September 30, 2008

Milking cows by hand on a Tyneside farm

By Dr Deric Charlton

One of the worst events I recall from my days as a farming youth (a daft laddie) was when the Asian flu hit Tyneside. It knocked my father for six – and that told us a lot as he was rarely under the weather, unless the ale at the golf club wasn't up to scratch! This invading scourge infected him so severely that he wasn't able to get out of bed one day, so he had to ask me to milk the cows. Now this sounded like a reasonable request but for a few factors. To start with we had about 40 cows then – but we also had a new Alfa Laval milking machine. But the bad news for me was that the milking machine was having some teething problems and was out of order right then, so the job had to be undertaken the old-fashioned way, by hand.

Now I wasn't used to hand milking at the time (and tried to avoid it after that), and neither were my hand muscles. Furthermore, my father was a dogmatic believer in stripping the cow until she brought forth no more milk, whereas I had been told that this wasn't necessary. Nevertheless I began my task, taking a milking stool and a bucket and started coaxing warm milk out of the first cow.

I was sure that she knew she had a novice on her generous udder when she began trying to kick either me or the milk bucket out from under her, and it was a good half hour before I'd done my best to "empty her bag" as the townies thought milking was all about. So I moved to the second cow and began in a more determined fashion, remembering the colourful language that I'd first heard during milking before we had the machine installed, and told the cow to behave in no uncertain terms. This seemed to soothe her and the milk flowed well, although my hands were beginning to ache a little.

And so it progressed, and took me around four hours – or it seemed like that – by the time I reached the final cow. She was wondering when she was going to yield her daily contribution by then, and when I arrived to do the job by hand, she initially jumped around in her stall and then settled and tolerated the indignity of having her udder pumped by a pair of hands that ached to the stage of numbness.

I was much relieved the next morning to find that my father was well enough to rise from his sick bed and resume the milking, as I couldn't have done it anyway – my arms were aching and my hands were useless! And I suspect that the cows were pleased to see their familiar boss back as well. It put me off wanting to be ever become a dairy farmer, and made me determined to pursue a farming career that involved telling people how to do it, rather than do it myself…

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