Friday, February 14, 2014

Milk Cows in the Old West, by @JacquieRogers #western

Dairy Farming in the Old West

Whether it's Valentine's Day or Christmas, if you own a dairy farm, there's work to be done all day, every day, 365 days a year. Of course, all farms are work-intensive, but once you enter into the stock business, life gets a lot busier. Dairy farming has the added onus of milking — twice a day, twelve hours apart. I repeat, that's 365 days a year.

No, you don't get any days off.

We'll talk about milking in a minute. There's a whole lot more to operating a dairy than milking. All the care that's required of horses, beef cattle, hogs, or chickens is also necessary to maintain a healthy dairy herd.

Your 19th century dairy farmer most likely had Milking Shorthorns. These cattle came from the British Isles — Milking Shorthorns from Britain and Beef Shorthorns from Scotland. Originally, they were one breed but the Brits bred for milk production and the Scots for bigger steak cuts. Because of their widespread popularity for both milk production and beef, most of the oxen that pulled the wagons west were Shorthorns.

An experienced farmer knows the right mix of feed, and that's just by looking at his animals. Are their coats shiny? Are they energetic? Has production increased or decreased? Cycles on schedule and breeding program without glitches? If the answers to all these questions are favorable, then the farmer has the right mix. If not he'll have to adjust. Need more roughage? Feed alfalfa hay. Need more protein? Corn silage is good for that — but it will change the flavor of the milk, as will certain grasses. I'm not going to go into it here but believe me, there's a lot to know about dairy animal nutrition.

Here are the basics, although the 19th century farmer wouldn't have had access to much of this information. Still, they did a lot of these things anyway just out of common sense.

A cow has to birth a calf, called freshening, before she produces milk. A dairy farmer has to have proficient veterinary skills in order to maintain his herd. Losing a cow would be a disaster to a family trying to eke out a living on a homestead that's two day's ride from anywhere. First there's the risk of breeding. A too large bull can break a cow's back (called stifling). After a successful breeding and gestation, here's how the freshening is supposed to go:

A Jersey cow freshens (gives birth to a calf):

But sometimes things don't go so smoothly. Then what? We'll go to Ireland and see. I thought this video best explained how to help a cow in trouble give birth. Several times a year, my dad did the very thing that this veterinarian shows us. Yes, I assisted occasionally. We had ropes but not that other fancy contraption. Usually, my dad planted his size 10 on the cow's butt and pulled.

How to pull a calf:

He doesn't mention it, but you also have to make sure the cow expels the placenta, and if not, you have to stick your arm in there and get it. Leaving one small piece could cause an infection.

Now that we have the calf, we'll get some milk. The first few days, the cow produces colostrum and that's the most important food the newborn calf will ever get. It's low in fat, and high in carbohydrates, protein, and antibodies. A calf who drinks colostrum is a healthy calf. The cow is still milked because you always want to empty the udder, and the extra colostrum is fed to other calves. After that, the calf is removed from the cow and bottlefed.

In the 19th century, cows were milked by hand. I'm not sure why there aren't a lot of dairy farmers as romance heroes because these men are generally stronger than other men, have broader shoulders, and they have great hands.

Pretty decent how-to, Part 1:

Part 2:

Actual handmilking motion:

Hoof care
Now you've fed your herd, milked them, and provided comfortable living conditions for them — a good shed and a nice layer of straw for them to rest in. But there's a lot more to dairy farming than that, and one of them is hoof care. Hooves grow just like our toenails do, only we don't walk on our toenails and cows do. They have cloven hooves and trimming can be quite a bit more complicated than trimming horses' hooves.

This video annoys me a bit — we always washed the cows' hooves before we started trimming. There are two reasons for that: 1) handling manure is never pleasant, but more important; 2) it's easier to see if your cuts are correct and the bottom of the hoof is nice and even.

Okay, so I don't have any romance heroes who are dairy farmers, either, but I do have a family in the Wolf Creek series who own a dairy, and the head of the family is Gib Norwood.

Here's an excerpt that shows just how precious each calf was to this family whose very existence depended on the health of their herd.

'Twas the Fight Before Christmas
by Jacquie Rogers
a short story in

Gibson Norwood melted the ice off the newborn shorthorn heifer’s nose. “Looks like you’d better spend a few days with us. Your mammy won’t like it, and neither will Glory, but maybe Santa will bring you a little something.”  That wasn’t really true about Glory—she’d been a good sport and had endured a lot since the Recent Unpleasantness.

Born a mulatto slave to Gib’s mother’s family, she was in fact, Gib’s mother’s half-sister. After his mother had died giving birth to him, his father kept Glory as the head housekeeper—and to warm his bed. Two years later, she’d given birth to the twins Peter and Paul—Gib’s half-brothers, and half-cousins, too.

Gib always suspected that his father was as much in love with his slave as any man was with his wife. They’d seemed to be dedicated to each other. Glory, only a hand taller than five foot, had run the plantation house with skill, and during the war, she’d done everything possible to nurse Gil’s ailing father while the Yankees burned and pillaged the farm.

Gib gathered up the baby calf, tucking his left arm under the calf’s brisket and his right arm around the heifer’s hind quarters. He headed toward the soddy, choosing his footing carefully through the four-inch snow. Then through the dusk, he saw Paul, who also carried a calf, and the race was on. Whoever got there first would have Glory’s sympathy—but two calves in her house, especially on Christmas Eve, would set her to scowling for sure.
♥ ♦ ♣ ♠
Oh wait, this is Valentine's Day!  
Yes, there's a book waiting just for you.  I have a pig farmer in this one.  Okay, so he's a former bounty hunter.

A Flare of the Heart
by Jacquie Rogers
a short story in
Hearts and Spurs

Celia Valentine Yancey has no illusions she’ll ever enjoy wedded bliss, so chooses marriage over spinsterhood even if she has to marry a man her father picked. On the way to meet her groom, she endures armed robbery, a stagecoach wreck, a dozen hungry baby pigs — and an incorrigible farmer.

Ross Flaherty retired from bounty hunting to become a farmer but now Celia has brought his worst fear to his door — in more ways than one. A ferocious wolf-dog and a dozen piglets are no match for this determined lady.

Which is more dangerous — the Sully Gang or Miss Celia Yancey?

Happy Valentine's Day!


Ginger Jones Simpson said...

Wow, Jacquie, what an interesting post. I thought I knew a lot about cows, but I was seriously wrong. Good job. Glad I'm not a cow. Well, I sort of am, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I'm a lot to behold. *lol*

Caroline Clemmons said...

Jacquie, your heroes are drool worthy in every instance. I just read a Regency by Annette Blair in which the hero had to teach the heroine to milk a cow. I used to watch my grandmother, but she wouldn't let me do the milking. I was puny and she pampered me. One of my ancestors was the first man to take Guernsey cows into Oklahoma. I guess that's notable because it's in a book about that area of Oklahoma. LOL Great post. So glad I don't live on a dairy farm!

Jacquie Rogers said...

Ginger, there's a whole lot to dairy farming. People seem to think dairy farmers are simpletons. Not. It takes a lot of knowledge and hard work to be successful.

Jacquie Rogers said...

Caroline, what a cool thing about your ancestor. :) As for the actual milking, I bet you enjoyed drinking milk that wasn't pasteurized, homogenized, and otherwise ized. Raw milk gets a really bad rap. It sure tastes good, though, and is more nutritious.

Margaret Tanner said...

Hi Jacquie,
What an interesting post. My mum came from a dairy farm. She often used to tell us about how they had to milk the cows before they went to school and after they came home from school. Their father died young leaving their mother a widow with 8 children under the age of 15.



ChuckTyrell said...

Pulled on a lot of teats in my day. Morning and night. We always kept three cows, two milking and one bred. We had jerseys for cream and holsteins for volume. Always had butter and cream, and never drank pasteurized milk until after I went to college. Interesting how you can tell (kinda) what the cow had to eat by the taste of the milk. Nostalgic post, Jacquie. Thanks loads.

Jacquie Rogers said...

Margaret, kudos to your mum! I don't think people who've never been a slave to milk cows can quite conceive of the responsibility. Injured? No, you don't get to relax in the house--the cows need to be milked. Sick with the flu and vomiting? No, you don't get to lay abed--the cows need to be milked, as well as fed, bedded, and doctored. The barn has to be cleaned, the milking buckets and containers have to be washed. The milk needs to be separated. Every single day.

Jacquie Rogers said...

Charlie, the first time I had pasteurized milk, I thought it was awful! Took me a long time to get used to it.

We had Holsteins, anywhere between 100 and 150 milkers. I don't talk about it but there are other cattle besides the milk cows--the heifers, the steers, and the bulls. Altogether, we generally ran 450 to 500 head.

Sarah J. McNeal said...

That was quite a bit of information on caring for dairy cattle, Jacquie. I don't know much about farming, being a city gal, but I do know milk from a cow that has eaten too much wild onion tastes awful. There was a dairy farm down the road from where we lived that delivered milk. I guess that doesn't happen any more.
Great informative post.

Jacquie Rogers said...

Sarah, changing feed changes the taste of the milk. Onion-flavored milk sounds downright nasty! LOL.

Keith Souter said...

Thanks for the wealth of useful information, Jacquie. That is one for the files!