Spilled Milk and Sticky Fingers
Our vacation souvenir was a mix of cold and flu, the first signs set in for Jeremy on the trip home and confined him to bed for nearly four days. I got hit somewhere mid-week and today am finally lucid again. A small price to pay for some time away, I suppose. Probably it was just the universe telling us to sit our arses down for one hot minute, giving us the opportunity to watch the entire Friday Night Light series (again, again, again). On Wednesday morning I emptied the last drops of goat milk into my morning coffee, wept softly for 30 seconds, and then marched into the pasture and separated the Jersey cows from the herd. I felt terrible, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to buy milk when I live amongst so many dairy animals. Six hours later, in the early throes of flu-misery, I dragged my body and a silver pail into the front yard where Winnie grazed peacefully through knee-high bermuda grass. I would milk this cow, dammit.
The whole truth is that I have never established a routine with my cows. For me, the goats became easy. Easy to manage, to herd, to control. Eager to follow me and naturally more tidy, I fell into a quick rhythm with their cycles and a milking routine was just as easy to establish.
Cow milking? Not so much. When cows clamor at the gate, I can’t easily herd one in for milking. Unlike they goats, they’ve got about 1,000 lbs on me, an out-weight I’d be a fool to take lightly. Also, let’s be honest, they’re dirty as hell, often smeared in manure, their graceful tails flick flies – but also feces- across my face, against my neck. Unlike the two-teated goat, cows have four, only two of which are easily reachable and large enough to grasp in my small hand. The other two are generally tiny and tucked way back between the hind legs. To reach them, I’ve contorted my body uncomfortably until the muscles in my shoulders spasm, my neck stiffens, and milk trickles in thin, hot lines into my armpits (yes. really). I purse my lips against the switching tail, and turn my head to avoid milk-spray, to avoid the flies that buzz around my face covered in droplets of the sweet stuff. It can be messy, you guys. Let’s not over-romanticize the realities of cow milking.
What I know for sure is that – for me – cows absolutely must be milked by machine. I know that I require an organized and solid system to move cows from pasture to milk stand so that I’m not forced to scream at a herd of belligerent bovines, trying to push their way towards a feed bucket. I know that I’m close to cracking the code on that dimly lit, elusive world of cow-milking, shrouded in mystery – my Great White Whale.
I’m tackling this problem the way I do most things – I’m just, sort of, doing it. I’ve forged ahead with plans for a dual species dairy. This week I ordered two bulk tanks to house and cool goat and cow milk separately, since the law says I have to. Next week, the builders will pour the slab for the milk parlor, inside of which I’ve designated a spot for two cow milk stalls. And perhaps most bravely (stupidly?) I mailed the check yesterday for a pipeline milking system from Hamby Dairy Supply: 6 stations for goats, 2 stations for cows. It is foolish, perhaps, to proceed this way with the cows who I have yet to completely understand. The finicky way they guard their precious milk supply for the calf, withholding the hind cream, the very best of the best stuff, for their babies. But I’m a sucker for the buttermilk coats and brown, liquid eyes of the Jersey girls who stare longingly through the fence, strings of drool falling from the edges of velvet mouths betray their constant and not-so-secret desire for treats. The low, guttural moans from mama cow to her calf, the fierce protection she provides them. I love the cows. I will figure them out.
The dairy is coming together all at once over the last few weeks. Epoxy floors are poured next week, and equipment’s been ordered in a frenzy, a task I’ve postponed because the cost is painful. The endeavor is so damn risky. This morning I hunched over social media and devoted myself to thirty solid minutes of eye candy. Cricket Creek Farm, Sugar House Creamery, Milkhouse Farm & Dairy – just a few of my very favorite places to seek inspiration that reaches through the interwebs for a virtual back-patting. Like me, they surely put their best images forward on Instagram – because who wants to see reality in the form of piles of manure splattered on a concrete floor (just sayin’…). I am certain they have a story to tell, too, that doesn’t look quite so pretty as the filtered images we plaster across our webpages for the world to judge.
The real picture is this: Wednesday, just when the sick started to grip my sinuses and throat, I knelt down beside Winnie and managed to squeeze out some creamy milk into the pail, turned my head against a tail that smacked my face. She looked back at me in curiosity – it’s been so long since she’s been milked – and mooed gently through a mouthful of alfalfa. At a certain point, the milk stopped flowing, despite a half-full udder. She was done sharing, and I was too weak to try the tricks that might get her to let-down. I wiped sticky hands across jeans that were victim to whatever I fell into on the ground. Hair that was pulled into a neat bun now plastered across a forehead clammy with sweat and sickness. Mosquitoes bit my neck just before I could swat them away. Winnie swayed off into a patch of clover, releasing a stream of excrement atop a vine of coiled morning glories. But inside the pail was half a gallon of the golden good stuff, cream already layered the top, so different from the pure white, homogenized goat milk that’s become a daily part of my life. With the goats, I also started out crouched down and filthy, cursing the animal and the persistent nagging inside me that would not be silenced and would not let me stop. I’m counting on that persistence with the cows, too. I’m perusing pretty pictures and squaring my shoulders against the mounting expenditures, each purchase raises the stakes so that the scales quiver to achieve balance between Cost and Benefit. On my knees there in the yard, I clutch a pail barely full of liquid I’m too stubborn to put down.