Like all mammals, cows produce milk for their young. Unlike most mammals, cows are also farmed for their milk by humans. So what happens once a cow gives birth? Do they just get hooked straight up to the milking machine?
Cows can be milked almost immediately after giving birth, however in many cases the farmer chooses to let the calf suckle naturally for the first few days. This is because cows produce a special milk called colostrum in the few days after calving, which contains nutrients and antibodies that are essential for keeping the calf healthy.
In this article, we’re going to look at everything to do with milk production after calving, specifically at how the process works in the first few days after calving, when the farmer has not only milk production, but a new calf to think about.
Can a Cow Be Milked Immediately After Calving?
Theoretically, cows could be milked immediately after calving however in practice cows are usually left with their calves for the first few days.
When calves are born, they have no immune defences and are vulnerable to many diseases.
Farmers usually allow the new calves to suckle naturally for a few days following calving because the first milk a new mother cow produces is special nutrient-dense milk that contains antibodies to help the new calf build up some immune defenses.
Read More: Cow Calving Process Explained
How Soon After Calving does a Cow Produce Milk?
Cows start to produce milk while they are pregnant, so milk is available for their calf immediately after they give birth. They continue to produce milk for approximately 10 months following their birth, reaching peak milk production between three to seven weeks after calving.
Although cows make milk immediately after giving birth, the first few days of milk are unsuitable for human consumption.
After giving birth, it takes two or three days for cows to start to produce milk that farmers can include with their regular milk yield for the human food supply.
Read More: Do Cow Need to be Pregnant to Produce Milk?
Why Don’t Farmers Take The First Milk After Calving?
In the first few days after calving, cows produce a special type of milk called colostrum.
Colostrum is a nutrient-rich milk packed with essential antibodies that help new calves build up some immunity to disease. It’s only produced for a few days after calving so farmers usually don’t milk their cows for the first few days after calving to ensure the calves can drink the colostrum from their mothers.
The first few hours after calving are crucial for cow calves, since research shows that colostrum quality falls by approximately 3.7% every hour after calving, until the cow is milked.
This means that it’s essential that the calf gets the first milk and it’s not wasted by the farmer milking the cow.
Colostrum is crucially important for new cow calves, so even in rare cases where farmers do decide to milk the cow immediately after calving, (for example due to abandonment or udder issues) the colostrum is always preserved and fed manually to the calves.
How Long After Calving Should Calves Drink Milk?
Most farmers allow the calves to suckle for two or three days following calving (to get the colostrum) but many farmers also choose to allow the calves to suckle after the colostrum period.
Allowing the calves to suckle naturally has benefits for the calf, including strengthening the mother-calf bond, reducing stress in the mother cow, and stronger and healthier calves.
In a 2016 study from Norway published in the Review of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Studies (RAFES), it was found that 73% of farmers witnessed an increase in robustness, improved general health and wellbeing, and faster growth in calves that were allowed to suckle for at least two weeks.
Modern dairy cattle produce almost 7 times the amount of milk that a calf needs, so even when farmers allow the calf to suckle naturally in the post-colostrum period, the cows will be milked anyway, although the milk may be preserved for the calves and not introduced
What If You Milk a Cow Too Early?
Farmers wear many hats, booking after their animals is priority number one. Over generations, farmers have learned that depriving calves of milk can lead to a drop in not only the welfare of the calf and the mother, but their productiveness as an adult.
Some of the possible downsides of milking a cow too early after calving include:
1: Weakened Immune System for The Calf
Without those crucial first few days of antibody-rich milk, calves have a drastically reduced ability to fight off infection or disease. Calves need the antibodies contained in the milk they receive from their mothers to boost their immune system.
2: Increased Risk of Abandonment
If the calf is separated from their mother before they have a chance to suckle, there is an increased risk of the mother abandoning the calf.
Suckling releases oxytocin for the mother and reinforces the mother-calf bond that cows keep for life. (Oxytocin is sometimes known as the “love” hormone)
3: The First Milk is Unsanitary
The first few days of milk is unsuitable for human consumption and in most places around the world farmers legally can not include colostrum in the human milk supply due to the amount of bacteria it contains.
In most western countries, milk is tested before being sold using a method called the standard plate count method. This method of testing measures the amount of bacteria in any given milk supply, and adding colostrum to the milk may push it over the limit.
To sum up, cows can be milked almost immediately after milking, although it’s usually preferable to wait a few days before milking so that the calves can get all the benefits of the first few days milk production which is more nutrient-dense than normal milk and contains vital antibodies for the calf.
Most farmers will allow the calves to suckle for two or three days before starting to milk the mother cow after calving, though some farmers choose to allow their calves to suckle for a number of weeks after calving, citing health beenfits for the mother cow and the calf later in life.
Stuart is the editor of Fauna Facts. He edits our writers’ work as well as contributing his own content. Stuart is passionate about sustainable farming and animal welfare and has written extensively on cows and geese for the site.