s overall health and activity, and get her bred during the summer months. You’ll both be happier.

Quality feed

One of the top predictors of an older dairy cow’s productivity is dental condition. If Bessy can’t completely chew her hay, she can’t digest it as efficiently as she once could. If she isn’t getting the nutrients she needs, you can expect dramatic weight loss, especially in cold weather, an irregular heat cycle, and inability to take to pregnancy if she does come into heat. Remember, she’ll need to get enough nutrients for her own maintenance, to make the milk she’s giving you, to build a nice healthy calf, and don’t forget — she’s got to have enough energy to birth that calf without problems.

Some of this nutrient gap you can bridge with extra grain. However, don’t be fooled into thinking you can get away with a pile of concentrates and a mound of stemmy, sunbleached, straw-like hay. Quality hay is crucial for bovine health, and although you may have done the math to prove that technically she should be able to survive on the grain alone, consider that Bessy has a digestive system that needs roughage. Leafy, nutritious, quality hay is essential to her diet.

Breed for smaller calves

Without a calf, your cow won’t be able to produce milk for you. Although an older cow is more experienced and often will be the fastest and easiest calver you’ll ever have, you can’t trust this critical time to chance. Once push comes to shove, Bessy can usually birth even a big bull calf with ease — but she might not safely carry that baby long enough to reach the actual birthing. Enter the dreaded word: prolapse. When an older, worn-out and stretched Bessy is carrying a big heavy baby, it rearranges her insides. Muscles are strained and ligaments stretch. If that calf is big enough, the pressure in the last few weeks of pregnancy can force Bessy’s birth canal out behind her in a big, ghastly “bubble” that is just ready to be torn, dirtied, and infected. Even in a mild case, we’re talking veterinarian trip and stitches — and then probably farewell to Bessy, because once it happens, it’;s almost sure to happen again.

Avoid this problem by breeding your old girl to a bull that throws small calves. Yes, Bessy may be a blue-ribbon Brown Swiss, but it may be time to give up the gamble for one more dairy heifer of that big-boned breed. Go with a Jersey or Angus if at all possible, and Bessy will thank you for it. Your veterinarian will thank you for it. Your spouse (who will be heartily sick of you getting up at 3 a.m. to make sure that awful bubble hasn’t re-emerged) will thank you for it.

Even if you have bred your older milker to a small-calved breed, keep an eye on her. An early-stage birth canal prolapse is most likely to be visible when the cow is lying down (and the unborn calf is therefore resting pressure on internal systems, rather than suspended below the danger zone). If you have a barn with a floor that slopes dramatically, keep Bessy’s head toward the low end. Gravity can be your friend or your enemy — and trust me, you don’t want it to be your enemy.

Staying the course

On your average American dairy farm, the lifespan of a milk cow is — brace yourself — 6 years. Though Bessy’s years may be in the double digits, don’t give up yet; the natural lifespan of an average milk cow is 25 years. Not all those years will be productive years, but with some careful management and a lot of patience, your old girl can remain healthy and continue producing for years to come.

Related: Read why one GRIT blogger prefers Jersey cows for her home dairy needs.

Dairy Breeds

Holstein. Holsteins are the most popular dairy cow in commercial dairying due to their ability to produce large quantities of milk. Though you probably won’t need as much milk as a Holstein can produce each day, you might find this breed readily available in your area Holstein cows are large, reaching 1,500 to 1,600 pounds at maturity. Because of their size, they’ll throw large calves, which may mean calving problems. Holsteins originated in the Netherlands and were adapted to the lush grass landscape there. They are good grazers, but don’t do well on poor pastures.

Jersey. Jerseys originated on the Isle of Jersey in the English Channel, but have adapted to climates and conditions all over the world. Jersey cows are small, at around 800 to 1,200 pounds at maturity, but give a lot of milk for their size — 3 to 4 gallons per day in her prime. Jerseys have fewer birthing problems compared to other breeds. They are excellent grazers, will do well on medium to poor pastures, and they respond well to gentle handling. Jerseys make excellent homestead cows and will certainly become a pet if handled with kindness.

Guernsey. Guernseys also originated in the Channel Islands of England and are well-adapted. Their gentle disposition makes them good mothers and easy calvers, plus they are good grazers who efficiently convert feed to milk. Guernseys are small cows, averaging about 1,100 pounds at maturity.

Ayrshire. Originating in Scotland and adapted to its harsh climate, Ayrshires are hardy and efficient foragers, able to survive on sparse, lower-quality pasture. A medium-sized breed at 1,200 to 1,300 pounds at maturity, Ayrshires are prized for their well-attached, symmetrical udders.

Brown Swiss. Adapted to the rugged conditions of the Swiss Alps where they originated, Brown Swiss are considered the oldest dairy breed. At 1,300 to 1,600 pounds at maturity, they are quite large and may have difficulty with their first calving. They have gentle dispositions, are highly adaptable to their environment, and make fine homestead cows.

Shorthorn. Shorthorn cattle are a good dual-purpose breed, meaning they have beef conformation but are also good milkers. They originated in northeastern England, near Scotland, where they became popular for both meat and milk, and were used as oxen. Milking Shorthorns are a segment of the Shorthorn breed, and their bloodlines were developed in the 1700s to be leaner, blockier, and have good milking qualities. Shorthorns are rather large, and cows will average 1,100 to 1,300 pounds at maturity. Shorthorns are versatile, adaptable, and excellent grazers that produce a high volume of milk from grass.

Note: Beef-breed cows are much more skittish and excitable than dairy-breed cows (as dairy breeds have been selected for their gentleness). Therefore, it’s not a good idea to acquire a strictly beef-breed cow (Angus, for example) with the intention of milking her. According to Carla Emery in The Encyclopedia of Country Living, “Beef-breed cows are not usually to be milked by ordinary mortals… you’d never be able to catch one to milk her.” If you’re looking for a milker, get one with dairy genes.

Milk Quality and Volume

Breed Protein Butterfat Pounds/Year
Holstein 3.2 percent 3.8 percent 18,000
Jersey 3.6 percent 5.0 percent 15,000
Guernsey 3.6 percent 4.5 percent 15,000
Ayrshire 3.4 percent 3.9 percent 17,000
Brown Swiss 3.6 percent 4.0 percent 16,500
Milking Shorthorn 3.4 percent 3.7 percent 16,000

Christina Born lives in an 1834 farmhouse just below the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York. She raises chickens, Angora rabbits, Silver Appleyard ducks, beef and dairy calves, and she currently hand-milks a Brown Swiss cross that’s 16 years young. When not working with livestock, her passions are gardening and coaxing exotic fruit and herb plants through frigid Zone 4 winters.

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