Dairy farming is much more than a job

To a kid growing up on a dairy farm, “teats” is not a naughty word! We had a barnful of ’em, and they were our bread and butter, so to speak.

Twice a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, we went to the barn and washed, massaged and squeezed ‘em. Our livelihoods were inextricably mingled with mammaries!

Dairy farming when I was a kid was more than a full-time job; it was a lifestyle. It was our life! Those stupid cows had to be milked twice a day, seven days a week, throughout their lactation periods. Why? Because dairy cows, stupid as they are, liked routine, I guess; it made them feel comfortable? I don’t know about animal psychology, but I’m guessing the routine made them more relaxed. They knew what to expect, so their milk flowed more easily? Maybe!

Cows are not intelligent creatures. They become distressed by unexpected noises or movement or changes in their routines. Stressed cows do not give much milk, and that’s not good for the farmer! But they are creatures of habit. They go to the same stall every time they come into the barn. They grow accustomed to being milked morning and night. And during the good weather, when they were pastured outside, the cows would often start to walk up to the barn when it got to be time for milking!

Another reason they had to be milked regularly was that when you stop milking a cow (or in the wild, when a grown calf stops suckling), a cow’s milk dries up. I said they weren’t intelligent animals. As long as they were being milked, the cows thought they were nourishing their young.

In the old days, when I was really young, we milked by hand straight into a bucket, so our herd was not very big. Then, in the late 1940s we got a milking machine! That meant that the milking became quicker, which meant that we could milk more cows in the same time. So our herd gradually got bigger, and by the time I was in high school, we were milking about 35 cows.

That also meant we had to have a bigger barn and bigger silos and haymows. We had to grow bigger crops and get bigger machinery to harvest and store them. Oh, those cows dominated our decisions and our lives!

In the ’50s, my dad decided he wanted to be a “Grade A” producer. So we joined the Morning Glory Co-op, which was headquartered in Shawano about 30 miles away. The payback for grade A milk was better than what the local cheese factories paid, but the regulations were stiffer. The quality and cleanliness of the operation were monitored by the Morning Glory “fieldmen” and by state inspectors who could pop in unannounced to check out the operation.

We moved from 10-gallon milk cans, which we had cooled in cold water tanks, to a big electric bulk tank that dropped the temperature from its natural 98.6 degrees to some specified temp (maybe 40 degrees? like your refrigerator?) in a specified amount of time. It’s been too long for me to remember those details.

There was a lot more to milking than walking into the barn and attaching the milking machine to the teats. Before you could do that, you had to do the prep work. Because cows – besides being stupid – are not very hygienic, you’d have to wash the udders and teats with a strong chlorine wash. (I could always smell it on my hands when I was in school, and I can still recognize it now if I’m near a dairy farmer at the store or somewhere).

Then we had to “forestrip” (or just “strip”) the cows. This meant that you’d hand-squeeze a few sprays from each teat – sort of “priming the pump” – and to check for mastitis. Little chunks of yellowish matter would come out if the cow had that affliction, so her milk couldn’t be used.

The milk would had to be filtered through thick gauze pads to get out any other impurities before it went into the milk cans or the holding tank. And after all of that, there was the huge job of cleaning the milking machines, buckets, strainers – all the equipment – after every milking. Wow!

Those days are indelibly imprinted on my psyche. I disliked the work, but I relish the memories of the time spent with my dad doing it. And even though those dumb beasts dominated my life for so many years, I can look back on those days and realize that I learned an awful lot about responsibility and attention to detail.

The dedication of farmers is something I will always admire, because I lived that life until I went away to college. I’m probably a better person because of it.

Roger VanHaren can be contacted at rjmavh@gmail.com.