Holding up milk

Is that a cow version of a bank robbery?

Kind of!


Cow Holding Up Milk

In reality, “holding up” of milk is only a problem when we’re trying to milk a cow and she does not want to give us her milk (for a variety of reasons). Below we’ll discuss what “holding up” is, how it works, how to correct issues associated with it, and how to prevent it.

First, here are some important dictionary definitions:

Letdown: ” is simply the release of milk from the udder.” The natural or induced act of a cow releasing the milk in her udder, allowing it to be removed from the udder (into a calf’s mouth or a human’s hand or an inflation of a machine).

Oxytocin: “a hormone released by the pituitary gland that causes increased contraction of the uterus during labor and stimulates the ejection of milk into the ducts of the udder.” The hormone that allows for letdown. Normally, oxytocin is released naturally when the cow’s body is stimulated to let down her milk. For beef animals, a calf starting to nurse will usually stimulate letdown. For dairy cattle being milked by humans, stimulation usually occurs during the pre-milking processes (teat dipping, wiping teats, start of the vacuum pump, etc.).

Holding up milk: A cow is considered “holding” her milk if she does not “let down” her milk at the beginning of milking time. We want a cow to hold up her milk … until we want her to letdown her milk! It’s all about the timing.

Who is most likely to hold up their milk?

  • First time calvers – A heifer goes through a million and one changes to become a cow. No matter how peaceful the transition, a lot of change occurs in a short period of time. Therefore, heifers are very likely to hold up their milk. This is usually temporary – once the swelling recedes, the tenderness will go away and a cow will relax into her job.
  • Share-milkers – This is a term primarily used by small farms with few dairy cows. They “share” the milk by having a human milk some of the milk out and having the calf milk some of the milk out. Routines and practices vary. An example would be: At night, calf is separated into a separate pen from cow. In morning, human milks cow and then puts calf with cow for the day. Calf drinks milk throughout the day. At night, repeat process. The 12 hours separation would allow for milk to build up in the udder so the human’s turn milking will provide them with a worthwhile amount of milk.
    • Why does share-milking often lead to a cow holding up her milk? Because cows are smart – they want to feed their own baby and often resent having to feed humans too. I often quip that we remove the calf so that the cow thinks of us as her baby. There’s some truth to this.
  • Cow being hand milked – Letdown only lasts for so long. I often hear about people milking a cow by hand for the first time and their hand muscles are not built up, so milking time takes upwards of an hour or more. The problem with this is that a cow normally only provides a letdown for 15 minutes or less. Yes, she can provide multiple letdowns, but she might not.
  • Cow in heat – This holding up is temporary and not to be concerned about. Next milking, she should be back to normal. Milk production may slowly reduce over the next month or two – if a cow becomes pregnant. This is not continued holding up, this is a cow slowing in milk production to start putting energy to growing the calf inside her.
  • Sick cow – A cow in pain may hold up her milk because the pain is overriding other stimulation. More likely, though, is that milk production is decreased due to decreased rumen function.
  • Change in routine: Some cows are extra sensitive and may hold up their milk if their milking schedule is altered (say, if you need to get to your child’s school performance and milk two hours early) or if there is a large change made to the routine (say, if you normally always milk the cow but just had to take that weekend girl’s trip to the city and husband or child is left home to milk the cow). Change in machinery, new pump noises, extreme weather, hand milking a cow that is used to being machine milked or vice-versa…

How to Identify a “Holding up” cow:

Normally, a cow has a full udder at milking time and when letdown occurs, the milk follows gravity down to the bottom of the udder. The lower parts of the udder will fill with milk and the upper parts of the udder will wrinkle and empty.

Normal view of cow before and after milking. If a cow is holding up her milk, the udder will not change shape from the “before” view (except maybe a little in the bottom of the udder).

If you see wrinkles on the bottom but the top continues to stay full looking  – the cow may be HOLDING UP her milk. When you milk her, she will start out giving milk but will quickly taper off to a dribble. That’s because you have emptied the milk cistern in each quarter (which she cannot force to hold up) but she has not released the rest of the milk – in the ducts. Another way to tell is if the colostrum clears after a few days and the cows milk is very thin – not creamy at all.

Here is a picture from Extension that explains the makeup of the interior of the udder. (Click photo for original source.)

Milk from the cistern will milk out, even without proper letdown. Milk from the alveolus will not milk out without oxytocin stimulus.

When to take action:

First, when to NOT take action:

  • First time calvers – Give her a few times milking to see if she is going to naturally learn to let down her milk for you.
  • Cow in heat – Give her one or two more milkings to see if she returns to normal. Having a heat should only cause very temporary changes in milking routine and the cow should return to normal within a milking or so.
  • Cow being hand milked – First, try to milk out the cow faster. Have two people (or four) milk the cow at the same time to cut down on overall time for milking. Work on hand exercises and stretches to build up strength. Or borrow a friend’s machine so that the cow stays healthy and gets properly milked out while you are building up your strength.
  • Sick cow – First work on fixing the problems causing the cow to be sick. She will most likely return to her normal actions when she feels better. One caveat is mastitis, see below.
  • Change in routine – Fix the routine or give the cow a few days to adapt to the changes. As preventative, if you know you are going to be making changes, try to prepare a cow ahead of time. For example, if the primary milker is leaving, have the interim helper come before you leave to assist you at milking time. Give the cow a chance to meet and learn the voice and movements of the other person.

When action is often necessary:

  • First time calver – If you’ve milked for a few days and a heifer is being particularly stubborn holding up her milk or if she has a very negative attitude (a kicker, for example) oxytocin may be the key to changing her attitude.
  • Share-milkers – Unfortunately there are so many different methods of share-milking that advice for solving the issue of holding up would be very individualized. One instance where oxytocin would benefit the cow is if a person decides no longer to share milk – or – decides to wean the calf. In such cases, oxytocin can be used as a transition from sharing to being milked by humans alone.
  • Cow being hand milked – If you think the cow is holding up her milk, thus causing milking time to be very difficult, one dose of oxytocin could be used to confirm or rule out whether holding up is the issue.
  • Sick cow – If the sickness is mastitis or udder-related issues, sometimes oxytocin is a proper treatment method for helping assist the cow clear the udder of toxic material or edema. If you are unsure if oxytocin would benefit a cow in an udder-related issue, contact your vet or an experienced dairy farmer for advice.

Why is a clean milk-out so important at every milking?

Complete milking out of the udder means that a cow can freshly produce new milk every 12 hours (give or take). Incomplete milkings leaves milk in the udder which can increase risk of mastitis and increase somatic cell count, decreasing the health of the udder and quality of milk.

If a cow holds up her milk and continues to do so long-term, she is effectively drying herself off or significantly reducing production. Compare this to a beef cow: say you have a particularly high producing beef cow that feeds one calf. If that calf only consumes one or two gallons per day for the first month or two, the cow will permanently taper down her milk production to match what the calf can consume. Once the calf grows, the calf could consume as much as four or five gallons of milk per day, but that will not happen because the cow has permanently reduced her daily milk production to two gallons of milk per day. After a significant length of time of improper or partial milk outs, a cow cannot reverse the trend and start producing more milk. That is, until she is dried off and calves in “fresh” as we say.

If a cow calves and milks properly, her milk production can be maintained at a higher level for more months of production, which provides more milk during the lactation and healthier milk (lower somatic cell count).

For those share-milking, it’s not healthy for the calf to get all the cream. If you milk and she gives you the initial let down or what’s in the cistern, that’s the lowest % butterfat milk in her udder, so what’s left will be really creamy and could cause an upset tummy in the calf (a form of milk scours).

Judkins, Henry F. The Principles of Dairying. John Wiley and Sons: 1925, page 35.

How Oxytocin works:

Oxytocin works only for a few minutes. As soon as you’ve given the shot, be prepared to start milking immediately. By machine, a cow should milk out in plenty of time that the effects will not wear off. If hand milking, expect the effects to last up to 15 minutes.

Oxytocin is natural and perfectly harmless to give to a cow. Remember, she already produces it and the only reason you are giving it to her is because she has failed to release it at the right time for some reason.

Oxytocin is allowed in organic production. (“Oxytocin is a hormone that is allowed with restrictions. It is prohibited for routine or long-term use. It may only be used when necessary in post-parturition therapies.” USDA Organic Guidelines)

Oxytocin should not be given long term. Cows can develop a habit of expecting an injection of oxytocin. Try to limit oxytocin to under a week or two of use. In most cases, one dose at one milking solves most issues. Like in humans – if you take a thyroid supplement long enough, your body stops producing its own and becomes dependent on the supplement. If oxytocin is needed for several milkings, one method that works well to reduce dependency is to slowly reduce doses (rather than cold turkey cutting her off).

Oxytocin is Rx. Inexpensive, but must come through a vet. This is a good reason to have a working relationship with a vet. If you call up your vet, that knows you own dairy cows, and you explain something along the lines of, “My cow is holding up her milk and I would like a bottle of oxytocin in order to assist her at milking time for a few milkings so she will adapt to being milked by humans,” theres a good chance your vet will help you out.

Needles and syringes:

  • Diabetic needle – The one we use is a 0.5cc 28 gauge needle and syringe. For giving in the milk vein to cows that are not kicky. Works INSTANTLY. (Note: We get laughed at by vets when people tell their vet this is what we’ve recommended. Believe it or not, the needle is so tiny, a cow rarely even knows she’s been given a shot. There is a great benefit to not stressing out a cow!)
  • Small needle and syringe – Such as a 3cc syringe with a 22 gauge needle. For cows that will not let you give them a shot in the milk vein. Given IM in the thigh, takes 30-60 seconds to work.

Tutorial on Giving Shots


Your vet will give you instructions for use when you purchase oxytocin. Be sure to explain to them exactly why you need it so they can formulate the proper dosage.

We’ve found that not all vets are familiar with using oxytocin on dairy cows, so below is an example of how we use oxytocin. Feel free to consult with your vet and discuss dosages.

IM (intramuscular) injection: 2cc in the thigh muscle, given 30-60 seconds before milking. (Works slower and requires a larger dose when given in the muscle.)

IV (intravenous) injection: .25cc (1/4cc) in the milk vein, given immediately before milking. Insert needle into vein, then draw back on plunger to see if blood enters the syringe, ensuring that the needle is properly in the vein. (Works immediately and uses a tiny dosage because given directly into the blood stream.)


How long to use oxytocin?

In most situations, try using oxytocin only ONCE to see if the effect works. Often, once is the charm. The cow just needs that example of how good she feels after a full, proper milkout.

  • First time calvers – Try once, but a few times may be necessary.
  • Share-milkers – Depends on the situation, cows that have been in a routine such as feeding their calf and now transitioning to being milked by a human may become very stubborn.
  • Cow being hand milked – Try once if necessary, but really work to cut down on overall milking time as a more appropriate fix to the problem.
  • Cow in heat – Don’t bother giving oxytocin.
  • Sick cow – Depends on situation, using for a few milkings is fine if a lot of benefit is had.
  • Change in routine – Don’t bother giving oxytocin unless the cow is being particularly stubborn for multiple milkings.

How to stop using oxytocin:

As noted before, one time usage is often sufficient and the cow can be milked per usual at her next milking.

If a cow has had oxytocin for several milkings (say, more than 3 to 5), I find it more successful to gradually reduce the dosage of oxytocin over a few days instead of cold turkey stopping it.

Sample schedule for reducing oxytocin use:

  • First time of use and next 3-5 uses: Full dosage
  • First day of weaning off: 2/3 to 3/4 of dosage
  • Second day of weaning off: 1/2 dosage
  • Third day of weaning off: 1/4 dosage
  • Fourth day of weaning off: Thump spot on thigh or milk vein to simulate giving a shot, but do not give injection.
  • Fifth day: Milk without oxytocin of pretense of using oxytocin.
Even with edema, this fresh cow shows visible change to the udder when milked out properly.

Best wishes for well-mannered, healthy cows that never need this information. For all others, I hope this information helps you during times of transition, change, or medical issues to improve and ease the periods of change. Happy milkings to you!


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