The little house cow herd in the picture above is made up of Pixie, her bull calf, Tinaroo, and our foster heifer calf, Coco. This is Pixie’s story.
Pixie is a wonderful milk producer. She’s raising two calves AND giving all the milk we can use, with plenty spare to freeze for later.
This may seem like a home-dairying dream come true but the truth is that Pixie’s specialisation as a high-volume milk producer comes at a steep price.
Telling Pixie’s story is a bit like revealing the real story behind the affluent shelves of our supermarkets – the affluence is only an appearance, and behind it lies a complicated mess.
Modern Dairy Cows
Pixie is a modern dairy cow. More specifically, she’s a Holstein Friesian.
Modern dairy cows are a result of hundreds of years of careful breeding to produce an amazing goose who can lay golden eggs day after day: prodigious amounts of milk.
Of all the modern dairy breeds, the one that’s synonymous with industrial scale milk production is the Holstein Friesian – the black and white cows you see in huge dairies and on milk bottles and the sides of milk trucks.
(You know – the ones who are always depicted as smiling and happy, on green grass with blue sky behind them…)
These cows are known for the highest volume of milk production of any dairy breed and are used in the most intensive (read: “unnatural”) dairy systems.
Pixie’s story illustrates that when an animal is bred to specialise this heavily in one desirable trait, or function, all other functions have to take a back seat. Way back.
The result is similar to what happens with mono-cropping, or mono-cultures: when you take a piece of land and make it unable to grow anything other than a single crop, it becomes unable to perform the functions necessary to maintaining its own health. And then you have to prop it up with lots of unnatural inputs to keep it from collapsing.
Pixie’s First Calf – And Why Super-High-Production Cows Don’t Suit Home-Dairying
When Pixie has a calf, the volume of milk she produces exceeds the size of the calf. It’s as if the calf is an afterthought (I regret that I’ve never taken a picture of Pixie with one of her calves right after calving because it’s something you have to see to believe.)
After Pixie had her first calf, milking her was torturous because her udder was so distorted by the weight of the milk that her teats were difficult to grip.
Her calf could get the milk out because Pixie’s let down reflex1 literally squirted it into the calf’s mouth but there was no let down reflex for me and her calf could only handle a small amount of the milk from one of the four quarters of her udder.
So, I spent countless hours squatting beside Pixie, hand milking in an effort to prevent mastitis2.
I also borrowed another calf from a dairy farmer friend, to help use some of the milk.
Pixie did get mastitis, but it was sub-clinical – meaning that it was mild and showed up in her milk quality but not in her overall health.
Eventually Pixie’s calf got bigger and could handle more milk, her congested udder normalised somewhat, and I could hand milk her more easily.
I returned the borrowed calf and life moved on.
The mastitis causing bacteria, meanwhile, stayed hiding in Pixie’s udder incubating there, waiting for her next lactation3 and for a moment of weakness in her immune defenses.
Milk Fever And Mastitis
I was foolish enough to put Pixie back to the bull after she weaned her first calf, and along came Pixie-offspring-number-two.
Right after this calf was born, Pixie got milk fever –a metabolic disorder in which the sudden, high demand for calcium associated with high milk production exceeds the cow’s ability to stabilise her blood calcium levels after the calf is born.
Milk fever can be fatal if it’s not diagnosed but once you know what it is it’s relatively easy to treat with subcutaneous (under the skin) injections of calcium and phosphorous. Our dairy-farmer friend came to the rescue again, with advice and the necessary injections, and Pixie recovered from the milk fever.
But during the time that she couldn’t get up when the calf couldn’t nurse and I couldn’t milk her¨ Pixie developed acute life-threatening mastitis.
In the dairy industry, mastitis is treated with antibiotics. (There are natural remedies for mastitis but in these circumstances, I felt that trying to treat Pixie naturally had too low a chance of success and I went with the antibiotics.)
Of course, the antibiotics meant that we could not use Pixie’s milk for a period of time. So, there I was: stripping the milk out of the affected quarter many times per day and discarding it.
Pixie’s calf had to handle the antibiotics in the milk. Pixie didn’t like me because I was constantly annoying her, I had no time for other work, and nobody was happy.
When this calf, (his name was Pixer, and I wrote about him here) got bigger and could nurse more vigorously, I was able to direct his nursing to drain the affected quarter first, before he got too full, and after that we got along better.
Pixer grew huge and very greedy, with such an abundant milk supply. And after the withholding period—the safe margin for the antibiotics to be out of Pixie’s milk—we had lots of milk too.
After this experience I hesitated to breed Pixie again. When I finally did, I tried to set it up to be more successful.
Pixie’s Third Lactation
When I bred Pixie for the third time, I did a few things differently than I had the first two times.
First, I timed it so that her calf would be born at the end of winter, when the pasture is low in quantity and quality. My thinking was that Pixie would not be as fat and prosperous at the end of her pregnancy as she had been with her previous two pregnancies and would not produce as much milk. (It turned out to make no difference to her milk production at all.)
Second, I made sure she had no access to mineral supplements in the last trimester of pregnancy. With a lower level of minerals available in her diet prior to calving, the cow’s metabolism is better primed to be able to rapidly mobilise calcium from her bones when she calves, and she is less likely to develop milk fever. (After calving, minerals are added back into the diet and the cow’s bones are able to re-mineralise appropriately.)
Third, I organised a foster calf ahead of time, and I asked our dairy farmer friend for a vigorous, healthy calf that had had its mother’s colostrum and was hungry and ready to suck. I said I didn’t care if it was a bull calf (male) or a heifer calf (female), and he gave us the strongest, hungriest calf he could find at the time, which happened to be a heifer – Coco.
Pixie calved, Coco arrived, and all seemed to go well. Coco was a vigorous nurser (much stronger than Tinaroo, Pixie’s own calf). Coco could be directed to nurse on the mastitis-prone back teats that were hard for me to milk by hand, and between the two calves and me hand milking, Pixie’s udder stayed healthy as the critical first weeks crept by.
Almost In The Clear
At this early stage I was keeping both calves separated from Pixie around the clock so that they’d be hungry when I got there to feed them, and ready to enthusiastically strip away all that milk from the back quarters first4.
I also had to be there for every feeding because otherwise Pixie would not have allowed Coco to nurse.
With me there to oversee things, Pixie would stand contentedly and let down her milk for Tinaroo, and Coco could nurse too. Had Coco tried to nurse without me there and without hungry Tinaroo wanting to nurse at the same time, Pixie would just have chased Coco away.
So, the arrangement was time consuming, but less so than trying to get all that milk out by hand. And as the end of the third week approached with no milk fever and no mastitis, I began to think we were in the clear.
I had made the decision this time to keep the foster calf, which meant (now that I thought the threat of mastitis was behind us) that I had to find an arrangement that would work to keep all three animals happy and healthy without my continuing to spend every spare moment (and many that were not spare) at the cow shed.
But it turns out that the threat of mastitis was not behind us.
Juggling The Needs Of Cow And Calves
Keeping the calves separate from Pixie worked for managing Pixie’s udder and keeping Coco fed, but it meant the calves had to be kept inside.
For good health, calves need to be outdoors at least some of the time. So, when they reached about 3 weeks of age, I wanted to start experimenting with turning them out with Pixie during the
The tricky part with that is that calves, when they’ve fed and played and are tired, do what all little babies do: they go to sleep. In the long grass, where they are then almost impossible to find.
So now, instead of spending all my time hand milking, I was spending all my time looking for calves in the long grass. And of course, one day I couldn’t find them until quite late in the day.
Earlier on that day Tinaroo had nursed on just a front quarter. When I found both calves later in the day, Tinaroo was still too full to help empty the back quarters. And because Tinaroo wasn’t interested in nursing when I tried to feed Coco that afternoon, Pixie wasn’t interested either and didn’t let her milk down.
By evening of that day, Pixie had an anxious, rigid facial expression and was not chewing her cud5. Mastitis.
Three Strikes And You’re Out
I still hoped I could avoid another vet bill and another whack of antibiotics. I got up throughout the night to hand milk (full calves are so utterly useless for stripping an udder – they slept peacefully while I beavered away).
But by morning Pixie had deteriorated and with resignation, I called the vet.
The first day, we could inject Pixie without restraint. She was in so much pain, and so dazed and debilitated by the rapidly multiplying bacteria in her udder and their toxins in her blood stream, that she barely noticed the injection.
Antibiotics truly are a wonder drug. By the time of the second injection, Pixie was already feeling a bit better and we had to tie her up to inject her. For all the rest of the injections we had to restrain her in the crush. They are painful injections, and Pixie’s objection to them increased as she felt stronger.
And now there we were, back at square one, with a cow full of antibiotics that she passed on to the two calves, and that I stripped out onto the ground in her milk.
Worse, Tinaroo proved unable to cope with the disruption to his gut flora from the antibiotics, and developed a foul-smelling, bloody diarrhoea.
This is often fatal in dairy calves being raised away from their mothers on concrete floors, but Tinaroo still had his mother, it wasn’t raining so I could keep him almost entirely outdoors in a much cleaner environment, and I thought he had a chance.
I embarked on days and nights of careful management so that Tinaroo could nurse as often as he needed to, while I still had to arrange things so that Coco could also be fed and Pixie’s udder could be adequately emptied.
It was a complicated and exhausting time, and it brought me to the conclusion that three such experiences of milking Pixie was enough.
Would I Breed Pixie Again?
Tinaroo did recover. And to my surprise and relief Coco, the foster calf, did not develop the diarrhoea at all.
Pixie made a full recovery from the mastitis and is now in good health.
So here we are now with abundant milk, a daily milking routine that works like clockwork since the calves are bigger and Pixie’s milk production has leveled out, and TWO healthy calves.
A wonderful basket-full of golden eggs.
Am I tempted to do it again?
A Peaceful Retirement For Pixie
I learned a lot in the experience of milking Pixie over the three lactations that she has had. Maybe I could get it right next time. Maybe I could get her through those difficult first weeks without a mastitis occurrence, and of course it’s tempting to consider trying it.
She can raise two calves, AND provide all the milk we need, with spare to freeze for when there is no house cow in milk.
But, no. I’m not willing to go there again. Pixie’s high milk production comes at too steep a price.
The price is measured in time invested trying to prop up natural functions that should be able to occur by themselves, money spent on vet bills, compromised longer-term health and sustainability for everyone involved every time we have to use antibiotics, and in sickness and misery for Pixie and her calves when it all goes wrong.
After Tinaroo is weaned, Pixie will be spayed (de-sexed) so that she can go back out into the big paddocks (where there is a bull) and enjoy a peaceful retirement without getting in calf again.
Part 2 will explore the cost—to cows, calves, farmers, and the environment—of specialisation and industrialisation.
1. The “let down reflex” is a result of the mammalian “bonding hormone,” oxytocin, that triggers the milk to “eject” from the breast or udder for the baby.
2. Mastitis is a potentially fatal mammary gland infection, the most common disease in dairy cattle. It can result from the milk not being removed quickly enough from the udder. In large dairies, lack of cleanliness and stress are also contributing factors.
3. “Lactating” means making milk. “Lactation” is the period of time during which a mammalian mother makes milk for her baby.
4. A cow’s udder is divided into quarters. One or a number of quarters can be infected with mastitis while the others remain healthy. Often the teats on the back quarters are smaller than those in the front, making it harder to get the milk out of them by hand. This was the case for Pixie, and it was always her back quarters that had mastitis in them.
In modern times, dairy cows are selected for smaller teats which suits machine milking better; before machine milking, cows’ teats tended to be bigger, which suits hand milking better.
5. Cattle spend about a third of their day ruminating, or chewing their cud: chewing a portion of food that returns from their stomach to the mouth to be chewed for a second time before moving onto the next stage in the digestive process. Absence of cud chewing when a cow is at rest is a reliable indicator that something is not right.
“Kate’s writing at ARealGreenLife.com exposes the dysfunctional thinking in modern culture and proposes more natural, connected, and sustainable ways of living.