Notes from Windward: #61


Milking Pia

Three weeks and milking

Pia meets Walt at the gate
Pia and I are three weeks into the milking routine, and it's one of the high points of the day for both of us. It took a few days for Pia to get the hang of the milking routine, but she's a smart ewe and seems to be taking a good deal of pride in her special role as the flock's milker.

Early on we did three milkings a day, since a ewe doesn't have "the bag" that a goat or cow does, and can't store up as much between milkings as they can. Authentic rocquefort "blue" cheese is made from ewe's milk, and those flocks are milked three times a day throughout their lactation period.

While I was giving Pia a chance to figure out the new routine, I kept her in a special pen that we use to protect certain plants in the garden from the ducks. Turns out that they really like cabbage and brussel sprouts, and did some heavy grazing before we shut them out of that area.

Once she had the routine figured out, I started leaving the pen open so that she would hang with the other ewes during the day. With the increased nutrition she's getting, she's starting to "chub" up, so I want her to be out there getting some exercise, rather than lounging around all day. In the goat world, a "barn queen" is a doe who wants to hang out in the barn all day, and just have you bring her feed to her, thank you very much. Pia was showing signs of turning into the ovine equivalent, so between milkings, she's back with the flock these days.

Walt holds the door for Pia
It's said that mules can keep time to within fifteen minutes, and when plowing, they've been known to just stop in their tracks if their lunch break was delayed too long. I doubt that sheep have any such time sense, but Pia definitely knows when it's time to milk.

First step in the process is for me to stop off at the feed shed and get half a cup of steam rolled barley and half a cup of alfalfa pellets. Then I go into the upper garden area where I'm enthusiasticly greeted by Pia who meets me at the gate.

As we walk over to the milking area, she sticks like glue, usually with her right shoulder touching my left leg. Other ewes will come over and show an interest, but Pia makes it clear that she's the milking ewe and that this is between her and me.

I hold the door to the pen for Pia, and she proudly goes in and heads for the milking stand. One quick check around the pen, and she's ready to climb up onto the milking stand and get started.

Pia climbs up onto the stand
Once she's in place, I bring in the neck bars to constrain her in case she gets finished, and bored, before I get done. As time has progressed, my hands have gotten stronger, and my technique has improved to the point where I'm done not long after she's had her ration of grain.

The neck bars work well because they don't actually clamp on her neck, they just prevent her from being able to remove her head. She can still move her neck up and down freely, and that makes this design much more comfortable than the one that the shearing stand incorporated.

The milking process is pretty straight forward. First you massage the udder a bit in order to trigger the process of "let down." If you watch the lambs nurse, the first thing they do is to head butt the udder a few times before they latch on to a teat and nurse. A minute of massage seems to work just as well, and has to feel much better.

First I milk out most of the milk from her right side, and then move around to milk out her left side. With a goat, the udder is large enough that you can milk both halves without having to physically move to the other side, but goats have been bred for that purpose. Pia's from stock that's traditionally thought of as "meat sheep" so we're having to make do as best we can.

Walt milks while Pia eats
Pia started out producing between 30 and 40 ounces of milk a day when she was newly fresh. That's tapered off to closer to 20 ounces a day at this point, partially because there's a natural tapering off after birth, and because I've cut back to two milkings a day. That's not enough milk for two growing lambs, but Heather is supplementing that with powdered milk replacer. We never had much luck raising lambs on powdered milk alone, but as a supplement, it does a good job.

Now that the lambs are more than two weeks old, we keep them in a special pen with a bowl of "milk replacer" pellets to chew on whenever they're hungry. These are about the size of a grain of rice, and are formulated to help the lambs get from milk to solid food as quickly as possible. We also provide them with alfalfa leaves and bits to chew on. The nursing mothers get straight alfalfa hay, and I break open the bale on the tailgate of my pickup truck. A quantity of leaves and little bits accumulate on the tailgate, and so when I'm done, I scoop those bits up and give them to the lambs to munch on.

Pia usually finishes first
Pia usually finishes first, and spends a few minutes using her tongue to get every last bit of rolled barley out of the feeding pan. Most days, she's pretty patient about giving me time to finish, and given my gradually improving skill at this, we do pretty well most of the time. There are days though when she gets tired of my fumbling around back there, and expresses her impatience by kneeling down on her front legs.

When she does that, I just stop milking and sit there while she figures out that this plan of action isn't going to take her where she wants to go. Once she realizes that I'm content to sit there and wait her out, she goes ahead and stands back up, and I finish the milking.

What she's getting impatient about isn't so much the end of the milking process, but rather it's her desire for the cup of sweet alfalfa pellets that's her due when the milking is completed. These pellets are made from fresh alfalfa and use molasses as the binding agent, so they're an "all purpose" treat for goats and sheep alike. Grain can give them a stomach ache, and for rumenants, that can be a life threatening situation. If they eat too much grain, their stomach contents can go acidic, and that can trigger a lethal case of bloat. With the sweet pellets, there's much less of a risk of that happening.

Darla and Susie at three weeks
Once the milking is done, Pia gets her pellets and I open up the milking pen. When she's done, Pia will head back to the flock while I take the fresh milk up to Heather. She extends the fresh milk with powdered milk, and makes sure that the lambs get full bellies at least twice a day. The rest of the time, we want them to be hungry enough to start nibbling on the sweet pellets and the alfalfa bits so that they make the transition to solid food as soon as possible.

Once the lambs don't need the milk, Cindy and Saravaw are looking forward to doing some ewe cheese. We're very familiar with the way that goat's milk works in the cheese making process, but this will be the first time we've had a chance to work with ewe's milk. It's generally richer than goat's milk, which in turn is richer than cow's milk, so the comparison will be interesting.

All in all, I'd say that this program of milking a ewe who'd lost her lamb has been a complete success, and adds another important option to our bag of tricks. It's very hard to work with a newborn and then lose it a few days later because its digestion system never really got started. They're so fragile those first few days, and having fresh ewe milk available made all the difference.

The only problem now is that Darla and Susie want to hang out with the two-leggers and not the flock, and being as small as they are, the garden fence is more of a suggestion than a containment. These days, it's common for anyone who walks by the garden to find themselves with two very noisy lambs fast on their heels demanding to be picked up and fed.

While saving these two lambs has meant the investment of a lot of time, it will pay dividends over the life of these two ewes because of the enhanced relationship they will have with the humans. Even when their full grown ewes with lambs of their own, they'll still see Heather as their mommy.