Cows are among the most domesticated animals worldwide because they’re relatively mild and highly beneficial. Due to this domestication, it’s easy to think cows can’t survive without humans. Who will milk them? But don’t forget cows were once wild and survived without us. Currently, very few wild cows remain.
The Chillingham cattle found in Britain are among the last species of wild cattle. With just over 100 cattle remaining, they’re considered rarer than the Panda. However, the domestic cow and the American bison belong to the same family (Bovidae). The two species are genetically similar, along with the African buffalo. So the milking problem applies to them too.
Ever wondered how wild cows milk themselves? To answer this question, first, we must understand how wild cows differ from domestic ones.
How Do Wild Cows Differ from Domestic Cows?
To provide enough milk to the world’s increasing population, scientists have had to use innovative ways to boost milk production. For example, they use artificial insemination with carefully selected genes to maximize milk production.
At the same time, they use high-quality feeds and minerals made in factories. As a result, dairy cows can now produce 6 to 7 gallons of milk daily. That is twice the amount of milk they produced 40 years ago.
On the other hand, wild cows breed naturally and eat ordinary grass. The kind of food they eat and their breeding system significantly determine the amount of milk they produce. It’s a small fraction of what domestic cows produce.
Not many people want to milk wild cows to find out how much milk they produce. They’re just as violent as bison and buffalos. And you’re more likely to see blood before you see any milk from them. However, a few scientists have managed to milk bison and buffalos and lived to tell the tale.
But their purpose was studying the milk content, not necessarily checking the volume. And getting that little quantity from a bison is a lot of work. However, scientist estimate that wild cows’ milk is only enough to feed one calf.
So can they survive without milking?
Do Cows Need Milking?
A dairy cow usually has a big udder, sagging with milk. Sometimes it appears as if the udder will explode with milk and you can’t imagine going for a day without milking the cow. The truth is, dairy cows need milking twice or thrice a day.
When a domestic cow gives birth, farmers usually take the calf away from the mother. Without the calf, farmers have to do the milking themselves. And even if they let the calf suckle, it can’t extract all that milk.
Some farmers rely on machines to milk their cows. If there’s no power, the farmers can’t milk the cows but short delays don’t usually have a negative impact. Some research shows that cows in mid-lactation can survive up to a week without milking. Once you resume milking, you can get full or near full the amount of milk you got before.
If the cow already gives less milk (below 5kgs per day), nothing will happen if you stop milking. That is the natural drying off cows goes through at the end of lactation. It’s even advisable to stop milking at that time to give the udder time to rejuvenate and repair its tissues.
How Wild Cows Milk Themselves
Wild cows are not just random beasts roaming the fields and woods. These creatures have specific functions to perform in their habitats.
They eat grass and other vegetation, which makes them crucial to the ecosystem. They play a big role in keeping ecosystems healthy. Wild cows are social animals. They live in groups, which allows them to protect each other from predators. And they have strong bonds with their calves, who rely on them for protection and food.
Because of this nature, wild cows form strong familial bonds. They will seek out and protect their family members. Wild cows are also extremely emotionally attached to their calves. And that’s how wild cows milk themselves: to feed their young.
Wild cows give birth to one calf every year or two—and it's important for these calves to get enough food to grow strong and survive the wilderness.
What Determines the Amount of Milk Wild Cows Produce?
Milk production in cows varies depending on demand and supply. For example, if you extract a lot of milk from the udder, the cow’s hormones will trigger more milk production. And if you leave some milk in the udder, the cow will produce less milk.
One reason domestic cows produce more milk is that farmers milk the cows and exhaust everything from the udder. So the hormones sense a high demand for milk and produce more.
Now, let’s assume a wild cow has only one calf. If the calf doesn’t suckle a lot, the wild cow will adapt to the volume needed and produce less milk. However, if there are twin calves, the cow will produce more than what it produces for one calf.
So, provided a wild cow has a calf, she doesn’t need to milk herself. Instead, it’s the calf’s job to milk the mother. And as it gets older, the calf starts discovering other food sources and begins to rely less on the mother’s milk.
From that point, milk production reduces gradually and eventually stops. So at no time will the wild cow need to milk herself. But what if the calf dies when the mother is still lactating? Here’s what will happen.
Adverse Effects That Wild Cows Face When Not Being Milked
Let’s explore the harmful effects that can arise in wild cows that are not being milked. The main two are inbreeding and inbreeding depression.
Inbreeding occurs when a cow breeds with another cow that shares similar traits, such as characteristics that make it more likely to be lactating (i.e., milk-producing) or to have babies.
Inbreeding depression is the condition where calves are born with reduced birth weights because their mothers have not fed properly and have been unable to gain enough weight to produce adequate milk during pregnancy. While these problems can be caused by either the wild cow not being milked or other cows breeding with them, they are examples of the issues that could occur when there’s no control over the situation.
These two issues can affect a cow's health in many ways, but the most obvious effects are decreased fertility and increased risk of disease.
In addition, Calves that miss out on the essential nutrients in milk, including vitamins A, B12, and D, and minerals such as calcium, potassium, phosphorous, magnesium, and zinc can develop health complications. Such problems include weak bones, rickets, and vitamin D deficiency.
What Happens to a Wild Cow’s Milk When a Calf Dies?
If the calf dies, you won’t see a wild cow milking herself. It’s practically impossible. And it’s not in their nature to feed calves that are not theirs. Also, the milk doesn’t start leaking just because the udder is under pressure. So, yes, there will be some pressure, and the cow will have to endure the discomfort. But it’s temporary.
Since wild cows have small udders, the risk of developing complications is less. Their bodies will stop producing milk, and eventually, the discomfort will ease.
Keep in mind wild animals are generally more resilient than domestic ones. They face all kinds of trouble in the wild and even get sick. In most cases, there’s no human intervention to provide medication. But due to their strong immunities, the animals fall sick less frequently and recover naturally from diseases. That’s one of the reasons wild cows survive without milking, even after losing their calves.
Wild cows do not milk themselves. Instead, they let their calves suckle the milk. These cows only produce as much milk as their calves need. Like other mammals, they have hormones that regulate milk production. If the calves drink more milk, the cows produce more milk, and vice versa.
As the calf grows, it starts feeding on vegetation and reduces milk consumption. So the mother starts to reduce milk production and eventually stops lactation. In case a calf dies during lactation, wild cows stop producing milk within a short time. So any discomfort they might experience is usually temporary and doesn’t pose a serious danger to them.