Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Heather Smith Thomas: Notes from Sky Range Ranch – An Exceptional Family Milk Cow – Part One

When my husband, Lynn, and I were married in March 1966, we dreamed about having a cattle ranch, since we’d both grown up on ranches. Our first goal and challenge was to get a start toward that dream. At that time, the easiest way for a young person to borrow money to get started in agriculture was to go into dairying. At the time we got married, Lynn had already put together a herd of dairy cows and was leasing a small farm near Gooding, in southeastern Idaho--the heart of dairy country in Idaho. So after our wedding we went “home” to that farm to milk the cows. You can’t explain a honeymoon to a cow, so that was our honeymoon—taking care of and milking the cows.

Soon after we were married, we purchased two springer (ready to calve) Holstein heifers from a well-known dairyman in that area who raised exceptionally good milk cows. One of these 2-year-old heifers was solid black except for her feet, her udder, and a white star in her forehead. She was a very smart, gentle individual; Lynn began calling her “Baby Doll,” and the name stuck. The other heifer was black and white. She was nervous, hot-headed, flighty, and insecure, and she wasn’t very manageable unless she was with her buddy. She was Baby Doll’s “friend,” so her name became Friend.

Baby Doll at 6 years old, a few years after we moved to our ranch

Both heifers calved within a few weeks after we bought them. Baby Doll became part of the milking herd. Friend, who was more nervous and difficult to train to the milking machine, but also very maternal and motherly--loving every baby calf she saw--simply raised both of their calves that summer.

In the fall, when we dispersed our dairy herd and moved back to our hometown of Salmon, Idaho, to start leasing/buying a cattle ranch near my parents’ ranch, we brought Baby Doll and Friend with us. Baby Doll had become our favorite young cow, and we wanted to keep her as our family milk cow. Friend’s career in life seem best suited to raising extra calves. Every summer after that, Friend raised four calves—her own and Baby Doll’s, plus a couple of purchased calves or orphans from our beef herd.

Calves being led from their pasture to the barn to nurse Friend for their morning milk

There was an old milk barn on the ranch with several stanchions, and we made a pen nearby for the extra calves. Morning and evenings, we brought the two cows to the barn from their pasture and let the “barn calves” in to nurse Friend while one of us milked Baby Doll. She gave more milk than our family could use, so for many years we had a neighborhood dairy service, delivering milk in gallon bottles to a few families nearby.

Baby Doll was trusting and gentle, and our kids grew up helping take care of the barn calves and learning to milk Baby Doll. Our son Michael was out in the barn even before he could walk. Probably the first time he “helped” do chores was when my younger sister was babysitting him while Lynn and I were riding range, moving cattle. It turned out to be an all-day job, and we were late getting home. When it got past chore time, my sister took baby Michael out to the barn with her in his backpack carrier and hung him on a nail on the log wall—safely out of the way—while she let the cows and calves into the barn. From his birds-eye view, he enjoyed watching her milk Baby Doll and seeing the four calves nursing Friend.

When Michael got older, he and his little sister Andrea often did the barn chores themselves, doing the milking and supervising the barn calves. For several years we had two nurse cows—Friend and Seven (a young cow with a perfect 7 as her face marking)—and they each raised extra calves. Our kids didn’t mind doing the barn chores, and years later they confessed to us that they often played “rodeo” and took turns riding the barn calves as they let them back out to their pasture.

Seven as a yearling heifer. We brought her as a calf when we moved from the dairy farm to our cattle ranch, and she grew up to be a nurse cow to raise extra calves.

With the needs of our animals taking precedence in our lives, we rarely went anywhere that would keep us gone for more than the time between morning and evening chores. So in 1973 when we all went to Hamilton, Montana, for a 2-day competitive trail ride (with Lynn as “pit crew” for me and my horse, and my parents coming along to help take care of our young children), we had some friends do our chores—feeding the horses and doing the milking. We explained the barn procedure in detail, how much grain to give the cows when they came in to be locked in their stanchions, and about milking Baby Doll and letting the calves into the barn to nurse Friend.

Friend and Seven eating their grain in the barn while feeding the extra babies

When we got back, our friends said that everything went well, but they mentioned that the milk cow had been nervous. After closer questioning, we discovered that they’d gotten the cows mixed up; they’d allowed the boisterous barn calves to nurse Baby Doll and had milked Friend—who hadn’t been milked in her entire life! We were amazed that she hadn’t kicked our friend’s head off, and he was very proud to find out that he’d gotten the job done and survived, milking the “killer cow.” Perhaps she’d tolerated him because he matter-of-factly and innocently went about it, assuming she was the gentle milk cow.

Lynn milking 18-year-old Baby Doll out in the barnyard

In later years when we no longer had Friend, we didn’t bother bringing Baby Doll to the barn at chore time, since we could milk her anywhere--out in a pasture or barnyard or wherever she happened to be grazing. We left her grain tub and milk stool out there, and simply carried the milk bucket and a coffee can full of grain out to the pasture to milk her. She was always very cooperative, trusting us completely. She was the perfect family milk cow.

Heather Smith Thomas raises horses and cattle on her family ranch in Salmon, Idaho. She writes for numerous horse magazines and is the author of several books on horses and cattle farming, including Storey’s Guide to Raising Horses, Storey's Guide to Training Horses, Stable Smarts, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Your Calf, Getting Started with Beef and Dairy Cattle, Storey's Guide to Raising Beef Cattle, Essential Guide to Calving, and The Cattle Health Handbook. You can read all her Notes from Sky Range Ranch posts here.

1 comment:

SIDNEY said...

Heather, Your posts are so interesting. Thanks. Sid witmer