The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

Tag Team Milking

March 28th, 2015 by Ed Bruske


Apparently we never got the memo explaining that cows have to be trained to milk. Like most neophytes, I suppose, we just assumed when it came time to making cheese and butter and yogurt and all those other great dairy products our cow after giving birth would calmly stand there munching her hay while we filled our buckets.

Turns out the untrained cow no matter how sweet and loving under normal circumstances–even our dear Jersey Emily–doesn’t particularly like the idea of humans messing with her mammary glands. Hence the crazy dance wherein the human approaches with her bucket and the cow as soon as she is touched begins skipping from side to side. She may even try to swipe you away with a hind leg. Then when she does stand still long enough to allow the bucket to be partially filled, she will get it in her head to amble sideways again and knock the bucket over.

That’s why you see two of us working this problem, one at the front end, one in the rear. I hold Emily’s head steady and try to calm her, while my wife attempts the milking. There’s much stroking of the cow’s cheeks and neck in involved, many sweet nothings whispered into those bovine ears. At times she will fall into a kind of trance, breathing heavily into the crook of my arm while the milking proceeds uninterrupted. But just as often she’s impossibly skittish and won’t stand still no matter what we do.

I’m told this can go on for weeks, and that much patience is required of the humans involved. Meanwhile, hands engaged in the milking begin to cramp, backs get stiff from all the ups and downs, and we are reminded of all kinds of aches and pains we’ve acquired starting our new farm at an advanced age. While milking–or trying to milk–it became quickly apparent to us that although we are capable in this endeavor, our time and energy would be better spent focusing on the aforementioned cheese and butter and yogurt and so we decided to purchase a mechanical milker.

After some research, we found online a perfect little portable milker consisting of a 3/4-horse power electric vacuum pump and a stainless can with hoses that clamp onto the cow’s udder. And although it puts quite a dent in our budget, yesterday we drove two and a half hours into deepest Vermont to pick up the machine at a small outfit that specializes in dairy supplies for homesteaders. Along with the milking apparatus came a pail, cleaning supplies, brushes and other accoutrement. We loaded into the station wagon a big can of iodine solution and special “dip cup” for sanitizing Emily’s teats prior to milking.

All of this will somehow find a place in the pen we installed in our walk-in shelter that now becomes a milking parlor. And if all goes according to plan, Emily eventually will stand still long enough for us to attach those hoses. Oh, and one other detail: we have to figure out a way to get electricity to the shelter. Looks like we will be needing one very long extension cord.

Who knew milking a cow could be so complicated? Being farming newbies, we are constantly adjusting expectations to the realities that confront us on a daily basis, and that often involves an expenditure of time and money we had not figured on. But the way we look at it, we’ve already invested two years in Emily to get her to this point, and if we take care of her she will be with us for many more years to come, bearing calves that turn into meat for our table and milk that fills our larder with all kinds of scrumptious and nutritious dairy goods.

To get there we have to invest even more of ourselves and of our bank account. But as my wife likes to say about so many things, farming is a process, not an event.

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It’s a Boy!

March 24th, 2015 by Ed Bruske


The big moment for our Jersey heifer Emily finally arrived Sunday afternoon. She’d become so swollen and leaky lately, she was literally spraying milk. Around 2:30 in the afternoon I noticed the first signs of tiny hooves emerging from her rear end. Half an hour later, next time I tromped out to the orchard to collect eggs, I could see something small and brown bobbing its head inside the walk-in shelter. On closer inspection I found mom busily licking her newborn clean. Emily was so attentive, making sure this little guy had the breath of life in him.

Any birth on the farm is a fine occasion for panic, however. Was our new boy cow healthy? Did he have enough meat on those little bones? Was he nursing? I monitored every movement against the chance that our nine months of preparations and expectations had been for naught.

The first few hours are critical for newborn calves. They must consume enough colostrum–the mother’s special milk full of antibodies–to develop an immune system. Before a day had passed, when I was there to watch, I saw the calf struggle to get a teat in his mouth. I cheered when I heard him sucking. Still, he seemed so skinny and frail. At one point I racced to the local Tractor Supply to buy a calf feeding bottle. We managed to milk a couple of pints of colostrum from Emily, and the newborn consumed maybe half. Then he rejected the bottle, walked over to mom and began to suckle her on his own again.

Miraculously, mother nature manages to find a way when human intervention fails. Having never seen a newborn calf before, this is a hard lesson to learn.

Then there is the winter that won’t quit. It’s been 10 degrees Fahrenheit overnight lately. So of course I couldn’t sleep, worrying the calf would freeze to death. My wife and daughter have named him Del–short for Delmonico. I visited him twice the first night, and he seemed fine, snuggled into the hay in the pen we built in one corner of the shelter. Mom hovered over him, making these low, grunting noises we’ve never heard before. They seem to be her special way of communicating with her calf. “I’m here,” she says. “Don’t worry, I’m here.”

During his first full day of life, Del spent most of the time lying in the shelter. But occasionally he’d get up and explore. One time I found him outside the paddock where the sheep were grazing. Emily was on high alert trying to locate him. Another time, Emily went out to graze with the sheep while Del poked around inside the paddock just opposite mom on the other side of the fence. Emily would have walked right through that fence if she could. I had to remind her it was a long walk around before she could be reunited with her boy.

It’s 10 degrees again this morning (spring was last Friday, right?) and first light is still an hour away. So of course I’m once again anxious to know whether our little guy made it through the night. Did he get enough colostrum? We have fingers crossed. Meanwhile, we have new chores to keep us busy: milking. Collecting Emily’s milk is a life altering event on the farm, and we’re doing it by hand. More about that another time.

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