We were milking only eight cows during our final weeks as a commercial dairy. We'd eased a dozen animals out of production over the summer, either to raise their calves or to enjoy their leisure as genuine retirees. The check for the milk from the eight remaining heaviest producers barely paid for the cost of its pickup, and the big truck came to empty our cooling tank for the last time on Sept. 30.
For me, it was a bittersweet moment. I'd been a commercial dairy farmer for 10 years, Charlie for 17, short careers by industry standards. But then, the dairy industry had changed dramatically over those years, and the demise of the small family-scale operation accelerated. Charlie and I hung on as long as possible, then quit while we were emotionally, if not financially, ahead. We look back on our years of milking cows with a sense of having done good work on our own terms, work we would not have traded for any price.
One cow, Moonlight, still comes into the parlor each morning and lets down her milk for our own table. All of it. It hadn't struck me just how full of milk one cow can be. Back when the tank truck came, we filled a couple of quart jars for our own consumption and happily waved away up to 1,300 pounds of milk to the processing plant and countless family refrigerators around the region.
Now, to have any milk of our own without paying for it, we have to milk a cow, which you really can't do halfway. Moonlight is near the end of her lactation cycle, but she still fills a couple of gallon buckets as she munches her grain - which is a lot of milk for three people.
Tim, a teenager, is a fairly good milk drinker, but in my mind he simply doesn't pull his weight as the son of a dairy farmer. His eyeballs aren't floating. What's more, he prefers a lower-fat product than Moonlight produces. As buckets, jars, and the butter churn fill to capacity with milk of substance, he casts longing eyes on the 2-percent cartons in area stores.
Not too many years ago, when low-fat was a national fad, many dairy farmers selectively bred for cows that produced milk so scarce of butterfat that it looked pale blue. The only selective breeding that went on with our herd was up to the bulls, and ours were never clued in to national trends.
As butterfat came back into vogue, we enjoyed a price boost for our still-rich-in-fat product. Tim may come around, too, but not in time to absorb all the buttery milk we have at our disposal from a single cow.
I began making butter daily in early October. The old shell-backed lawn chair in the front yard was a pleasant place to sit and churn, once my brief morning chores were over. I made pound after pound of butter as leaves from the sugar maple sifted down around me.
The milk remaining after the cream was skimmed often enough went to the chickens. Our flock initially reacted to this unaccustomed treat with rushing enthusiasm, wings raised for balance as they rounded corners at the first sound of a splash in their pan. Meantime, drinking the buttermilk left in the churn after the yellow clots formed became a daily habit for me.
By Halloween, I had consumed gallons of buttermilk. Charlie has done his part by drinking heroic quantities of milk from the glass, over cereal and rice, and probably in ways I don't even know about.
Still, we pour excess to the chickens, who have come to react differently to the sound of the morning splash in their barnlot pan. They look my way with one eye, then the other, as if to explain that they, too, are afloat in too much of a good thing.
Occasionally, friends drop by for a quart. In desperation I have gone to their homes when they're away to leave butter and buttermilk on their porches or in their refrigerators.
"How are you spending all your free time?" people ask me, now that I'm no longer a commercial dairy farmer. Clearly they envision me as the unfettered, free spirit I might have been all these years were it not for the cows.
Truth to tell, I never felt fettered by my cows. And while most of the herd enjoys its leisure, and the lactating cows tend their calves, I am as busy as ever dealing with the overflow of one cow's bounty. Isn't it about time for eggnog?
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