Tuesday, July 15, 2014


I didn't start out trying to achieve my personal best in the sprint-and-run-to-the-house-screaming event, but that was how the day ended.

Milk cows have names. They hang around for a few years, you learn their quirks and their standing in the herd, and sometimes a quirk...or whatever...gives them their name. Killer had never really killed anyone, but it was just a matter of time.

My calf Buttercup was a prize winner at the Nance County Fair, but ironically, she was a less than mediocre producer. Schram was named after the fellow who sold her. Bess, Maude, Helen (she had good shoulders, like the woman she was named after) and the rest of the 60 or so that we milked. Addy was the boss cow, named after a woman who nobody liked in the neighborhood so we had to keep it a bit quiet.

There was always a boss cow, the one who led them to pasture, led them back to milking and was the first one into the milking parlor. The pecking order in the herd was well-established and they mostly came in order after that, so each individual was milked within minutes of the same time every morning and every night, an important factor in dairy husbandry and one that has evidently moved the dairy industry to milk every 8 hours, around the clock, in the large facilities.

We had a neighbor, Al, who was just not cut out for farming or dairy. He would sometimes stop in town for a beer and a cigar, not that he didn't deserve that once in a while, but he wouldn't get home until 10 or so because he had forgotten the cows. When a cow is not milked, she dries up and that puts a dent in herd production.

The combination of genetics (instead of only producing two or three heifer calves in a lifetime, a prize cow can now, by virtue of Petri-dish technology, raise multiple sex-selected offspring carried by cull cows) and good practices has changed the dairy landscape. The USDA keeps good statistics about how much:

1957 Average milk production per cow, about 450 pounds per month

2013 Average milk production per cow, about 1,800 pounds per month

Since 2004, the production per cow has spiked 15%.

Al would hire my brother and me to help him lay out pipe and get the pump started. His operation pumped from the creek into "tow lines" that were moved from one setting to another by pulling the whole line lengthwise to the next patch. The only problem was that he didn't get around to it until a couple of weeks too late and the corn was already burned up. Although THE CODE said we needed to help the neighbor, it was kind of aggravating that we did all that hard, hot work with the mosquitoes and it wasn't going to make any difference.

Sometime later, Al got a job in Columbus.

Certainly, someone knows why some cows are indifferent to the milking process and others are very sensitive. My explanation was that some are ticklish and then they have the natural instinct to prevent their milk from being stolen from their calf. Whatever the reason, Killer was hyper-I-don't-like-to-be-milked. They kicked and were just difficult, but THE RULE was always in force: the meaner the cow, the more she produced.

Killer was always one of the last to walk up the ramp, enter the milking parlor and munch on her grain waiting to be milked. Built on our farm in 1956, it was a real improvement as the cows were elevated in three stalls so there was less stooping, each stall was served with stainless steel pipelines for the milk, overhead feed chutes to dispense a treat of cracked corn and water to wash the cows as the udders were invariably dirty--the worse the weather, the worse the dirt.

My brother and I were milking, I was probably about 12 years old making my brother 17. He actually graduated from high school when he was 16 since he did not attend kindergarten, and that age discrepancy between him and his classmates was masked by his size. He was a big boy/man, over 225 pounds, maybe 250, and at that time about 6' 2" or better.

I manned the two west stalls and he would milk Killer in the third, east one, as was typical because the operation to keep her in check to milk was more than others. First step was to throw a rope over her flanks and cinch snugly between her hip bone and ribs so that she could not easily kick forward/sideways/out which is the natural kicking motion of a cow versus a horse or mule that kicks back.

Then, press your head into the flank to further stymie the attempts to kick and put the kicker chains on her legs that were quite comfortable for her but would prohibit independent movement of her legs.

We all knew she was a bomb about to explode, it was just a matter of when and how. And who would get hurt. The next step was to release the rope that had initially been placed over the back and around her middle as that interferes with the blood flow (there is a big vein under a cow's belly).

On avg. 400 - 500 units of blood passes through the udder for each unit of milk synthesized by a high producing dairy cow; that is ~280 ml per sec.   (ansci.illinois.edu)

The milking would then proceed and, when done, the milking cups removed and the last step was to take off the "kickers," the chains connecting the legs. To do this, your head is again pressed into the flanks, the chains removed and you step back. Dick didn't step back quick enough.

I was busy when I heard a combination sonic boom and earthquake as that big man flew back and hit the wall of the barn. I turned just in time to hear him emit a sigh that I interpreted as a death rattle and slowly slide down the wall until he sat on the cement floor with blood spurting from his face. I thought I had witnessed my first catastrophic mortality, and that is when I took off for the house, screaming that something was very, very wrong in the barn.

When my mother arrived, he roused and seemed to again grasp the here and now but with a squished up nose where Killer had cracked him with a hoof right between the eyes.

Since I was not the one getting kicked, I was sort of neutral on the subject, but Dick and my mother were adamant--Killer went to market. Even though THE RULE was still in force, she had to go. And we never had one that was that difficult again.

The dairy operation which was well-developed before the milking parlor, all the stainless steel and the bulk tank operation was built, probably allowed our family to survive the 1950's while all around us "dried out" and moved to California. All of my mother's brothers and sisters lived in California, it wouldn't have been so bad. Every year, the number of kids in the one-room school dwindled.

I have always claimed that all I wanted to "be when I grew up" was dry and warm most of the time. Because on a dairy farm, you are cold and wet all the time. And everything smelled of chlorine bleach used to clean the pipelines.

Finally, when my brother went to the Army and I went to college, the cows went to market.

No comments:

Post a Comment