It’s imperative to know the basics of how to milk a cow by hand before taking the leap into owning your own dairy cow. It’s easy to think that milking a cow is, well… easy. In some ways, it is, especially if you do your research and practice. However, I don’t think it’s something that just comes naturally to most people. After all, we may be homesteaders, but that doesn’t mean we grew up with the knowledge of dairy farmers.
I’m here to cover the benefits (and pitfalls) of milking a cow by hand. I’m also going to walk you through the exact milking routine we have used for our very own family cow. Prepare to go into lots of depth and detail. I want to make sure nothing is missed!
If you don’t want all the background information on why you should milk by hand and what you will need to do so, click here to jump straight to directions on how to milk a cow by hand.
This post is for anyone who has never milked an animal before, but plans on doing so in the future. If that’s you, my hope is that you feel much more confident by the end.
This post contains affiliate links, which means I may make a small commission at no extra cost to you. See my full disclosure here.
Milking Our Family Cow By Hand
A little over two years ago, my husband and I began to feel a strong pull toward becoming even more sustainable. We wanted to contribute more not only to our own homestead, but also to the like-minded community surrounding us. So, we made the decision to purchase a homestead dairy cow back in April of 2020. Beulah was a sweet miniature jersey that had just gotten to breeding age. We put lots of time, energy, and money into her so that we could have fresh, raw milk and dairy products to offer our family and community.
After Beulah finally had her first calf and it was time to start milking, we tried a few different methods. But after everything we tried, we always came back to hand milking. We found it to be easy and efficient. It was very comfortable both for us and for Beulah. And in the end, we felt confident that sticking to hand milking was the healthiest decision for us.
I know this isn’t important to everyone, but milking by hand made me feel more connected to my food source. I really like that. To me, being less dependent on power and equipment is a pretty good thing. And there’s just something special about sitting on the barn floor in the morning next to your cow, birds chirping, breeze blowing through your hair, with nothing but towels, warm soapy water, and a milk pail next to you. It feels very rustic and grounding, in the most romantic way.
Maybe I’m going off on a tangent. Let’s get back to some practical pointers.
Hand Milk vs. Machine Milk?
Since I’ve started sharing our journey here on the Internet, I’ve come across a lot of people that are new to dairy cattle. One thing I often see them asking is whether they should hand milk or machine milk. I think that knowing yourself, your own cow, and your own situation is important when making that decision. Just because we preferred hand milking and didn’t feel like it took much time, doesn’t mean that should be the case for everyone.
There are plenty of homesteaders out there who swear that using a milking machine is the best and most efficient way to milk a cow. And there are an equal amount of them who think the same thing about hand milking.
I personally believe that hand milking is less complicated and a useful skill to have. So if you are a newbie to milk cows, it’s probably a good idea to at least know how to hand milk. I’m assuming that if you’re reading this post, you’ve already made the decision to learn how. But just in case you haven’t, I’m going to share some quick lists of positives and negatives to milking a cow by hand.
Pros and Cons of Milking by Hand
Here is a list of the best pros I can think of when choosing to milk a cow by hand:
- No hoses/less equipment to clean and sanitize
- Simpler management processes
- Sense of connection to your food source
- May help prevent mastitis
- May help in catching udder issues sooner
- Less likely to damage teats
- Less expensive
- No dependence on a power source (power outages don’t affect your ability to milk!)
We have to be fair in our assessment, right? Here are some cons of milking by hand:
- May make the harmful microorganism count in the milk slightly higher (source)
- Takes longer than machine milking
- Less efficiency in situations where multiple cows need to be milked
- Harder on the hands/muscles
- Yield may be slightly less than what it would be with machine milking
Hopefully you now have a healthy awareness of the benefits and pitfalls of milking a cow by hand.
Cow Traits That Affect Hand Milking
If you haven’t yet bought your first dairy cow, there are some specific traits you should consider if you are planning to hand milk. (These are in no particular order.)
Characteristics of the Udder
Certain udder traits can make a difference when you’re talking about ease of milking. Generally, size differences in the udders of cows simply affect production (sometimes, not always). A large udder doesn’t really make it any harder or easier to milk than a small udder. (Teat size is very important though, which we’ll get to shortly)
The most important thing to look for in a good milking udder is how pendulous it is. (By the way, pendulous = bad.) An udder that is very pendulous is not well attached to the cow’s body and has a lack of support. This makes it less stable and more difficult to milk. What makes a pendulous udder even more of a problem is how it negatively affects a future calf’s ability to nurse.
If an udder is exceptionally hairy (this is more often the case during the wintertime), then you will want to plan for trimming so you don’t get so much of it in the milk.
A cow struggling with swelling or edema of the udder will also be more difficult to milk, but this condition can be treated quite easily.
Length and Size of Teats
The teats of your family milk cow will most affect your ability to easily hand milk, so you may want to pay extra attention here. If you are looking over a cow with the intent to purchase, it’s always a good idea to examine the teats first.
The best hand milking teats are long, smooth, and hang as perpendicular to the ground as possible. If the teats are too short, you will find yourself getting hand cramps often.
Sometimes teats will stretch out a bit with age, but I wouldn’t count on them changing enough to make a big difference. If you are buying a young heifer, ask about the udder and teats of her mother, since it can be hard to evaluate what a heifer’s teats may be like once she calves.
Cylinder-shaped teats are more desirable than carrot-shaped (uneven) ones.
Height of the Cow
Not as big of a deal, but worth mentioning is the height of the cow at the withers. Mini or micro cows tend to have udders that hang very low to the ground, making milking very difficult. When it comes to a short cow, hand milking is actually easier than machine milking. But, that doesn’t mean it’s desirable.
Lots of people think they want a miniature cow without considering the challenges they may pose. We were able to hand milk our miniature jersey with no problem, but we had to use a smaller (goat milking) bucket. This is because it is all that would fit between her and the ground. For us it worked just fine. The only issue we ran into was that after we went to once-a-day milking, we were no longer able to fit all the milk in that little bucket. We would have to stop milking, dump it over, and then start again. It was a little annoying, but doable.
If you’re buying an adult cow that has been milked before, you will want to consider if she was previously hand milked. If she was machine milked, then you will have to get her used to hand milking. This could mean dealing with some behavior issues while you retrain her. Or, it may not be a problem at all. Which leads me to the last trait that can affect your ability to hand milk…
Some cows are the most easygoing creatures you will ever come across. And some cows are just buttholes. I mean that in the nicest way possible. Sometimes they want to fight you on doing things the way that you want to. But don’t let that make you give up!
Cows need to be shown who the boss is. If they aren’t responding well to hand milking, be firm and consistent for a couple of weeks and see if things improve. There are also some tools you can use to help you like this kick stop bar.
Equipment For Milking A Cow By Hand
Even if you don’t plan to ever use a milking machine, you still need some equipment to successfully milk a cow by hand! I really wanted to make this post as exhaustive as possible, so this list includes every single thing you need, along with a few things I strongly recommend. You may want to bookmark this post and refer back.
What does it take to raise a milk cow?
Here is a list of the things you absolutely need in order to milk a cow by hand:
- Milking pail/bucket – If you are buying a smaller cow like we did, you will want to take that into consideration when choosing your milking pail. We used a goat milking pail because our miniature jersey was only 37 inches tall.
- Wash bowl – This can be any bowl or container that is clean and large enough to soak your towels/rags in. For us, a stainless steel mixing bowl did the job.
- White towels – We loved using these white microfiber towels as they are cost-effective and wash well. Using white wash rags is important, because they allow you to see when the udder is truly clean.
- Storage jars and lids – Half gallon mason jars are most often used for collecting raw milk, but any large, sterile container works! I do recommend glass over plastic, because plastic can leach and is harder to sterilize. If you do use mason jars, we love both the plastic pour lids and the stainless steel lids with gaskets.
- Filter – There are lots of filtering options available for any budget. Stainless steel mason jar milk filters are great. We have also used a gold coffee filter over a mason jar funnel with great success.
- Funnel – As I just mentioned, you will need some kind of funnel that works with your container of choice. This is another reason mason jars are preferred, because they are easier to funnel into.
What else do I need for a milk cow?
The stuff on the list above is a must. But there are a few other things I highly recommend getting before you start milking your family cow for the first time:
- Dynamint udder cream – You could also make a homemade udder cream. Mint soothes and helps with circulation if there are udder issues present, such as mastitis or edema. We like to make this mint-free homemade udder balm and use in conjunction with the Dynamint, since mint isn’t always necessary.
- Stanchion – There are cows out there that will let you milk them while simply being tied. I’ve even heard of some that milk just standing in the middle of the field. However, unless you already know that your cow is trained to do that, having a stanchion is important. We have a YouTube video that shows our stanchion (it’s pretty rigged up, but works fantastically). You can also search for plans online.
- Extra fridge – Even if you have one large fridge, you may want to plan on having an extra one in your garage, basement, or barn. Just a single dairy cow will produce so much milk (anywhere from 2-7 gallons per day depending on milk production) that you may start to feel like you’re drowning. So, having extra storage will definitely help with that.
Here are a few things to do before you actually start milking your cow by hand:
- Make sure you have a clean bucket or pail ready, and prep your towels and hot soapy water (we use a drop or two of tea tree oil and castile soap) before going out to milk.
- Get your cow’s feed is ready before tying or putting in the stanchion. Some people don’t like to give their cows grain during milking because it makes them antsy once the grain runs out. If this is an issue for your cow, you can make only hay available or nothing at all.
- Secure your cow. There are times I started milking without realizing I didn’t fasten the head gate. Don’t be like me, unless your cow is a perfect angel (some are).
- Brush your cow if needed. We used sawdust as bedding, so brushing was necessary to make sure dust/dirt didn’t constantly fall in the milk pail.
- Ensure your hands are basically clean or wear gloves. We don’t, because we find it harder to milk and keep our hands lubricated with them. But using dirty hands covered in sawdust, hair, or mud are a no-no.
- Lubricate your hands with udder balm or coconut oil. This will make it significantly easier to extract the milk without wearing your hands out.
How To Milk A Cow By Hand (Step-by-Step)
- Sit down next to your cow. Having a short stool or pail handy is great. Because our cow was so tiny, I had to sit on the ground. Some people say this is unsafe… and maybe it is, but it’s the only way I could comfortably milk our nearly micro-sized jersey. I milk all 4 quarters from one side, but you can switch sides if you want.
- Wash the cow’s udder with warm, soapy wash rags. Keep wiping until your white rags still look white. Some people like to use an iodine teat dip too. I would recommend researching it and deciding if you feel its necessary for your situation. We just made sure to wipe the tips of her teats with a clean towel. It is important to pay attention to the cleanliness of the tips as that is where the milk is coming from.
- Hold the teat as close to the udder as possible. Your thumb should be pressing up against the bottom of the udder. The milking action starts with your forefinger and moves down from there. There should be no yanking or jerking involved, just squeezing your fingers from the top down to the bottom to get the milk flowing out.
- Squeeze 3-4 squirts on the ground before milking into the pail. You do this because the first squirts have the highest bacteria count. Milking out the first squirts onto something can also help you identify if there are any signs of mastitis, like clumps.
- Place your bucket or pail under the udder. Continue with the milking motion until the milk is no longer coming out in a steady stream. I always milk out the left teats, then the right teats. But you can also alternate or do back teats, then front teats.
How To Strip A Cow By Hand
- Once the stream starts to slow down, you want to start stripping. The motion of stripping is a little different than how you start out, but it helps make sure your cow is fully milked out. Grab the top of the teat with your fingers and squeeze in a downward motion with your whole hand (or just your thumb, forefinger, and middle finger depending on teat length). The main reason you don’t want to do this during the entire milking process is it is much harder on your hands.
- Stop stripping when you get to the point of seeing only teeny squirts from all four quarters. As you get to know your cow, it will get easier to tell once she is completely milked out.
- When you’re done stripping, use more clean water to wash each teat, focusing on the tips. If you want to do a post dip, this would be the time. Cleaning the teats after milking prevents bacteria from entering the cow’s udder via the teat canal.
Clean Up and Keeping the Milk Sanitary
As you prepare to milk a cow by hand, if you use the equipment and follow the steps outlined here, you will have clean milk that is ready for drinking raw.
Get your milk filtered and refrigerated as soon as possible after milking. We put the cow out and take the milk straight inside. We strain into sterile jars and put them straight in the fridge.
The way that you wash and care for your equipment is important in keeping the milk sanitary. If you have a sanitize button on your dishwasher, I would feel comfortable washing my equipment that way. However, washing by hand is preferable. Rinse your pail and equipment well with cold water, even if you are washing in the dishwasher.
If you are washing by hand, start by washing the outside of the pail first with very hot water. Get another, separate clean rag and do the same with the inside of the pail. Using separate rags for the inside and outside helps prevent the spreading of bacteria.
I do the same with filtering equipment–rinse with cold water, then wash with hot. Dry everything thoroughly or hang to dry. I like to hang my pail when it isn’t in use anyway.
Summary of How To Milk A Cow By Hand
I hope this post gave you a thorough knowledge of how to milk a cow by hand, what it takes to do so on a regular basis, and some other tidbits related to keeping a milking cow!
Read more posts about homestead cows:
The Homestead Cow and Why They’re Great
What Causes Bloat in Cows (+ Our Heartbreaking Story)
How Many Acres Does A Cow Need?
Homestead Dairy Cow: Genetics and What To Look For
Our First Year of Cow Ownership: 4 Mistakes