Hanging on in there


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.”

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16 thoughts on “Hanging on in there

  1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt May 13, 2018 at 3:04 pm Reply

    Stuff like this people like me don’t run into. Fascinating – and obvious once you explain it. So many animals alive today (however brief their lifetime ends up being) for entirely unnatural reasons, yet they’re still cows. It’s just that the criteria for ‘survival of the fittest’ has been hijacked.

    And then there’s the odd one that sneaks in ‘naturally.’

    • jwebster2 May 13, 2018 at 3:17 pm Reply

      Fittest has merely been re-defined 🙂
      We saw it in this country with work horses. Because a big workhorse like a shire could kill a man with one kick, a horse like that which did kick just went for slaughter because it was too dangerous. It certainly wouldn’t be bred from.
      Whereas at the other end of the size range nobody worried too much about Shetland ponies.
      So now the big breeds are pretty docile and easily worked and Shetlands can be (but not all are by any means) nasty little beggars

      • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt May 13, 2018 at 10:40 pm

        Stands to reason – you don’t need the power, so you don’t take the risk of the big horse.

        Poor Shetlands. They’re like Chihuahuas: they aspire to horse, but really aren’t.

      • jwebster2 May 14, 2018 at 6:30 am

        They had their uses, in the 19th and 20th centuries as Pit ponies. The last Shetland pit pony in the USA didn’t apparently retire until 1971

  2. patriciaruthsusan May 14, 2018 at 5:16 am Reply

    Interesting. What breed of horse were the old war horses which carried the knights with armor in olden days? Do they still breed those for show? What was their temperament? —- Suzanne

    • jwebster2 May 14, 2018 at 6:07 am Reply

      ‘Warhorses’ grew in size. The Normans used horses some of which weren’t much more than 13 hands. The first Duke was Rollo or Gaange Rolf, In my dialect which contains a fair few Norse words, that’s Rollo the ganger, or Rollo who walks everywhere. He was reputed to be so tall his feet touched the ground when he rode, (or was so heavy a horse couldn’t carry him)
      But even in the high medieval period the horses were only 15 to 16 hands (we have the horse armour they wore. )
      Remember a knight was expected to be able to vault onto his horse in full armour without using the stirrups because if he was unhorsed he might have to get back up on his own
      Apparently the Lithuanian heavy draught horse is the perfect fit of medieval horse armour. In war they often used stallions in Europe but they had to be trained very carefully. After all you had your sword in your right hand and your reins in your left. But you had your shield on your left arm. So the horse had to know when you wanted it to turn and when you were just raising your shield.

      • patriciaruthsusan May 14, 2018 at 6:47 am

        Thanks, Jim for the thorough information. Those were some factors I’d never considered. 🙂 — Suzanne

      • jwebster2 May 14, 2018 at 6:50 am

        it’s an interesting area 🙂

  3. patriciaruthsusan May 14, 2018 at 5:17 am Reply

    Reblogged this on Musings on Life & Experience and commented:

  4. jenanita01 May 14, 2018 at 7:39 am Reply

    They say if you live long enough, you will see everything!

    • jwebster2 May 14, 2018 at 8:08 am Reply

      sometimes twice, I remember seeing in thing in the farming press of an Irish farmer fitting a cow with a bra probably fifty years ago 🙂

  5. rugby843 May 16, 2018 at 1:01 pm Reply

    I see cows suffer the same criticism as human women…sad.

  6. M T McGuire May 13, 2020 at 11:10 am Reply

    I love your posts like this. Really intriguing little window into another world. And I loved discovering how and why cow tits have ended up the shape they are! 🙂



    • jwebster2 May 13, 2020 at 11:15 am Reply

      I met you never realised the importance of the strength of the suspensory ligament 🙂

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