PDCA members and subscribers will find in the current issue of "The Record" a couple of really useful Dexter milking articles such as this one by the owner of the Woodmagic herd.
by Beryl Rutherford
Recently there has been a trend towards breeding the Dexter purely for beef, ignoring its high potential for milk. In Britain today, this has been aggravated by the organisation of collection of milk by the big dairies, with the accent on size of load for the tanker. Nevertheless, there is still room for the small herd, which caters for a niche product, such as cheese or yoghurt. Commercial milk production for the liquid milk market is ruled out, the comparative overheads make the Dexter uncompetitive, compared to 300 cow Holstein herds, and I doubt whether the Dexter owner would find today’s environment in any way attractive.
In the case of the smallholder, requiring milk for the house, the Dexter, for its size, performs better than many of the bigger breeds. Providing it keeps to its original size of around 6 cwt, it is perfectly possible to keep two Dexters in the place of one of a bigger breed. If the two calvings are correctly spaced out, they can give a supply throughout the year, instead of being flooded out for three months, and left high and dry for at least two.
When I maintained a milking herd of between 40 and 60 animals, my average would have been around 2½ gallons. My best cow yielded a top daily amount of only 3½ gallons, but would still be giving around 2 gallons when I was desperately trying to dry her off, with only weeks before her next calving. She gave me three successive lactations of 800 gallons. The persistency of yield is one of the Dexter’s strong points, and is obviously an advantage in the case of a house cow. A modest daily yield requires less expensive feeding, since she will supply most of the milk through her normal daily maintenance requirements.
When she calves, she should not be milked out for the first four days, the calf will probably stick to one quarter at this time, the other three should be slackened off, to an increasing amount, and after four days they can be milked out. I prefer to leave my house cow to rear her calf, so I let them run together, and take all excess milk once daily. If you decide to rear the calf away from the cow, you will need to milk twice daily, as near as possible at twelve hour intervals. Leaving the calf to suckle is much less stressful for both of you.
Once the calf starts to take too large a share, usually when about a month old, I shut the calf away from its mother by night, letting it run with her during the day. In the morning, I put the calf to cow, let it suck one quarter out, grab mum and milk her promptly, while the ‘let down’ mechanism is still functioning. Other-wise she may ‘save it for the calf.’ This is a hormonal action, and is not something the cow has conscious control over. In the absence of a calf, ‘let down’ can be encouraged by other pleasurable sensa-tions, such as feeding corn, or massaging the udder.
According to whether it is summer or winter, I wean the calf between six and seven months, and carry on milking the dam until eight weeks before she is due to calve again. To wean, I prefer to cut the calf down to every other day for a week, and then usually another two feeds, at three-day intervals. When I dry the mother off, I milk every other day for a week, and it is probably a good idea to put an antibiotic into each quarter, after the last milking, to ensure you don’t run into mastitis. Some breeders prefer instant weaning and drying off; I feel the graduation is nearer to nature.
Try to find a local expert who can give you advice on feeding before calving; the wrong diet can risk milk fever at calving. Feeding too high a calcium diet, thus preventing her maximising the available calcium when she calves, can exacerbate this. A first calver will not be likely to have problems, since she can draw on some of the calcium in her bones. In feeding, I put the emphasis on starch, feeding too much protein can give problems, and it is definitely not the diet for a Dexter.
Dexters have an inheritance of centuries of neglect, running semi-wild in the hills of Ireland, and should not give you many management problems. They will repay you by giving high quality and naturally homogenised milk, with a butterfat of around 4%. You can keep yourself in milk, cream, and butter, with the minimum of outlay and effort.