There has been a story circulating in the media about a cow wearing a bra. Basically the lady in question had two rear teats which are a bit close to the ground, so her calf tends to suck the front two teats because it’s easier. So the farmer put a bra over the front two teats which means the calf cannot get to them and has to suck the rear teats first.
At this point it’s worth taking a diversion into dairy cow breeding. When I was a child, AI in cattle was just taking off. Now dairy farmers had always tried to breed cows who had a good grip on their udder and with hand milking, wanted a cow to have a teat of reasonable length. Also if the cow is suckled the calf wants a teat that is of a certain optimum size. To small and it’ll struggle to suck, to large it’ll struggle to get the damned thing in its mouth.
AI in cattle got a boost with computerisation where you could compare all sorts of records, from all over the world. Also it became possible for bulls to have daughters on several continents. So a bull’s mother, sisters, (because they share his genetics) and eventually his daughters will be assessed on udder depth, the shape and attachment of the rear udder, the length and attachment of the fore udder and the cleft between the left and right hand sides of the udder. This latter isn’t a fashion statement, it’s an indicator of the strength of the suspensory ligament.
Then you come to teat placement (the last thing you want is them sticking out of the sides. Not only is it disconcerting for a calf but it’s a nightmare when you’re trying to put a milking machine on. Then the teats themselves should be cylindrical, neither too long nor too short and neither too thick nor too thin.
As you can see, no underwear model or plastic surgeon has gone into the sort of practical detail that the average dairy farmer considers.
Now cattle generations come round quite quickly. If a cow gets in calf to a certain bull, in nine months you’ll have a calf, and in two years that calf will have her first calf. So you can see the results of a breeding policy within your working lifetime.
Now when I was young, you’d get old cows walking into the parlour with ‘bags like swills’ and teats which stuck out at all sorts of angles. Not only that but you’d have cows with udders like the cow in the picture where they’ve lost control of the rear udder and it’s just sagged. Thanks to fifty years of breeding you see that a lot less amongst dairy cows.
But of course, with cattle bred for beef, they’ve used different breeding criteria. Udder shape never really figured in their calculations because they never milked the animal. Beef cows don’t produce a lot of milk and concentrate on feeding their calf.
So that’s why you can sometimes see udders like the one in the picture, which in dairy terms is pretty much a blast from the past.
At this point it might be worth looking at the length of life of dairy cattle. Apparently it’s about three lactations (so about five to six years.)
However this is determined by a lot of things. The animal’s health, her yield, various traits and temperament, and whether she will get back in calf or not. So whilst it’s not uncommon for a dairy herd to have a lot of cows aged eight to twelve and a few old stalwarts in their teens, some cows will milk for one lactation and will be sold because they’re not as good as their contemporaries.
What is interesting is that fifty years ago I remember reading about this topic in a farming magazine. The writer had looked back at figures collected over fifty years previously (so this takes us back to before the First World War.) He was complaining that the average life of dairy cows had been three lactations back then and hadn’t improved in his day. So in spite of intensification etc, the life span of the average dairy cow hasn’t altered much in over a century.
There again, why do I know? Check with the expert.
Now in paperback or ebook formats
As a reviewer commented, “This book charts a year in the life of a Cumbrian sheep farmer. It’s sprinkled with anecdotes and memories of other years. Some parts (especially when featuring Sal, the Border Collie) were so funny as to cause me to have to read them out loud to my husband. It’s very interesting to read these things from the pen of the man who is actually out there doing it – usually in the rain! A very good read.”