Milk is the main thing we connect with cows. No wonder, since they smile at us, in photographic or cartoon form, from the packages of countless dairy products, cheese, yogurt, chocolate, and pudding. It is easy to think that milk is all that there is to cattle! But is that true? Do all cows even produce milk?
Do male cows produce milk, too?
No. Male cattle like bulls and steers, which are males that have been castrated, cannot produce milk. Female cattle that have not had a calf yet are called heifers and do not produce milk. The only cattle that is rightfully called a cow and can produce milk is female and has undergone at least one pregnancy.
A cow needs to be pregnant to be able to produce milk. A complex interaction of hormones initiates milk production. Usually, it is set in motion during the second and third trimester of a cow’s pregnancy which takes 283 days, a bit more than nine months, on average.
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Therefore the dairy industry is dependent on regularly breeding the cows, on whose milk they depend, with bulls.
This constant breeding, of course, leads to many superfluous calves, which are often sent to the slaughterhouse in the first days of their life. This tends to happen to male calves since a dairy farm does not have use for many male cattle since they do not produce milk and because one bull can breed with many cows.
On some dairy farms, cows are also bred by so-called artificial insemination, which means that in this case, there is no need for male cattle on the farm at all.
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For How Long Do Cows Produce Milk?
The period during which a cow produces milk is also called the lactation period and lasts about ten months. Between each 10-month lactation period, a cow has two months of rest called a dry period.
What Happens If You Do Not Milk Cows?
Dairy cows have been bred so that they give far more milk than a calf can possibly drink. Dairy breeds like Holstein cows even need to be milked two or three times a day after being pregnant. They produce about 30 liters – that is 8 gallons – of milk a day!
If cows do not get milked after pregnancy, the pressure will start building up in their udders, which is, of course, really uncomfortable for them and can also lead to infections like mastitis.
The udder will increase in size until it cannot expand anymore – that cows can explode just a rumor, though! – which naturally leads to the cow being in a great deal of pain.
An udder that has grown to its largest size will also hinder the cow from standing, sitting, or lying properly. If this goes on for too long, the udder can rupture or get infected, which would ultimately lead to the cow’s death.
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If a farmer on a dairy farm for some reason cannot attend to their cows on a given day, finding a replacement for doing the milking is, therefore, the top priority.
However, cows that are not bred for this kind of increased milk production will naturally dry up by gradually producing less and less milk when their calf starts being less dependent on its mother’s milk.
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Why Are Some People Lactose Intolerant?
Funnily enough, being lactose intolerant is, in a sense, more natural than tolerating dairy. Human beings started out not being able to digest animal milk but gradually evolved to do so.
The biological reason why humans were initially not able to digest cow’s milk is that only the babies of mammals are specially evolved to drink their mothers’ milk.
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Those baby mammals, like human babies or the calves of cows, produce lactase, which is the enzyme needed to digest the lactose in milk. After being weaned off, which means that they stopped subsiding on their mothers’ milk, most adult mammals are not lactase-persistent, which means that they do not produce lactase anymore.
Because once humans started domesticating cows about 11 000 years ago, their DNA slowly mutated in a way that allowed even adults to produce lactase.
You can drink milk straight from a cow, and some people choose to do it, but the vast majority don’t. It is recommended to pasteurize milk (heating the milk) to kill harmful bacteria such as Salmonella, E. Colli, or Listeria.
People who drink raw milk believe that it contains beneficial bacteria, and pasteurization kills bad and good bacteria. Raw milk (not just cow’s milk) has been banned in many states as it might hurt your health. The retail of raw milk has been banned in many countries, but farmers can sell it directly to consumers, especially in Europe.
Many dairy farmers produce traditional cheese and yogurt from raw milk in their farms.
Some farmers choose to drink raw milk, but some heat milk at home where they mix a bit of water with milk and then slowly heat it in the stainless steel pot, saucepan, or use a double boiler. Milk needs to be slowly heated (for 30 minutes) to 145-150 degrees Fahrenheit and stirred occasionally.
In the not that long history, cows were milked by hand, and still are in some countries, but today farmers mostly use milking machines that are faster and cleaner.
Milking is an act of removing milk, and technologies today used for milking include automatic and robotic milking systems. Teat cups are attached to the cow’s teats to extract the milk.