Morning Milking on a small farm.

Morning Milking on a small farm.

Enjoy this story while you enjoy your glass of milk, then offer a toast to the men and women who work 365 days a year to make it happen.

Prologue: The summer following my sophomore high school year, I started working on a neighbor’s dairy farm. That first summer I was just a labor source, but as the weather cooled, I started being trained to milk the cows. Eventually, I was capable enough to complete the milking duties myself. At that time, the owner and I started splitting the twice daily milkings. On days I had school, I did the evening milkings with him handling the mornings. On days when school was out (holidays, vacations, etc.) I preformed the morning dance. This story is a capitulation of one such morning over a Christmas break my senior year when I handled the morning chores.


The alarm pierced the morning silence at 5:00am. The noise was enough to wake the dead, which is likely handy because I was sleeping heavy. Out of bed, washed and dressed, I departed the house by 5:15am. Not having a car, but only having a short brisk walk, I started down the snow covered (only 1 to 2 inches) gravel road the quarter mile journey to my destination – my employer’s dairy farm. The lack of a car seemed unimportant at the time and I enjoyed the morning walks. {Now I have a car and I use it to drive to a gym to walk on a machine. It seemed to work better back then.}

Arriving about 15 minutes later, I enter a short hallway at the east end of the milk barn. To the left, a door into the office and admin area. Mostly a store room, the walls were decorated with dozens if not hundreds of ribbons and awards representing the family’s winnings at numerous fairs and livestock shows over the years. To my right the entrance into the milk room while straight ahead the entrance into the milk parlor. I continued down the hallway into the parlor. Unheated at night, the barn has cooled to a temperature of about 15 degrees below zero. Ok, maybe not since it is only in the low 20s outside, but it seems that cold. The only heat sources in the 30 foot wide, 100 foot long barn is a diesel fueled portable heater and, once they were inside, the 22 or so Ayrshire milk cows. I fire up the heater and retreat to the milk room.

One complaint that most ‘city’ folk have about farms and farming is that it is a dirty occupation. Logically, you can not work with soil and not create dirt. Machinery has moving parts which requires oil and grease which will eventually touch upon different things. The handling of grain and forage products causes dust to be released which gets everywhere. A modern dairy farm’s milk room is the one major exception to that rule. Required by law and common sense, milk is handled, processed and stored in very sterile conditions. The floor is typically tile or smooth concrete and will slope gently toward a drain in the center or along the edge allowing easy multiple times daily washing. The walls and ceilings are covered with a washable surface that will withstand daily high powered hot water spray downs. Every piece of equipment or fixture in the room is either stainless steel or ceramic. It will be washed with hot water and cleaning/sanitizing agents twice a day.

Entering the milk room, to my right is the bulk milk storage tank. A double walled stainless steel 1,000+ gallon holding tank where the daily milk will be stored until it is picked up by a tanker truck every other day. The tank is constructed with cooling coils located between the inner and outer skins of the tank. The tank will cool the milk to 40 degrees while waiting for the pick up driver. The tank also has a small motor mounted on top that drives an agitator down in the tank which keeps the milk mixed up. Whole milk, if allowed to sit, will start to separate and layer. This will result in the butterfat particles to move toward the top and to layer there. Butterfat is what composes the cream that most people see when dealing with unprocessed whole milk. It is important that the milk remain blended until it arrives at the processing plant. A matter of habit, I check the control panel to insure that the milk in the tank is the proper temperature. The temperature being fine, I take a look in the tank to insure that everything is visibly and odorously okay. If there is a problem with the unit, I need to know it before I do anything else. If something has happened to the milk in the tank and it has spoiled, I do not want to dump more milk in which would immediately spoil that milk also.

My next job is to prepare the milking machines. Although in golden times milking was done by hand and still is on hobby farms with only a few cows, goats or llamas. It is impractical for a production farm to milk by hand. Most semi-automatic milking equipment is vacuum operated. It uses pulsed vacuum to alternately compress and release a rubber tube in a stainless steel cylindrical shaped holder placed over each of the cow’s four teats. As the rubber tube is alternately compressed and relaxed, it simulates hand milking and pulls the milk from the cow’s udder. The milk is transferred down a short hose into a temporary storage tank. The machines are broken down after each milking and receive a washing in very hot water treated with approved sanitizer to remove all milk residue plus any contaminates that may have been picked up during the milking operations.

I start to re-assemble the machines. There are three machines, two identical in manufacture and one of a different model. Although very similar in design and certainly in function, the machines are not interchangeable between parts. The rubber milking tubes, called inflations, are inserted into stainless steel teat cups. One end is open and will slide over the cow’s teat (one per teat) and the other extends beyond the teat cup and is connected to a claw, which is nothing more then a way to connect the four individual inflations to a single feed hose. The feed hose is then connected from the claw to the lid for the milk tank. The lid of the tank is then snapped to the top of the milk container, a large stainless steel ‘bucket’ that will hold the milk during the actual milking process. The entire assemble looks like a mutilated octopus. A separate hose, connected to the tanktop, will be connected to the vacuum line at each milking station during the actual milking. One machine done, now the other two. Next I prepare a cleaning solution of hot water and sanitizing agents which will be used to clean the udders of each cow before milking. A second solution of sanitizer will also be used to dunk the teat cups and inflations into between each cow to prevent any possible contaminates from being moved from cow to cow.

The final step in the milk room prep is to prepare the transfer tank which is a large (about 8 gallons) stainless steel tank on wheels. During the actual milking, the milk is deposited in the bucket of the vacuum milker. Once the cow is milked out, the milk is poured from the milker into the transfer tank. The tank has two chambers, the top where the milk is poured in and a bottom reservoir. In between the two is a large, thick cotton filter. This Filter will trap nearly all dirt or particles that somehow made it in to the milker during milking. Although absolutely used only once, the filters are generally clean if everything – cleaning the cows prior to milking and handling the milkers – is done correctly. The filters are a fail safe to protect the cleanliness of the milk and look similar to coffee filers only 10 times thicker and about 18 inches across. Before processing and delivery to the consumer, the milk will be filtered many times more to insure no unwanted particles are in the final product. A long hose will draw the milk from the bottom reservoir back to the milk room’s storage tank. This will save the worker – me – from having to walk the length of the barn back to the milk room each time I finish an individual cow. Not only would that be a lot of work, but it would substantially increase the likelihood of dirt and contaminates would be brought into the milk room either on my person or on a milking machine. It is almost 6:00am and everything in the milk room is now ready, time for the ladies.

Back into the hallway and into the parlor, I flip the light switch which now lights up three rows of fluorescent lights illuminating 28 stantioned milking stalls. The stall system is constructed of mainly steel pipes about 2” in diameter welded and bolted into individual stalls about 3.5 feet wide and 7 feet deep. As a cow enters a stall, she will place her head through a neck stanchion which will be locked to prevent her from backing out during milking. The stanchion is designed so that she may move her head up and down and twist it left to right. It will even allow her to lay down if she desires. Of course she can not lay down during milking, but during extreme inclimate weather, the herd is kept housed in the parlor. During these times they will desire to lay down at some point. Between each pair of stalls is an automatic watering system where a cow can get a drink anytime she wants one. A cow typically has to consume 2 gallons of water for each gallon of milk produced, so clean and fresh water is very important. The stalls are arranged in two rows facing away from each other. The 14 stalls on each side are split into one block of 8 stalls and another block of 6 with a walkway between them to allow access to the area in front of the stalls for feeding and inspecting the faces of the cows for diseases and injuries.

To my right at the end of the parlor area on the east end next to milk room wall is a bull pen. Keeping a bull full time on a farm is both expensive and dangerous. Bulls are very, very aggressive and do not need to be provoked before they will charge. Typically weighing 1,500 to 2,000 pounds with hard hooves, a bull can charge, knock down a person and cause serious injury or stomp them to death in a matter of seconds. Advances in artificial insemination have made such services not only financially practical but also highly reliable. As such our bull pen is empty. On the left is a storage area. At the far end of the barn is 10′ wide sliding door that will be opened to allow the herd to enter the barn.

The barn, thanks to the space heater, is now slightly less freezing then it was. I turn off the unit. While I may start it after the herd is locked in their stalls, having it running while bringing in the girls is a safety hazard. Should something spook one or more cows and they knocked it over a fire is possible as the stalls all have a bedding of straw about 3 inches deep. Crossing the length of the barn, I open the sliding door that opens to a holding pen about 120 feet by 120 feet.

The north side, to my right, is a wood fence made with 1” by 6” boards painted white. Beyond this fence is the county road that passes along the farm. This is the same road I traversed down minutes before to arrive at work. Straight ahead is a one story block walled building that previously was the milk barn but was too small for the growing herd. It now served as a calf pen for calves less then 1 year old and, typical of all farms, more storage. To the left, the atypical two story red painted farm barn with hay storage up top and equipment storage down below. Connecting between the calf barn and hay barn is a gate that opens into the pasture where the herd spends their days and most nights wandering and eating and producing milk. I cross the pen and open the gate. The herd, creatures of habit, start moving through the gate almost immediately. They know that what awaits them in the barn is a breakfast of grain and a bite of hay or silage. Being on time, they silently file through the gate, cross the pen and enter the milk parlor. Had I been late, several would have used bovine curse words to let me know. You may think I am joking, I am not. Cattle can be very vocal when their routine is altered or something bothers them. And bovine clocks are accurate to several minutes – so 15 minutes late can be a major issue.

If one or more of the ladies decides that she wants to stay out a little longer, it may be necessary to enter the pasture and encourage her to come in. The herd will almost always stay together, a natural instinct that there is safety in numbers. Because of this, as most of the herd is near the gate, any stragglers will also be near by. Should it be necessary to coax one to get up and enter it is important to not strike or kick the cow as that could cause injury. That leaves few tricks to encourage an animal that out weighs you by a factor of six to one or more to do something she is not ready to do. Normally, walking up to her and gently pushing on her side, calling out her name and asking, or more like begging and crying, for her to get up and come in will work. Call her by her name? Yes, on a small family farm it is not uncommon for each cow to be named. And since the majority of this herd is Registered which means that they are pure-breeds and on file with the US Ayrshire Breeders Association, they actually have a document, like a birth certificate, that lists their names.

There are always a few non-milking girls in the group. In a normal year, a cow will be in production 9 months of the year. The gestation period (the time she is expecting a calf) is nine months. She enters milk production immediately after birthing her calf. Approximately 3 months after she calves, she will be re-bred to produce a new calf. Give or take 6 months later, she will be taken out of milk production as both her natural volume of milk has reduced to very little daily production and she will need to direct her energy and nutrition toward her unborn baby. These ladies will also enter with the herd as it is part of their daily routine. They will also receive a daily serving of grain and supplements to help them maintain their health.

Once the herd is in the barn, it is necessary to lock the neck locks on each stantion. This will prevent each cow from backing out during milking. For the most part, once she finishes eating, she will be ready to leave, which would defeat the purpose of bringing her in the barn in the first place – milking. Now that they are all locked in, it’s feeding time. From a small room located off the south wall of the building, the Feed Room, several scoop shovels of grounded, mixed feed consisting of corn, soybeans and numerous supplements is deposited into a wheel barrel. The wheel barrel is then maneuvered in front of each group of milking stalls and a scoop – homemade from a large coffee can and a strip of aluminum – is used to portion out the feed to individual ladies. Those not in production get one scoop, most get two, a few select high producers get 2 & 1/2 or 3 scoops each.

Once the ground feed is all served, it is finally time for the real work to begin – milking. It is nearing 6:30am. I return to the milk room and retrieve two of the now assembled milking machines and carry them the far distance of the barn. Another trip and I return with the third machine. Next trip I bring the wash and dip buckets of cleaners I had prepared earlier. One final trip, but I detour right into the office and right again into a small closet where I flip a switch and instantly a small electric motor starts. A rhythmic hiss-pist sound emits from the vacuum pump system. Out of the closet, through the office passing the numerous ribbons and awards, and into the milk room where I retrieve the transfer tank with it’s 100 foot plastic hose coiled around it. As I wheel it into the milking parlor I stop and grab the free end of the hose and attach it to small nozzle and open the valve allowing the vacuum system to now pressurize (well technically negative pressurize) the hose by attempting to draw air through the transfer tank and the hose. A float about the size of softball rests in the bottom of the transfer machine, plugging the entrance to hose and preventing a massive air draw into the vacuum system. As milk is poured into the transfer tank, it passes from the top section through the large filter and into the bottom tank. As the milk settles in the bottom tank it will float the “ball”and by virtue of gravity will reach the lowest part of the tank which is the opening connected to the hose. Thanks to the vacuum system, the milk is then drawn from the transfer tank, through the hose and deposited into the bulk storage tank in the milk room. I continue to wheel the tank toward the far end of the barn, uncoiling the transfer hose as I go and hooking it on overhead wire J hooks about every 8 feet to keep it from laying on the floor. About 2/3s down the barn I stop and leave the transfer tank.

Different ladies get different machines. Most will receive the machines which are identical, select others will only receive the special different machine. A couple can work with either. I would love to explain the reasons behind the difference but, I don’t know. I never asked. I was never told and so we will never know. Starting with the first three selected cows, I first clean each one’s udder and teats with the rag from the soapy water. During this time, I am inspecting both visually and by feel, looking for any injuries, soars or other problems.

I then position a machine and hook it to the vacuum source next to the stall and ‘power’ up the machine. The claw is then positioned near the udder and each teat cup is placed on individual teats. The first three cows started are partially at random and partially the art of picking three that I know from experience will not finish at the same time. I need to have time to get the first machine from one animal to another one before the next machine is done. Once the three milkers are in place and doing their magic, I clean the next three targets. I then start bouncing between the machines checking the progress of each. Some cows milk faster then others, some milk less because they are nearing the end of their cycle or they just produce less overall. It is important to know the exact status of not only each cow but each individual teat/quarter udder.

Each udder (a cow breasts if you must) is actually four sections that separately produce milk. While the four sections will produce milk in nearly the same amounts, it is not an exact fact. Plus an injury to one quarter may affect that quarter’s production. Under milking is bad as the udder will continue to produce milk and if the previous milk is not removed from the membrane storage network in the udder, the udder could be damaged affecting production and the cow’s health. Over milking is just as bad as it could result in damage to the membrane walls – again affecting production and overall health. The art – it’s certainly not a science – of knowing when the milking is done in one learned on the job. There is no way to learn by a book or video. It is learning the “feel” and each cow can have a slightly different feel so it is very important for the herdsman to be very alert to the status of each quarter of each udder of each cow while she is on the machine.

Once a milker is done and I have removed it from the cow I carry the now much heavier device to the transfer tank. The tank which empty weighed maybe 5 pounds, now weighs 20 to 30 pounds more as it contains between 2 and 3 gallons of raw milk. While with one hand I remove the top of the milker and pressing down a foot lever, the top of the transfer tank swings open. I then dump the milk into the top section of the transfer tank. As I replace the top on the milker, out of the corner of my eye I watch that the semi-clear plastic transfer hose suddenly turns white as the milk passed through the filter, lifted the ball-float and is being drawn toward the milk room and the storage tank. Satisfied that the system is working, I dip the teat cups of the milker into the soapy sanitizer water to prevent transferring contaminates from one cow to the next and I then head toward the next cow to be milked and start the machine on her. By now another machine is nearing completion and I hustle to it to repeat the process of removing the machine from the cow, dumping the milk in the transfer tank, re-assembling the machine while monitoring the transfer process and then moving to the next cow. This process is constant and repeating until every cow that is currently in production has been milked. In between everything else, I slowly work the transfer tank back toward the milk room, unhooking and re-coiling the transfer hose around it as I go.

About one hour after I started, I have reached the end of the string and the last cow is milked – for this half of the day. Milking is done twice a day, everyday – regardless of weather or weekends or holidays. Or birthdays. To this day, I work nearly every birthday. Ironically, by chance I started this writing a few weeks ago and finished the first draft and posted it online – on my birthday.

After the milkers and the transfer tank have been returned to milk room, I enter the office and turn off the vacuum system and a quite settles over the barn. The vacuum pump, while not loud, can be heard through out the entire barn. I thusly return to the milk parlor. Depending on the owner’s instructions, I will either feed hay or silage. Silage is a product consisting of whole corn stalks with the corn ears intact that is harvested by chopping it into 1 inch by 1.5 inch pieces. Occasionally other grains are gown mixed into the corn to increase the feed value of the silage. The round, (100s of feet) tall storage towers commonly seen around farms and especially dairy farms are called silos. The silo was developed specifically to store – silage, hence the name. (Silage may be named after the silo, I may have to do a report on that in the future.) This is not the only way of storing silage, but it is among the most efficient and safest. Normally, if I am to feed silage it is loaded on a small trailer the night before. If I am serving hay as the after milking dessert, then it is often stacked up in between the front of the stalls and the outer walls. I know what to do based on what was left for me.

The hay or silage – happily for me – is prepared the night before. It is only happy for me when I do the morning milking. When I handle the evening chores it is my job to prepare the silage or the hay as needed. On days when I do both milkings – rare but happens – then it just is a lot of work.

After the hay or silage is fed, I go back to the milk room and break down the machines and transfer tank. Each piece is given a rising in cold water then in hot water. The pieces are then left in one of the large stainless steel sinks. The owner’s sister, a co-owner in the herd, will be over later in the day to give the parts and pieces a very complete re-cleaning and sanitizing. She will also scrub the milk room, insuring it remains the cleanest spot on the farm. I recheck the bulk tank to assure that it is chilling the milk and operating properly. Re-entering the milk parlor I cross to the far end and push open the large entrance door, walk across the holding pen to the pasture gate and open it. Returning to the barn I maneuverer into and out of each station releasing the neck lock – freeing each cow to back out of her stall and exit the barn. Creatures of habit, they know the breakfast serving is over and most are happy to be free of the confines of the parlor. Generally, by the time the last one is released from her stall, all the ladies have started to exit the barn and the holding pen. If they do not go right away, no concern, I have other work to do and they will leave in 15 to 20 minutes. The biggest reasons a few may lag behind is to a drink from the 200 gallon fresh water tank outside and to the left of the barn door.

Back inside, I use a large scraper to clear any manure or dropping, any soiled straw from the individual stalls and any mud/dirt that was tracked in by the herd. I propel it into a small 12 inch deep by 15 inch wide trench that loops behind each of the stalls and runs the length of the building up and back. In the trench is a paddled chain that will move the manure and other items around the route of the chain, out of the barn and up a chute where it drops into a manure spreader parked beside the barn. Once the barn is “cleaned”, I shut off the motor that powers the chain, retrieve enough straw from one of the other barns, generally one or two bales, to replenish the bedding in the stalls it as needed. The manure spreader will be taken care of by the owner’s son later in the day. Driving the tractor to run the manure spreader is his – in general – reward for having to load silage or prepare hay the night before so I do not have to do it at 7 in the morning. If not done the night before, it would be necessary to arrive 1 or more hours earlier in the morning so it will be ready for milking. The milking is done on schedule – everything revolves around it. My reward for doing the silage or hay the night before is – it’s my job. He gets bribed, I get paid.

By now the last of the ladies are out of the pen so I close the gate and the barn door. I make sure the diesel heater is off. I double check for any tasks or items needing my attention in the milk parlor. I turn off the lights. One last time I enter the milk room, checking again the bulk storage tank – yes it is a habit – you learn to check it physically or subconsciously every time you enter the milk room. I check to see if there are any of my assigned duties or just any job that needs to be done – no – I exit the milk room shutting off the lights. Turning left out of the milk room between 2.5 to 3 hours have expired since I first entered the building about 5:30 in the morning.

The morning milking is done. The nearly exact same process will repeat itself in 12 hours with either myself, my boss or the two us working in team. It is only a little faster with two people, but less of a physical work out.

I travel the 1/4 mile back to home where it is now my breakfast time. Then maybe a nap. Sometimes the nap comes first.

John C. Carter
Dairy Farm Hand {Retired}

Postscript: I would like to add that following my leaving to go active duty with the Army, my boss got out of the dairy business. He kept a couple animals as part of the family’s love and involvement with livestock shows but he sold most of the herd. Small scale farming is not profitable. This is sadly the story of family farms all around the US as families close up and mega-corporations take over production – and control – of your food. Become involved and aware of where your food comes from and who controls it. Many a world leaders – often dictators – have said “Control the food, control the people”. The Romans practiced this during their massive empire building. Many states are now passing laws regulating private ownership of livestock, meaning you can not buy 5 acres and have a goat and 10 chickens to help feed your family – you will have to buy only commercial food sources. Indiana, my original home, is one of these states which is a reason I would likely never move there.

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