The end of an era

My sister-in-law, Jody, summed it up in a very accurate phrase.

She called it “the end of an era.”

The last of the Holsteins were loaded at the Mueller farm a few years ago . . . meaning the milking aspect of my family’s business ended.

I commend my brothers and their families for making that decision . . . they have thousands of stock cattle to feed and milking cows just doesn’t fit into the picture any longer.

They overwhelmingly have more than enough work to do . . . they have  hardly been bored.

I’m very happy that they will no longer have that responsibility of making sure hundreds of cattle are milked . . . every day . . . several times a day . . . at the same times of day . . . day after day . . . month after month . . . year after year.

But the change has me feeling sentimental at the same time. After all, cows were milked on that family farm for 50 years.

Dairy farming is a commitment, to say the least.

I remember as a kid, we were always the last ones to arrive at a Sunday event and always the first ones to leave. Why? Those cows had to be milked.

My dad was always the last father to dash into the school building as the curtain went up on our Christmas programs. I remember peeking at the audience before our productions began and seeing him (with wet hair) slide into the seat next to Mom. And my thought was always, “Good, he’s here and the cows are milked.”

Dad started milking with just a few cows in an existing barn. It was classified as Grade B . . . meaning it wasn’t necessarily state-of-the-art. It was in that barn that I remember getting warm milk in the face (which led to my long-term issues with consuming the white stuff) and watching my father’s knees wear out from all the squatting.

Eventually, the folks made the decision to “go for broke” and they built a brand-spankin’ new Grade A milk barn. It was beautiful . . . full of shiny pipes, a large sparkling bulk tank, a middle pit so the people doing the milking could stand up instead of squat down, hanging hoses with warm water, new fangled mechanisms for administering anti-bacterial cleaning solutions and doors that allowed the cattle to enter by us simply pulling on a rope.

With the new investment came the need to obviously milk more cows and the Mueller herd was greatly expanded, by the hundreds.

The Holsteins were a part of our family . . . they provided for us “liquid gold to pay the bills,” as Dad would say. And they relied on us to take care of them and make sure the entire transaction went without a hitch.

So many summer afternoons, I remember us kids herding in the girls from the pasture so the folks could milk them. We’d trudge through brome up to our waists while the black and white ladies moved with us to the barn in the north.

So many early mornings, I remember cautiously listening for rumbling in the dark, coming from our historically mean bulls who didn’t like it when we came to get their girlfriends for their 4 a.m. appointments.

The cows knew the routine as well as we did. Sure, first-calf-heifers-turned-cows were often a nightmare, but once they became accustomed to the protocol it was a well-oiled machine.

Yes, sometimes there would be one or two or a dozen who were just perpetually cranky with absolute refusal to change . . . they were given special names that could only be spoken by adults and we always left them until last.

The milk barn was the hub of that farm and our lives . . . as much more happened there than just milking cows.

It was the place where neighbors would occasionally come for coffee in the mornings and beer in the evenings.

It was where my brothers and I bonded in hours-long conversations . . . while the rest of the world was still asleep.

It’s where my mother confided in Neighbor Floyd when she needed encouragement and where Grandpa Andy would come to get help buttoning his sweater for church because his fingers just no longer worked right.

It’s where I met some amazing characters . . . ranging from veterinarians to herdsmen to silage bosses, milk truck drivers and feed salesmen. Oh, the stories that were told in that building . . . most of which I thankfully didn’t understand until I got older.

It’s where the little sisters played and even sometimes took naps on blankets in the back room.

It’s the place where we would spend dreaded hours scrubbing walls when Mom declared it was “Barn Day.” Of course, the barn was completely washed down after every session of milking . . . but every so often we had to scrub every inch by hand until it shined like the first day it was used.

It was the place where we tried to keep the snow from blowing inside during blizzards while a thick fog built up from the steam and the breaths coming from us and the cows.

It was the place where fans blew and we hosed each other down while trying to stay cool in the hot summers.

It was the location where we proved wrong the saying of “nothing is ever just black and white” . . . because there, it was nothing else but Holstein black and white.

It was where I would go for a frustrated cry after being trampled by a 4-H show heifer in heat and the place where we would hide if we were trying to get out of feeding the bucket calves.

It was the place where Grandma delivered soup for us to take home for supper and we left fresh-baked cinnamon rolls for the old folks to pick up for breakfast.

It was the place where a covered bulletin board, on the wall by the bulk tank, held pictures of new babies . . . Holstein and human.

We girls grew up and moved away . . . our milking days ended a long time ago.

The boys, however, have carried that torch for decades . . . literally their entire lives.

I’m glad for them that they finally decided to put out that flame . . . seeing how they have more than enough irons in the fire and they have certainly fulfilled that obligation.

So many hours, so much work, so many Holsteins, so many moments, so many memories.

Jody was right . . . it was the end of an era.



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