Saturday, October 26, 2013

Day 167 - Milking an Animal

I have never milked an animal. Despite spending the first 18 years of my life in a small Wisconsin farm community, my exposure to livestock of any sort has been surprisingly limited during my life. In fact, I have largely avoided spending much time in the functional areas of farms throughout my life as a result of my persistent aversion to things I perceive as dirty. Given farms are literally a collection of buildings containing animals and all of their byproducts, spending time learning more about the processes that went into the practice, including milking, wasn’t high on my list of priorities. That stated, I always maintained an underlying curiosity about the process of milking an animal, which made me decide I would finally move to gain the experience during my “I have never...” year.

As a result, I began doing some research on local farms that would give me a hands-on experience with milking. Eventually, that effort led me to Hinchley’s Dairy Farm, a family-owned dairy farm operation roughly 30 miles away from Madison that offered tours and hands-on farming experience. Realizing a visit to the farm would likely give me the most authentic environment to gain my first experience with milking, I set aside time to visit the location today. As a result, Rachael and I hopped in the car this morning and made the short drive to spend a second day on a farm in as many days. Accepting the idea I was likely to face my dislike for getting dirty head on, I braced myself for what would likely be a unique and highly educational event in my “I have never...” year.

When we arrived as Hinchley’s, Rachael and I took a few minutes to look around central area of the farm to look for someone that could help us sign up for a tour. As we paced the parking lot we took in the sights of the towering silos casting shadows on the barns below and listened to the sounds of animals all around us. Eventually, our unsuccessful effort resulted in Rachael and I stopping in the middle of the parking lot to talk about our plan of attack. After a few moments of deliberation, we suddenly heard a woman’s voice calling from across the other side of the parking lot. “Hello there!” You here for a tour?” a middle-aged woman called from behind a fence bordering a nearby pasture. In response, I yelled back confirming that was the case, which caused the woman to immediately continued, “Well, alright then! Great! We can start with you helping me move some sheep!”

Rachael and I gave one another a quick look or surprise at the woman’s remarks before turning back to her location. Without delay, the woman had hopped in a nearby utility vehicle and began driving in our direction. As she drew closer, I immediately took notice of the woman’s dusty clothes and the worn baseball cap covering her hair. Complemented by her hardened hands and natural face, her appearance showed obvious signs of her hard work and commitment to the farm that served as her livelihood. With her vehicle coming to a stop before us, the woman gave us a smile and asked us to hop in so we could assist her on the other side of the farm. As we took our seats in the vehicle, the woman introduced herself as Tina Hinchley, one of the owners and operators of the farm. We promptly introduced ourselves in kind, which spurred Tina to begin driving back toward her previous location. With little distance between the parking lot and the flock of sheep, Tina quickly provided some information about the farm and explained the task at hand. As she spoke, her passion for the farm and her welcoming nature were readily apparent. There was no question we were going to get the full dairy farm experience under her guidance, which made me glad we decided to make the trip.

Herding some sheep
After finding our way to the pasture, Tina walked us through the basic setup and the method for coaxing the flock from the pasture to the nearby holding pen. Following her direction, Rachael and I prepared to assist in the process as we could, which we knew would prove challenging with our limited manpower. Luckily, another pair of tour-goers appeared just before we were set to begin the transition, which helped us form a broader chute through which the sheep could be directed. Although our first few efforts to move the sheep proved unsuccessful, Tina’s experience and persistence soon won them over, sending the sheep bolting in our planned direction and into their holding pen. Relieved the task took little effort, Tina thanked us for the assistance and stated we were ready to start the farm tour.

The milking barn
With that, Tina walked us to the nearby milking barn to begin the tour. As we walked in to the main area of the barn, Tina provided an abundance of information related to her farm. Among rows of cows lining independent chutes, she discussed the dairy industry and the lifecycle of a dairy cow. The information she provided was direct and unfiltered, which she explained was intended to give our group the clearest possible picture of how a dairy farm truly works. Although some aspects of the information she presented were graphic, her fact-based approach was welcomed by everyone in the group. After all, we were there to learn about the workings of a dairy farm, even if it meant learning about the necessary functions that contained undesirable characteristics.

Following her explanation, Tina told advised us we had a perfect opportunity to milk one of the cows standing at the end of a nearby row of chutes. Eager to tackle my “I have never...” experience for the day, I was happy to hear the opportunity would come so early in our tour. As Tina continued speaking about the process of milking by hand, she guided us over to the side of the cow and gave a brief demonstration. With a quick placement of her hand and a subtle motion downward, Tina sent milk spraying from the cow’s teat to the ground. With that, Tina took a few steps back from the animal and held out her arm. “Alright, who’s next?” she said with a smile on her face.

Geting ready...
Rachael and I took a step back to permit the mother and son in our group to have the first chance to giving milking a try. After waiting for the cow to relieve herself (nasty), the boy excitedly stepped forward and placed his hands on the cow’s udder. Without hesitation he gently applied pressure and pulled downward, proving successful in his effort. After a few more successful attempts he took a step back with a big smile on his face and said, “That’s cool! ...but it feels kind of weird.” As the boy walked back toward his mother, I stepped up to the cow and squatted to get a look at the center of my objective. Although a bit worried about the massive animal’s response to my cold hands, I carefully placed them in same location I saw Tina place her hands moments earlier, positioned my fingers, and prepared to squeeze downward.

 “Pretend you are emptying a bottle of toothpaste,” Tina said as I settled into my position. Although unexpected, the visualization proved incredibly helpful as I began the downward motion of my fingers. Almost immediately, milk began spraying from the cow’s udder, which left me stunned at the ease of the technique required to complete the task. “Well, that’s easy!” I said as I continued, chuckling at the experience. For the first time I was milking an animal, and despite the straightforward nature of the task, I found myself amazed at the entire process. In a week of experiences that included a lot of events tied to Wisconsin’s roots, I was seeing the task at the very heart of the “Dairy State” I have called home for 30 years of my life. It was simple, but the experience left an impact... and, frankly, it was quite a bit of fun.

After a few more minutes of milking, I decided to wrap up my new experience for the day. Stepping back from the cow, I asked Rachael if she wanted to give it a try, which caused her to step forward and take a look at the animal. Although slightly hesitant, she decided to lean in and give the process of milking a try for the first time. Like our previous efforts, Rachael’s first try proved successful, which caused her to give a few more pulls before stepping back from the animal.

Satisfied with the results of efforts, Tina offered one last chance for members of our group to milk the cow before leading us further into the tour. Over the next hour we spent time looking around the farms various facilities, which included the calf barn, the milk holding room, the hay barn, the goat pen, and the chicken coop. At each interval of the tour we were able to gain hands on experiences with the functional areas of the farm, with the exception of the milking machines and production equipment, of course. The overall experience was highly informative and interactive, which left each of us amazed at the scope of operations on the Hinchley farm.


The open air barn

Although what we experienced on the tour was only the tip of the iceberg, the tour made it obvious the amount of work and commitment required to make a family farm successful is an incredible feat. The Hinchley’s dedication to their work and to the quality of their product requires more effort than any other job I have ever witnessed firsthand, and the reality is they do it for their family and all others. As Tina put it, there is no glamour, no wealth, and no days off in family farming. Yet families like the Hinchley’s put everything they have into their work because that’s where their heart is. From that, I realized the family farmers in the United States deserve a lot more respect than the rest of the nation gives them, and they deserve our support wherever we can give it.

As we wrapped up our experience at the farm, Tina had one of her interns show us around a few remaining locations and drive us out to the nearby pumpkin patch. There we picked our own pumpkins before taking a ride through the heart of the farm and concluding our tour. As we made our way back toward our car, I let Rachael know I was going to make one last stop before we left for home. In turn, I walked out to the field running along the center of the Hinchley property and took a look at the scope of the farm’s operations from a distance. From that perspective I found myself amazed at the innumerable intricate components within the confines of the space that composed the farm. It was mind boggling but enlightening, and it made me glad I took the time to learn more about the process during my “I have never...” year.

Before today, I thought I understood farming, and although that may be the case, I clearly didn’t know farming. What the Hinchley’s and every other farm family in the United States do each day requires more hard work and dedication than most Americans are probably capable of producing. The reality is without families like the Hinchley’s our nation simply wouldn’t work. They are the reason we are fed and we are healthy, which speaks volumes to the credit they deserve for their selfless choice of career. I never would have thought I would take so much away from trying to experience milking an animal for the first time, but the outcome from today’s experience makes me happy I didn’t nix this event from the “I have never...” list. Sometimes the simplest encounters can leave the biggest impacts, and today was exactly that kind of experience.

One last look at Hinchley's

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