The Adventures of Clifton Ray Middleton
I was dirt born the son of a share crop farmer in 19 an 47 in an age that was before everything, really. Life on the farm was full of hard drama; that would be a combination of hard work, high hopes and endless conflict with nature, up close and personal. Survival of the fittest on a daily, hourly basis all dependent on a deep style, this becomes your life.
Cows. Cows were very much a part of my day, in fact the entire family’s life centered on cows, raising cows, cows having calves. Stock cows for beef, milk cows for milk, feeder calves, bulls, we had cows of every description and age.
Milking cows is an ancient science, long cherished as one of our most useful activities. We milked cows by hand, twice a day, every day, the same two times every day. The cows need to be milked or they get sick so whatever else is going on the cows must be milked. There is no choice and you are a part of this endless, timeless ritual, forever. That is the Farm, the Land …
Cows like structure, order and peace. The whole thing is a ritual between the cows and the people. It begins early in the morning. My dad would wake up at 5:00 am without an alarm clock. The clock was inside his mind and body, imprinted years ago when he was young like all farm families, we rise with the sun. Up and out the door to the barn where the cows were already waiting, all in formation, 17 of them ready to be milked and hungry for the sweet grain mix that they knew was already there, right where it is supposed to be. Cows have expectations.
We were a family farm and only milked as many cows as we could by hand to make a little money, have our own milk. The operation was small and all the cows had names, some like Indian names based on characteristics, color and behavior and some, the most common the names of female relatives. Betsy, Mildred, Margret, after my aunts and one called Four Ten.
Four Ten was named for how much she cost, $410 dollars, a huge amount to pay for any normal cow. Cow prices for a young, already calving cows were 250 to 300 so when my dad paid 410 for one cow the entire neighborhood exploded in 1950’s style Tweets, that being the two to three sentence interactions that Midwestern farm folks exchange in passing. ‘You hear? Cliff Middleton paid $410 for a cow. ‘What kind of cow?’ ‘A Holstein, not even that big’. 410 was an overnight star, She produced 8 gallons of milk a day and milked like a dream. She would start letting down her milk before you could finish washing her udder and silky smooth teats. 12 minutes later you would have a pail full of warm frothy milk. Better than magic, a lot better …. 410 will never be forgotten …
It all begins with the Cow Processional. I open The Door and the cows start to come in, in order. The cows have order when it comes to milking and food. Each one goes to the same station they used before; they know their special place and all agree to the plan. When a new cow comes in the herd it takes a little socialization and time to learn the plays. New cows learn from watching the older Madams.
Every cow has a personality and when you spend a couple hours a day with someone you get to know them. I am not saying that cows are people but they think. Everything that has a head thinks.
Regarding milking cows, it is a relationship, a science, very physical and dangerous. A lot of folks have been hurt and hurt badly by irritated or unwilling participants. There can a lot of reasons a cow complains, they have their own social order but in most cases it boils down to sensitive or infected teats. Bossy’s udder hangs pretty low and they can cut or scratch their stuff and we would often apply bag balm or others ointments to help with the healing.
So in come the cows, dancing around with amazing precision straight to their places. I lock the stanchions so they can not back out and really they do not want to do anything except eat the sweet mix and get milked. We lock it anyway because shit happens and you do not want a 1000 pounds mad cow crashing around the barn.
The radio is already on here at Club Cow, part of the ambience the cows love. They might have liked classical music but what they got was the Farm Report followed by the Weather. Just the sounds were a ritual, a shared moment signifying what was to come next, inevitably just as the Sun was thinking about rising, it is coming, the Washing. The washing of the cow’s teats and udder was like going to the spa for the cows, warm water with a disinfectant and a rag. The cows would come in with their udders covers with shit and mud. The spring rains turned the feed lots into lakes of mud. I hated this with a perfect hatred. It was so much work to carry buckets of hot water from the house to the barn and then wash and rewash the cows. Like I have testified, the cows loved it, me not so much and we have not even got to the milking.
My dad was the evolutionary epitome of sustainable agriculture. He farmed 372 acres in a sustainable and ever increasing system of crop rotation and the application of animal manure. Farming is about dynamic management, you have to feel it to do it. You have to be part of the cycle, moving with the bindings of season and situation. Timing dictates the deeds so you learn, you internalize the cycles until they are simply the sound track of your daily life, each hour has a vibration to ride and so we know how to ‘make hay while the sun shines’.