Today I'm not a dairy farmer anymore. Sold the milk cows. The cows were my friends and I was sad to see them loaded into the truck and leave... but it was just time. And I have to say that now that it's over and done with I feel a million pounds lighter; a giant weight off my shoulders. My father-in-law says I'll be waking up in the morning and want to go milk the cows... Kelly said to him, "Wanna bet?" I said to him, "I don't think so."
I’d like to say that contrary to popular belief, my life did not revolve around the cows but I think perhaps it did. They were a big part of my life--and had been since like forever; I was always down in the barn growing up. Started helping with milking when I was 10. I was the fourth generation to be milking cows here. My Great Grandfather came to this farmstead in 1896. Built the old barn we call the granary in 1899. The first part of the dairy barn was built in 1924. Dad added onto it a couple times in the 50's. Mom and Dad built a silo in 1968 or '69, built another in 1976, built the pole barn, tore off part of the granary, built a couple machine sheds, knocked down an old smaller silo (I remember Dad and my brother Ernie using a sledge hammer to break blocks out of the old silo. They had to make a gap 3/4's of the way around before it finally fell over. I distinctly remember that; it was pretty cool!!) Mom and Dad also tore down the old house and built a new one.
I digress… I was talking about the cows. You all know I gave my cows some rather... esoteric names… The auctioneer has a list of the cows coming in and sometimes he could read the ear tag and know who’s selling and other times I'm calling out names as they're coming in: Erica, Louise, Lynnette, Kaylannii (auctioneer shakes his head), Comet, Antigone -- which, of course he pronounced 'Annti - gone' and I had to say (phonetically here), “An-tig-o-knee; daughter of Oedipus from Greek mythology.".......... silence in the ring………. auctioneer says, Ohh-kay... Guy in front of me turns around and says “I don't think they got that”... And Lynne Cow. The cow I named after Lynne Warfel-Holt, classical music host at Minnesota Public Radio. I told who she was named for and asked whoever bought her to please contact MPR and let Lynne know they were the new owner. They worked pretty hard at selling her. Kept saying she's the only radio cow in there today. Ya know, I may not have had the best cows, but they sure had personality! And the auction people had more fun selling my cows then they did the rest of the cows!!
It was just time... Kelly and I had been talking about selling and weighing the pros and cons; definitely more pros to selling them than cons. (But the little voice way in the back of my head keeps saying "I sure hope you know what you're doing.”) Hey, supper at 6:00, vacations, maybe my knees will still function in a few years, doing more things with the kids, maybe my shoulders will feel better, VACATIONS, etc...
Primarily it was a financial decision. Milk prices have been in the toilet the last two years. I was low on cow numbers the last 6 months and the price of replacement heifers is -- and has been for the last couple years -- just insanely high and getting higher. Supply and demand principles for cattle I guess. I have bought some cows of course, and got some bargains, but there's no guarantee that a $1700 heifer will milk any better than an $800 heifer. I bought 3 cows and 1 heifer last spring; paid between $600 and $825 for the cows, $1150 for the heifer. All three cows turned out to be duds and two were gone by fall. I still had one of the cows but she had to have a C-section and would not be bred back. The fancy heifer I still had but she had been bred back 4 times and I don't think she was pregnant yet. And in the milking world it all comes down to getting pregnant. Last week was a new high price for heifers in Zumbrota; $2260.00 for one pregnant cow. The previous high price was set just the week before.
I went to Zumbrota last week to see how cows were selling and to let them know I was interested in selling mine this week. I met with the sales manager and he escorted me into the front office, shut the office door and took my information (how many, herd averages, stanchion cows (as opposed to parlor cows)) and then he made several comments about how this is what they were expecting now and my name wouldn’t be on any of the presale publicity lest we trigger any 'radio bandits'; people that would try to buy them before the sale to avoid the sales barn commissions. I got the distinct impression that he was trying to emphasis how confidential all this was. I went out and talked with a trucker I know about bringing my cows in and he acted the same way. It was very surreal how he kept scanning the parking lot, talking very quietly; even surreptitiously gave me papers behind his back. … very strange…
The night the cows sold we all went to Olive Garden for supper; that in and of itself no big deal. But we went at 6:00; ate like normal people. Got home it was only 7:30 and the kids still had time to shower and do homework! Unreal for a dairy farmer like me.
I took the kids to daycare before school this morning. Then went to Barnes and Noble (closed until 9:00) so got license tabs for the car, went to the chiropractor who was very pleased to hear I had sold the cows, filled the car with gas, went to Best Buy (closed until 10:00 -- what's the deal with these people? Doesn't anybody get up in the morning?) made some copies at Insty Prints took in some recycling and did some townboard business and still, it was only 10:15.
Went home and checked email, did some bookwork, made some phone calls then met Kelly for our usual Wednesday date. I feel like I'm on vacation. I don’t think the dogs understand what’s going on though. I'm home, but not down in the barn like I should be, then I'm gone all afternoon, then I go to the barn at night for a few minutes and feed that one calf and collect eggs and how come there's no cows around? And where's the warm milk you always leave? And now they’ve pee’d on that certain spot, and sniffed at that certain spot and they’ve just found a good spot and turned around three times and laid down and I’m leaving again? They’re very confused…
A few months ago when the mad cow scare was going on you probably heard about downer cows; a cow that, for whatever reason, can't stand up. I'd like to talk about downer cows for a minute.
Nobody wants a downer but sometimes it just happens. Sometimes they fall and injure their pelvis; sometimes they get paralysis after calving. If they're in the dairy barn you try and get them outside or into the pole barn. But there’s just not a good way to move them. Usually it's a rope around their body just behind their front legs, attached to a tractor, pulling from the bottom with straw and a couple sheets of plywood to get them over the doorway step. The vets have this thing called a 'hip lift' that clamps over a cow’s hip bones -- those big lumps near their rear end -- and then you put a chain around a beam and use a winch to lift up the cow. The idea being that if they’ve been laying on their legs for a couple days, their legs are cramped up and by getting the cow’s weight off them and letting them rest for awhile they will then use their legs to support themselves. Can't say I've had much luck using a hiplift... A few farmers have built large steel water tanks that they can pull the cow into, then seal up the ends, fill it with water and try to float the cow to get her legs under her again. Don’t know the success ratio on that.
I feel so bad when a cow can't get up... Before the rules changed you could call certain places that would take downer cows but getting a few dollars for them just wasn't worth the cost of dignity to either the animal or the people trying to get them into the truck. I had a few cows that I would just put down myself rather than go through that process.
I had a cow named Molly who was born without lenses in her eyes. She could see shadows and learned to get around mostly by listening to the other calves. Took her a few days in a new pen or pasture to learn where the fences were then she was just fine; came and went with the rest of the calves. Once in awhile she'd get separated from the other cows and I'd have to go to the pasture to find her. She’d be standing there, just waiting for me, walking around a little bit, eating some grass, chewing her cud, but just waiting for help. I'd call to her and she'd follow my voice until she figured out where she was, then could get home. I bred her and her first calf was born with the same eye problem. Not a cow you’re gonna ship off in a truck…
I always liked the milking process. Because it was so routine it only used about 1/4 of my brain and the rest was free to wander and get me in trouble or work on lighting plots or other theater applications. Or make up stories or think of farming issues. It was good pondering time. Some of you may recall from a previous newsletter how I spent a good deal of time looking out my ‘window on my world’ there on the end of the barn. Have to make special time for that now I guess. And bringing the cows home. That's one of those jobs you get when you're about 8 or 9... I recall one day walking out to get the cows during a thunderstorm. It wasn't raining too hard but the thunder was just incredible! Felt like it was right on top of me! Shook the whole valley I was in. Just an awesome feeling.
And I'll miss birthing calves... I'm still going to raise calves but I'll probably buy them as 'starter calves’; calves about 3 months old and then sell them as bred heifers about 20 months old. And I'll still be doing the crop work, selling some hay and straw to some horse people I know, selling more corn. I like the 'toys' (macheriny) too much to give all that up.
Do any of you remember that big glass jar in the milkhouse called the receiver jar? It's what the milk would come into before being pumped over to the bulk tank. When I was growing up and Dad and I would go to other farms, it was that glass jar that I was just fascinated with; watching the milk rush into that. I knew that's why I had to be a dairy farmer, so I could have that big glass jar. When we installed a different pipeline system about 12 years ago the dealer wanted me to put in a stainless steel jar. I said no way; I want that glass jar! If you haven’t seen it, it's a tempered glass globe about 18 inches in diameter. There are four glass outlets molded into it about 6 inches long; one at the bottom that the milk is pumped out through, the one at the top is the vacuum inlet and one on each side connects to the milk pipeline that runs into the barn. The deal is you don't mess with the connections between the glass jar and the other pipe; don't want to break that outlet off the glass jar. Dealers were supposed to have an extra jar, but I never wanted to find out. Bad enough when a motor would quite at milking time and you had to call the dealer to make a 'barn call'. Like a plumber in the middle of the night; it wasn't cheap.
I could fix most things on the system. There are about 6 valves in the pipeline washer that control everything from incoming hot or cold water to whether it goes straight to the wash tank or goes to the detergent jug or acid jug or sanitizer jug. They are kinda like electro magnets that open the valve and to buy them from the dealer they used to be $25 - $50 each because you got the entire valve. But really, all that usually needed to be replaced was the electro magnet thingy on the top. And those are the same on every dishwasher, washing machine or pipeline washer out there. So every time I picked up a washing machine out of a township ditch I'd take out the wash valves first before taking it to the recyclers. And if the rest of the valve needed replacement I could make those parts fit too. Good practice for building some of those theater special effect mechanisms like water dripping from the ceiling.
There’s also an electric solenoid on the washer diverter valve so it would send the first rinse water right into the drain, rather than back into the washing tank. But when it was washing with detergent or acid rinse, you want to recycle that water until the drain cycle, then divert to the drain. And a solenoid on the air injector to allow air in cycled bursts into the system during washing so that 'slugs' of water would build up to help with cleaning... that solenoid was always burning out... couldn't keep that one working.
The comment I’ve been getting a lot is that I’ll probably be sleeping late now that I don’t have the milk cows, eh? Well, no, still getting the kids going in the mornings. I don’t claim to be a morning person, but still, there’s more to life than sleep.
Here’s a pet peeve; people who refer to our farm as a ‘gold mine.’ Maybe it is, but there’s too much history here to cavalierly cast that all aside and cover the place with houses. And we fully realize you should never say never and time will tell and que sera sera, but still, I’d prefer you didn’t call it a gold mine, thank-you-very-much.
So future plans include finishing several lingering home remodeling projects before Kelly starts on the next (kitchen). I've got several theater jobs lined up. I can certainly work at the Mayo Civic Center more if I want. Can hire out as a 'Rental Handyman' as someone called me recently. I've made several new business cards that I've been passing around. Or I guess I could just let Kelly keep supporting me in the custom to which I've become accustomed. Really, the farm is just a tax write off anyway.... OK, not really...
I am now the farmer formerly known as Dairy Farmer Ben. Have to get me a symbol... maybe a cow inside a red circle with a slash though it. Or a cow holding a lighting fixture. Feel free to send me your suggestions…
Shaved my beard off too. Must be spring...
Finishing up here with aphorism’s that seemed appropriate for the time:
—One door never closes without another opening.
From the Tom Petty song ‘Into the Great Wide Open’ these two phrases:
—The future is wide open.
—The skies the limit.
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