Blackfoot Valley Dispatch - The Blackfoot Valley's News Source Since 1980

Family milk cows, and the chores they meant, now a thing of the past


August 29, 2018

Along with the beaverslide stackers and teams of horses, the family milk cows have disappeared into the past. I don't think anyone misses them.

The state of Montana initiated brucellosis testing of all the cattle in the state during the late 1950's and early 60's, and a lot of milk cows showed up as carriers. The Brucellosis microbe in the milk can cause undulant fever in humans, plus make some young cows abort their calves.

A few milk cows showed up positive on almost every ranch, and quite a few properties got rid of the entire herd, maybe keeping just one or two. Our ranch had three or four positives, and I think they sold the entire herd. The days of two or three or more infants in almost every family had passed, and the need wasn't so great as in earlier years.

The actual milking was a tedious chore, and disliked by everyone I knew. On many properties, the hired help were not required to milk. They often helped, but milking wasn't on their job description. Being free of the cows every day kept the hired men happier and more likely to stay on the place.

Our ranch ran about a half-dozen cows that had to be milked every day. The task wasn't a simple one and usually took close to two hours by the time the cream was separated and everything washed clean.

First, the cows had to be brought in from their pasture. They usually came when called, but if they needed to be milked early for some reason, they had to be herded into the corral. They were animals of habit.

When they got to the corral, the animals walked straight into the barn, every cow going to her particular

stanchion where a couple pounds of protein pellets were waiting. The pellets served as an enticement, plus they were a supplement to the grass or hay, helping the cattle produce more milk.

My two uncles and my father usually milked the cows together, except on Sunday, when the task fell to just one of them. After the udders were milked dry, the cows were turned out, and the milk carried to the house to separate the cream. Once a week a fellow from Deer Lodge came to all the ranches in the valley, picking up the cream and leaving pounds of butter and other dairy products, such as cottage cheese. Every month he sent the ranch a check for the cream. It was shared by those who did the milking.

The milk wasn't pasteurized, much less homogenized. It was only filtered to remove the particulate which consisted mainly of flakes of dried cow manure, plus an occasional fly.

It went from the separator into glass gallon jugs, and at home, when we wanted a glass to drink we had to put one hand over the top of the jug and shake it in order to remix the cream which had risen to the top. It was a difficult task for a five- or six-year-old, and a dropped and broken jug, plus a gallon of milk on the kitchen floor wasn't a rare occurrence. Most of the skim milk went to the pigs, with some of it being used in the kitchen for cooking.

It was always fun for us kids to be in the cow barn at milking time. If they weren't in a hurry to finish the chore, the adults would let us sit on a one-legged stool and attempt to get some milk into the bucket before the cow got nervous and put her foot in it. The best facet of the job was squirting milk into the mouths of the barn cats. They had learned to keep their mouths open to catch the stream, making it great sport for a child.

After the separator was dry and the cream stored in the cooler, things had to be washed. The cleaning wasn't a simple process, as the separator contained a number of pieces that had to be taken out and thoroughly scoured. The skim milk was carried to the pigs and all the buckets well washed. I'm glad I missed it.

After an entire day feeding cattle in a blizzard, the milking was an ordeal in itself. I'm sure that it was an easy decision for the ranchers to sell the cows and begin to enjoy their evenings.


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