What happens to our cows after they're done producing milk?

People are often curious about our veterinary practices here on the farm. Truth is, organic management keeps cows pretty healthy, and we rarely need a vet. Grazing provides cows with their ideal diet as well as fresh air and exercise, and we expect many of our ladies to continue making milk well into their teens.

However, every once in a while a cow has an illness or injury that requires some intervention. Let me share with you the saga of one of my favorite cows, Coco.

We bought Coco as a heifer just before starting our official “transition” to organic. This was when our herd consisted of about 13 heifers who would become our milking herd, and Coco was part of our original lineup. The year we first started milking, we had a lot to learn, and all of our animals were heifers – milking for the first time, so we all learned together. We still have most of the cows in our original lineup, and we’ve been through a lot together!

Coco milked beautifully for many years. She was a low-maintenance cow, good at grazing, with a very nice udder – and she made lots of milk! She was always one of my favorite cows to milk, and I have always appreciated her amiable personality.

A year ago last fall, Coco had a traumatic injury to her udder. We’re still not exactly sure what happened, although we assume she got rammed by another cow’s head. (Our cows get along nicely most of the time, but sometimes they don’t – just like people, I suppose!) What was once a beautiful udder became swollen and painful, and one of her teats produced bloody milk for months until we dried her off. (To milk a cow with such an injury, we use a “quarter milker”—which separates the milk from the infected teat, so it can be discarded separately). Not only was it uncomfortable for Coco, it was a bit of a pain for us to deal with as well.

During her dry period last year, Coco’s udder healed up well, but when she calved again in the spring, the injured quarter flared up with mastitis. Our go-to organic treatment for mastitis (pure oregano oil) didn’t clear it up. However, after months more of quarter-milking, it finally cleared up, and she was making good milk again. The only lingering effect of her injury was the permanent damage to the muscular structure of her udder, which is now low-hanging and prone to injury and infection.

A month or so ago, Coco stepped on her teat, as cows with low-hanging udders are prone to do. Again came the mastitis, again we treated it fruitlessly with oregano oil, and again we dried her off while giving her garlic and aspirin to help her body deal with the infection. It has finally subsided, and we have hesitantly concluded that Coco is no longer an efficient member of our milking system.

What to do? I think we came up with the perfect solution. Next spring, when Coco has her calf and starts making milk again, we will take her to a special pasture with one or two other mama cows, as well as all of the brand-new heifer calves we plan to raise. We “graft” the calves onto the Mamas- each nursing three or four calves. No milking required – the calves take care of that. And calves raised on grass with plenty of sunshine and mama’s milk – well, they grow up to be hardy, healthy little buggers. Just the kind we’re looking for to replace cows like Coco in our lineup.

And for Coco? Plenty of fresh grass, lounging with babies, and no more trips to the milking parlor. It’s a pretty sweet retirement plan.