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The Human Milking Machine: Hand-Milking Dairy Cows

| 12/19/2016 9:50:00 AM

My wife, Wendy, is Danish. Her mom often told us about her grandmother who worked as a milkmaid on a dairy in Denmark before milking machines were invented. Evidently her hands would become so hot after hours of hand milking that she would cool them by holding them on the stones in the walls of the dairy between cows. If you have ever milked cows by hand for any length of time, you know exactly how she felt.

I milked my cows by hand for a couple of years on the first farm I owned, a small hill farm in western Massachusetts. Then, I rented a larger dairy barn down the road that was equipped with a vacuum pump and milking machines. I raised my heifers at my farm and when they calved I would walk them two miles through the woods and across meadows to the barn I rented. I have very pleasant memories associated with those walks, especially the ones I took through the snowy woods.

When I first started milking cows by hand, I used muscles in my forearms that I never knew existed. Though I was young and fit as a fiddle back then, those muscles hurt for a couple of weeks before they finally became conditioned to the motion. If you plan to milk your cows by hand and haven’t done so before, be ready for some burning forearms. I know people who get their arms in shape for hand milking by squeezing tennis balls.

Hand milking is a good way to way to bond with your cows. It is also a calm and meditative experience. But personally I think it is a waste of my most valuable commodity: time. Before safe and reliable milking machines were invented around 1900, a cow might give a half a gallon per milking. Today, a good Jersey cow can give 4 or 5 gallons or more per milking.

My cows average around 2 1/2 gallons per milking. Getting that much milk out of a cow by hand takes time, maybe a 1/2-hour per cow or more and that whole time you are stuck under the cow and can’t do anything else.

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