I’ve been dreaming about a milking machine ever since we got BP, and I got one! Beulah Petunia is so relieved! She has never known such a slow milk maid as me. Actually, she’s never known a milk maid before because she started life in the dairy business then was bought by a farmer with a milking machine. When I got BP, she was trained to come around the back of the farmer’s barn at milking time. Sometimes the other cows wanted to come, too, but she was the only one he was milking at the time.
He had a rudimentary head lock in a corner area behind his barn.
They’d call her to come at milking time.
Then milk her out lickity-split.
I was amazed at how fast it was. A milking machine just takes a few minutes–as opposed to hand-milking, which (depending on the speed and experience of the milk maid) can take 20-30 minutes.
Then I took her home and milked her by hand for over a year, dreaming about a milking machine and putting away my pennies. Milking machines are expensive. Then I found a place with refurbished portable milkers. New hoses and inflations, etc, rebuilt pulsator and vacuum pump. Everything included, for much less than a new one. I could even use this same system to milk my goats or even sheep by adding special inflations and cups to the same machine!
I’ve been looking at milking machines for awhile, and I’ve found the whole thing very confusing. Having never been around a milking machine other than 5 minutes a year ago when I watched the farmer milk BP with one, I had a hard time understanding all the parts and deciphering the mysteries of the system. You can find deals on milking machines on eBay, and I even borrowed a partial milking machine system from a neighbor across the river several days before I decided to go ahead and buy the complete refurbished system. The reason I decided to do that was because when you come across deals, or someone who will let you borrow one, if you don’t know what you’re doing, you can end up spending just as much as if you bought a complete system in an attempt to fill out and refurbish what you’ve found in the process of purchasing new hoses and inflations and gaskets etc and especially the vacuum pump. If you know your way around milking machines, you can spend less buying used parts separately and refurbishing and rebuilding yourself. If you don’t know your way around milking machines, you may want to do as I did and purchase a refurbished, rebuilt system from a reputable dealer. (Unless you are rolling in money, I can’t see a good reason to buy a brand new one.)
Now that I’m using a milking machine, and having hand-milked for over a year, here is a little rundown from my perspective on the pros and cons both ways.
Hand-milking is a low-tech operation. You need hands and a bucket. Clean up is as easy as putting the milk bucket in the dishwasher. Milking the cow…. That’s another story!
Me, hand milking.
Me, milking with a machine.
I’ve heard of people who can milk out a cow in 15 minutes or less. I will never be one of those people. I’m not that fast after a year, so I don’t think I will ever be that fast. It takes me 20-30 minutes to milk BP. And even then, I’m not very good at milking her out. When I first got BP, it had been who knows how long since she’d had a calf. She gave about 1 1/2 gallons a day and I milked her once a day. Now, she’s had a calf. She can give up to 2 gallons twice a day. I can’t milk that out of her, not if you gave me 10 more hands. I’ve depended hugely on Glory Bee, trading off days with her, helping make sure BP got milked out regularly if not every milking. But Glory Bee is 8 months old now and she has to grow up sometime. In the process of trying to keep BP in her stanchion as long as possible, I’ve been overfeeding her, which has the counter-helpful effect of just making her make more milk! And I still haven’t been able to milk her out well enough. I’ve been worried about her getting mastitis due to incompetent milk maiding.
A milk machine milks her out and thoroughly, and in under 5 minutes. This enables me to start decreasing the overfeeding (and my feed costs), which will help to start slowing down her milk production. I’ll be heading back to once a day milking as I also head toward getting her bred and later drying her off before her next calf. A milking machine is also cleaner. The milk goes straight from her teats into an enclosed container. No exposure to cow hairs or debris or dust kicked up by a passing chicken kafluffle. (Lots of chicken kafluffles in the milk stand when the chickens are trying to get into BP’s feed box.) A milking machine is also a lot easier on the milk maid.
If you are planning to get your first cow, though, I wouldn’t recommend you start out with purchasing a milking machine. I would advise anyone to start with hand-milking. First, you need to know how and you need to be good at it–which takes time and practice. If the vac pump fails, or some other issue fails with the system, you may have to wait a few days for replacement parts to come in. You need to know how to take care of your cow by hand.
Second, a milking machine is expensive, even a refurbished one. Don’t make the investment until you know you are committed to your cow, and you won’t know that until you’ve lived the family cow life for awhile. Getting a cow is a life-altering event. Don’t take it for granted that you’ll like it. You may decide it’s not for you. If you can hand-milk for six months to a year and you STILL LOVE YOUR COW, then for crying out loud, get a milking machine and quit getting hit in the face with that tail already.
Third, and maybe most important, hand-milking a cow is a beautiful experience. You will get to know your cow’s udder and teats very well, which will allow you to assess her knowledgeably later when you are using a machine and may just check her teats briefly after removing the machine. But more than that, you will get to know your cow–and yourself. Hand-milking is a kind of meditative operation. It’s also a very primal act. It’s old-fashioned and storybook-ish. There’s a very romantic quality to it. A milking machine is….mechanical.
That said, once the weather warms up, BP hits me with her tail ALL THE TIME, and I’d had enough. Take this milk pail and shove it!
To move around the milker, I got a cute little cart at Lowe’s. It holds the vacuum pump, feed bucket, and milk bucket with hoses, and anything else I need such as my little cup of teat-washing towels and so on. I can easily pull everything in one trip out to the milk stand. The first day we put it all together, it was a bit confusing. Eventually, I called Skip and said, “Skip, we’re dumb, PLEASE COME OVER!!!”
BP was getting really dejected waiting for her milking that day, it took us so long to get the milking machine figured out.
I think she thought I’d never come. She even started to wander off at one point.
Skip has beef cattle now and lives in the house where my dad grew up about a mile up the road, across the river. Back in the day, he used to milk 30 Holsteins twice a day. In other words, he knows his way around a cow and a milking machine. (He HAND-MILKED the 30 Holsteins twice a day, by the way!!!) And he knows I don’t know my way out of a paper bag since he had to come over and show me Glory Bee’s udder and tell me she was a girl.
He checked out the vacuum pump setup and helped us get a few details straight.
Then he came out to the milk stand with us. I made him check to see that I had everything hooked up right.
Unfortunately, there’s so much mud out there right now, I couldn’t pull the cart through it (I had to get the male people to do it), so the next day I started milking BP up by the house. I’ll have to wait till things dry up before I can milk her out at the milk stand again. I keep the cart outside one of the doors downstairs. It’s easy to pull back and forth as long as I’m not going through mud.
The hoses have to be put back together on the machine every time. It just takes a few minutes.
I get BP’s feed and get everything set up then I go get BP. I don’t put the lead on her till she puts her head down in her food. Then I tie her to the fence. Having mommy so close is a bit of an ordeal for Glory Bee but BP is too busy eating to notice.
I turn on the vacuum pump, wash BP’s teats, and hook ‘er up.
The hoses are clear, so you can see the milk running through them into the bucket. (The “empty” hoses are the air hoses. There is a milk hose and an air hose attached to each teat cup/inflation. It’s all attached to the milk bucket and the vacuum pump.
The vacuum pump stays in the cart the whole time.
It sucks it right out of her!
As soon as I see the milk stop running in one, I unhook it. She doesn’t have the same amount in each quarter, so I unhook them one at a time as the milk finishes then shut off the pump when they’re all done. I handle each of her teats and make sure she’s stripped out.
I untie BP from the post and take her back to BP-land. Usually, she doesn’t want to go, so I have to pull a little. She is always hoping I might let her be a free-ranging cow. And Glory Bee is always hoping she’s going to come into the goat yard next. Not back to BP-land.
“WHAT DID YOU DO WITH MY MOMMY?”
There are other interested parties around during milking time, too, by the way. Interested jealous parties who don’t understand why BP gets such a big feed. Of course, BP is bigger than they are. But they don’t get that. They just get that she gets a big feed.
The first thing I do, after taking BP back, is unhook the hoses. I place them in a pan then take care of the milk.
The only physically difficult part of using a milking machine is handling the milk bucket. It’s made to hold 4-5 gallons, and even empty, it’s a heavyweight bucket. I don’t like picking it up with milk in it. I finally figured out to place it–empty–on an overturned bucket while I’m milking BP. (These photos were taken before I figured that out! I don’t place it on the ground anymore–it’s heavier than I want to pick up after there’s milk in it.) From a raised position on top of an overturned bucket, I can just take the lid off, tip the bucket, and pour it into a lighter-weight container to take it upstairs to the kitchen. It took me a few days to get this system down. If you get a milking machine, this is one of the points you’ll need to figure out. Once milk is IN the bucket, it’s very heavy because the bucket is heavy to begin with. Just be sure to work out a system to deal with it. A low stool, about milking stool height, would also work for setting the bucket on for pouring out into a lighter container. You want to set it up so that you never have to pick it up filled, just tip and pour. (Note: I’m talking to the girls here. If you’re a guy milker, you can probably sling the filled bucket over your Neanderthal shoulders and leap into the kitchen with it!)
Once the milk is taken inside, I push the little cart back near the door and carry in the empty bucket and the pan of hoses. (I leave the vacuum pump on the cart, covered.)
I have a large wash tub downstairs. I wash out the bucket with hot, soapy water, dry it, then set it on its side. (I set it on its side just to keep dust from settling in it between uses.) I wash out the lid and gasket, too.
I wash the hoses and the teat cups and inflations. I set the teat cups and inflations on a dish rack to drain.
I hang the hoses up using bull clips on hangers that are placed on a shower rod. This allows the hoses to drain.
I don’t separate out the vacuum hoses from the milk hoses every day. A dairy would wash out the hoses (and everything) with sanitizer after every single use, taking everything completely apart. I’m milking one cow. I thoroughly wash and rinse immediately after each, using the sanitizer once or twice a week. It’s important to not get any water in the vacuum hoses, so I have to be careful. I keep a small towel wrapped over the end of the vacuum hose while I’m running water into the milk hose then hang them up together, still attached. (Just makes things faster when I’m putting it all back together next milking.)
It takes just as much time to use a milking machine as it does to hand-milk–your time is just spent differently. You can spend the time washing stuff out or you can spend the time being batted in the face with a cow tail. I don’t find the washing to be that onerous. I find being hit in the face with a cow tail to be extremely onerous. And I like the end result, which is much cleaner milk. I still filter it, of course, just in case something sneaks in there, but it’s like filtering milk that’s already been filtered. At times, I know I will miss the romanticism of the hand-milking, but I can hand-milk BP any day if I just feel like it. If they’d had portable milkers back in the day, Mammy Jane would have got her one.
Take a look at the incredible cream I’m getting now that I’m using a milking machine and she’s getting milked out right.
As God is my witness, I’ll never buy butter again!
P.S. I almost feel a little mean advising that a new cow owner hand-milk their cow for six months to a year before purchasing a milking machine. But. Unless you are physically unable and require a milking machine for disability reasons, please do this. It’s an experience like no other, and will teach you so much about your cow and yourself. To continue hand-milking beyond that is akin to cutting a hay field with scissors. But. The experience is beyond compare. It is, hands down, the most significant experience I’ve had in being a new farmer.