October 18, 2008

Selling milking machines

Farm Machinery in the North Pennine Dales
By Eric Wilson

Photo: Limestone walls in Durham Dales

But of course, all through the hectic activity of haymaking, someone had to be there in the cow byre, twice a day to milk the cows and see to getting the milk cooled and into the twelve-and-a-half gallon churns for collection. Once a day the churns had to be transported out to the road where each farm had a milk stand on which the churns were placed for pickup.

The milk stands were constructed to be about the same height as the flat-deck trucks belonging to the Express Dairy Company in our district. They collected the full churns of milk and left the empty ones that had been washed and sterilised at the company depot.

After all, this is what it was all about. The hay that had been painstakingly persuaded to become edible fodder for the animals, was bread and butter for the cows that produced milk during the time fresh grass was not available in the Dales meadows. This in turn provided the monthly milk cheque that was the regular income the Dales farmers relied on for survival.

This brings me to the other main activity our company involved with. This was not actually milking the cows, but trying to sell the farmers a milking machine to make the monotonous milking chore easier for him (or more often his wife and family). And remembering of course that I was in the business of getting a commission from a sale.

Selling milking machines to Dale’s farmers required different approaches depending on the circumstances and the personalities of the clients. Originally the milking machine manufacturers had their own sales reps who were allotted districts or areas for selling in. After making a sale, arrangements would be made for a “company installer” to be accommodated for as long as it took to complete the installation. This involved fitting the piping and taps for the “vacuum line”, installing a vacuum pump with the means for driving it, and other ancillary equipment such as the sanitary trap, vacuum controller and so on.

The equipment to drive the machine was usually situated away from the cow byre as the means of driving the pump was usually a 1.5hp petrol engine which could be rather noisy. If the farm was on mains electricity a 1hp electric motor usually replaced the engine.
The electric motor eliminated the noise and engine starting problems, but could create new problems if there was a power cut or voltage drop. People on the same supply who were not farmers all knew when it was milking time as their lights often went dim.

However, small businesses were springing up to service farmers, and milking machine manufacturers found it easier to appoint agents who in turn employed local people to install the equipment and kept a stock of spare parts. This arrangement simplified the installation situation considerably, as the local man could travel to and from the job each day, and didn’t need to live-in with the farmer like the itinerant company man.

Our company was eventually agent for four different brands of milking machine,(Gascoigne, Fullwood ????) so if prospective buyers looked in our direction, we had a good chance of making a sale. Milking machines at that time were all what were called “bucket plants”. There was a single vacuum tap installed between each two cows in the byre, the cows being chained to a dividing stall, originally made of wood but later made of concrete or tubular steel.
A special bucket with a lid that carried the pulsator on which hung the teatcups and all the rubber pipes, was placed between the two cows, and each milked in turn into the bucket which held about four gallons.

A spare pail was part of the equipment. It had a loose lid so when the milking pail was near full, a change of lids was made and the full pail carried to the dairy. At the dairy the milk was put through a cooler and then through a “sile” or filter into the empty churn. Many of the so-called dairies were fairly primitive but improved rapidly when strict hygiene regulations were introduced. The “not–so particular” farmers suffered injury to their wallets if their milk was returned from the dairy company for any reason. They usually learned quite quickly after that.

Many of the cowsheds or byres were very eighteenth century in design. They had thick stone walls with stone slates on the roof. They were occasionally two-storey with a loft or granary on top, which usually meant there was very little headroom. I think the ancient “window tax” must have been in vogue when they were built, and there was a permanent semi-darkness inside which at least hid the grime on the walls and the cobwebs cascading from the roof that built up over generations.

The major tuberculosis testing programme was in full swing however at the time, and the results were catastrophic for some farmers, some getting positive readings on the whole milking herd leading to their slaughter and great economic loss.

Hygiene regulations were getting very strict in both the cowsheds and in the dairies. In one period we installed quite a few solid-fuel boilers and steam sterilising chests in which all the milking units, pails etc were steam treated. They seemed to lose favour once better chemical detergents and sterilising fluids became available.

Eventually the cow’s accommodation improved to the extent that is was often better than farmers’ houses. One big complaint was that these new byres were colder in winter and the farmer could no longer take a pail and tuck himself under a nice warm cow to avoid the wintry blasts.

I had one customer who in winter, regardless of the time of day, could immediately be found in the byre, with a pail handy just keeping warm! I had not been able to persuade him that a machine would get the job done faster, but when he was obliged to update his buildings, I got his order. He said that his byre lost it’s homeliness and the cows didn’t look all that happy either. But his wife had found him things to do to fill in the extra time he had suddenly found. Digging the garden and repairing the hen houses, etc, were some of these.

After installing a milking plant, it was customary for the fitter to instruct the farmer on how to use the machine for one or two milkings. This involved showing how to strip or take the units apart, and how to wash them effectively. Putting the machines on the cows could be a particularly hazardous occupation, as word had got about and it wasn’t long before a few visiting neighbours – who had just happened to be passing, called in to join the family, the kids and dogs to watch the new milking machine working.

There were not many telephones about at the time, usually one at the village Post Office, so how many folk got to know about the milking baffled me. I was sometimes tempted to take a crafty look around the surrounding hills to see if the ancient beacons had been lit! As can be imagined, the usual calm tranquility of the byre was more than a little disturbed by all the activity. The cows’ heads were waving about watching the audience and when the bright and shiny milking unit was placed between a pair of animals, their eyes took on the appearance of the proverbial organ stops or chapel hat pegs.

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