Farm Collector

Growing Up with the Milk Tester and Milk Scales

The importance and use of milk scales were lessons taught on our Pennsylvania dairy farm when I was a youngster. We weighed milk from our cows twice daily and weighed the grain fed to individual cows. Once a month the milk tester arrived on our farm, complete with a shiny brass-front spring scale, Babcock butterfat testing equipment, centrifuge, acid, calipers and record books. Visitors in those days were scarce. It was exciting to see someone who did not live on our farm or in our neighborhood. It was an opportunity to hear the news from away from home.
The milk tester weighed the milk from each cow for two milkings, tested the milk for butterfat content and recorded individual cow production records. The dairy farmer used information like that as the basis for culling cows and improving his herd’s production and profitability. The milk tester, an employee of our county’s Dairy Herd Improvement Assn. (DHIA), ate meals with our family and stayed overnight in our home.
Prior to DHIA milk testing, records of butter and milk production were recorded by individual breeders. An early pioneer recorded 511.1 pounds of butter churned from the milk produced by a Jersey cow over a 350-day period in 1854. In 1890 the Babcock test was introduced, allowing milk to be tested for fat content. A cow’s butter production was calculated on the basis that butter was 83.5 percent fat.
In 1905, Danish immigrant Helmer Rabild, an inspector for the Michigan Dairy and Food Commission, organized a meeting of Michigan dairymen to discuss formation of a cow testing association. In 1906, 31 Michigan herds with 239 cows made up the first such association in the U.S. By 1929 every state had cow-testing associations.

Building a collection I started collecting scales nearly 40 years ago. My first collection consisted of more than 30 spring scales used as milk scales on dairy farms. I collected Chatillon, Forschner, Pelouze, Landers, Frary & Clark and Hanson. Some are round, some are glass-covered and some have a brass front in a rectangular shape. Milk scales evolved from single-hand scales to scales with two hands. One hand would be set to allow for the tare (weight of the bucket). The scale could then be read directly to record the weight of the milk only. Most milk scales have two hands. Scales used by milk testers were seldom, if ever, advertising scales, as that would have shown favoritism.
Many of the spring scales in my collection were also used as advertising pieces, primarily by cow feed manufacturers. Companies such as Purina, Master Mix, Larro, Beacon Feeds, Pillsbury Best, U Biko Feeds, Kasco Feed, Full-O-Pep and Globe milk producers are represented in my collection.
Chatillon and Forschner manufactured many of these advertising scales. For example, Chas. Forschner, New Britain, Conn., produced a scale for Larro Feeds, as did R.H. Forschner, New York City, for Larro – its “sure milk” scale. Purina brass-front scales appear to be manufactured by Chatillon. Some carry the familiar checkerboard advertising; others had plates riveted on the front for the name and advertising. Purina also used a round, painted-face milk scale.
Milk scales typically came in 10-pound increments (as the scale slide is pulled down with weight, the hand goes around three times) for 30 pounds maximum weight and 20 pounds (again, the hand goes around three times) for 60 pounds maximum weight.
My favorite milk scale is a brass-front spring scale manufactured for the Better Farming Co., Union City, Pa., by Landers, Frary & Clark. Union City is located in the heart of Erie County, where I supervised milk testers on my first job out of college.
My collection also includes a Morton & Bremner spring balance, brass-front rectangular scale marked on the back with the year 1867. It has just one hand. It was made by Thomas Moore to weigh 30 pounds of milk (with the hand going around the dial three times).
A Salter brass-front spring balance with a capacity of up to 30 pounds is a unique spring balance with two scales. It has a dial for weights up to 10 pounds and a slide that indicates the 10-20-30 pound categories.

Spring scales measure up The U.S. Department of Agriculture and others have completed studies to determine accuracy of spring scales, bench scales, and newer electronic and computer measures that dairies may now use. The results of one test by the University of Maryland and University of Minnesota showed the following results.
The DHIA in Minnesota conducted a test with 20 milk scales. Only two scales showed more than a 1 percent error. In Maryland, when comparing spring scales to bench scales, the scales agreed on 105 of 200 readings. In 14 readings there was a variance of less than 1 percent error, which could be attributed to the legibility of the unit’s markings.
The Gore Dairy started weighing a bucket of milk on a scale in 1955. In 1977 the staff switched to a Waikato milk meter and recorded the milk on paper. In 1988, they switched to a Westfalia meter that measures each cow’s production when milked. They were only about 95 percent accurate; by 1992, accuracy had risen to 99 percent. Except for time taken to weigh, the spring scale seems to be competitive for accuracy.
Today’s dairy herds are very large. Because of time constraints, most milk is metered. Milk testing has evolved to provide valuable information about all facets of the dairy industry. It has grown from individual dairymen’s personal records to state, national and international computer-based testing and data processing.
Scales – yes, simple spring scales – have been fundamental to the progress made in milk production and profitability of our nation’s dairy farms. FC

Leslie N. Firth is retired from a career in the County Extension service. He is past president of the National Association of County Agricultural Agents and former editor of The County Agent. He is the current owner-operator of Firth Farms. Contact him at

This article was adapted from the original text published in Equilibrium: The Quarterly Magazine of The International Society of Antique Scale Collectors, Issue 4, 2008. Visit the society online at

  • Published on Sep 24, 2010
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