A morning on my family's dairy farm
I groan as the jarring sound coming from my alarm clock urges me to get out of bed. It's 3 a.m. My body knows it as it slowly starts to waken; it drags itself out of a warm bed. I struggle to put on my worn out coveralls and trip over my tired legs to the cold floor. The house is quiet. The low hum of the fridge is all I hear when I walk out the door into the dark. The yard is still. I walk half asleep and suddenly I'm nudged by Murdoch, my overgrown German Shepherd. He sniffs and smells and is on the prowl for early morning trespassers.
As I walk into the barn, I flick on the florescent lights and immediately they burn my eyes. I can already hear the cows bawling; they are ready before I am. As per usual, the milk parlour is cold and it smells like wet metal. I walk down the steel steps into the rectangle-shaped pit onto hard cement. My body feels stiff and once again I yawn, wishing I were still in my warm bed.
I hear my dad walk into the barn as I start to assemble the milk machines. He is surprised to see me in the barn before him. I reach across and hit the button that opens the doors for the cows to moo to say, "good morning". I smile, suddenly not feeling the early morning fatigue.
Time to milk
The girls waddle into the parlour, their large, ready-to-burst udders swaying in between their legs. They are more awake than I am - bright-eyed and alert. Holsteins have the most personality of any farm animal. Cows are like people – they all have their own unique personalities and, like people, they can all be in a certain mood. Almost by instinct, they position themselves into their headstalls and wait for the cold spray of a disinfectant. They shudder and kick but in a gentle way. They know it's early too. Once all the cows are disinfected and wiped, I begin the repetition of putting the milk machines on every one of them. Some are hesitant and difficult; others barely notice I am right under them.
It's quiet for a bit before my dad begins talking to them, mostly soft spoken words of encouragement letting them know how much we are grateful for them. We wouldn't have anything if it weren't for these cows.
We wait as they release their milk, usually close to 25 litres each, which is quite a lot. We milk three times a day, an organic dairy farm run by a family of four including my dad, my two brothers and my sister. We make it work even though everyone says that family businesses are always the trickiest. (pull quote)
There are 16 cows out of a herd of 122 milking at a time; if one cow finishes early she has to wait for the rest of her group. Each cow takes approximately five minutes to milk out. Once the last cow is finished, I disinfect their udders with iodine. Then they are released and a herd of black and white floods out of the parlour, eager to get their morning bites of silage.
Of course, a few cows linger but before my Dad opens his mouth I am already halfway up the stairs, half my body flung over the bars shooing the cows away. Some look at me letting me know they are being lazy so I help herd them out.
The Maternity Ward
I feel my mood and spirit brighten. I'm finally wide-awake. My dad notices this and tells me to check on the pregnant cows to see if any have given birth. I give a one-nod response and head out of the parlour into the maternity ward.
The maternity ward is quiet as usual. The lights are dim. I notice a momma cow cleaning her new baby, licking the brand new calf clean. I walk through the deep straw and pass other cows that breathe heavily, ready to have their own. I can see their breath. Finally I get to the new momma cow and give her a gentle nudge, letting her know I will be taking away her new baby.
I pick up the small bundle of black and white and notice that the calf's mother doesn't seem to mind. "Good," I think to myself, a sigh of relief. I'm not going to get charged at today.
I begin walking through the maternity ward back into the main barn; my mom greets me at door in her leopard housecoat, holding a steaming mug of coffee — very typical of her.
The calf is beginning to become impatient and squirms and kicks in my arms. I can feel my back starting to burn from the calf's weight. I wrestle the calf into the hutch and chain it so it can't escape. The calf needs to be fed and given the necessary vaccinations, a job for my sister to do.
Feeding for the first time
My mom appears again, this time holding a calf bottle. She passes it to me. The bottle is warm with fresh milk and the calf begins to whine impatiently. It wants to eat. Usually I struggle to feed newborns because they are born with so much energy but this one caught on fast. I bend over the calf and stick the nipple of the bottle into its tiny, pink mouth.
The calf sucks violently and I struggle and curse to hold onto the bottle. I notice the sun start to rise. Before I know it, the calf is done with her three-pint bottle and I stretch and groan for the 50th time that morning.
I feel tired again and I start walking back to the house thinking of my warm bed, knowing I am going to have to get up in a few hours to do it all over again. My thoughts become interrupted — I hear my niece and nephew; the little monsters have awakened. They try to get my attention and I continue heading back into bed, knowing that any minute they will be in it trying to get me out again.
I loved every minute of growing up on a dairy farm and miss every second of it. I miss the distinct noises that come from each tractor, the smell of silage and hay when it rains and the luxury of looking out my front door and only seeing fields of barley and alfalfa instead of a crowded city horizon.
I wouldn't be the person I am today without my farm upbringing. Living in the city has made me realize how special the rural life is and how the lifestyle has taught me to appreciate the little things in life.
My dad always told my siblings and I that we wouldn't have anything we have today if it wasn't for the cows — not the clothes we wear, not the cars we drive, not even the food we eat.
This has taught me to be grateful for the animals we raise and essentially consume. They take care of us — we should have more respect for them.
- By Pauline Wyntjes