The Dairy Farm Adventures: The milk begins to flow

Posted Wednesday, May 1, 2013 in Features

The Dairy Farm Adventures: The milk begins to flow

Image from the film Betting the Farm, produced by Pull-Start Pictures

by Lee-Rae Jordan Oliver

Buying a gallon of milk at the grocery store is easy. Helping cows make milk is not easy. Before my husband, Matthew, and I started our dairy farm, I bought four gallons of milk each week without giving it a second thought. Buying dairy products such as milk, yogurt, cheese, ice cream and butter takes on a whole new meaning for me. Now, I fully understand how hard farmers work every day to provide dairy products for us.

When Matthew and I bought our first 10 dairy cows in 2007, we did not know anything about the dairy business beyond what we had read and learned from asking farmers questions. The real learning began with hands-on experience. The learning curve for us was precariously steep and unrelenting. Within three days of our cows coming home, Belinda, a gentle Jersey, had given birth to a bull calf we named Walnut. Like all mammals in the animal kingdom, Belinda's milk began to flow after she gave birth. Her udder swelled heavy with fresh milk. If a dairy cow is not milked within the first 12 hours after calving, the risk of it getting a painful and sometimes deadly infection called mastitis increases. 

Knowing this, Matthew prepared to milk Belinda for the first time. The 16-by-48-foot barn we'd built to shelter the cows did not have tie stalls for each cow. Therefore, Matthew tied Belinda to a ring screwed into the wafer board inside our new barn. Knowing what we do now about cows, tying an unfamiliar cow to a ring in a wooden wall could have been a painful mistake. Belinda didn't budge as Matthew turned on the portable vacuum pump and placed the milkers on her teats. By the time he figured out how to run the equipment, it had taken him 30 minutes to milk her.  Normally, it should take three to five minutes to milk a cow. At this rate, it would take Matthew five hours to milk 10 cows! I held my tongue, hoping it would get easier with practice.  

One by one the cows gave birth to calves in our green pasture. Our barn was not equipped to milk several cows at a time. To milk the cows, Matthew put a generator on a trailer and parked it in the pasture where the cows grazed.  Using my John Deere lawn mower, he towed the vacuum pump in a small trailer close enough to the generator so he could power the pump. He used grain to lure the cows to the lawn mower. Then he proceeded to tie the cow to be milked to my lawn mower! Cringing, I watched this process from a respectful distance. I thought for sure I'd see an 1,800-pound Holstein bolt across our field with my lawn mower bouncing along behind like a bumper tube behind a speed boat. The John Deere came back with new dings and dents each time.

I made a fuss about the abuse my lawn mower was taking, not to mention the danger factor. Matthew agreed that tying a cow to a lawn mower was not a safe thing to do and assured me he'd try something else. Imagine my surprise when I looked out the window the following day to see Matthew was milking a cow tied to a telephone pole! For one month, Matthew milked seven cows hitched to the telephone pole. It would take him three hours to milk the cows once a day.       

I was concerned for Matthew's safety all the time, especially when he milked an ornery Holstein named Heidi who loathed the telephone pole. The calves were growing by leaps and bounds on their mother's milk and drained their udders by nursing several times a day. Matthew  bought five 3-month-old heifers to add to our herd. Each calf was adopted by one of the mothers and nursed ferociously. A couple of our mothers had three calves nursing. This eliminated the need for Matthew to milk the cows for the time being. If we were going to run a dairy farm and not a funny farm, we needed to build a big barn with a milking facility.                       

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