Milking a cow fulfilled my childhood dream – Bluebird Farm, Three Rivers, MI
It’s hard to nail down the exact moment when I started collecting cow-themed everything. Somewhere in the middle age of childhood someone gave me a beanie baby cow that I loved and carried about with me everywhere until it was a dull grubby-kid-fingerprint gray with black spots. I loved this little cow.
Friends and family saw me lugging this cow around everywhere and apparently wondered if they could turn this attachment into an obsession. Before long, I was the recipient of every type of cow knickknack the universe could think up. My stash featured a whimsical wood coat hook that never made it onto the wall, all sorts of figurines, barnyard balloons at my birthday parties, cow-shaped piggy bank, pajamas, cow-spotted jewelry and more. If you can think of it, I probably had it.
Ironically, I hated milk growing up. I thought it was vile tasting and foul. No rational reasons existed at that time for my general disgust for milk, but I refused to drink anything but chocolate milk and vanilla soy milk. I wouldn’t touch either of those now. In fact, we only drink creamy raw milk from Pasture Haven Farm in Syracuse these days. We own a share in the dairy herd there and I’m obsessed with it. Read about Pasture Haven Farm and why Dan and I drink raw milk in a blog post I wrote last October.
My mom tells me that before I was born, she was sourcing raw milk from local farmers, but sort of fell out of the habit for various reasons. Now she’s back on the wagon and even makes cheese, yogurt and kefir at home. But as a child, I only had access to the regular store-bought stuff. I don’t think it even occurred to me that milk right out of a cow might be different and even taste better.
Despite my milk aversion, my cow-themed existence persisted. When I was probably 12, our church held a harvest party. This was my first opportunity ever to dress up around Halloween since my family didn’t celebrate the holiday. Don’t worry, my mom never proclaimed it the devil’s day or any of that nonsense, and we always handed out candy to neighborhood children. So, what do you suppose I dressed as on my first Halloween? Of course, my Mom made me a cow costume, complete with a long, ridiculous tail.
In Middle school I learned to sew an apron and a pair of shorts in home economics. Without hesitation, I chose cow-spotted cotton. I still use the apron to this day, although the white is now pink because I’m no laundry expert, as my husband seems afraid to point out. I’ve worn the cow pajama shorts so often that they now feature huge rip on the buttocks region, yet I refuse to throw them away. You can’t make me.
And, wouldn’t you know it, a family member gave Dan and I a wedding gift of a small milk jug for tea time shaped like two embracing cows. I display this proudly. The rest of the cow kitsch that once littered my life has gone to a better place — Goodwill. Our living room and my office at work now showcase a fine start to a growing robot toy collection.
As you probably guessed by now, I have always had aspirations to learn the fine and intimate art of milking a dairy cow. After I was laid off from the South Bend Tribune, I begged everyone to hire me. At this time, a local dairy farmer was looking for an intern and I thought it was my chance to get my hands on some bovine teats, but alas, it didn’t work out, though I don’t remember why.
So, when I embarked on a local raw dairy researching adventure last month, I thought there might be a pretty good chance I could find someone willing to let me try my hand at this strange task of milking a she-cow. I called David Veale at Bluebird Farm & Orchard in Three Rivers, MI, to learn more about his small raw dairy herd-share program, requested a milking lesson and made an appointment to visit the farm on a Saturday afternoon in October with my Mom and my friend Alyssa, who dreams of farming again someday. (Alyssa also wrote a guest blog post with a recipe for her sensational Cheddar Apple Pie, so don’t miss that.)
What a gorgeous day to learn how to milk a cow, I thought nervously as we arrived. I stepped out of my car to warm sunshine filtering through the trees and onto my face.
Bluebird Farm & Orchard
David looked the part, super wholesome and probably rebellious in his brown overalls and blue collared shirt, boots and goatee. We chat, we walk. He points out the sheep and introduces us from afar to the lead duck named Peeper. He walks us past a board where a few hogs were slaughtered earlier in the day and into a “new” barn built in the 1800s. This barn was originally located in Mishawaka before it was disassembled and rebuilt on David’s 60-acre farm.
David’s all about sustainability. “I want to produce my food without relying on fossil fuels,” he says.
David loves to take old farming tools and make them new. Before raising the “new” barn, David moved all his hay from the wagon using grapple forks. Now his new barn allows him to use “high-tech” (circa 1920) hay slings for unloading loose hay. Then he uses a pitch fork to feed the hay out of the loft.
David takes us back around to the front of his property into a smaller barn where much of the hay is stacked up and shows us a 1930s New Idea hay loader he bought from an Amish gentleman in Middlebury who renovates old farm equipment.
“The Amish community really makes horse-powered farming so much easier here,” says David. “There’s a whole support network of harness and horse-drawn equipment shops that simply don’t exist in most areas of the country.”
Right behind the hay loader sits a buggy that David and his family ride in as it is pulled by a Standardbred horse named Bobby through the countryside or into town. David hopes one day to sell the cars and use only the buggy.
David wasn’t always a farmer, but he’s always loved spending time outdoors. He started out his work life as a forester, and at one point he and his wife lived for three years on a sail boat in Washington before moving to Michigan. He told us he started to get really interested in farming in the early 2000s, but it was concerns about environmental problems and energy depletion, and a health scare that tipped the scales and launched him on the path to where he is today.
He caught a bug from his infant son that turned into a heinous sinus infection that wouldn’t subside, even after nine months and four different types of antibiotics. “A fifth variety of antibiotic finally killed it — though it came back again later and I had to take the same antibiotic again,” he says.
At the same time, a CT scan showed David might have a brain tumor (which he didn’t). That news hit him pretty hard and he became extremely worried about his overall health. As his interest in farming grew, he was reading a lot about animal husbandry. The authors David read all suggested that animals don’t generally get sick unless they have a nutrient deficiency. He wondered if the same might be true of humans, namely himself.
David read Omnivore’s Dilemma and many books and articles on farming. “A few of the farming writers made positive mention of the Weston A. Price Foundation, which directed me towards raw milk at about the same time I figured out that I had a malfunctioning immune system that needed better nutrition rather than a new antibiotic,” says David. “Drinking raw milk seemed to work, as I haven’t had the sinus infection since.”
Just like me, David loves the nutritive qualities of local raw milk: it is packed full of good bacteria, improving gut health and boosting immunity; it contains enzymes vital to healthy digestion and absorption of nutrients; it’s a whole food — pasteurization and homogenization destroy the natural makeup of milk; and its full of healthy fat. Maybe even more compelling is that fresh raw milk just tastes better. “My son, upon returning from visiting my parents back in Washington, referred to their milk as ‘chalk water,’ which sums up my opinion of the milk available at grocery stores,” says David.
As we walk past a group of nervous sheep, David explains that his family moved to Three Rivers from Washington in 2008 for affordable farm land and to be closer to his wife’s family. Now they have three cows that he milks by hand twice every day. David offers herd shares because Michigan prohibits retail sales of raw milk. However, in 2013 the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development adopted a policy recommended by the Michigan Fresh Unprocessed Whole Milk Workgroup (Policy #1.40) officially recognizing herd shares and letting them operate unregulated.
David invites us to follow him out to pasture that is never treated with herbicides or pesticides. We walk through the gate and spy a young steer way out yonder already curiously watching our every move. As we walk and talk, this little beef is trailing us to the right, questioning our presence.
My mom and David strike up an uncomfortable conversation about teat length. You see, if a dairy cow has long teats she will be much easier to milk by hand. I have no idea if this translates to humans.
“Long teats are hard to find because most farms milk by machine and prefer shorter teats to minimize liability of a cow stepping on her teat and injuring it,” says David. “Most farmers consider shorter teats to be desirable.”
Before long, we’re greeted by Penny, a big beautiful mahogany Jersey. David warns: “She’s a licker.” And she doesn’t disappoint. She tastes Alyssa’s hands and her boots and welcomes a pat on the head.
David’s calling the cows into the barn and we’re unintentionally interfering. Penny follows us closely not interested in anything else, while the other two cows head up to be milked. David tells us Penny was a 4-H cow, so she’s very used to people and enjoys human companionship.
On the way through the first set of gates, Penny decides she wants to rub her whole self on me like a giant affectionate cat. David chides her and pushes her toward the barn (as much as you can push a 900-pound puppy). We’re nearing the barn door. The other two cows head inside, but Penny wants to stand and lick my pants. I’m flattered. We eventually get her inside.
Penny dutifully takes her place in the milking stall and starts munching happily on hay. David pulls out that tiny stool you see in movies and an old blue bucket, since we’re just practicing. He cleans Penny’s teats, which is apparently a signal to the friendly little barn cat (who’s missing a back foot) that it’s time for a drink. In the dim light, we watch as David squirts the first stream of milk into her mouth. I’m stunned.
I could never quite wrap my mind around the story my grandfather always tells of feeding a barn cat in that same manner, but I’ve seen it now. I can’t deny it.
We’re all discussing the best milking technique, which is basically the action of making a fist one finger at a time, starting with the index finger, to sort of get the milk down into the teat, then squeeze it out. David is expertly “SQUIRT, SQURITING” milk out — one stream shooting one way, the other shooting across where the first stream had been, forming a disappearing X.
He asks if I’m ready to try. I said yes, but my face probably said otherwise. Performance anxiety. I was the only milking virgin for miles. Both mom and Alyssa had done this before.
I take his place at the stool. Reach under there and grasp Penny’s warm teats.
I feel like a creep.
I’m just grabbing this cow’s boobs. I only just met her and I’m about to squeeze milk out of her body. My word, it felt strangely intimate and I thought “I can’t believe I’m doing this.” But it was also exhilarating. She seemed pleased as pudding and kept munching away as I fumbled around getting a little squirt out of each attempt.
Before long, I got the hang of it in a really slow, drawn-out manner. But I’m self-conscious that I’m taking forever, so I relinquish the stool to let my Mom and then Alyssa have a turn.
As I watch, I realize this is a momentous moment. I’ve fulfilled a childhood dream. Is it the end of a chapter, or the start of a new one? I wonder.
Bluebird Farm and Orchard
Three Rivers, MI