The Life of this Dairy Farmer

Jan 2, 2021:

Thanksgiving day (11-26-2020). A knock followed by the voice of my father in-law sounded on the bedroom door – perhaps the worst thing while sharing a dwelling on the family dairy farm. Jesse had gone out to milk with his mom, Karin, a while ago. Lars at my door, waking me up, can only mean something bad has happened. As I came out of sleep, I comprehended what he was saying, “Karin is in the hospital with an infection [staph] and will be staying for at least a couple of days while the doctors try to get it under control.” And with those words Thanksgiving, which wasn’t going to be much anyway with COVID restrictions, was ruined. – It had already been ruined for the other three by this point. – It was 5:30 am. Sadly it was also one of the few mornings that I had fallen soundly back to sleep after Jesse got up. Regrettably my emotional response was quite selfish. I thought I’d be able to sleep in and then begin leisurely preparing food for the meal the four of us were to share, with time to go for a walk and perhaps read or even better, write; those plans have been altered and I must admit one of my biggest faults is being extremely cranky when my plans are ruined. Again, regrettably quite selfish – trying to grow up and be less selfish is ongoing with great strides forward only to have something set me back further than the progress made. 

 I believe a little background explanation of the situation with my still fairly new husband and his parents, and the farm is needed to understand my feelings and the utter disappointment to find out I have to milk cows when I thought I would have it off. Jesse and I married on July 21, 2019. In January 2018, a few months before he proposed, and after dating for seven and a half years, we joined his parents for a family meeting with a professional psychologist who worked with families trying to farm together (adult children farming with their parents in the idea of taking over the farm when the parents retire; an incredibly stressful and challenging thing to do given that the two generations have different ideas/directions for the farm.) to talk about the future and what Jesse and I wanted to do. Jesse and his parents were uncertain about my fitting into it given that I work for my mom on her farm and am quite loyal to her. Karin perhaps was hoping I would just take over for her so she could retire (and perhaps part of Lars was thinking the same thing to a degree). Jesse went back and forth on whether or not he wanted the two of us farming together; his biggest concern was money – he thought I could milk full time for them and make more money than working for my mom. I wanted to continue working for Mom, but perhaps scale back a bit and do some milkings to help out my new family as well. However, milking isn’t my thing, and especially not the way their set up is: a tie stall, where there’s a lot of up and down or bracing myself against a cow hoping she doesn’t knock me over or kick me. (Also their cows are huge compared to the ones I am used to at my mom’s and milking takes a lot longer.) So I told all present I would be more than willing to help with a few milkings a week as long as we had a parlor. (Side note: all four of them thought I was crazy thinking I could work on both farms – they were probably right to an extent.) Jesse also wanted a parlor, which would mean no more bending over/kneeling or squatting down to milk so there wouldn’t be as much wear and tear on the body, it would be safer without going in between cows since they would be milked from behind and below with a strip of metal to protect you from being kicked, the speed is incredibly faster and the cows would no longer spend most of their lives tied up in a barn but on pasture and in a barn where they can move about freely. So Lars and Jesse embarked upon a journey of research and visiting numerous parlors, most of which were built into existing tie stall or stanchion barns. But it wasn’t until June 2020, when Lars and Karin finally agreed to putting in a parlor. Inexperience, hesitation, finding the right contractors for the job and COVID restrictions further pushed the project back, added to the decision (perhaps for manure code reasons and satisfying the permit guy in that regard) to build a bedded pack barn before the parlor meant that though the parlor should have been and needed to be built in the autumn of 2020 it was not. The need for it being the increased herd size; we’d been milking 104 cows in an eighty stall barn which meant having to switch cows in and out costing a lot of time, and the numbers were continuing to grow, especially since there weren’t just cows to freshen (calve) but also lots of heifers too over the course of the autumn, winter, and spring. The other thing was Karin was scheduled to have surgery on her hand in December and it was just her, Jesse and I doing all the milkings which required(s) two people, which given how long each milking took wasn’t enough to get the job done without wearing ourselves out too much. We desperately needed the parlor completed before Karin’s surgery. However, with all the delays, the ground to prepare the site for the bedded pack barn wasn’t even broken until late autumn and wasn’t finished before winter set in pushing the project to spring. So, I was frustrated and sad the whole autumn with this going on and wishing they had gotten the ball rolling sooner on the project and had even tried getting Lars to ask if we could put the parlor in first and build the barn in the spring, to no avail. This doesn’t justify my selfish feelings on Thanksgiving Day but it helps at least set the scene.

The usual terrible human emotions that go along with such things welled up inside of me, reeling out of control – annoyance, frustration, anger, sadness, confusion, worry, fear, and of course, self pity. Beyond my own struggle with the unhappy turn of events, I was concerned about how Jesse was handling it. I rushed to the barn, arriving about ten minutes after that fateful knock. Overly dramatic? Perhaps but even so my world has been turned upside down because of it. (If you think I am being dramatic, consider: I went from putting in somewhere between twenty six and thirty nine hours of milking in about two – two and a half weeks time to just shy of fifty hours in a week and a half between Nov. 16th and 28th, and then in the following ten days fifty four hours. Doesn’t sound too bad right? Well at the same time I was also working on Mom’s farm. – Now I am not boasting or looking for pity but just wanting to explain. Also, milking cows in our tie stall barn is like doing three hours of hardcore workout without a rest. In addition, Thanksgiving marks the start of the down season. Instead of working sixty – seventy five hours a week it should be more like thirty five to forty five, providing time to rest up for the next growing season and to write (continue work on my book). (In fact, I had planned to push myself to write a lot over the weekend and go to the woods everyday, which was completely dashed. I had also planned to do a lot of writing for the next three weeks before Karin’s surgery.) 

Jesse was pretty upset too. And poor Lars was very concerned. I cried a few times throughout milking and internally cried out to God – why did this have to happen? Why couldn’t the pieces have come together such that the parlor and barn could have been built by now making milking a whole lot easier? I cried when I texted my mom and siblings later. I cried when I made the food (minus the turkey) for our Thanksgiving meal – finding myself in not a thanks giving mood but rather one of self pity. The uncertainty of it all was a smothering cloud wrapped about us. Two days later, when Karin had to have surgery to prevent the infection from reaching the bone which would have resulted in losing her finger, I was in an even sorrier shape – just a complete mess. 

She came home the following Monday but what had started as a couple of days turned into a week, which then turned into five weeks thus far. (And the original surgery that was to take place on December 18th had to be postponed – she had to be six months without infection for the surgery to happen.) She had another weekend stay at the hospital in the middle of December with an allergic reaction to antibiotics for a fungal infection on top of the staph, which added nearly an additional month to her being able to come back to the barn. – She has a pic line in so being in the barn is dangerous for her right now. The past five weeks have been just one unending milking and a time of barely holding it together. Random tears still make an appearance unbidden. Jesse, Lars and I have been living in survivor mode. Thankfully, we received help almost immediately. Beyond milking cows, Karin was also feeding calves, the two combined was a bit more than a full time job – a challenge for us other three to even jointly take over (Jesse was already helping with nearly every milking and I helped with about four a week) because we each already had/have more than full time work. (We were also, with Karin’s help, sorely in need of another person milking about five times a week as it was.) Two of our friends, married to each other, helped milk a couple of times. A cousin feeds the calves now. My nephew is helping milk while home for winter break. And a high schooler from our church is helping until mid January. 

In this struggle though, the cows that I had viewed as Jesse and Lars’ have now become mine. As help has come, I have worried about the cows if I am not the one milking them. A couple of nights, I have lain awake worrying if whoever is milking in the morning would take care of the cows with special needs – plugs, quarter milkers, manual. I find myself reassuring a cow who’s not feeling too hot, calling her dear, honey or sweetheart and gently stroking her hide. I have enjoyed some of the most glorious sunrises and sunsets I may have missed if I hadn’t been in the barn. Taken in the beauty of the frosty mornings in the waking sun. Jesse and I have had a chance to work together under extreme pressure, while we’re not at our best emotionally and survived, and without harming each other. We’ve had to struggle with whether or not we really want to keep milking cows – reassuring ourselves and each other the parlor will be built in the spring and after we and the cows are settled into the new system, milking will become much easier.

 Dairy farming, with a small dairy farm, is not for the faint of heart and it doesn’t recognize holidays, weekends, overtime, and well laid plans. Things go wrong often: much relied upon and needed equipment (with no backup options) break down, calves die, cows get sick (struggle with calving, die), the animals escape their fences, etc. – I stood helplessly and hopelessly watching Jesse struggle against a cow in labor, arm buried inside of her, trying vainly to untwist the crooked calf, with hope of saving the calf and cow waning with every pressing moment. The one thing I could help with was running to the house to get his phone and run back with it so he could call the vet. And this at the end of evening milking on Christmas day. (I don’t mean to complain or whine about our circumstances or belittle the difficulties of other people. And some people would and have asked, if it is so very bad why not sell the cows and find another job? Selling the cows is like totally changing careers but is even more than that – people who dairy farm, particularly in this manner (keeping it small and in the family so the owners are actively involved) seem to have it coded in their DNA – giving up the cows would be giving up a part of ourselves.) A cow down with milk fever on Christmas eve. Three cows battling toxic mastitis and several more with less harmful strains. Frustrated that we have to work in this system – this isn’t exactly cow friendly. But we’ve come together as husband and wife to take care of our cows. 

Back to the cows that have special needs: a plug, quarter milker, manual, (or are just mean) for those cows we write that need on a yellow piece of tape and stick it on the vacuum line above them. I was concerned that people milking without me there wouldn’t know which cows were mean. So I thought maybe the mean ones needed tape too with a note, but there are degrees of meanness. Some cows are mainly just dancing around, and although it’s annoying they won’t kick you. Some lift their legs and even swing but aren’t aiming for you, so that if you’re mindful of it you can avoid their hooves. A small handful though will take aim and strike out at and collide with you. It is important to know the difference, it helps in avoiding getting hurt and being overly nervous or scared; she responds best to gentle confidence. There are also different types of kicks: one cow pedals, we call her bicycle cow. A number of them will do short, rapid, close kicks (I like to call them soccer kicks, which are hard to avoid especially since they’re often done by short or low uddered cows, and usually connect with your hands and arms – mostly irritating more than anything else but still painful). Perhaps worse of all in terms of force and therefore pain, the fast, hard, rapid swing, the full out strike; these are the dangerous kicks, they have the ability to inflict incredible injury, possibly break a bone. (It often takes weeks for the point of contact on my leg to fully heal so it is no longer painful and tender to the touch. – and some of them left me nearly limping for a couple weeks.) Now, if you know the cow is likely to kick in a certain manner, you can attempt to avoid being hit by standing up to milk her, trying to stay out of reach of that leg but still have a hand on her back, scratching her. The problem with that is you may not be able to stand out of reach and now that you’re further away if she does strike out aiming for you, the distance will give her more force thus hitting you harder and causing more damage. Jesse says it’s best to be as close to the cow as possible (your whole body) so that there won’t be much force behind the kick, and basically just take the hit. However, I struggle with getting close to a cow that I know is likely to kick. I’m not sure I am actually a good milker because I am scared of cows. Rule number one is don’t be afraid, that being said though, you must be aware of their size and ability to kill you and respect them – they aren’t pets; the most dangerous bovines are the ones people treated as pets. If you’re afraid, they are afraid, which means they get antsy or defensive. To write a warning though for these cows really wouldn’t work so well because I feel like I would have to write a detailed description of the way in which the cow kicks. The other thing is, some cows are choosy about who they want milking them – just because that particular cow kicks me, doesn’t mean she’ll kick you or anybody else besides me. But some cows are mean to everyone. 

The other “rule”, as it were, to milking cows is know the cows. Each has her own personality (though some are bland, or not very noteworthy – like some people), knowing who you are milking and her personality will aid you in being a better milker – it’s good for you and the cow. If you know she is a nervous cow, give her plenty of warning you’re there, make sure she sees, hears, and feels you, and don’t make any sudden movements. Talk lovingly and sweet to her. Being aware of who the cow is and her personality can save both of you. The best thing for mean (or nervous) cows is having a second person there, scratching the base of their tail – this helps calm them down. 

A cow named Fun seems to just enjoy life – eat, dance, and be merry. If she isn’t eating she wants you to stroke her forehead or cheek. She dances while you’re milking her but she won’t harm you. Now, 418, she is a crazy cow, either she’s trying to kill you or she won’t take any notice of you at all; she kicks, headbutts and even bites the other cows. 530 is gentle and calm; she just wants to eat and be milked. Fudge is a brown swiss holstein cross so she can be cantankerous at times but mostly just fussy – she will take whatever stall she pleases, whether or not it was already occupied, and she will make it challenging to put the milker on her but only sometimes actually strike out at you. Nadine is a beauty, another brown swiss, and is terrified of everything. She does more than dance, most of the time she will swing her entire backend around, all the way over to one side and then back again and keep going back and forth until you manage to get the milker on her. 373 may or may not hurt you, that depends on you and how you put the milker on; don’t squawk it and don’t be slow – she will stomp her foot though just as you’re about done putting the milker on, so be ready lest it falls off. 12 is patient, calm and kind; she only lifts a hoof to let you know her teat hurts but won’t strike. 310 is gentle and doesn’t pay you much mind…and so it goes, as I said, each with her own personality. 

These cows are dear to me, even the mean ones. It is hard to see them sick with mastitis, pneumonia, milk fever, etc., or uncomfortable because of a stomach ache (generally a twisted stomach). I care about them; Jesse cares about them- their health, comfort, cleanliness, and quality of life. And not because they are the source of our income and milk, but because they are living beings.

It is interesting that of all my siblings, I am the one who is a dairy farmer. I guess you could understand why if you read my blog ‘Raised in a Barn’. A couple of years ago, Mom’s cows were all dried off at once, so we had two months without milking and it was great, there wasn’t the daily “drop what I am doing” to milk cows. However, when those two months were up and I was squatting down between them, I felt this is what my life had been missing – it is just a part of who I am and I can’t change it. I love and hate milking cows; life would be easier if it was one or the other. I know dairy farming is time demanding and challenging but it shouldn’t be this bad and won’t be this bad forever – just have to get through. ( I desire to milk half as many times for half as much time.

It’s the way of life. Very busy and crazy at times and yet quieter and more peaceful than other jobs. I enjoy the communion with the animals. The rhythm and flow of the prepping and milking process: dip twice, massage into the teat, strip the teat to squirt the milk, three squirts will do unless there is mastitis or a blood clot, dip again, wipe with a towel, hold the milker claw with one hand, with the other carefully slide the inflation onto each teat. The comforting, steady pulsating and wishing of attached milkers. We take care of the cows and they take care of us. Being able to work with family, especially my husband and nephew. Having to be more in tune with nature’s rhythms. Putting your needs and wants aside to meet those of the cows’ first. Watching the successful delivery of a new calf. Observing contented cows grazing in their new pasture. Pouring milk on your cereal that came from across the yard by your own efforts, you personally know the cow nourishing you. Teaching others in the local community how to work and care for other creatures. It is hard physical and spiritual work, back breaking, knee injuring, sometimes spirit crushing work that is also rewarding. And the decision to sell a cow is never an easy one; you always want to give her another chance. But sometimes, actually almost always, it is better for her to send her away. We are filled with sadness, even when it is an infamously mean cow, because that is another life, a sacred thing. Our cows are far more to us than mere means to an end, they are fellow beings, comrades even. (I don’t know why, but I often refer to the cows as people when I address them.) We have a mutually beneficial relationship. I believe dairy farming, small family owned and operated, is one of the truest forms of farming. Animal farming completes the nutrient/energy cycle. The best farming is dairy, with a garden, chickens and pigs. (We don’t have a garden yet but we do have an orchard – it’s easier to get food from Mom’s gardens right now.) It’s a sticky truth but society (civilization) needs farming; without it we wouldn’t have the means for culture. 

Postscript: The construction of the bedded pack barn began in late April, three weeks later than promised, and due to continuous revisions to the manure system and the delay in installation of gates wasn’t completed and ready to use until mid-September. Starting in May, with the coming of each month, we thought for sure this would be the month the parlor is built. And with the final day of each month, still no parlor, we were completely crushed. The contractor told us he would for sure get to it in December, so we thought ok, we just have to make it through until then. Karin came back to milk in late February and a young woman milked five times a week for us, so although it was far from great, at least we had some help and Jesse and I were able to have a few Saturday nights off together. However, this ended when the woman was offered another job; we knew we had been lucky just to have her for a few months but it was still a loss.  (A cousin had started doing some morning milkings in August but was absent in the fall for harvest and then sick with covid at the end of November.) Jesse and I have felt like we aren’t really living, just merely observing other people living, from a distance. On November 28th, when we thought Lars would be telling us they’d put in the parlor next week, he said it was put off until March. Jesse said, “It is like we’re inmates in a prison and our release date has come. We’ve just been handed our belongings, standing in front of the gate, waiting for it to open and just before it does, an officer rushes out and tells us another four months has been tacked onto our sentence.” We’re dangling from a cliff, losing our grip, down to a fingernail holding on, and just when we think we will be rescued, the would be rescuer turns away. Karin had surgery on her finger in December. Thankfully, my nephew came and helped out with a few milkings while home for winter break, otherwise we were totally on our own. A gal has been coming to milk Sunday nights, which is amazing. And the cousin is back to about four milkings a week. Which we are incredibly grateful for, however, it isn’t enough, and we’re still barely holding on. Hopefully, the parlor will be built in March and we won’t be disappointed yet again.

But March has come and gone and not even the demolition for the parlor has been undertaken. The only task toward the construction of it is that the pipeline was moved on Tuesday in preparation for demolition. (I promise the next few posts will be more fun and back to nature; these past two are more or less to explain my long absence.)

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