Friday, May 16, 2008

Milking Memories by Mike

The early Sixties, with the Harden house in the background. Ruth and Mike holding King; Jim and Phil on the spotted pony, Buttons; and Paul on the other pony, Beauty.

Mike, son of Willis Harden, has provided us with this account of working on the farm, and particularly, milking cows. Ever wonder why store-bought milk is pastureized? Well, you won't after reading about Mike's experiences! I've read stories about people these days who will go to any length to get "raw milk." I imagine most milk today is collected by machine, though. Sorry, cats!

“Well life on the farm is kinda’ laid back,
Ain’t much an ole country boy like me can’t hack.”

There was always a jersey milk cow or two around to milk. We had plenty of milk and cream growing up. We boys did some of the milking; of course dad was around to lend a helping hand most times. Mom churned her own butter, and Mom also made the best cream apple pie; we had cream, the thick kind you ‘cut’ with a spoon, for hot cereal, bananas and cream with sugar, and cream for ice cream. Maybe milking the cow was worth that cream apple pie!

For those of you who don’t know, cows are milked twice daily, morning and evening, so the first step in the cow milking process would be to gather up the milk cow(s), especially if the cows were on wheat pasture. If you didn’t leave the cows off the wheat overnight, the milk tasted like the green wheat (green wheat makes milk bitter and makes the milk smell), so after milking the cows, we left them in the corral overnight.

The cows were kept in the corral west of the barn so before each milking you had to get the cow into the barn, and at times this could present a problem, especially if the cow had a sucking calf by her side which you removed overnight. Get a bucket of grain and an ole milk cow will most generally follow you, so the routine for milking was to retrieve a bucket of grain from the grain bin, pull off a flake of feed and put both in the stall for the ole cow to eat while you milked her. Sometimes the cow would immediately go to her stall and allow you to walk up beside her and lock the stanchion. At times the cow refused to go to the correct stanchion or not keep her head in so you could lock the stanchion. If this were the case, you had a battle with the cow, so you resorted to a little persuasion (board, stick, etc.) to convince her to comply. If the cow wouldn’t keep her head in the stanchion while you walked up beside her to lock it, you would have to put a rope around the stanchion and pull it shut locking her head in place.

Most times I put ‘kickers’ on the cow so I didn’t get kicked. ‘Kickers’ are two V-shaped pieces of metal with a chain between them that you put on the back legs of the cow. The V pieces of metal fit on the back of each leg and the chain was adjustable and it went around the front of her leg. The trick was to put the two V pieces of metal, one for each leg, on without getting kicked. Once that was accomplished, you grab your milking stool, which was a 4 x 4 piece of wood a foot long with a 1 x 4 a foot wide nailed on top. Having your milk bucket handy, you would proceed to sit down on the stool beside the cow with your head and shoulder in her flank. The reason for your head and shoulder in her flank was very important due to the fact you could apply enough pressure in the cow’s flank to discourage her from kicking you, and it also allowed you to feel the kick coming to get out of the way and try and deflect the kick. I’m not for sure my exact age when I first started milking but I am thinking I was approximately close to or around 10 years old.

We always had plenty of cats around the barn as you needed the cats to eliminate the mice and rat population. The cats liked to come up and lick the milk, which could disturb the cow and she would either kick or side-step them. My bucket aim wasn’t always sure all the time so I seemed to spill a little milk on the outside of the bucket while I was milking the cow. Once I remember the cow stepped on a cat’s tail and the cat bit me and ripped a gash in my hand. My hand bleeding probably meant the bucket of milk was spilled and I couldn’t finish milking due to my bleeding hand. Needless to say, I remember the cats did create problems with the milking process. I remember kicking the cats to get away from the cow; sometimes I would tease the cats and squirt them with milk from the cow’s teat. Almost every time when I got enough milk in the bucket I would pour the cats a little milk in a pan and place it far enough away from the cow and me to keep them occupied and happy by filling their bellies full of milk. I guess I could’ve killed ‘em, but what’s a barn with no cats?

You couldn’t milk with gloves on your hands. When it was cold I remember my pinkie fingers were always the coldest. I thought my little fingers were going to freeze off so sometimes I would squirt that warm milk from the cow’s teat on my little fingers just to warm them up.

During hot and warmer weather you had to deal with the pesky flies. The cow would swat flies with her tail and in more times then one she would manage to hit you in the back of your head with her feces and urine covered tail. You learned to deflect the tail so it wouldn’t end up in your milk bucket, and you had to watch for her tail coming in the bucket from the opposite side too.

Now there is an art to milking, and if you were really good at it there is a technique of putting your toe under the bucket tipping it back a little and to the other side and aim the milk in the bucket. This procedure allowed you to keep the bucket further away from the swatting tail getting in the bucket from the other side and further away from the rear of the cow, which is important as you will read in the next paragraph. The cows would kick at flies and as a result of their kicking, sometimes not all the time, their foot landed in your pail of fresh milk. What would you do? If you dumped out the milk, you probably had just a little to take to the house and most likely receive a good chewing out.

At times the cow had her ‘nature calling’ as you were milking her; you could feel her back hump and watch her tail go up. The trick was to grab the bucket fast enough so that none of this ended up in your bucket of milk. With the bucket tipped with your toe, the bucket would naturally be further forward and to your side of the cow and easier to get it away quickly. If you did not remove it at first, it was probably far enough away to escape the onslaught (foot or the ‘nature calling’). Of course you had your own personnel problem here to, you did your best to keep as much of the (nature calling) off of you due to the splattering. We didn’t have any available water in the barn to clean yourself up with if you did get splattered.

At times when you went to get the grain out of the bin, there might be mice, snakes, opossum, raccoon, or a skunk in the grain bin you had to deal with. In fact, you also found them in the barn, and occasionally after finishing with the milking, I’ve been surprised by a skunk or opossum showing up. You could sometimes hear but not see the varmints and as a youngster that created a little anxiety for me. I just had to learn to deal with them.

When I had finished milking I had another little problem to deal with the dogs. The dogs were after the milk too, just like the cats, and the dogs could trip you as you walked to the house with your bucket of milk. I would yell at them and would try to keep them away from the milk. It was easy to give the cats milk in a pan so they would leave you alone. But it was another matter getting tangled up with the dogs tripping you. Yes, I remember well the hardships I faced milking the cows.

As I recall, Mom never did say anything to me about any of the residue in the bottom of the milk bucket or the color of the milk I brought her. After all, she strained it! To my knowledge it never made any of us sick, and we all seemed pretty healthy. I still love milk It is one of my favorite drinks, and I probably drink a half gallon of milk each day.

“Thank God I’m a country boy!”


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