Calf-sharing is often touted as the milk-cow owners’ saving grace; it’s the simplest way to make the stringent demands of twice-a-day every day milkings more manageable.
But calf-sharing isn’t always easy to navigate. And sometimes, it’s just not the best fit for you, your cow, or your farm.
How do you know? When do you start? How do you do it? The answers to most of these questions are “it depends” (chuckle).
That’s probably the most important thing to know when it comes to calf-sharing: there really are no hard and fast rules; it’s about adjusting it to your own routine and making it work best for you.
But there are absolutely a few guidelines to help you feel confident and know you’re on track.
Here’s the basic 2-step plan I use when it comes to getting started with calf-sharing:
1. I keep the calf with the cow 24/7 until I feel like I’m not getting enough milk. The “right time” to separate depends mostly on how much milk your cow is giving and how much milk your calf is taking.
With Maude (a single heifer born in February 2020), that was about 10 weeks. I milked twice a day and Maude would come up to the milking shed with us, hang out while we milked, and follow her mama back to the pasture.
Sandy consistently gave 1-2 gallons at each milking (about 4 gallons every day) and that was more than enough.
This year, with twins (born in June 2021), that’s going to be at 3 weeks (tomorrow!). I could have started separating them last week, but I feel like the more time they can spend with the cow, the better their foundation for growth, so I prolonged it for just a bit longer because 1 gallon at each milking is enough for us for now.
But in the last week, that has dropped to 1/2 – 3/4 gallon so we’re ready to start separating the calves at night.
If you’re ready to switch to once-a-day milkings sooner rather than later, assess your cow’s production and the calf’s intake. If the calf is with her 24/7 and she’s still giving 3 gallons a milking, she’s producing much more than the calf can handle and you risk other complications if you drop to once-a-day milking.
But, if she’s giving less than 2 gallons a milking, you can pretty confidently move to once-a-day.
2. As the calf grows, he’ll take more milk so when you feel like you want more milk for the house, separate the calf for 12 hours, milk the cow, and then put them back together for 12 hours.
Morning milkings are the easiest for me to navigate (there aren’t many extra-curriculars scheduled for early morning!) so I separate the calf in the evening around 6-7pm.
Separate about 12 hours after your morning milking time – if you milk at 8am, separate around 8pm.
Make sure to put him in a secure pen – somewhere he can’t get out and can’t get hurt. Offer water and a bit of hay just in case – though depending on his age, he may not want or need it.
I milk as normal the next morning – around 6am right now, but you can, of course, adjust to whatever time works best for you.
I like to give the cow another hour or so after milking to replenish her supply before putting the calf back with her. This isn’t strictly necessary because she WILL hold some back for the calf and will have milk to give if you put them back together immediately, but I’ve found that a hungry calf can be pretty rough when the milk doesn’t come as fast as they like so I like to give the cow some time to replenish first.
Then the cow and calf hang out together all day long, the calf eating as much as he likes.
Separate the calf again in the evening and skip the evening milking. The calf will have taken all the milk and so you get a break.
For the first few days, monitor the cow’s udder in the evening – if it’s slack and loose, or even only moderately full, the plan is working and the calf is taking enough.
But if it’s tight and swollen and full, you may need to go back to twice-a-day milking. Keep separating the calf at night, but don’t skip evening milking until she’s giving 2 gallons or less.
So there you have it – the first two steps to get started calf-sharing. When it goes according to plan, it’s a win-win for all: the calf gets all he wants (and gets it himself! no bottle feeding!), the cow gets to mother her calf, and you get a break from twice-a-day milking.
In fact, implementing a successful calf-sharing system helps crush one of the most common myths about keeping a family cow: “I’ll never get a break. I’ll never be able to leave the farm. I can’t go on vacation.” Not true!
Calf-sharing gives you a lot of flexibility – and as the calf gets older and takes even more milk, you can absolutely leave the cow and calf together for a weekend and enjoy some time away.
If you’re intrigued by this strategy and want to learn more ways to crush those “I can’t because…” ideas that are keeping you from living the milk cow dream, I’ve got a Masterclass coming up next week where I tackle all the things you think are holding you back. I’ll bet you’re close than you think. Click here to sign up!