It’s a Tuesday morning in late September. The valley is smoky and cool, about 38 degrees. The sun is barely up and streaming through the trees in my backyard, highlighting their fall foliage. My three sons are off to school, the dishwasher is humming and I’ve just skimmed a gallon of cream off of about 4 gallons of milk. I poured a dollop of buttermilk into the cream jars, shook it up and it is now sitting on top of my fridge. I will make it into butter tomorrow, God willing.
I’ve been milking cow/s for about 5 years now but have only recently decided I could start calling myself a “farmer”. Ginger and Ingrid are my girls. I really, really love them. It sometimes seems a rather smallish thing, to milk cows. I don’t always grasp the big picture of what it means to do this job, not just the work but the responsibility. The education of myself, my family, my neighbors and my milk share families is as much a part of being this type of farmer as the actual milking.
It all started rather simply. I only wanted to make yogurt. Seemed harmless enough, I thought. So I buy some culture and read the instructions. In big bold letters in the instructions it says “Do not use Ultra-Pasteurized milk”. My yogurt wouldn’t turn out if I did. So, down the road I go…”Why?” “What is Ultra-Pasteurized milk?” “Why is it different from regular old pasteurized milk?” and then I read “Raw” and it resonated so deep in my being I knew I had more to figure out. I somehow found Ron Schmid’s book “The Untold Story of Milk”. I loved it, but more than that, I “believed” it. I found I could get raw milk at a local CSA and once a week with my jars in tow I would go. I would also buy hunks of butter and cheese curds. The kids loved it. I began dreaming of cows.
We lived rurally at this time but only on 2 ½ acres and most of that space was taken up by our ever expanding horse herd. The “cow dream” was not only about cows but about chickens and larger gardens and storing home grown food through our long Idaho winters. Our dreams were outgrowing our acreage and our neighbors’ sensibilities. Our dreams moved us 10 miles due West to what we called “the 20 acres” during the 2 years it took us to get there. So we sold, and rented and built and dreamed and built fences and gardens and barns and moved and planted trees.
First there was Ginger, my sweet Jersey girl, who I found because of my penchant for talking too much. We’re at 4-H horse camp with our boys and the man camped “next door” was also a talker. Somehow we got on the subject of cows and that I wanted a milker. “I’ve got one Jersey springer in my beef herd” he says. Of course he does! Here comes Ginger, a little rangey and not hugely friendly but she was a Jersey and she did get in our trailer. The next June she had a little black heifer calf, Roxy, and I began my milking career. By that September, I had the bug and heard about another Jersey cow for sale about 50 miles away. I was already headed there when I called my husband and told him what I was up to. “Don’t take the trailer” he says…”Too late”. I return later that day with Ingrid.
Ginger has had another heifer calf who is now a year old. Birdie was born last September. Ingrid had a bull calf this past May. Ginger is bred back to another Brown Swiss bull and is due to calve again next April. Ingy is still not bred as I’d like to wait until December and have a Fall calf. Birdie will need to be bred in the spring. Although it’s not entirely interesting, the breeding of the cows is the most important part. No birth, no lactation. No lactation, no milk. What many people who pick up neat little bottles of milk don’t realize is that milking is not the only job to be done with a dairy herd. The management of the lactation, the breeding, the calving, the worrying, the post calving, more worrying, care of newborn calves, management of cows and calves. It’s all important! I keep my calves on my cows and work out an agreement with the cows. They get milked twice a day for a month or so, then, I start separating the calf at night and milking only in the morning. The calf gets to spend all day with the cow and have all milk he/she wants. It seems to work, most of the time. Cows are fickle and calves are a pain, you just gotta take it day by day and cow by cow.
One of the great joys of farming, of being someone’s “farmer” is the kids. There is a whole new group of kids out there being raised knowing the names of the cows their milk comes from. They pour out of the cars to pet the cats and goats and chickens…to see the farm. Some want to be near the horses and their distinct aroma and presence, some prefer the smaller animals, others just want to run and climb. Initially, I felt apologetic for the drive to our place as we live 12 miles from town. Now I see that it’s a perk. Of course, sometimes they’re in a hurry and sometimes it’s raining and sometimes they’re asleep in their car seats. But when they do get a chance, it sure is a learning experience and it is kid heaven. It’s no wonder so many children’s books are written about farm animals and farm experiences.
So, here I am living the life of a children’s book character. It is not always idyllic and we “cow” girls commiserate often over sick cows, dead calves and yes, spilled milk. Fortunately, the good days outnumber the bad. And the good ones are really, really good.
Thank you, Blaire, for contributing to this Friday's Featured Farmer series! What a wonderful post!
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