October 18, 2008

New milking machine - let’s start with Betsy

Farming in the North Pennine Dales
By Eric Wilson

Invariably the farmer would suggest starting with “Betsy”. “Anybody can milk Betsy, she’s as quiet as a lamb” he would say. So she was duly chosen to be introduced to the joys of machine milking.

On more than one occasion, after picking up the equipment from the dung channel, washing and re-assembling it, after starting with a so-called quiet cow like Betsy, I changed the plan. I decided to ask the farmer which cows gave him most trouble at milking time.

Strange as it may seem, they were usually the ones that gave least trouble with the machine. They must have disliked hand milking so much that they accepted the machine more willingly. At the time it seemed as though some of the cows would never take to being machine milked, but a few days later the sound of the engine being started was the signal for them to let their milk down, and they gave no further trouble.

The odd rogue cow cropped up now and again. She was usually spruced up and quietly entered in the market some distance from the local one, where not too many questions needed to be answered, although it did become the norm for the auctioneer to announce to prospective buyers that the cow in the ring had been machine milked.

It didn’t suit everyone that it had been machine milked as not all dairy farmers by this time had milking machines. Local wisdom had it that it was harder to hand milk a cow if it had been machine milked, but fortunately I never had to experiment or demonstrate in that direction.

The previous attitude that the farmer had taken with his cows played a large part in the success or failure of their initiation to machine milking. I recall installing a small plant for a part-time farmer in the nether regions of Teesdale – he augmented his income by working a few shifts at the local quarry. The installation was easy, one byre had ten cows and the vacuum pipe went straight through the wall to a typical farm shed, where a space was cleared to accommodate the engine and ancillary equipment.

The job was finished in double-quick time ready to milk that afternoon, and I anticipated a reasonably early finish. My plans to go dancing that evening were clicking through my mind as I checked that all was ready. But those famous words of Rabby Burns about “the best laid schemes of mice and men”, were to be proved correct once more.

The farmer arrived and we proceeded to the byre, laden with all the paraphernalia of modern Dales dairy farming. He was still shod in his quarry boots and he walked up to one particular cow and gave it a massive kick in the ribs, telling her in no uncertain terms that “Nah yer buggar, ahs ‘ere”!

I was flabbergasted. Our boss who had many years’ experience on the job always advocated a quiet approach, and here was I, relatively new in the cow milking business with nine cows trying their level best to escape from the byre. One cow was literally trembling, no doubt wondering where the next hob-nailed boot was going to land.

Usually I would put the teatcups on the first time to get the cow used to them, then show the farmer how to hold the cluster without losing the vacuum until he got the hang of it.

After the above pantomime, I decided that I was not going to be the one to be kicked around the byre and explained that there wasn’t any future in me doing the milking. I was merely there to show him how it worked, the rest being up to him! He got there in the end. I had a late tea and didn’t feel much like dancing after the dancing I’d done in the byre to avoid flying feet.

I presumed that particular cow had given the farmer a hard time, but I saw him about a week later and he thought the machine was a “cracker”. I concluded that he had reached an amicable agreement with the wayward cow, and I did not dig any deeper.

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