Darkness and cold are powerful partners. I am no match for them on these arctic mornings, so I always stay in bed until one of those partners dies. Darkness seems to roll over and perish much quicker than the frozen air on these January mornings, so I exit the sheets when that eastern light comes knocking.
Twenty below zero this morning, 45 above zero in the bedroom, not much better in the kitchen. But soon the old Queen Atlantic cookstove will be casting heat from a fresh fire, the tea kettle will boil, and I can begin the usual routine for dealing with 24 teats below zero (or six cows if you do the math correctly and divide by four teats per udder. And not to belabor the anatomy lesson, but if this were a goat dairy, 24 teats would equal 12 goats).
The routine commences with a brisk walk to the barn in my slippers to simply turn on a hair dryer that begins warming the vacuum pump. The pump won’t pump in these anti-pumping temperatures, so I built it a wooden box and put a hair dryer inside. I suppose I could just milk by hand during the winter, but the milking machine on vacuum is a quick, airtight system and perfectly clean. Milking into an open bucket is neither quick nor clean.
Back in the house I assemble the milking machine, then assemble myself beginning with a sweatshirt on top of my t-shirt and flannel shirt, a warm vest, and finally my insulated coveralls to complete the wrapping. Insulated boots and a couple pairs of socks take care of my two-wheel drive. I return to the barn with the milking machine, extra milk totes, two gallons of hot soapy water, wash cloths, rubber gloves, iodine teat dip and teat salve.
Hot water is key (and fleeting) at 20 below zero. Even with warm gloves, my fingers get cold quickly while bringing the first two cows into the barn for milking. Once locked in their stantions, I switch to rubber gloves and plunge my cold hands and a clean cloth into hot water. My fingers are so grateful for the CPR, and I take a steaming wash cloth to each udder and wash the teats clean. Each teat is then dipped in an iodine and comfrey/glycerine solution, wiped off with a fresh cloth, then attached to the milking machine for anywhere from five to 20 minutes depending on the cow and its stage of lactation.
When milking is complete, I rub a protective salve onto each teat, mostly to help guard against frostbite. Frostbite creates a wound that cannot heal if the teat is being milked each morning, forcing that quarter to be dried off until spring, losing valuable milk. Which begs an obvious question I’ve been asked most winters: Why not let the cows live in the barn during winter?
First, it would double my morning workload, which is already full with milking cows, bottling milk, making yogurt and kefir, cleaning equipment, feeding and watering cows, etc. With cows living in the barn I’d be forced to deal with the aromatic offerings that frequently exit their bodies just a little north of the milk. The milk I can sell, but you won’t find their pies in any bakery.
I think cows are healthier when they’re outside, moving around in sunshine and fresh air. Their udders stay cleaner when they bed down outside versus in a confined space. I also don’t need to spend lots of time and money procuring sawdust or shavings, and their manure ends up on the pasture naturally without me spreading it.
The biggest threat to outside cows is wind chill. I have a section of woods fenced off near the barn, and I feed them hay in that protected spot when the wind is blowing. When the wind and cold temperatures are both extreme, I put them in the barn where I love to hear them quietly chewing their hay while a nor’easter rages at the door, testing the limits of lumber, nails, and trigonometry.
Several years ago I stopped the evening milking and began milking just once a day each morning. The cows stay in better shape, but more importantly, I felt as though I’d been let out of prison, a release from bovine bondage. Now, in my new halfway house, I was free to pursue other interests or chores in the late afternoon and evenings without being shackled to that relentless second milking. The extra freedom felt like a gift I’d been waiting to open for many years. Now, as the seasons and years keep rolling by, all of them measured in lactations, my body is hungry for a little more of that freedom. I think I know where to find it, and thankfully, I am my own parole officer.
Ninety percent of my farm income is made from May through December. With just a small loss of income I can have a large gain in freedom, eliminating milking altogether from January through April. It seems like an elegant solution to the arctic milking blues, when the icy air and tired sun make me feel like I’m heading outside to commit my last act of agriculture. It is a logical next step for a farmer who, I dare say, has probably already seen his greenest pastures.