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The Cat's Meow

 by Vern Zielke

It used to be that every farm boy had to milk cows. It was not that many of us lived on large dairy farms with modern, state of the art facilities for milk production. Family farms had cows to supply the daily milk and cream for household use. Milk was also fed to the young calves and to the pigs, which were being fattened for market. It was an absolute certainty, like death and taxes, that the cows would have to be milked twice a day.

This job was always referred to as "doing the chores." This would include getting the cows from the pasture, putting feed into their feed troughs, and letting them come into the barn to find their designated stalls. Most of the time the cows were truly domesticated and easy to handle. Each of them had a name, and they always knew which stall to occupy after they were trained.

We never had an electric milking machine and so we had to milk "by hand."  Generally there were three of us to do the milking and we would usually have at least ten cows to milk.  The procedure was to take a clean three-gallon pail from the separator room in one hand, a three-legged milk stool in the other, and approach Daisy from the right rear. The stool was then placed next to her and you would sit with the bucket between your knees. For those not acquainted with a cow's anatomy, it would be helpful to explain that Daisy's udder had four teats. The object of the entire exercise was to empty the udder by squeezing the teats with a pulling motion until you were sure that the udder had been thoroughly emptied.  Since there were four teats and you had only two hands, you usually worked on the two to your left first, and then finished with the two to your right.

All of this was pretty much routine and to have to do this twice a day was, for a young boy, a somewhat unexciting task. There were, of course, times when the routine was interrupted. In the summertime it was flies. Flies loved to congregate in barns and they also loved to gather on the backs of cows. They would bite the cows and the cows were, of course, equipped with a defensive instrument, which was known as a tail. They were extremely adept at constantly swinging this lethal weapon back and forth in an effort to sweep away the pesky flies. If you were seated in the position described above it was inevitable that you would be under constant bombardment. A slap in the face was irritating and could be painful.

A "slop" in the face with a tail laden with fresh cow manure was especially hard to accept. A cow's tail was sometimes thus fortified in the Spring when the fresh, green wheat on which she had been grazing brought on diarrheic symptoms. This often resulted in a verbal diatribe by the milker, directed mostly at the cow, but also inclusive of the whole wretched business of having to do "the chores." If the cow was insulted by any of this she mostly kept her feelings to herself. Sometimes, however, the cow would respond by perversely raising her leg and neatly placing her foot in the milk bucket. Then you were faced with a two-fold dilemma: First you had to figure out how to get the foot out of the pail. When you would finally persuade her to allow you to lift the foot from the pail you had to decide how to dispose of the milk which was now not fit for human consumption. At times like this, it was the pigs that got an extra supply in their troughs.

There were other diversions for a young boy bored with his task. A skilled milker can extract milk from the cow with quite a bit of force. My mother was a skilled milker. When she began her task with an empty bucket between her knees, the sound of the milk hitting the bottom of the bucket resounded throughout the barn like a symphony tuning up before a performance. I tried to develop a similar technique, and it was gratifying to hear the milk spatter against the pail's bottom, and as it filled, to see a head of foam build up in the bucket. But alas, I would too often digress. I soon discovered that by turning the cow's teat away from the pail one could aim the stream of milk out into space and shoot the stream clear across the barn. This was especially effective if you had friends over and they came to watch you milk. You could, without warning, direct a stream of fresh, warm, whole milk at anyone within range.

We always had numerous cats. They were always present at milking time, because they knew that eventually they would get some fresh, warm milk in their dishes. They would congregate in front of the door to the separator room, and generally make a nuisance of themselves. But the presence of the cats at milking time presented the possibility of a very enjoyable diversion for the young milker, which would test his milking skills to the limit. It did not take long to engage a cat's interest by squirting one of them with a stream of milk. At first, the reaction was to retreat a safe distance and lick the affected area. Upon tasting the fresh milk, it was not difficult to lure them back for more. The trick now was to aim the stream just above the cat so that it would have to stretch a bit to make contact. It was not long till a cat could be trained to walk about on its hind legs in pursuit of an illusive stream of milk. To keep the cat interested, it was advisable to occasionally aim directly at its mouth, thus restoring its confidence in the integrity of the game.

And so it was that not all was work and no play. Jack was not always a dull boy as a result, and as for the cats, well, they were generally well fed and they really did seem to think that they were the "cat's meow"!


(Copyright Vern Zielke)

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