Milking the Cows

Just to be fair to the cows-another significant element of New Zealand economy in general and export in particular, we had to spend time learning all about milk production. To do this well we decided to live on a dairy farm for two days. Sheep may be white and fluffy, but cows are velvety long lashed beauties.

The only expertise I personally bring to this venture is the fact that when I was a little boy my grandpa had 4 cows, whose milk and butter I enjoyed in abundance. Also, currently the mother of my son in law has 120 milking cows on a farm in northern Bohemia and I love popping in for her wonderful home cooking (duck and dumplings in particular). Visiting her cowshed makes for an excellent desert after an exceptional dining experience.

The dairy farm we stayed on lies on the West Coast (the Best Coast as the locals are quick to point out) of South Island, the opposite side to the East Coast. I am emphasizing this redundant fact for the enlightenment of those of you who have never been to New Zealand and may not know how different the climates can be.  Guessing from the sheep farm on the East Coast I wrote about, you might have a mistaken idea that there is plenty of rain on New Zealand. Not so. While Eastern flatlands farmers constantly struggle with drought in the shade of the Southern Alps, the West Coast farmers could easily complain about more than plentiful rain throughout the year with over one hundred (yes, 100!) inches of water a year. Despite the over abundance of rain, the moderate climate allows for keeping the cows outdoors 24/7 year round. No pampering with comfortable housing with air-conditioning such as you can find frequently in horse stables of California.

Thanks to the rainfall, the pastures on the West Coast are lush and cows are removed from their evergreen grass supply only twice a day for milking rituals in the early morning and evening. This slows down to three times in two days at the end of every summer when the cows fall pregnant and the season of lower milk production starts. Morning and evening milking then alternates with just one noon milking every other day. That is the happy day when every dairy farmer can sleep in in the morning and jump to bed early, if he is not particularly interested in weather forecast on late night TV news.

The farm of my interest milks about 200 cows, not very big by NZ standards. It produces about 2,000 liters (500 gallons), completely filling a stainless steel vat with 4,000 liters (1,000 gallons) storage capacity on a regular day. In the vat the milk is cooled down to 4 deg Celsius (about 41F) as prescribed by the dairy factory for further processing. Everyday after 9pm, and I mean 7 days a week no matter what holiday may be in order, a large truck with a trailer arrives. The milk train is a huge vehicle whose combined milk load can easily reach 30,000 liters!

I tell you, you do not want to meet it on the narrow roads and predominantly one-way bridges of sparsely populated West Coast. The speed limit for ALL vehicles on the road is the same, but forty tones of milk on the wheels barreling down in the opposite direction makes you feel pretty small and rather irrelevant in your rented Mazda.

On arrival to the milking area, truck driver empties the milk vat into his cisterns, but only under certain conditions such as the milk has to be cooled down to at least 7C. The samples of the milk are taken and later analyzed for many things such as fat and protein content and presence of bacteria. The farmer is paid not for the volume of  milk (so cheating by pouring additional water into the vat does not help the poor farmer at all) but for fat, protein and bacteria content. The more of former two the better, more butter and cheese will be produced.

The more of bacteria obviously not so good; too much could mean complete rejection of the whole load. From the marked samples they know which farmer’s milk spoiled the lot and he is financially responsible. That’s the day you appreciate paying your insurance premium on time!

And if the milk truck and trailer does not show up or the dairy factory can not accept the milk? Well, too bad for the farmer! Last week when the cyclone from Tasman Sea hit, the local dairy factory lost its power supply for a day and stopped accepting milk from local farmers. So some of those chaps had to pour out all the milk on their farmland, losing their daily production.

But how does the milk get into the vat?

Without barns for cattle housing, the milking area is the only roofed place on the farm with the exception of a few dilapidated shelters. Those are senselessly protecting various pieces of the farm machinery against the elements, even as they have been deserving of the junk yard a long time ago. In the milking area stands a carousel with 28 cow platforms revolving slowly. Adjacent is an uncovered corral—a staging area where all the cows are herded to by two dogs.

With the dogs guarding the corral’s entry gate the cows can only push on through a small opening leading into a narrow corridor bringing the cows one by one to the carrousel.

What a great idea! Who doesn’t have the finest memories of being on the merry-go-round as a kid? This cow merry go round was an invention by a New Zealand Thomas Alva Edison, and combines the everyday fun recreational activity with the ever important production of white liquid gold, bringing the country heaps of foreign currency.

At this point of the milking process the farmer’s only assistant/part time employee/sister connects each cow to a milking machine so she can join her other 27 friends for a fun carrousel ride while the vacuum relieves her of her heavy load of milk. After a 360 degree ride to its terminal point, there or even before, if milk stops flowing, this poor animal gets disconnected and she backs off slowly, 20 liters lighter, and follows another narrow corridor to the green meadows. There she continues in her duties for the queen and country, chewing as much fresh grass as possible.

Where is farmer James in this activity? Well, he supervises everything. Checking if the dogs bark properly and in the right direction, so cows behave well. Supervising his assistant/part time employee/sister attaching all the cows to the elaborate piping system and makes sure all milk is sucked into the vat! If something goes wrong, he grabs a screwdriver and does not stop until milk goes where it should go. You can imagine not many words are being used in the best Anglo-Irish tradition even if I include occasional barking of dogs in overall communication. And even the dogs stop barking after discovering the soft spot in my heart for the best friend of humans.

“It is out of the question” shared farmer James in one of his longest speeches, “to become emotionally attached to any living creature in dairy business!”

“The moment you lose your focus, the quality of milk suffers and you are doomed!” He nailed his point.

The moment his four-legged assistant got wind that I am the one week link in this organizational structure, he sat down next to me and started licking me for the rest of my stay, damn the milk, the cows and the farmer!

And as for the cows? In my follow-up inspection of the troops they also showed a certain level of affinity towards me. Of course, as I said, I am NOT an expert, but I kind of felt  they, too, looked suddenly happier!

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