Annual cow cycle

I was asked recently what is the typical “cycle” for a cow –

This “cycle” can be very different depending on a lot of factors. I’ll give you an idea what we would do “ideally”.

First, here’s what cows do on a daily basis:

Daily activities of dairy cows
Chart from Nebraska Dairy Extension. Click chart to read the full article:

Now, here’s what a cow’s life looks like:

Heifer calf – Day of birth to two years old:

  • DAY ONE:
  • heifer is born and fed one bottle (half-gallon) colostrum within a few hours of calving, then again for two or three more feedings, about 12 hours apart
  • Navel dipped with 7% iodine to prevent infection
  • Placed into individual housing deep bedded, draft-free, accessible outdoors space for playing/running and sunshine
  • DAYS ONE to TWO WEEKS: AM and PM fed one bottle of fresh, warm milk from mother. Calf registered with breed association.
  • TWO WEEKS to SIX WEEKS: Gradually increase each feeding up to one gallon of milk per feeding, for a total of two gallons of milk per day. (Alternate: Can feed grain but this is not as healthy and is expensive)
  • Provide loose salt or salt block
  • SIX WEEKS to FOUR to SIX MONTHS: Start feeding a small flake of hay or grant access to pasture.
  • Give option of mid-day tempered water
  • Gradually wean off milk and onto hay and water by watering down the milk first with partial warm water (100 degree), increasing % of warm water until the heifer is drinking lukewarm water with no milk, then gradually cool down the water over several feedings. Soon she will be drinking water and eating hay with no stress of transition.
  • Start teaching heifer how to lead and respect for electric fencing
  • ONE MONTH or MONTH FIVE: Depending on method, heifer is dehorned
  • MONTH FOUR to MONTH TWELVE: Brucellosis vaccination required within this time frame. Also have vet check for and remove any extra teats.
  • MONTH FIFTEEN to MONTH SEVENTEEN: Heifer is bred (depending on breed and size) to calve near two years old.
  • Monitor hooves to see if she needs maintenance hoof trimming.
  • ONE to TWO MONTHS POST-BREEDING: Biotrack ( to see if the heifer has bred. If not, or if she comes back into heat, breed again.
  • GESTATIONAL MONTHS: Owner of heifer prepares calving area, at least 12×12 stall in barn, have chains for pulling ready (more likely heifers may need assistance calving, less likely for heifers to get milk fever)
  • Create milking stall, organize equipment and supplies
  • Practice leading heifer into milking stall, and working with udder and around legs.
  • Focus on a balanced mineral and loose salt free-choice feeding program
  • ONE MONTH PRE-CALVING: If feeding grain, start giving heifer minimal amounts to get her rumen slowly adjusted to the feed changes.
  • Heifer will start to develop edema, start treating if necessary.

Here’s calving time:

Calving day:

  • Day 1: Cow calves, healthy heifer calf ideally. Cow may need a bottle or tube of calcium/CMPK to perk her up. Immediately dip navel with strong iodine and hand milk 1 full bottle of colostrum to feed calf. Take calf away once calf is clean and dry and cow has expelled placenta. Start milking cow on a 12 hour schedule.
  • Day 5-10: Cow is cleaning, colostrum is receding, depending on cow, your milk should be fully available for cheesemaking, butter, etc. somewhere in this period. You can drink the milk whenever, we usually wait a couple days, but some people swear by colostrum.
  • Day 10-20: Somewhere in here, cow will probably have first heat, then will get onto a normal routine of 21 day cycles.
  • Day 90-120: Breed cow. This should put her calving about exactly one year from last calving.

90 days before to calving day:

  • C minus 90: Cow is milking but slowing down in lactation, mid-pregnancy, starting to put back on condition (weight)
  • C minus 65: Skip to once a day for a couple days, then every other day milking for a couple of days, then stop. Wait as long as you can and either the cow will reabsorb the milk and be done or you might have to milk out one final time to relieve her of pressure. This very last milking is when you would finish by giving a dry treatment for cows that had mammary infection problems or high somatic cell.
  • C minus 60: Cow is fully dry for 60 days or “two months” prior to calving date. Keep on grass hay and basic diet as long as she is keeping healthy condition (not too fat/thin).
  • Repeat CALVING

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