When we bought Frances, she was already in milk. We got her in February, 2011. She’d had her first calf the previous October. She was not giving enough milk to make the dairy happy enough to keep her and they constantly have to cull the lower-producing cows to make space for the new young ones coming on, so we lucked out. She simply needed some time to mature. She regularly milks almost as well as any dairy cow anywhere now (and we don’t push her with lots of silage like they do).
I had a bucket to milk in. A stainless steel bucket, a stool to sit on, and my two hands. I already knew how to milk, but it was challenging to develop those muscles again.
To milk a cow by hand, you squeeze the teat while simultaneously pinching off the top so that the milk comes out and doesn’t go back up into the cow’s udder. It takes a little practice to figure out the exact motion involved.
Then you repeat that approximately 4000 times. I am not exaggerating. A cow has one udder which is divided internally into four quarters. Each quarter has a teat.
See how the teat opening narrows up at the base of the udder? That’s the part you need to pinch off when milking by hand and then you squeeze and push the milk out the hole at the bottom.
The milk is created in lobes which are all over the udder and filled with alveoli. Alveoli are just little sacs. Milk is created in them and held there until let-down occurs. Let-down is hormonal, and happens when the cow (or human or cat or elephant) is stimulated either by her offspring or something else and the milk is released from all those bazillion alveoli and travels down the ducts to the cistern which is located just above the teat.
I can watch Frances go into let-down. Her udder at the bottom where the teats are visibly increases in size. She is triggered by getting in the stanchion and having her teats cleaned with warm water.
So, each quarter has to be milked out separately. They don’t connect anywhere. Two hands, squeezing over and over and over again, two teats at a time.
Milking Frances by hand used to take me anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes. She was more or less patient about it, but clearly wondered what in the hell was wrong with her people since the dairy didn’t have to take nearly so long to do the same damn thing. And I developed some serious muscles in my forearms and hands.
I did it for two years, finishing out the lactation period she was in when we got her, and all through the next one.
And then she calved for a third time. Remember, she was maturing all this time, gaining udder capacity and body size. When she calved that third time, her udder was simply enormous. She had a lot of swelling (immediately after birth, that’s common but she had more than normal. We ended up treating it with steroids) and I literally could not reach the teats on the far side of her.
Dave helped me milk her out at first. He would milk one side and I’d do the other. One solid hour, twice a day.
It didn’t take too many of those sessions before I was online buying a milking machine.
I was a total clueless newbie. I had no idea how they worked, where to buy one, nothing.
The dairy, of course, has an elaborate system involving all sorts of glass tubing everywhere, but has eight separate milking stanchions. Jason brings in four cows at a time on one side of the parlor, gets them all ready, hooks them up, and then while they are milking, he brings in four on the other side, and gets them prepared. Back and forth he goes, milking a total of about 85 cows twice a day.
I needed something to milk one.
This is an old one. It’s beautiful, isn’t it?
The whole thing was invented by Dr. Gustaf De Laval, and finally brought to the wider market around the beginning of the twentieth century. DeLaval milkers are still an industry standard and that is what I have.
There’s my machine on the right. To the left is the motor which now resides permanently in the barn.
But the milker itself consists of several parts.
The stainless steel bucket holds the milk. I have two of them, one small for when she’s kind of waning in production, and another much larger for when she first calves. The lid fits either one.
On the lid is a blue thing called a pulsator.
Here is it. There is a black orifice at the left back in the photo. That one connects with tubing to the vacuum pump. The round black rubber base seats into a hole in the bucket lid.
There are two blue orifices in the front. One we don’t use, so it’s blocked with a yellow stopped. The other connects with tubing to the claw.
That’s a claw. You can see mine in the cart photo above, hooked to the lid of the bucket.
Here’s a close up of mine.
There are two tubes coming from/to the claw. The small tube (coming from the black thing) goes to the pulsator. The larger tube coming from the plastic part of the claw goes directly to the bucket.
There are four things coming out of the claw. The blue/silver things are called inflations.
Here is what they look like. The blue stuff is silicone. You can also buy them in black rubber. Silicone costs about four times as much but lasts much, much longer (like years and years). Silicone also is impervious to heat and cold, which means that it doesn’t get stiff or even feel cold in winter, and I can clean them with boiling water without damaging them.
The blue silicone insert attaches to the claw on the bottom end and fits on the cow’s teat at the top.
The stainless steel shell serves two purposes. It keeps the silicone or rubber inflation stiff and it also makes the milking machine work.
Notice the little thing sticking out of the side of the shell?
If you look back up at the photo, you’ll see that there is a black rubber tube going from the shell to the bottom of the claw.
Everything in black is connected and it all goes back to the pulsator.
And here’s where hickeys come in.
You get a hickey when suction is applied to your skin for a long time. It pops blood vessels.
So why don’t nursing mothers typically get them?
They don’t because babies don’t suck unremittingly. They suck to get milk, sort of like you’d suck through a straw. It’s a pulsating suction. It’s not steady.
Because it’s not steady, the tiny blood vessels in the tissue don’t pop and there’s no bruise there. No hickey.
This is an EZ Milker. As you can imagine, it costs a whole lot less than my DeLaval milking machine. For a cow, the EZ Milker is $189. My milking machine was about $1000.
The EZ Milker is not designed to be used as a milker all the time. It’s designed to be used as a one-time deal, to store some colostrum, or to milk out a quarter that has mastitis and is hard to do by hand.
It’s a steady-vacuum milker. It has a hand-held trigger-style pump that you use to create the vacuum.
I wouldn’t have one here if it was given to me. They are, in my personal opinion, dangerous if used all the time. Cow’s teats are not made to withstand that kind of constant suction.
So what does my milking machine do, for $800, that the EZ does not?
What happens is that suction is applied via the vacuum pump to the bucket and the pulsator. There is suction pulling the milk out of the teat and into the claw where it collects in the clear plastic reservoir and then is sucked into the bucket.
But the pulsator is not sitting there doing nothing.
The pulsator is pulsing. It has a mechanism in it that is spring-operated that releases the vacuum approximately once per second in the space between the stainless steel shell and the blue silicone liner. That liner, which of course is pliable, moves back and forth inside the shell, alternating pressure on the teat.
It imitates a calf sucking. It makes a loud ticking sound as it works. And if it doesn’t work, the whole machine quits. No milk, of course, enters the pulsator. It only affects the vacuum created.
Dr. DeLaval was, of course, a genius. He managed to create this wonderful machine that works as long as you have a vacuum. They have even made versions that can be powered by somebody riding a stationary bicycle (for use in third-world nations).
Here’s our friend, Jason, milking at the local dairy where Frances was born. This is an all-Jersey dairy milking about 85 cows daily.
You can see that each milking claw has dual tubing running to it, one is clear (that’s the vacuum tubing) and one has milk in it. The milk goes into the large glass container and then is emptied via suction into a large refrigerated vat in an adjacent room.
The young heifer who enters the milking parlor is new and doesn’t quite have the routine down, so Jason has to nudge her a little bit. He knows every single cow. He can tell you her calving history, her health record, and her milking stats, and he recognizes them pretty much by their udders.
Between milkings, that entire parlor is hosed down with disinfectant. The machine itself has an elaborate automatic cleaning system.
I have a couple of coat hangers in my laundry room tub.
And a happy cow.