Monday, May 16, 2011

The Advantages of Milking By Hand

A brahma/jersey cross.  Big floppy ears disperse heat and increase 'adorable' by a factor of 5.

The first, and only, time I considered becoming a vegan was the day I walked into a Canadian dairy barn and saw the cows chained in their tie stalls. One of two types of dairy barns in Canada, the tie stall allots each cow a small space to eat, stand, and lie down, atop wood shavings or staw.  They are all chained in, and can not walk around at will.  If there is no dangerous ice and snow or mud to slip around on, they may receive an hour or two of daily liberation in an outside corral. I am a meat loving ominivore, raised around beef farming and horses.  If I were ever to wear an outfit in the streets made soley out of lettuce, it would be for the pure shocking joy of it, not because I am a card carrying member of PETA.  But, when I saw that set up,  when I saw the cows living their whole lives that way, I nearly crossed the floor.  Eventually I got used to it.  I saw that the animals were well cared for and mostly comfortable, but always, it made me uneasy at some level, knowing that this was where my milk and cheese was coming from.

Contrast this to my recent stay on a mixed farm in Honduras, near my new city of residence, Santa Rosa de Copán.  When I first got here four months ago, Jesús Alvarado invited me to visit his family farm. This weekend I took him up on his offer and was not disappointed.

'¡Vengan se! Vengan se las niñas.' (Come, come girls!).  These cows all knew their own names, and came eagerly as a group when called to the water trough.

Their herd is composed of a mix of 5 different breeds, the four I remember are: Holstein, Brahma, Suise Pardo, Jersey.  Having this variety allows choosing traits to achieve crosses that function as both meat and milk animals, or as more of one than the other if that´s what they are seeking.   The purebred animals that have no Broma in them are far more susceptible to ticks and flies.  I witnessed this for myself as I was petting various animals, and noticed a really big difference in skin (a.k.a. leather) qualities.  Broma are also less stessed by heat, their huge floppy ears are one of their adaptations for expelling excess warmth.

The differences between this farm and the dairies I know of in Canada are almost too great to list.  It is probably like comparing apples to mangoes, but I was so heartened by the treatment of these cows.  The calves get to nurse from their mothers for months, even as these cows are being used for milking for human consumption.  The cows and their calves all knew their own names.  This was the coolest thing ever.  When Jesús and his sons Humberto and Josúe called out to their animals, the ones they were calling to, stepped to the front of the line.  Mother and calf  would reunite for a few minutes to stimulate the flow of milk and then the hand milking, with bucket and elbow grease, would begin.  Most of the time the cows were only loosely hobbled by their back feet to prevent a hoof from plopping into the bucket.  The calves were tied nearby to keep them off the udder for a bit longer, the cows themselves just stood, untied, completely at ease with their handlers.  It was really moving for me. This is how farming can be done, with connection to animals and land.  I left very inspired by this system of dairying but also for the other alternatives they are promoting on their farm and countryside education centre (For example, these low pressure, manual water pumps that Humberto coined as his ¨Ecological Gym¨ made available by International Development Enterprises (IDE)).  I definitely need to practise the hand milking though...I quickly learned that it´s a skill and an artform. Humberto quickly learned some English curse words.

It's a stairmaster with purpose!  Up to 3500 L per hour can be pumped with this puppy and there are no fuel costs and repairs are simple! 

Some differences between the dairies:

Honduran family farm:                   Industrial model dairy farm:

-milking 30 cows 1/day.                                     - minimum 40 cows 2/day
-using dual purpose, milk & meat crosses          -  purebreds, usually Holstein
- average milk production 8 L/ day  per cow      - about 40 L/day per cow
- calves continue to nurse from cows                 - calves are separated at birth
- pastured 18 hours/ day                                    - confined 22-23 hours/day
-fed supplemental forage & concentrate            - all harvested feed
-the bull does the work                                      - artificial insemination
- bull calves grow into beef                               - bull calves are veal

These cows receive a lot of human contact and are treated with kindness. They are therefore very safe to be around.

Humberto, milking by hand, not as easy as it looks! With many, only the back legs were loosely hobbled, they weren´t even tied by the head. Their calves were by their sides during and after milking.

Holstein cross.


  1. Feel free to bring one or two of those bovines back to Canada - they'd do well @ The 40 Acre Farm, I think!!

  2. Looks like you get to hang out with cows too :) My farmers here in Tanzania could learn quite a bit from dairies like these!

  3. Hey Margaret, I checked my stats and have received 19 hits from Tanzania on this article. Thanks for sharing!

    Jesus and his family talk about the main ingredient in their milk and meat production from their cows, is LOVE. Calling the cows by name, treating them with respect (minimal hitting & yelling), helping each cow get enough feed (by tying them all seperately during feeding, to limit competition), brings them a lot of success. So cool!

  4. Do you know if Americans are allowed to run a dairy farm in Honduras? I've been thinking of moving either there or Ecuador and restarting my homestead but I am having trouble figuring out the legality of things in each country. I would love to be able to find a green (you know grass? so tired of the drought in Tx) country that allows me to have my little farm with pigs, cows, chickens, dogs, cats, rabbits, goats, and any other random animals I might have by then. lol