Milking Cattle Once Part of Every Farm

It used to be milking cattle and using the cream separator were everyday activities

A vintage window display of Primrose cream separators.

A vintage window display of Primrose cream separators.

From the collection of Tony Mitchell DeZago

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Some will recall those bucolic days when there were dusty country lanes and rolling meadows, meadows which sustained the farm milch cows. Morning and night, especially during the summer, it was the chore of the farm boy to herd the milking cattle into the barnyard. In winter, the chore of bringing in the cattle from pasture was not necessary, as the livestock were fed and came up to the barnyard for their food.
Even though being roused from sleep at 5:30 or so on a summer morning to "go get the cows" was sometimes unpleasant, especially when the dew-laden grass wet our britches to the knees, it had its rewards. Never were the pastures and meadows so beautiful as when dewy-pearled in the first rays of the morning sun.

While milking machines were not unknown, few could afford the labor-saving device. In fact, until the advent of the REA in the early 1940s, few farmers could afford electricity to power such machines. On most farms, the "milking machine" was the farmer and several sons and daughters, and milking was done by hand.

While many farms had milking barns with stanchions, we milked our cows in the corrals in good weather, and in a straw shed or a frame lean-to addition in inclement weather. Old five-gallon buckets were used as milking stools if wooden stools were not available. Often we milked without a stool, merely squatting and holding the bucket between our legs, a feat which required a bit of rural finesse.

When the milking was finished, the foaming buckets of milk were carried to the milk house. On our farm, one end of a long, enclosed porch housed the cream separator.

The cream separator was a machine which separated the cream from the milk. Milk was poured into a large tank at the top of the separator and let out into the separator bowl by means of a valve or spout at the base of the tank. The milk, as it passed the rapidly rotating bowl, was separated according to weight by centrifugal force into cream and skimmed milk. The cream came out of one spout and was caught in a cream can. The milk came through a second spout, and was caught in the emptied milk buckets. The power to operate the separator was generally furnished, sometimes reluctantly, by one of the boys of the farm family.

The cream obtained from separating the milk was used for farm cooking, and to sell. The buckets of skimmed milk were carried back to the barnyard to feed bucket calves, or down to the hog lot. Some of the skim milk was mixed with wheat shorts (a by-product of wheat milling) or sorghum grain to provide feed for the swine.

The gastronomic benefits of having a milking herd on the farm were most rewarding. With plenty of eggs and milk, ice cream was one of the foods we enjoyed often. In those pre-refrigeration days, getting the ice for freezing ice cream was something of a challenge.

Many rural trade centers had ice houses where ice was sold. In towns where there was no ice house, the local grocery store generally handled ice, selling it in 25- or 50-pound blocks. To keep the ice from melting during the drive home, we took along gunny sacks and several old comforters or blankets to wrap 'round the ice. Once home, we wrapped the ice in additional insulation until we could use it.

The cream from the separator was usually caught in a large can. When the family went into town for the week's shopping – commonly on Saturday afternoon or night – the cream was taken to the local creamery. The cream was sold with payment based upon butterfat content. Often the creamery was operated in conjunction with the grocery or general store, and eggs also were sold. The proceeds were typically used to purchase the family's groceries. During the Depression era, the sale of farm produce often generated the only funds available for staples.

Some towns also had independent creameries. Each evening, the cream purchased during the day was taken to the local depot in large cream cans – usually 10-gallon cans – and shipped to plants in larger cities. At the depot, cans of cream were placed upon a railroad baggage cart or wagon, and wheeled alongside the railroad tracks. One of the local passenger trains stopped each evening and the cans of cream were picked up and hauled away in the baggage car: this must have been the origin of the term "milk stop."

Following World War II, America rapidly changed from an agrarian society to one with a more urban, industrial focus. Returning servicemen who had grown up on the farm went away to school and careers; many former rural dwellers left the farm to work in factories or service occupations. In addition, more efficient agricultural implements brought consolidation of farms, and the number of farm families grew smaller. The days when every farmer had a herd of milch cows were relegated to the past.

Forever gone are the days when the farm boy went out after the milking herd in the dewy morning and purple twilight. Today, milk is generally purchased at the grocery store, in plastic jugs instead of glass bottles. And people who consume the milk have little concept of the process by which it is obtained: Old Bossy's contribution is seldom realized or appreciated. FC

Paul F. Long is a freelance writer from Kansas. His work has appeared in Kansas Farmer, Texas Farmer-Stockman, Kanhistique, and Rural Heritage.