A few hours before birth, the mother will become agitated and separate from the herd; if corralled, she will try to break out. She may raise a leg and suckle herself to stimulate hormone release and encourage contractions. Birth will occur with the mother lying down on her side. First the legs of the calf appear followed by the head and shoulders and finally the whole calf is ejected, taking about 25 minutes. As the mother stands up, the umbilical cord is severed and the after birth follows within the hour. The mother doesn’t lick and clean the calf as is common amongst most mammals but she is protective of her young. Within an hour, the calf can stand, and by two hours, she is suckling. They will remain together for the entire period of lactation which may continue from 9 to 18 months. If the calf should die, the mother will not adopt another, though attempts have been made to fool the mother by skinning the dead calf and dressing a doll with the skin. If the mother accepts the surrogate, it can then be replaced by an orphaned calf which is also dressed with the skin.
If a camel is to be used for milk, it must therefore have its young close by, otherwise she won’t deliver. To milk the camel, you need to stand on one leg and balance a bucket under the udder on the knee of the other and squeeze the teats. There are four in all and only those on one side should be used for milking, the remaining two should be left for suckling by the calf. Though you may find the mother doesn’t yield since she can be as particular about you as she is about her calf and will only drop her milk for a person she trusts.
The milk is slightly saltier than cow’s milk but three times richer in Vitamin C and ten times richer in iron. It also has a higher percentage of unsaturated fatty acids and is loaded with B vitamins. Around half the globe, from the Sahara to Kazakhstan, it is regarded as a potent tonic against disease. In the Gulf States, it is regarded as an aphrodisiac. Research by the FAO is currently investigating claims that it reduces coronary heart disease and diabetes.
Nomads will take a milking camel with them when trekking in the desert since the milk provides not only nourishment but also water. As the going gets tougher and the camel begins to dehydrate, it actually increases the water content of the milk to the relief of both the calf and the nomad. The camel, itself, can lose up to 30% of its mass as water before succumbing to dehydration.
The Bedouin have not traditionally prepared butter or cheese from camel’s milk. Churning seems to have little effect because the milk lacks the agglutinin necessary to cause clumping of the milk fats into butter. Rennet, necessary for the coagulation of the protein and fats of milk into the curds that form cheese, is also far less effective on camel milk than cow milk, although claims have been made for the rennet extracted from the stomach of the desert hare! The milk can be fermented naturally which extends its life, but it is generally drunk fresh.
Nevertheless, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN has put in a lot of research into developing novel ways of transforming camel milk into butter and cheese.