If you want milk from your dairy cow, you’re going to have to breed her. For someone new to dairy cows, the whole process could be quite intimidating. Thankfully, homesteaders have been breeding dairy cows for centuries, so there’s lots of tried and true information out there to help you get started. Here’s everything you need to know… from scheduling and drying up to heat cycles and more!
Scheduling Breeding and Drying Up Your Dairy Cow
To maximize your milk production, your dairy cow can be bred each year. Following this schedule, your cow will be pregnant for nine months out of the year. You should begin drying her up about two months before her calf is due to be born if her diet is mostly hay, grain, and other supplements. However, most experts recommend that cows who eat mostly grass begin the drying up process three months before their calf is born so that momma cow has enough calories for proper weight gain.
She should be put with the bull, or see the AI specialist when she comes into heat for the second time after her calf is born. When you follow this schedule, you will only be out of milk for about two months each year. Of course, you will also have a beef steer for the freezer or a heifer to sell every year. Keep in mind that the length of gestation for a cow is 285 days or approximately nine and a half months. That means that your cow will calve at around the same time each year when you follow this schedule.
If you’re breeding a heifer for the first time, don’t rush it and breed her too soon. A cow that’s breed too young may have a more difficult birth, her growth may be stunted, or she could even end up being a poor milk producer for the rest of her life. Although a heifer calf can get pregnant when she’s as young as three months old, you should wait until she’s about 13 months. Many experts also recommend that you refrain from giving a heifer grain until after she has her first calf.
Cow Heat Cycles
Cows typically come into heat every 21 days, but it can vary somewhat from cow to cow. Some cows have a short cycle of only 18 days, while others have a longer cycle of up to 24. She will generally come into heat between 30 – 60 days after she has a calf. Cows only stay in heat for eight to 30 hours, with the average length being 18 hours, so you’ve got to be paying attention or you might miss it. When you notice the signs that she’s in eat, act fast because waiting even one day could mean missing it entirely.
Signs that your cow is in heat:
- Excessive tail twitching, restlessness, and stomping
- Bawling and mooing more than usual
- Possible reduction in milk production
- Swollen, red vulva with possible mucus discharge
- Other cows may try to mount her
- She may break through fences looking for the bull
- A neighboring bull may break through your fence looking for her
Just a note of caution… occasionally, a cow in heat may even try to mount you!
Breeding Your Dairy Cow
Your cow will come into heat once a month until she is bred, starting from the time of her first heat after birth. You have two options when it comes to getting her bred; you can have her artificially inseminated (AI), or you can introduce her to a bull. If you will be working with an AI tech, the easiest way to schedule the appointment is to note her first heat after she calves and count out the days from there to get the approximate date of her next heat cycle (18 – 22 days). Remember, she can’t get pregnant if she’s not in heat, so timing the AI appointment just right will be crucial.
One of the advantages of AI is that you can have your choice of breed for the bull. If you have a young heifer, it’s especially important that the bull is from a breed that’s smaller, or the same size, as her own. If you don’t have a small bull, such as a Jersey, in your area, AI will give more options. Another advantage of going with AI is that you can take the course and become certified to do the procedure yourself, or you can pay a certified inseminator to come to you.
Either way, you will pay for the semen by the ampule, and the price will vary depending on the source. You can choose semen from any breed of bull, and you can even pay more to get semen from champion bulls if you want to. Of course, you’re going to want to make sure your timing is right, or you will end up paying for more ampules to get her pregnant.
Breeding to a bull has its own set of advantages and disadvantages. Thankfully, if you’re not breeding several cows each year, there’s no need to keep your own bull. Chances are that someone in your area will have a bull that you can take her to, although there may not be a lot of options to choose from. The advantage of going this route is that she can be presented to the bull several times over the course of a few days, increasing the odds of catching her at just the right time.
Obviously, having to transport your cow can present a challenge, and there’s always a chance that she could become stressed or injured in the process. For safety reasons, don’t have a strange bull brought to your farm. I’m sure you already know that bulls can be dangerous, and breeding will need to be handled with care by someone who knows what they’re doing.
Breeding your sweet dairy cow for the first time is enough to make any homesteader nervous. Thankfully, there’s really not much for you to do, other than getting the timing right. Once you have that new calf on the ground and a steady supply of milk for your family, you’ll be glad you did it!