June 28, 2012

Milking the Experience

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My close encounters with dairy cows . . . .

I’m afraid of cows. I have this irrational fear that they will trample me. I’m okay with snakes, spiders, mice. But cows, they scare me.

Still, I have had three cow-milking experiences.

Once as a teenager, at a girlfriend’s farm near Hagersville, I actually milked the bossy in the barn. I did this the storybook way, sitting on a three-legged wooden stool, pulling on each teat and aiming the squirts into a bucket. I even drank the milk out of a tin cup, right then and there. It was disgusting – maybe because I couldn’t get over the fact that it was warm. Duh!

The second time, my husband and I were leaning against a barn door, two city folks enjoying the novelty of watching Mr. Switzer doing his daily milking. That was back in the ’80s, on Uncle Paddy’s farm near Mount Forest. Paddy kept the farm for its ambience. Practicalities fell to his neighbour, Mr. Switzer, the farmer who put the huge wooden barn and fields to use.

Old Mr. Switzer was stingy with his words. That day, he was silently milking the old-fashioned way, sitting with legs spread on a stool, leaning his leathery face close to the cow’s swollen udders. The cow was placid. Then, suddenly, for no apparent reason, she struck – kicking out her back hoof smack into Mr. Switzer’s testicles. He turned all red. He worked the muscles in his jaw, opened a corner of his mouth and ejected a fat wad of spit. “Cow kicks,” was all he said.

I suspect cows still kick, but nowadays no one gets personal enough to get kicked when cows are being milked. That’s what I discovered during my third cow-milking experience, in mid-June at the Cranston farm near Ancaster. I was milling around with a busload of visitors on the annual Farm & Food Care tour.

      Cows mingling in the “free stall” barn.

Doug and Joan Cranston run the farm, which has been in their family since ’56. Times have changed. They keep their cows in a “free stall” barn, a bright open space with metal fencing. The padded “bedding” underfoot is a blend of fine, dry composted manure and sawdust. The place smells like lemony hay. Surprisingly, to my city nose, it doesn’t stink.

This system is somewhere between traditional and factory farming. The cows are not grazing in the fields, but neither are they crammed into stalls. Doug Cranston finds the free stall barn a good compromise for both the farmer and his animals. In Ontario’s extremes of heat and cold, roaming in a pasture is not as sublime as it may seem, he warns. On hot days, for instance, the cows are too dumb to move under the trees for shade. Huddling in the blazing sun, they can end up with heat prostration and even sunburn. Pastured cows are also plagued by flies, mastitis and foot rot, Cranston says. On a more business-like note, the bottom line is also affected: Pastured cows give less milk on hot days.

“People may say we are corporate, a factory farm,” Cranston says. “We are not. We are a business, though.”

       Skittish Holstein calves in a huddle.

The Cranstons have 80 cows, mostly Holsteins. (That’s 20 more than the average Ontario dairy farm.) Nine out of 10 dairy cows in Canada are Holsteins; they produce the most milk. Cranston says his cows yield about 2,500 litres of milk a day. The cows mill about and mingle between their daily milkings at 5:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. For the Cranstons, it’s a daunting schedule, but also “a way of life.”

Luckily, it is late afternoon, so we are just in time to see the milking.

       Automated milking underway in the dairy parlour.

Joan Cranston works her magic on the barn’s fencing, flipping switches and manoeuvring gates to funnel the cows toward the quaintly named “dairy parlour.” They don’t need much encouragement. Milking is a relief for the cows, and you can see the “letdown,” or drips from the teats, even before milking commences.

An automatic metal gate moves and nudges the cows toward the milking stations, arranged in two sets of eight. It’s a tight fit for the cows, and kicking is not an option. In a walkway beneath the stations, a farm worker rubs each teat with iodine and a sterile cloth. He hooks a set of suction cups to each cow’s teats. Massive amounts of milk gush through the tubing. Interestingly, the suction cups are linked to sensors, and once the flow ends, the cups flop off automatically. Another wipe of the teats and the gates are opened. The cows follow a familiar path back to their barn. They don’t need to be led. The process seems efficient and drama-free.

Back in the barn, I get closer to a cow than I have been in decades. It looks at me with alarm and backs away from its feed as I approach. If this came down to a faceoff, the cow looks as if it would rather run away than trample me. Maybe I’m not so scared of cows, after all.

     Doug Cranston, in front of huge pile of dry, unscented manure.