Growing up on a dairy farm, one of the lessons learned early is not to get too attached to a cow. While you may spend every day caring for the animals (and get pretty intimate with them two times a day), the name of the game is production. As cows age, production drops. Eventually, every cow takes that final ride in the livestock truck.
My father and uncle’s dairy operation was relatively small — even by 1960’s standards. Milking parlors, bulk tanks and pipelines were coming into vogue; but even though we made the switch from cans to the bulk tank, the cows stood in stanchions — waiting for their turn with the milking machine.
The machine hung from a large leather strap draped over the cow’s back. Once that strap was in place, Bossy knew it was show time. For the most part, the cows were docile during the milking process — eager for relief from a full bag of milk. Occasionally, however, a 1,000-pound bovine will let you know who is in charge.
It was during those moments which separated cows into the “favorites” category and the “need any help getting into the truck?” category.
I recall one cow (#57 — we didn’t name our cows) was a great milk producer with a bad temperament. It helped to give her a little feed during the milking process just to distract her from your business. Her favorite ploy was to stand quietly until the milking process was nearly complete. Then, with a quick kick of the hind leg, she would send the milking machine flying — spilling the precious contents (much to the delight of the barn cats). We learned to be vigilant and prevent that from happening too often, but I wasn’t too sad to see her go when it was time.
Conversely, there were cows which came perilously close to becoming pets. They were cooperative and patient — even if they had a sore quarter which needed to be milked by hand. They never tried to occupy the wrong stanchion (which could turn the barn into confused chaos); they didn’t stand on your foot; and they didn’t even get fidgety if you left the milking machine on them for too long. My uncle would step outside for a cigarette while milking one of these favorites because he knew nothing bad would happen in his absence.
In today’s modern dairy world, I wonder if farmers still maintain a special relationship with certain cows. Can you have a favorite out of 500 head? Does a robot know where to rub a cow’s back when she doesn’t feel like getting milked? How do you know a cow won’t touch her silage without a little ground corn sprinkled on top?
This isn’t a call longing for the “good old days” of farming. Dairy production has evolved over time — just like crop farming and raising hogs and turkeys and chickens. Today’s cow probably has better living conditions and nutrition than their ancestors ever did. However, cows move through the system a little faster these days and are younger when they take that final ride on the truck.
I hope dairy farmers still know their cows. I hope they feel a little tug of the heartstrings when they’re looked at by a cow’s big eyes. I hope cows still lean against you gently when you’re inspecting the herd; or blow slimy cow snot on you as some weird sign of affection. It’s Dairy Month and these servants of your livelihood are more than just a commodity. They’re almost family. Just try not to get too attached.
Paul Malchow is the managing editor of The Land. He may be reached at editor@TheLandOnline.com.