Myrtle, like all of our registered Holsteins back in the 1950s, had a three- or four-word official name. I don't recall what it was. Each one of our animals had a certificate that told their names - as fancy as any human's - with a green, scrolled border and an embossed stamp of authenticity.
She was born in Canada, and Dad purchased her at a monthly auction up at Williamston, Mich., like many cows in our herd. We milked between 25 and 30 cows at the time, using two Hinman milking machines. The machines sat on the bedding beside the cow, and the long, black hose from each device plugged into a vacuum line that ran down the top of the stanchions. With a turn of the petcock, the milker would start its alternating, pulsating action. The bucket held 60 pounds of milk, and some of the cows would nearly fill it.
The metal stanchions were in the basement of the tall barns, which had stone walls around all four sides. Cement floors and large wooden beams supported the floor above. The beams were flattened on one side only, so the part we viewed as we did chores and milked was rounded to the trees' exact shape when they were felled. A white-wash was sprayed over the entire basement - walls and all - to accommodate the state milk inspectors who visited once a year.
Like all kids who grow up around animals, I quickly learned they had individual traits and personalities. We started milking as the cows began eating their grain and corn silage. Those cows that leaked milk as they stood waiting were first in line. Some wet the floor beneath their hind legs as milk dripped or ran from all four teats. Yet, some did not leak a single drop. Some even liked to be milked. They stepped and swayed gently as the four-teat cups were put into place, and the milk gushed down the clean plastic tube into the metal bucket. On the other hand, some cows only tolerated the milking.
Dad was raised before the milking machine was invented. He could sit down on a stool and milk a cow almost as fast as a machine. He still milked cows occasionally by hand, usually the first week after they gave birth when their udders were sore and swollen. Because a newborn calf usually nursed only one teat, Dad would set his stool down beside the new mother and milk the remaining quarters by hand. Some liked the hand-milking, and some did not, but Dad had a no-nonsense policy: It wasn't a matter of what the cow liked but what had to be done.
Cows reached their milk production peak a few weeks after giving birth. For the next four or five months, the milk flowed in great quantities. Then it tapered off as the cows were impregnated to calf again 12 to 14 months later. Each cow was allowed a no-milk 'dry period' as she prepared to give birth again. It was a brief rest period in a lifetime of milk production that usually totaled more than 100,000 pounds.
If Dad were still with us, he'd more accurately recall the circumstances surrounding our discovery that Myrtle preferred to be milked by hand. The fact is that she would quickly dry up if milked with a machine. We kept records of each cow's milk production, which was part of our breeding program. Those records quickly told us which cows were the most profitable - it was the one thing Dad always checked before purchasing a cow. Myrtle had a great production record until we used a milking machine. She quickly dried up just at the time when she should have been at peak production. I had a hunch that she preferred the 'hands-on' contact that she experienced while Dad hand-milked her for a week or more after she gave birth. One thing was certain, though, at the rate her milk production was falling, she would be the least profitable of all our cows and certainly slated for a one-way ride to the stockyard.
It was probably no more than a 'hunch' Dad had from a lifetime of milking cows, but he got out his stool one night and started milking Myrtle by hand. Within a couple of weeks she produced more than 100 pounds a day. She wasn't a very big cow, and Dad had powerful hands. Old Myrtle would stand there, having stopped eating when Dad sat down beside her, and she'd half-close her eyes as if in a trance while the rhythm of two big streams of milk hit the bucket. I'd watch her back as Dad milked. She literally bounced up and down as Dad pulled and squeezed her teats. He'd fill one foamy bucket, empty it, and then fill another partly full before that udder was emptied. A few times I had to milk Myrtle if Dad was in the field running the combine or if a meeting kept him from his chores. It took me at least three times as long to milk a cow, and Myrtle would keep turning her head and looking at me. I could tell what she was thinking, but I was doing my best.
Each year, as Myrtle prepared to have another calf, Dad swore he was not going to milk her by hand again. He'd start with the milking machine, but Myrtle always won out in the end. Eventually, he milked her by hand right up until the day she died.
As she aged, Myrtle became crippled with arthritis and was forced to shuffle along, her hind legs refusing more and more to bend. We finally put her in a box stall by herself so she wasn't shoved and injured by the other cows, and Dad carried the milk bucket to the barn and milked her there. Yet, she didn't need to be in a stall. Wherever she happened to stand when Dad arrived with pail in hand, he milked her on the spot. She wouldn't move a muscle until he was finished.
Dad occasionally mentioned that he shouldn't breed her because she was too crippled and old, but Myrtle was still one of our top producers. She got so crippled that finally in the summer we left her stall open so she could go outside anytime. There was no fenced yard near that barn, so Myrtle grazed on our lawn. We didn't worry that she would leave - some days she only managed to move 15 or 20 feet. We kept her watered and fed, but she seemed to get skinnier and smaller each year.
That last summer, Myrtle stayed in the yard day and night. We'd set water out for her and bring her grain in a bucket because it seemed too painful for her to have to walk back to the barn to eat. We ground feed in a smaller barn next to the one that housed Myrtle's stall. Like the cow barn, it was two stories and had a ramp going up to another floor where the big, red feed grinder sat. The cattle stalls were located a floor below the grinder. We dropped feed to a manger through a trap door near the grinder twice a day.
Farmers spend summer days in the fields, and that's where we were that day we found Myrtle dead. We never expected the old cow to make it up the ramp and into the barn beside the feed grinder, as crippled as she was. That is exactly what she did. We found her when we came to do chores in the late afternoon. She had fallen through the open trap door to the manger below. All of us had sad faces during chores that night.
Farmers always face the reality of life. Animals live but a short time, and most farmers try not to get too attached because so many come and go. But Myrtle was a special, one-of-a-kind cow. Looking back, I realize that Dad and Myrtle were a lot alike. Maybe that's what created the bond between them. When either made up their minds, they didn't change them. I don't think Myrtle ever won her mental tug of war with Dad. It was a draw based on mutual admiration and respect. I think Dad enjoyed the singing rhythm of those streams of milk as much as Myrtle loved that personal, hands-on attention. FC
- Harry Macomber lived on a Michigan farm until he was 24. He now resides in Watertown, Tenn., and works in the printing and publishing industry.
It was probably no more than a 'hunch' Dad had from a lifetime of milking cows, but he got out his stool one night and started milking Myrtle by hand. Within a couple of weeks she produced more than 100 pounds a day.