Vol. VI, No. 4, Spring 1993


Independence and Regulation in Dairy Farming

by Rick Calbert

It happens every morning at 3:00 a.m. My alarm clock shatters the dark stillness of the countryside and I roll out of bed and dress as quickly as I can. I hurry out the door at a time when others are enjoying their sleep, and my day has begun, a day--a job---not governed by a time clock, by a forty-hour week, or even by a calendar. Instead, it is ruled by how much daylight I will have today, by the temperature, by whether it will snow, or rain, or ever stop raining. For a dairyman, these things never cease to be critical.

I arrive at the milk barn quickly, head inside, and start the network of machinery. While it's preparing, I walk out to the lot where springer cows are kept and check to see if there are any new arrivals. Once I have checked the lot and sanitized the milkers, I turn the first group of cows into the barn to be milked. I wash their udders to prepare them to milk, and as I attach a milking unit to their teats I look around and recall the stories my grandfather had told me about how milking was done fifty years ago. As I remember what he often described to me, I realized how milking had changed. The days are gone when milk was poured into a bucket, then carried into a room where it was poured through a cheese cloth into a milk can.

Instead, today the milk travels through stainless steel and glass pipes, the arteries of the milking system. This circulatory system of milk empties into the heart of the system, a large stainless steel tank, and its peripheral equipment, that a computer chip tells to agitate the milk or to cool the milk because the temperature of the milk has exceeded thirty-seven degrees. Once the milk has been pumped through stainless steel pipes by the milk hauler, out of my tank into his stainless steel truck tank, my stainless steel holding tanks are cleaned by automatic washers, with water that reaches near boiling and by acid and detergent to insure that bacteria will not contaminate the next milking.

Once a farmer and his family could exist upon a hundred acres with fifteen or twenty milk cows that averaged about twenty-five pounds of milk a day. Instead, now, the dairy farm averages well over five-hundred acres, and most herdsmen milk over a hundred cows. The cow that is preferred by most of today's dairy farmers is no longer the high cream producing Jersey, but the high poundage producing Holstein. Holstein breeding has been genetically controlled and upgraded over the years until the average Holstein will weigh about twelve-hundred pounds and give about ninety-pounds of milk a day. Grandpa's cow that gave twenty-five pounds of milk a day would find herself at the stockyards today. Today every cow' s milk is measured; her feed and hay intake monitored; the information sent to Iowa State University where it is processed and sent back to the farmer so he can run his operation more cost efficiently. The day a dairy farmer can keep an old cow because she is like a family friend has long since become the reality of trying to pound a penny into a dime.

Gone, too, are the days when old Bessie walked into the barn, often dirt floored, and slipped her head into a stanchion feeder, and the dairy farmer sat down on his stool beside her, always on her right side, buried his head in her flank, and grabbed and squeezed her teats. For Grandpa, the perfect cow had long and large teats and a temperament that permitted cold hands grabbing her teats, and she had a tail that spent more time hanging limp than whipping in his face. Today, however, cows come onto a milking floor raised about three to four feet above the dairy farmer, and on both sides of him, in order to insure maximum working efficiency. Automatic milkers are slipped on, and computers say when it is time for them to be removed in order to insure that the dairy cow has given her maximum output. Instead of old Bessie's simply eating a bucket of feed in the stanchion, every cow is fed by automatic feeders a prescribed amount of feed that is calibrated according to her financial production. The long, large teats are now a hindrance because standard sized automatic milking units will not efficiently milk them out. Instead, a straight, hard udder with small teats the size of your little finger is preferred.

The days when a small lot served as a holding area for the cows waiting to be milked now seem like part of a fairy tale--once upon a time. Instead, that small lot has been replaced by concrete holding areas several hundred feet long and a couple of hundred feet wide that must be cleaned after every milking. In order to tackle the enormous job of cleaning up after these big, high-production cows, the holding areas are built on a slope, and recycled lagoon water is flushed from a several-thousand-gallon tank across them in order to wash the waste into a reservoir that runs back to the lagoon. Every measure possible must be taken to insure that not only milk, but also every inch of milking area stay as clean and free from waste as possible. State and Federal government inspectors pay regular, periodic visits as well as occasional surprise visits to dairy farms and seem more than willing to write citations for what they feel is a lack of cleanliness. In today's world of milking, I must follow strict rules written by bureaucrats and legislators who may never have seen a cow.


Milking has become an intense, cost- and work-efficient way of life. Cows who were known by their names and a way of life marked by casual independence have gone the way of the fringe-topped surrey. Today cost efficiency is the bottom line, sixteen-hour days a reality, and the cow is a computer number. If Grandpa were to walk into the barn today, about all he would recognize is that the dairy farmer is still his own boss--but with laboratory-bred regulators peering over his shoulder; that the dairy business is still highly labor intensive, and that cows still have four legs.

Some things are still the same--strangers drive through the country on a spring day, look out the window, and at forty or more miles per hour dream their own vision of "Green Acres" and exclaim, "Now that's the life." Meanwhile, I continue to work sixteen-hour days that begin at 3:00 a.m., no matter the weather, three-hundred sixty-five days every year, with G-persons watching every move. Sometimes, standing knee deep in mud in the pouring rain administering an intravenous transfusion of glucose to a cow who cannot get up, I wonder why I do it. To those who drive by at 2:00 in the afternoon and therefore fail to see me at 2:00 a.m. pulling a calf who decided to enter the world backward, I respond, yes, it is the life, but it's not what you think. It's a hard life. But I enjoy bringing a newborn, unbreathing calf to life. I enjoy tending animals--a husbandman in an old regal sense. I like the smell of new-mown hay, of hay drying in the field, of a barn full of green-baled alfalfa. In spite of government regs, I'm still my own boss. No, farming--milking--is a way of life that is not for everyone, but it's the life for me.

Rick Calbert, a 1993 graduate of Southwest Missouri State University, plans to teach high school English, and to continue to milk cows.


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