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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Our family farm in the 1950s (3)

I started off talking about the life of a dairy farm boy by mentioning a number of essential items of machinery, the diesel engine being the main one.

  But I hadn't answered Christian's question about what a normal day was like for me.

  My mother would wake me at 6 am with a cup of sweet tea and a piece of toast. Obviously, she'd been up long enough to have lit the Crown stove and it had burned down enough to make the toast over the coals. The stove wasn't designed to stay alight overnight as it was generally too warm in the house for that.

  She would have been up by 5 am. Dad was up and walking to the dairy soon after 4.30 am. As soon as he got there, he'd start the engine. Why do that, with no cows in the pens yet? I'll tell you later.

  Why such an early start? The same reason as a baker (in the old days at least) had to start round 3-4 am. If he didn't have his ovens up to the right temperature and the dough kneaded before baking by that time, he wouldn't have had fresh bread for his customers by 7.00 am when they expected it.

  Likewise, we had to have our sixty or so gallons of milk, in six to ten gallon cans, down at the depot for the milk truck to pick them up by 9.30 am.

10 gall milk can
  If it wasn't there by then, we'd miss out, and without a truck ourselves, that was it for the day. We'd lose a seventh of a week's income and possibly have our milk quota reduced as a penalty. Come hell, high water or engine breakdown, the milk had to be at the depot at the appointed time.

  So that's why a 4.30 am start was essential for Dad, and why I'd be trudging up to the cowshed at 6.15 am at the latest. Without starting by then, all the things that had to be done just could not have been fitted into the hours to 9.30 am.

  When I got to the dairy, Dad would already have been out on one of the horses to round up the cows and pen them next to the cowshed where they would be milked. It was more pleasant in summer, as there was more light and it wasn't chilly and dark as the day started in the winter.

  With dawn breaking, and all equipment sterilised and checked, it was time to start milking.

  Cows, let me tell you, are interesting creatures, though after milking them twice a day year after year, there's not much novelty left. But you do get to know them very well. There was a 'pecking order' in the holding pens every bit as rigid as for chooks in the henhouse - but let's keep the chickens out of it for now.

  Cows are very much creatures of habit. I've said that before. They like routine and order, and dislike it intensely when that changes, except when it was to their advantage (just like humans).

  Every cow had a name. This was nothing to do with sentiment, as you may think, but was very practical. It meant that if you needed a particular cow in a particular bail, you could call her in. Needless to say, each knew her name. If she were sitting down, as often she did, chewing her cud and waiting her turn, she'd get up quickly and come to the gate to be let in to the bail.

  Why would a cow want to be milked, and come when called? There could be a few reasons. Here's one. If she were a good milker, there would have been discomfort when the udder was full, and it wasn't unusual to see a cow sitting down before milking with a steady spray of milk coming from her teats, making little foaming puddles in the dust.

  Mothers with babies might well sympathise! 

  In these cases, the cow was called in as soon as possible. If she were young and down the pecking order, this would annoy the older matriarchs intensely. They expected to be first, and they'd be waiting for her at the gate. She'd have to run the gauntlet getting through. What looked like a guard of honour as she approached was nothing of the sort. She'd waste no time threading her way through and hoping for not too many bunts in the ribs.

  That was usually a forlorn hope, but as the cows were dehorned as calves, at least daggers weren't involved. It was just Liverpool kisses for the young ones with an overstretched udder making a dash for the safety of the bail.


  1. oh yes, let's not be sentimental about cows :) But didn't you have favourites? If one sees enough of anything it becomes desentimentalised. I feel that way about babies in India (in fact, in general). Sure, they are individually sweet, but they're just more humans, too! Why do I feel that statement may be controversial..

    julie M

  2. Each cow did have her own personality, which won't surprise anyone who is around animals. Some were merciless bosses, so I tended to like the less dominant ones best. A cow had a set productive life and there are no graceful retirements, so be sentimental on a farm at your peril.

    I might let your baby comment go through to the keeper! :) (Except to say that the planet probably has about 6 billion humans too many....)


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