Saturday, March 2, 2013

lessons from the dairy

*Note: I typed "lessons from the diary" first, but that would have been a whole different kind of post!*

When I was scraping the snow (which was over a sheet of ice--not much fun) off the sidewalk last week, one thought kept popping into my head:
This is so much like scraping the holding pen after we milked...

Since that was my thought at the beginning of scraping, I had a decent amount of time to dwell on the naturally that turned into me figuring out how to write about it.

This, my friend, is the result of my snow-scraping exercise:

Lessons I Learned as the Daughter of a Dairy Farmer

1. Mornings aren't entirely bad.
~If you know me, you know how dramatic that statement really is. Growing up, it took at least 3 wake-up attempts to get me out of bed in the morning. One of those attempts was undoubtedly my brother jumping onto my bed, placing one hand on the bed beside each of my shoulders, and bouncing me as high as he possibly could while hollering, "Waaaaakkkke uuuuuppp!"
Yeah, I know--wouldn't you just want to punch somebody for that?!
     Pop, on the other hand, always appeared highly unnatural to me, and actually enjoyed getting up early. In fact, he would attempt to wake me up with a bright, "Rise and shine!" every morning, which led to the present that still decorates his bathroom: a picture that says, ever so sweetly, "I may rise, but I refuse to shine."
     So, in the summer it was my job to go do the morning milking with Pop. That meant rolling out of bed at approximately 3:30 a.m., a time I had heard of in legends but never actually believed existed before then. We would then head up to the barn to pry the dairy cows out of bed, too (literally, in some cases--apparently our Holstein herd liked mornings about as much as I did!), then set up the barn and do the milking.
     You know what? Believe it or not, there's something incredibly satisfying about getting what is essentially a whole day's work in by 8 a.m., before most other 16 or 17 year old girls had even rolled out of bed. And besides that, do you know how many more hours are in the day when you get up early? Okay, so not really any more than 24, but I got to see a lot more of them those summers!
(Not our farm, but pretty similar)
     The other amazing thing about being up and working hard so early in the morning? When Pop would come back into the barn and tell me to stop and step outside for a minute so we could look at the sunrise. No words for that one.


2. Great conversations can take place anywhere.
~A dairy barn is a loud, dirty, smelly place. I can't speak for the new ones, of course, but I think it's pretty safe to say that the majority of them are like ours was. First off, to entice the cows into the milk barn you have feeders going. That means grain dropping into 10 different metal feed bins. I say 10, but it could quite possibly be 8. I was in that barn more times than I can count yet somehow I can't for the life of me remember if we milked 8 or 10 at once! You also have the milkers themselves going, which means 10 (or 8?) different machines with 4 vacuums going for each milker. Not to mention the compressor and the pumps for the milk. Besides all that noise, you also have to have the radio blasting because everybody knows that cows give more milk when they're listening to the radio!
     Then you have the dirty and smelly part. Not to go into too many details, but big cows that eat a lot of food make a lot of waste. Also, they aren't too particular about where and when they get rid of that waste. In case you still haven't quite gotten the picture, we kept cans of pop in a fridge that was cold enough to make them a little icy just so we could convince ourselves that the tiny pieces we were drinking were just icy soda. And no, I'm not much of a girly-girl...but that's pushing it even for me!
     In the middle of all that, though, Pop and I talked. I probably couldn't tell you exactly what we talked about, but that's not what really mattered. What mattered was getting to have long conversations, just the two of us, with no one else around. I wouldn't trade those mornings for anything.

3. Holsteins have big personalities (and big attitudes).
~Before we started milking, I would have told you that a cow is a cow is a cow. Sure, they look different, but I never would have imagined that their personalities could be so different.  Wow, was I ever wrong!
     As is the case for most dairy farms, we kept track of our cows by ear tags with numbers. That meant that most of the time when we talked about the herd, we called them by their numbers in the same way we would use names. To this day, some of those cows stick out to me. Mostly by number, but two of them earned names instead.
     First you have 70. She loved to have her head and neck scratched and wouldn't come into the barn without her scratch first. Once in the barn, she wanted her side and leg scratched (but only because those are the only areas you could reach while she was in the stall). After the milking was done and I was washing down the barn, she would come back to the open door and come inside to get her head scratched again.
     After her is 69. After milking, we would use a medicated dip to help prevent infection. That meant dipping each teat (sorry--thought I was going to get away with a whole post on milking without having to make anybody uncomfortable...guess not!), so holding this little plastic dip cup just above foot level four different times. Well, this girl decided for some reason that the dip cup was a game. As soon as the milkers came off, she would shift her weight, angle just right so she could see her back feet, and cock her foot off the ground. Her favorite thing to do was try and kick your hand or wrist hard enough to knock the dip cup out of your hand and send the medicated, thick, sticky, reddish-brown dip flying all over you. Yeah, I got it more than a few times--mainly because I'm just as hard headed and obstinate as she was and was determined to get her dipped no matter how many times she kicked me!
     The first one with a name was christened by my grandma. She got the name Dolly after Dolly Parton...I'll let you figure that one out by yourself!
     The other one with a name was named after me, though I think she had had a name for quite a while before anybody shared it with me. See, I have always managed, no matter what I'm eating, to end up with a decent amount of it on myself. Not just on my shirt, though--I've had food on my jeans (understandable), on my face (also pretty common), in my hair (a little less common...), or in my shoe (yes, it has happened). This little lady--meaning the cow now--had a bad habit of tossing her grain all over the floor every single time she came into the barn. Seriously, she would have a pile of it on the floor and then when she would run out she would start trying to shove in next to the cow in front of her to steal her food! Her name? Messy Mandy. Courtesy of Pop.
     There were a lot more that we knew for various reasons (like the one who wasn't too fond of bulls but was very much in love with Pop!), but this post is getting insanely long already so I'll have to save those for later. Besides the individuals, though, there was also just the general bossy-ness of the herd. Quite often we had to go back into the holding pen to move the one cow who had decided to plant herself in the doorway and not let any of the others inside. We would also have to slow down the ones who would be shoving multiple cows in ahead of her just so she could get to the grain faster. Add to that the cow who decided to kick me in the knee just to show me she was bigger when I was moving them into the barn. At the time we had just started milking and I didn't really know enough to realize that it was apparently just a "love tap" since it didn't even leave a bruise...

4. It is worth learning how to work hard.
~I know, I know--not something most people want to hear. It wasn't really something my teenage self would have readily admitted, either, but looking back now I can say that with full confidence. Before the dairy farm, I thought I had a strong work ethic. I mean, I was dedicated to cheerleading and worked hard at it. I did all my school work (though I was just as good at procrastinating then as I am now...have I mentioned that I have assignments in two of my classes and a midterm in the third all due Friday that haven't been started yet?) and got good grades. My room was always a disaster scene, but for the most part I thought I knew how to work.
     Once we got the dairy, I realized that I had never really worked. Until you have collapsed into bed at night, sore to your very bones, knowing that your body won't be able to move to roll out of bed in the morning yet somehow getting up anyways...well, for me, that was when I learned what hard work really was.
     The thing about hard work though? You can look back at all you've done and know that you've accomplished something.

5. Cows love their babies--and their herds.
~When a cow was getting relatively close to delivering a calf, we would dry her up and move her to a different field. Usually that meant we would have to chase her back into said field a couple of times before she would stay, because cows are incredibly social creatures and don't like to leave their friends.
     Once she had calved, it was time for her to move back to the milking herd--which meant us getting her calf to the baby barn. This task was definitely not always an easy one. I can't tell you how many big Holsteins decided they could just plow through fences to get back into what they thought of as the "right" field. Also, listening to mom and baby cry for each other through the fence for the first few days was absolutely heartbreaking at times!

There are definitely more lessons, but this post it s already getting way longer than I had planned. I guess I'll have to make a "Part 2"!

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