Life on a Midwestern Dairy Farm

The barn on my family's farm, built by my great uncle Charlie with help from relatives and neighbors.

The barn on my family's farm, built by my great uncle Charlie with help from relatives and neighbors.

I grew up on a Southern Minnesota dairy farm of about 200 acres where we milked a herd of 40 to 50 Holsteins. These black-and-white cows, known for producing lots of milk, must be milked twice a day—morning and evening—every day of the year.

Milking time set the rhythm of our days on the farm. Regardless of any other responsibility and no matter what the weather conditions, milking came first. It took place at the same time, morning and evening, for the health of the cows that produced our milk.

Between those two milking times, cows on old-fashioned farms like the one I grew up on were put out to pasture in the warmer months and kept in a barnyard with a shed in the colder months. During the spring, summer and fall, cows fed on grass in the pasture. During the cold winter months, our cows were kept in the barn for most of the day and put out into a fenced barnyard for some of the time.

There they would be fed a diet of hay. Hay was alfalfa and grasses that had been cut from the fields during the summer, formed into bales and stored in a haymow or shed. Also in the barnyard would be a water trough and a “salt lick”—a big block of salt that the cows would lick as they needed to. When it was time for milking, the cows would be herded into the barn where they would be fed silage (corn stalks that had been cut in the fall and blown up into a tall silo next to the barn) as well as a mixture of grains with nutritional supplements, what we called “meal.”

Cows are incredible “milk machines,” producing from 4 to 10 gallons of milk per day. On large dairy farms today, farmers keep computerized records of each cow’s health, the amount of milk she produces and its butterfat content. Food, minerals, and supplements are adjusted for each cow according to her milk production.

Our farm was similar to most Midwestern dairy farms in the 1950s and ’60s. Farmers only raised as many cows as they could milk themselves. Farmers rarely took vacations, and only if they had dependable milk hands to take care of the milking and chores while they were gone.

The first job a farm kid usually had was running down the “lane” twice a day—early in the morning and in the late afternoon–to get the cows for milking. On our farm, the lane was a narrow strip of land running between fields of hay, corn and soybeans that connected the barnyard and pasture. The pasture was a section of land next to the river that ran through our farm and wasn’t good for planting crops.

My Dad getting ready for milking time.

My Dad getting ready for milking time.

To get the cows moving up toward the barn, my sisters, brothers and I would call out the phrase we’d heard Dad use: “Come, boss. Come, boss.” I didn’t know it at the time, but the Latin word for cow is bos taurus, which may explain so many farmers called their cows “boss” or “bossy.”

Cows are creatures of habit and usually follow the same pathway in the grass up to the barn. Once a leader cow gets going up, the others will follow behind. They are big animals, weighing about 1200-1500 pounds and standing as tall as a good-sized horse but closer to the ground.

We’d pull branches off trees to gently switch the cows from behind to get them going up the pathway. Cows are pretty gentle creatures that won’t do you any harm, but they can get spooked.

When my family needed milk to drink in the house, we would get it from the cooler in the barn where it was stored in large metal milk cans. I grew up drinking raw milk, milk that came straight from our cows and had not been pasteurized. Most of the farm families I knew back then did the same thing. Not so today. There are some dangers in drinking raw milk and many states no longer allow raw milk to be sold.

A dairy cow is a female animal that has given birth to a calf and is then kept for the milk she produces. A cow can live up to 10 years and will produce milk for about 12-15 months after she has given birth to a calf. Calves, which are usually born in the late winter or early spring, weigh about 90 pounds at birth and are kept in indoor pens for several weeks until the weather warms up.

The milk produced on farms like ours was used for cheese, butter and other milk products. Milk for drinking today is obtained under sterile conditions in “milking parlors.” Back then, our milk was picked up by a milk truck every day and hauled to the creamery in a town four miles away. Most small towns in the Midwest had at least one creamery where milk was made into cheese and butter, or it was transported to larger processing plants to be made into other dairy products.

We would go to the creamery in town to buy butter and cheese and jars of thick cream—which we used to make homemade ice cream. Our lives and much of the economy in our area revolved around dairy farming.

And it all started with the cows in our pasture and barn, cows we milked

every morning, every night,
every day of the week,
every week of the month,
every month of the year.