THROUGH THE WOODS: A dairy farmer “retires”

Young Holstein. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

MY FATHER WAS A DAIRY FARMER as far back as I could remember starting in the late 1940s. All the local farmers had a cow for milk, butter and possibly cheese, which was mostly for family needs and not the main source of income. Our Town of Austerlitz had been a big sheep and wool area, probably because of demand and possibly because it was hilly and rocky with clay soil suited for these animals. Sheep could graze almost anywhere and eat almost anything.

When demand for wool diminished my father decided the better paying dairy cattle farming was the way to go. He was recently married and needed to prepare for supporting a family. I remember seeing the skull of our farm’s last big Merino ram down in the corner of a pasture below the barn. It had huge, curled horns. My father said he was mean, and you couldn’t turn your back on him, or he would butt you flat on your face.

My father seemed happy to say goodbye to the sheep and start on a new career with cattle. We had a few mixed heritage cows and a big red and white Ayrshire bull, and then, when he could afford it, he bought a few registered Holsteins (the black and white cows). My mother didn’t like potentially dangerous bulls around, so when the new artificial insemination service became available there were no more bulls. Artificial insemination also gave us access to some of the top Holstein bulls in the country via their frozen semen. We used nothing but the best until we had a small, but high-quality herd of registered Holsteins with great milk production.

Back then we hand carried the pails of milk to the refrigerated bulk milk tank, and a good cow could produce more than 50 lbs. of milk twice a day. You had to become very strong to do this every day of the week, and at some point, we all did our share of it. By the 1970s most of us kids had left home. My brother remained and decided farming wasn’t for him and became an auto mechanic. My parents were getting older and when my father turned 62, he decided to “retire.” We all felt awful to see those cattle loaded on the trucks; my father was quietly devastated. He couldn’t face not having his own fresh milk, so he kept one favorite cow that had a calf in late spring. It was a bull calf, which would normally have been sent off to a local livestock auction.

My father continued to get up each morning and milk this cow, and then milk her again before dinner. There was no way all that milk could be used so he let the calf stay with the cow and it got the excess. The calf grew fat, happy and started eating grass with his mother. By fall my father suddenly decided if he had to go through all the work to milk one cow, he might as well milk the whole herd. It had been a good transition for him, but he ended it before winter. He found he could tolerate store milk.

The cool fall weather was always butchering time, so the last cow was sold, and the young bull was processed for our freezers. He had a happy summer of romping around, drinking his fill of milk, eating grass, grain, and corn, and produced what looked like regular beef. However, it was not.

It turned out to be the most delicious beef I had ever eaten. We ate like royalty for almost a year and my father was a very happy man. He no longer had a herd to worry about and had much more flexibility in his day. If the weather was horrible, he could do a little snow plowing and relax. As for actual retirement, it never happened. He enjoyed doing useful work of one kind or another around the farm all the rest of his life.

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