Friday, December 19, 2014

How our family farm has changed in the last century

My uncle with our Guernsey and her triplets in the 1950s
Christmas vacation is for spending time with family. Since I’m here, I decided to interview Granny and Grandpa about dairy farming in the first half of the twentieth century. 

As with most towns, it has grown up a lot in the last century. Grandpa’s family had a dairy in town near where the hospital currently is where they milked 10 cows by hand. When milking with machines, 10 cows is no big deal, but it takes a long time when milking by hand. Grandpa was the second youngest of nine kids and the youngest boy. There were 22 years between him and his oldest brother, so most of his siblings had already gotten married and moved away, so he was the one at home to milk the cows.



His dad would chase the cows into the barn for milking from the field and Grandpa would milk and feed them. My Great Grandpa came here from Sweden when he was a teenager and started our family dairy in our hometown around 1900.

When I asked Grandpa why he wanted to be a dairy farmer he said that was the only thing he knew and had been involved since he was old enough to go out to the barn to help as a little kid.

Grandpa was still milking on the farm in town when he married Granny in 1948. Granny said she didn’t start helping much until they moved the farm to the current location in 1954, but she would let the cows out in the morning and bring them back in for milking and feed them hay in the winter when they didn’t have grass outside to eat.

Tractor rides in the snow
When interviewing Granny for this blog post, I learned that her family had three cows that she and her brother had to milk every morning before they went to school. So, when she married a dairy farmer she really didn’t think anything of it because she’d already been around cows for most of her life. It was normal.



By the time they moved the farm, my mom was five, my uncle was two and my aunt was on the way. There was a lot going on! Granny loved being out here in the country. It was quiet and they had good neighbors that always helped each other out as farm families so often do.

Our house was built in 1904 and the farm was also a dairy farm before Granny and Grandpa bought it and started running it. Along with the farm, they bought the dairy herd that was here, the milking machines, feed from the previous owners and other things. All of the sudden they were up to 40 cows. Now that Grandpa wasn’t milking by hand, milking went a little faster. Grandpa always tells me stories about how certain cows would always kick him into the gutter in our stantion barn. As I would say, those cows didn’t like being milk cows!

My uncle and mom with the calves
The cows received grain while they were being milked and had hay in the manger (another barn behind the hay barn/milking barn/milk house) with a molasses mixture drizzled on top (top dressed, as we say in the industry).  The cows primarily ate grass in the pastures, but in the wintertime, grass doesn’t grow so they ate hay. This is still the case for our beef cows, but they don’t get molasses. Since it’s like candy, I’m sure they wish they did though!

When they first moved to the farm, milk was stored in (milk) cans in the cooler. This still is the case today on some Amish (and other, but mostly Amish) farms and marketed as Grade B, which is used for cheese. A few years later, they purchased a bulk tank. Since they didn’t have a pipeline to transport the milk from the machines to the bulk tank, it was collected in a bucket connected to the part of the machine that attaches to the cow’s udder.  That milk was manually dumped into the bulk tank to cool.

Grandpa started milking cows around 4 a.m. every morning so he could finish chores before going to work at the mill all day. While he was gone, Granny would clean up the milking machines, milk barn and milk house (where the bulk tank was stored with the milk) and get everything ready for him to milk after he got home at night from grading lumber at the mill all day. The family always ate dinner between 5 and 6 p.m. since evening milking started at 6. Even today, we still eat dinner at 5:30. When my uncle was old enough to help with milking and other chores around the farm he would get up and milk before school. 

Their milk was picked up every day and taken to Foremost Dairy, Green River Cheese processing plant, Carnation or a few other places.

Of course, I don’t know what the dairy industry looked like back then, but from what I’ve seen during my lifetime, it’s a lot more consolidated now. Fewer cooperatives with more members. Fewer farms with more cows. More people are specializing instead of doing a little of everything.

Back then, everyone had a few cows. Today, farms tend to be more consolidated and larger and land has been divided up.

Grandpa and I when I was about a year old
Although there have been so many changes in technology and increases in efficiency over the last century, the values of the people managing these farms are the same. It really is a family operation, even the larger farms that also have non-family employees. This means that the farmer, farmer’s wife, kids and everyone helps out.

There’s been a lot of discussion online in the last year or so about whether women consider themselves farmers or farmers’ wives. While both is true since usually they play a key role on the farm, the answer you get will depend on who you ask. One aspect of dairy life that Granny didn’t always like was having to be back home every day at a certain time for milking and chores. Although, it did give her an excuse to skip out or leave early from events she didn’t want to go to. It is quite a time commitment and you have to love the lifestyle otherwise it won’t work. 

My brother chopping corn silage
Farming was a lot easier after they bought tractors, a mower, baler and other equipment.

In the yard with the 4-H calves
The years flew by and now my brother, the 3rd generation (if you start counting when we moved the farm, 4th if you count the farm in town), is running our family farm. We both grew up showing dairy cows in 4-H throughout our childhood, but since we are now in our mid and late 20s, the dairy cows are gone. We still have a few beef cows to eat down the pastures. I mentioned in my blog post this month about Christmas traditions that feeding them while I'm home is my favorite part of being home.

My brother and I documenting a Thanksgiving snow storm in 2010
On most days in the summer, various tractors (mostly in John Deere green) and pieces of hay equipment line our yard and driveway.



A lot has changed and continues to change every day. However, the reason we farm is still the same. You have to love it. Farming involves long hours, very few vacations and a lot of sacrifices. One of my favorite parts of it is how you get to work with your family. To me that makes it all worth it.

Cows are such sweethearts! 

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