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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Our family farm in the 1950s (2)

I have to say that we were quite poverty-stricken when we produced nothing for sale but cream; the subject of my previous story.  This changed when the Butter Factory (the Port Curtis Dairy Cooperative, aka the PCD) offered to buy whole milk from us.

  There was a decent living to be made from this in good seasons, but it meant many changes. The herd had to be improved and new equipment bought, as there was no way we could fill our milk quota consistently without it. If you failed to make your quota, you'd be given a lower one, and it was a lot harder to get your quota increased than to have it reduced.

  That demanded investment in new machinery, and my father, who had always been thrifty, had managed over the years to put some money aside to do this. I should add that any chance to save a shilling or two was also due to our mother's ability to think ahead, and also to make things out of nothing, but that's another story.

  We didn't have electricity at this time, and even when we did get it, it could not have been connected to the dairy (about half a kilometre away from the house as the crow flies) without prohibitive cost. So the first priority was to buy a milking machine.

  The milking setup you might see these days is totally different from what it was in the 1950s. If it were then as it is now, we'd have done the milking better and in less than half the time.

  So, we needed to build a new dairy designed for milking machines 1950s style, to install them and a number of other critical items of equipment to make us competitive in the whole-milk selling market.

  At the very heart of all this was one magnificent piece of machinery which ran everything else. This was the diesel engine. Rolls Royce could not have done a better job of its design (so say I!) In our neck of the woods, American-made Lister farm machinery was generally favoured, and theirs was well-made. 

  Ours was a Southern Cross engine, a model first released the year I was born (1947). It rarely failed us in all its years of service, and was never replaced by a new one. Bolted to its mounting block, it stood as tall as I was.

  The extraordinary thing about these diesel engines was that they were so efficient they could almost run on the proverbial 'smell of an oily rag'. Our engine had to be going for a minimum of ten hours per day, seven days a week. We had a 44 gallon drum of diesel fuel behind the dairy that lasted a very long time. 44 gallons is approximately 166.55811832 litres. (I just worked that out in my head....ho ho.)

  Here's why the diesel was so critical. These are the four essential items of equipment it ran simultaneously:
  • The milking machine for three bails, including the cam to provide reciprocation, the pumps and the suction chambers.
  • A powerful compressor and pump for the farm fridge, holding up to 100 gallons of milk. (378.541178 litres. Again, a rough calculation.)
  • The new model belt-driven cream separator.
  • The milk shock-cooler compressor and pump.

  My father had been raised with a lifestyle practically devoid of heavy farm machinery except for horse-drawn plough, which we still used at the time; the windmill and manual chaff-cutter. All of these, like our first cream separator, were manually (or horse-ually!) operated. We did not have a car, a tractor, a hammermill or any other devices like this - not even a motor-mower. Dad could wield with great skill a scythe of the type reminiscent of that in the arms of the Apocalyptic Grim Reaper; but fuel-driven engines were alien to him.

  Good maintenance of the diesel was essential, so what he did do was to learn how to strip down thoroughly and service that one particular device. He knew its vagaries in cold and hot weather or when something was amiss, and kept it in excellent condition for all those years. Including the colour, it looked almost exactly like the one pictured above (which, let me say, I'm rather proud to have manufactured with a lot of Photoshop time).

  Below is a link to a fairly similar model diesel to ours, and it's useful to show the handling of the engine. Ours was mounted very firmly on a large concrete block, so it was far more stable than the one in the video.

  1947 Southern Cross diesel engine startup

  It's worth a look just to see how slowly and solidly it runs, even on this unstable mobile platform. Dad would have been offended by the poor appearance of this one! (By the way, when you hear it slow down it's not stopping; it is just climbing down to its normal running speed.)

  The exhaust pipe didn't stick up in the air like that on a diesel truck. When it was installed, a long galvanised steel pipe took the exhaust gases out a few metres away from the back of the dairy. I suspect we would have been poisoned by carbon monoxide if that wasn't part of the design. We had to be very careful stepping over the exhaust pipe that our bare legs didn't touch it, though.

  Touching the exhaust pipe when the engine was running was something you did only once. That was the OH&S method back then. Experience.

  What that meant was that there was no muffler, but the noise was pretty much restricted to outside the part of the shed we rarely went. Otherwise, the gentle pop-pop-pop of the engine exhaust out the back was part of the rhythm of milking life.

  There were rare occasions when the engine did break down beyond Dad's ability to fix it. It was then all-hands-on-deck to milk manually till normal service was resumed. The cows, being very much creatures of habit, were nervous and unsettled, and likely to play up if the doof-doof beat of the diesel was missing. They hated the eerie silence, or the noise of the sharp clatter of steel buckets, and any talking usually masked by the sound of the engine.

  We whispered. If you were going to get kicked, that was the most likely time for it. The cows thought it was their noise-maker and were just as likely not to let down their milk under the stress of abnormal conditions. As in the classic Australian movie, the Castle, when the familiar noise of an engine came back, the cows would smile and say, "Aaahhh - the serenity!"

  Well, not quite, but you get what I mean. Once that engine started up again, the cows relaxed, and chewed their cuds while lying down waiting to be called by name for their turn to be milked.

  Don't laugh. I can tell you, a breakdown of the engine was a production crisis greater than all others. You can crank the bloody thing all you like, but if a piston ring fractures, you're done for until it's fixed. 

  Such a crisis would lead immediately to an explosion of language from Dad that would be quelled only by the fear of upsetting the cows too much, unprotected by the doof-doof ambiance. Some of the words would have been too... robust... for your shell-like ears.
    And now I can get on and tell the story! (continued)


  1. I'm here from Rachel Power's blog where you admitted your admiration of the multi-tasking woman, which suggested to me you might be a man whose blog is worth visiting, and lo and behold i find this fascinating story of the fifties on an impoverished dairy far,m. I'm not big on machinery myself but I enjoy reading about the family relationships. Thanks.

  2. Thanks, Elisabeth - I'm glad you enjoyed it, though have to say I'm only now about to start writing on the human/animal interaction side of it rather than the machinery, and I think that might appeal to people more.

    I had been contemplating only last night whether or not to clarify that although we had little money, we never felt impoverished because we had all the riches that farm life offered - good food and a creek and love - what kids would need more? Anyway I've said it now!

    Of course I looked you up and see that you have a wonderful blog, and your latest story resonates very much with me on several levels. For anyone else, the web reference is

    You are clearly one of those multi-tasking women I have always expressed my deep and genuine admiration for! I suspect the enviable multi-tasking capacity is mainly biological in origin, though I probably am not allowed to say that these days. (Try to stop me!)


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