Norris Chambers Old Timer's Tales

Milk Cows

by Norris Chambers

Woe is me for the work I do
Upon that farm of mine -
I must wake before daylight
And tend that herd of kine.

   A long heavy tail, weighted by matted cockleburs swished briskly back and forth and connected heavily with the side of my face. I was accustomed to this kind of treatment and regained my composure just in time to jerk the bucket forward as a dirty, unruly foot kicked toward it. I was the official milker in our family and I endured many undignified assaults from our milk cows.

  Our milk cows weren't really "milk cows" but were mostly half or quarter Jersey and gave enough milk to raise a fat calf on half of it and keep us in milk. We usually milked from one to five at various times, depending on which ones had small calves. The maximum number was in the Spring, when most calves were born. As the summer progressed, they gave less and less milk and we might end up by milking just the one that gave the most milk. The "fresh" cows (as those were called that had just had a calf) had to be milked or the calf would get sick from consuming too much rich milk. Too much milk introduced a condition called the "scours" which was similar to our present human malady we call diarrhea.

  There were two general methods of dividing the milk with the calf. With the first method I would let the calf feed a minute or so, then tie it off with a rope while I proceeded to take the bucket and milk. After all the milk was extracted, the calf was allowed to feed another minute or so. That was because the cow reserved some milk for the calf. The last milk was always the richest in butter fat. The calf was again tied off and the final milking continued. This last milking was called "stripping". The other method was to have a heavy stick handy and whack the calf on the legs until it stood back and let you continue. Every few minutes it would come back for another whacking. It soon learned that it would get it's half later. You milked a cow from the right side, and the two teats on the right side were for milking and the other two for the calf. This was the method preferred for small calves, but as they grew larger they were harder to keep whacked off. By letting the calf feed a little the cow didn't hold back a reserve.

  It might be a good time to explain how to milk a cow because you never know when you might be called upon to do some milking. I milked my last one in 1949. The cow has four teats extending down from the udder. These were originally designed for the calf, or calves if the cow had twins. But many years ago humans started taking the calf's milk for their own use. The udder is located slightly forward of the hind legs.

  The procedure for extracting milk is to take the teat in the hand and bring the thumb and forefinger together near the top, squeezing off the internal supply tube, then squeezing the other three fingers around it, thus forcing the milk to squirt out into a bucket which you have placed on the ground beneath the cow. You then release the pressure on the top and squeeze it again. Repeat this process until the milk is all gone and the squeezing produces nothing. An accomplished milker will take a teat in each hand and, as the operation becomes automatic, will gain considerable speed and a bucket will fill in about ten or fifteen minutes. For this job the milker has assumed a squatting position and is reaching under the cow to get the milk and control the calf with his club.

  A cow has a long tail and it is ordinarily loaded with cockleburs and grass burs and she is very adept at hitting the milker directly in the face. If this doesn't work, she has the option of kicking the bucket or raising her leg and sticking her foot in it. Sometimes she even kicks the milker. There is another hazard. If another cow in the lot is higher on the pecking order, she may make a dash at the cow being milked and cause her to run away, trampling the bucket and upsetting the milker. I have had a milk cow turn around and hit me with her head. (Most of the milk cows had their horns removed primarily for that reason).

  A cow's hind knees are built backwards from those of a human. The knees are behind and the legs bend forward. I think they were made that way so they could kick the milker or the bucket. Also, it would be hard to walk if the knee was on the front. Anyway, the knees (the old timers called them "hocks") protruded behind the leg at the joint for an inch or so. I devised two small hooks, connected by a short length of chain, that would slip over each knee and prevent the cow from kicking. I went a step further and attached a strong battery clip to the center of the chain and clipped it on to the matted tail. That kept her from swatting you with the burs. This invention worked flawlessly most of the time.

  The cow wasn't able to walk much with this contraption in place. Occasionally it was necessary for her to move quickly, and that wasn't possible. One old cow, in an effort to escape another, knocked me over and fell on me. Neither of us was hurt, but the milk was lost. I got up and tied the other cow to the fence and continued the milking with a new bucket.

  Milk that was taken in an open lot accumulated considerable trash and it was necessary to strain it before use. A milk strainer was basically a large funnel with a cloth stretched over the three inch opening. This was placed over the bucket and the milk poured through it.

  We had a few cats around the barn that depended on the milk lot for a food supplement to their mouse and rat diet. They had their pan for normal feeding, but I enjoyed squirting a stream to them and watching them jump and drink it in the air. Some cats would jump two feet for a sip of fresh milk.

  Milk cows are generally gentle creatures, but they are slow to learn. Once they have learned, they are just as slow to forget. One time we moved the lot gate to another corner, and it took days for the cows to learn where to get in and out of the lot. In later years we used an electric fence and placed cows in a small "breaking" lot to familiarize them with the electric shock. This lot had only one wire, which was connected to the shocking machine. The average cow would touch the wire five or six times before learning to stay away from it. After breaking they could be placed in a field with one wire around it, and even if the fence were not charged, they would not touch it. They remembered this for weeks.

  We used the same type fence for hogs, except the wire was much lower. A hog learned with just one or two shocks that the wires were dangerous. When placed in an area protected by the single wire, they would eat and root up to the wire, but would not try to go under or over it. Horses also learned quickly, but tested a field fence occasionally, and the charge had to be kept on to hold them.

  All cows were not friendly, especially to kids. We had one belligerent beast that gave Clifton and me a lot of trouble when we were small. She had short horns that curved in toward the eyes. Any time she saw us, even across the field, she would run as fast as she could toward us. We either tried to outrun her or climbed a tree. Once she got us in a tree, she would keep us there. She would wander off a few hundred feet and soon as we tried to get down, she would come back at a run. We had no choice but to go back up the tree. Sometimes we had to wait until Papa came and chased her away. She wasn't afraid of Mama.

  One time she chased me to the roof of a chicken house and kept me there all morning.

  When we got older, we found that we could get behind a tree and keep the tree between us. This frustrated the cow, but she couldn't turn quickly enough to get to us and she would eventually tire of the process and leave. It was at about this stage that she quit bothering us.

  The same procedure works well with bulls. They can be very vicious and it is important to pick a strong tree.

  Cows can be broken for riding, but they make very poor mounts. They don't want to go and they sometimes buck unexpectedly. There is the tale about the boy that tied an ear of corn to a stick and held it in front while riding. The cow kept going in an effort to get the corn, and of course the corn kept moving with the stick. But this method doesn't work. We tried it.

  Cows may be dumb, but they are smart enough to know when they are being bamboozled! But they can be fun - if you don't have one, perhaps you should see about acquiring one!


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