Milk Cow Blues
by Gideon Pellegrino
She got me! She sure got me good!
The other day, there I was, milking as usual. Out of the blue, Blam! A hoof print was stamped onto my leg as if she had branded me. “What the heck?” I yelled. She looked back at me out of the corner of her eye. I could almost hear her say, “Well, if you would stick to the plan, maybe I’d be in a better mood.”
Note to self — when you milk a cow by hand and then start using a machine milker, remember your cow may spook! Resulting in a kick in the leg.
After she had branded her hoof print on my leg, I realized the milker’s teat cups had been kicked off in the process. Oh, and the machine’s hoses had gone flying across the barn. After putting everything back together, I slowly turned the machine back on, trying to avoid another painful slam in the leg.
Success! I stood back and watched as the machine quickly milked her out. “Well, you may have to get used to this,” I told her. She looked back at me with an annoyed huff and munched down her food.
Meet Rose. She is a Jersey, is about five years old and her personality is best described as sweet and sassy. We got her last spring and, having bought her pregnant, she soon gave birth to not-one but two calves. We didn’t know at the time she was going to have twins but after the first one — soon to be named Chuck — was born, I saw another pair of hooves poke out.
“I think there is another one coming.”
“Nah, that’s just the afterbirth,” said my mom.
“Well, if afterbirth has hooves, then yes, it’s afterbirth,” I said with just a little sarcasm. That was when Mag was born.
“Told you it wasn’t afterbirth.”
After the calves nursed awhile, we noticed Rose was not being her sassy self. She was losing weight and getting too skinny. I found her lying down all the time. Her milk began to taste strange and her breath had a sweet smell to it. At that time, we didn’t know a lot about cows and an internet search didn’t help. We called the vet and he knew right away. “Oh, she has ketosis,” he said. “You smell that sweet smell to her breath? That means she is ketotic.” We normally don’t give our cows corn, but it was the doctor’s order so we did, as well as molasses to keep her blood sugar up. We learned ketosis often occurs in the first few weeks of lactation because the cow is not able to eat enough to keep up with the energy she is losing to milk. It causes low blood sugar, loss of appetite and that sweet-strange acetone smell to her breath ).
We took the calves off her immediately and did what the vet told us. We gave her minerals and she slowly gained her energy back. Today, she is as healthy as a cow can be. I was so worried about her at the time. When we took the calves off of her, we bottle-fed them with formula. After Rose gained her energy back, we would still bottle feed the twins, but with her milk. After all my time of milking Rose, I think she thought I was her baby. When we let Chuck and Mag out into the field, they tried nursing on her — and she would kick them off to let me have the milk!
Let me tell you how Rose came to be — when we first got her, she was on the skittish side. She wouldn’t let me touch her! She wouldn’t let me even get close to her! Boy, was it a trip. What was even worse was trying to get a lead rope on her! I found if I kept her occupied with food I could tip-toe around and get the rope latched on. But once she figured out I had control of her? Let me tell you, I’m not a very big person. I’m tall but I’m 15 and a girl and have best been described as willowy. Trying to control a mad cow is not exactly a walk in the park!
A thousand-pound cow against a teenage girl! And this thousand-pound cow also has horns and a princess attitude. I may be smaller but I am determined. So I dug my heels into the dirt… and went for a ride! That cow dragged me up and down the field but I didn’t give up. After awhile I think she realized I could be just as sassy and stubborn as she could — and after her temper tantrum I informed her of that!
Then and there I was reminded that farm life is not so easy!
I’ve found there are two types of people — those who like farming and those who like the idea of farming (something I like to call romanticizing)!
You see those farming magazines — you know, the frou-frou ones where everything is dainty and easy as pie. Well, that’s not reality. Those photos are staged and not even close to real life.
When I first got Rose, I had this idea to make her a pretty little halter. With lace. So I took a bright red halter, got out the glue gun, and spent hours making her halter look just like the one in the magazine! I have to admit it looked great when I finished!
Once I got it on Rose, it lasted about… two days. When it came off, that halter was covered in manure and the edges were ripped apart. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t bright or dainty as a daisy either. It was, well, reality!
Some people don’t realize the work that goes into a farm. It’s a LOT of work. People see those magazines and go, “Oh, that looks so fun!” Very little about farming is easy and it’s a guessing game about what will happen next!
The first few times milking Rose was not so easy either. In fact, it was very frustrating! We we first started, we just milked Rose out in the cow field. I tried tying her to a tree but every time I placed the bucket down to get started, Rose would look back at me, then swivel her hips to where I couldn’t get close to her udder! We would come to name this particular dance the “Cow Shuffle.”
How well I remember the very first time I ever milked her. It was pouring rain and she was already on edge because of the storm. After I chased her around the field and got the rope latched onto her halter — and the cow tied to the tree — I turned my back to grab the milk pail, then turned back to find my cow unloosed and running away from me!
By then I was drenched with rain, my hair clinging to my face. It was cold. I was losing my patience. I took a deep breath and went to the barn for some food, lured her back to the tree, tied her to the tree, and tried again. While she munched her grain, she began to let me milk her. A few squirts of milk. Then she would move. I would move my bucket. Sit down. Try again. After a few squirts of milk, she would move again. I would move the bucket. Once she finished her food, it was back to the beginning — She untied herself from the tree and took off running.
As you could imagine, I was pretty, well, just plain mad. But although I was mad, I was also laughing at how stubborn she was — and how stubborn she was finding I could be. We repeated this process — chasing her down, tying her up, milking her squirt-by-squirt, moving the bucket, all in the pouring rain — until she was finally milked dry. I believe it took about two hours! She also kicked over the milk bucket a couple of times and stomped her hoof in the pail for good measure. The milk was ruined so I just gave it to the pigs.
After that I had to figure a better plan. We still milked her in the field but instead of tying her to the tree, it was now a two-person job. Mom would hold her by the lead rope and stand by her neck and I would try my hardest to milk her as fast as I could. We milked her twice a day and she gave around six gallons a day. I can tell you my hands sure did hurt for a long while.
This is going to sound strange but we found out Rose really liked it if we sang to her. So if you passed our house during milking time, you would find me milking and my mom singing softly in her ear. Sounds silly, right? Well, it gets even sillier. Once she got more comfortable with my family, Rose felt more comfortable with my dad holding her. On our first dad-and-daughter milking, I told him he had to sing to her. Dad laughed like he thought I was joking.
“No, really, you have to sing to her.”
After that dad began singing to the cow. We found out Rose didn’t care much for the upbeat Led Zeppelin songs but she loved the slow minor key ones! She also liked Corner Of My Eye by Audioslave and a minor-key solfège my dad learned in college — which happens to be the same melody he used to rock me to sleep with.
So Rose fits into our family just fine.
During those first milking times, she was still jumpy. She jumped at every little thing she heard and wouldn’t let her milk down until she was re-settled or until we sang to her. So you can imagine what it was like milking on Independence Day!
After Independence Day fireworks, we started milking her in the barn. If you’ve never actually milked a cow before, let me give you the breakdown:
First, a cow has four teats (not two). I had a friend amazed to find there were four of them. So, that makes four teats, four quarters, and one great big udder. For some reason Rose finds her own manure to be a comfy bed so I always clean her teats really good before I start. Not only is it more sanitary but it helps prevent mastitis (which occurs when bacteria gets into the teat canal and causes inflammation in the mammary gland of the udder).
After I’m finished cleaning her, I strip her out (which means I squirt about three squirts of milk from each teat in order to get out any bacteria that has settled in the bottom of the teat). Then I spray her teats with an all-natural antibacterial.
Then it’s time to begin. All I do is squeeze and the milk comes out but that doesn’t mean it’s easy! If you’ve ever had to squeeze out three to six gallons of milk one squirt at a time, you’ll figure out in a hurry it’s a lot of work.
The only food we give her besides hay is a couple of scoops of all-natural alfalfa pellets. We also get a weekly supply of out-of-date produce from a local natural grocery store. So Rose gets plenty of fruits and veggies. She loves apples! She loves oranges, lettuce, lemons, potatoes — almost everything except onions which is good because a glass of milk that takes like onions is not a good thing!
We are now beginning to use a milking machine. It started off as just an experiment but when that thing milked Rose out in less than 10 minutes, I was sold! I still have to clean her off really well as well as the pail and all the hoses (which remind me of some sort of strange barnyard octopus). I even started to feel spoiled now, not having to milk by hand! At least until Rose kicks the hoses off!
Farming is a lot of work but it is by far worth it. I like knowing how my food was raised before I put it in my body. I like knowing all the care and effort we put into it. It is the best feeling knowing your work was worth it. We don’t have to go to the store and buy the food. We raise it ourselves and it is so much better. The taste makes all the difference in the world. Yes, sometimes there are mishaps that make me want to quit but I believe this way of life is the way God intended us to live.
When all the animals are fed and the milking is done, the last thing I do before I go back inside is my daily walk with Rose from the barn back out to the field. I stop at the gate and give her a good scratch on the head, talk to her a few moments, unhook her lead rope, and let her into the field. I look back as she watches me walk to the house and she lets out a soft moo (if there is hay out there).
If her trough is empty, she stares at it longingly, looks at me, and lets out an angry MOOOOOO that my dad compares to the roar of the T-Rex on Jurassic Park. I smile and lovingly yell back,“I’m getting it!”
Originally published March 30, 2016.