Skip to main content

Dairy Farming in Wisconsin: Part 2 - Milking Cows

Paul lived and worked on a dairy farm in Wisconsin during his youth. Since 2012, he has helped his sister on her farm three times.

My Sister and Brother-in-Law's Dairy Farm


Dairy Farming During My Life

My initial experience with dairy farming came when my parents started farming in 1954. As a boy and teenager, I helped my folks with both milkings by hand and later by machine. After I went away to college after graduating from high school, I lost contact with dairy cattle and milking cows for many years. It was just during the second week in October of 2012 that my interest in dairy farming was rekindled. This happened during a one-week visit to my sister Pat and brother-in-law Donnie's farm in northeastern Wisconsin. In some ways, this was like a scene out of "Back to the Future." Dairy farming, however, has changed in the years since 1954. This article will first show how milking has changed in the past 50 years. Drawing on Pat and Donnie's situation, it will also illustrate problems faced by small dairy farmers today.

Early Experiences with Dairy Farming

1. Renting the Charlie Davis Farm

In March 1954, my folks left the city life of Milwaukee and started farming near the village of Mukwonago in southeastern Wisconsin. The place dad fell in love with was a 70 acre rented farm with an old house and small barn on a small hill. It was called the Charlie Davis farm after one of its previous owners.

After moving onto the farm, dad bought a cow, two calves, and started slowly to build up a herd of cattle. He was doing all of this while working a full-time second shift job as a millwright at Allis Chalmers Corporation in West Allis. We called our first cow "Princess" and I remember her as a young, good-looking Holstein. It was interesting to see how Princess was milked by hand, and I had my introduction to barn chores. Every day I helped feed the cows hay and grain and clean the manure away from their stanchions and pens. By the time dad and mom were able to buy a farm three years later, we had a herd of five or six cows and a few calves.

2. Life on a Dairy Farm North of Honey Creek

In March of 1957, we made a short move from the Mukwonago area to a 117-acre farm one-half mile north of the small village of Honey Creek. This farm with a small sloping wooded area and a transversing sparkling creek would finally become our new home. The barn was much bigger, so dad would now have room for 20-25 dairy cattle.

During the next five years before I went away to college in Madison, our herd gradually increased to the point where dad could start to ship milk. Because we didn't have state-of-the-art sanitary milk production facilities, dad and mom had to ship grade B milk which made its way to a butter or cheese factory. I remember having about 10 cows when we started shipping milk around 1958. Twice a day we did the milking using the now outdated vacuum bucket milking method. This was done by using the Surge hanging milker. In this method, a large wide leather strap or surcingle is placed around the cow's lower back. A milking device with four suction cups and an attached collection tank is then hung around the cow from the strap. A hose for the suction cups is plugged into a vacuum pipe which encircles the barn above the rows of cows. There are quick seal ports above each cow.

After a cow was milked, the collected milk was poured into a big pail which I would carry up into the milk house. The milk then went through a strainer before entering an eight-gallon steel milk can. When the milk cans were full, I would lift and place them in a small water cooler that could hold six or eight cans. Every morning a milkman would come and get the cans of milk and then deliver them to a grade B processing plant in our area.

Milking a Cow by Hand

Dairy Farming on Dutch Road

Fast forward now to today. My sister and brother-in-law operate a 140-acre farm off of Dutch Road just outside of Manitowoc, Wisconsin. When I visited with them in October of 2012, they were milking around 40 head of cattle. Almost all of the cows are Holstein. They are kept in a medium-sized barn that has 20 stanchions in two rows and four stanchions in another row. Pat and Donnie have the facilities for shipping grade A milk which can be purchased for fluid consumption in stores.

1. Milking Pipeline System

A milking pipeline system is employed by my sister and brother-in-law. In this system, a permanent milk-return pipe and a second vacuum pipe encircle the barn above rows of cows. Quick seal ports are above each cow. A milking device hung under a cow is held up by the sucking force of rubber nipples on a cow's udder. Milk is then pulled up into a milk-return pipe by the vacuum system, flowing by gravity to a milk house vacuum breaker collection bottle which then puts the milk into a large cylindrical bulk storage tank where it is cooled to 36 degrees Fahrenheit. The milk is collected every other day by a bulk tanker and then taken to a grade A processing plant for pasteurization.

2. Milking Cows

If you are a dairy farmer, you milk cows twice a day, 365 days a year. One milking is in the early morning, and the other in the early evening. In Donnie and Pat's case, one milking of 40 cows takes about two hours. After the milking pipeline system is turned on, Pat and Donnie must first prepare the cows for milking. This is done by washing the cows' teats with an antiseptic so that they will start letting their milk down. Restraints must also be put on the legs or on the lower back of those cows that kick during milking. A milking device is then attached to the cow with a hose leading up to the milk-return pipe and another to the vacuum pipe. In general, it takes about five to seven minutes to milk a cow. After the milking unit is removed, the cows' teats are dipped into an iodine disinfectant mix.

3. Milk Production

Cows usually start to produce milk when they are two years old after their first calving. They will continue to be milked every day until two months before their next calving. A very good cow will produce about 70 pounds or six gallons of milk per day. It obviously will produce less if it is malnourished or sick.

4. Dairy Cattle Ailments

Mastitis is a common problem with dairy cattle. A cow with mastitis has a persistent inflammation of the udder or mammary gland tissue which is caused by the invasion of bacteria into the teat canal. Mastitis can be treated with antibiotics; however, a farmer may not ship any of the infected cow's milk while traces of drugs are in the cow's body.

Milking Cows Using the Pipeline System


Milking Dairy Cattle

This is my sister using a machine to milk a cow.

This is my sister using a machine to milk a cow.

A Newborn Calf on My Sister's Farm

Problems Faced by the Small Dairy Farmer Today

The small dairy farmer today is faced with many serious problems that threaten to make the small family dairy farm a thing of the past. Some of the major problems include:

1. Low Price of Milk

Patty and Donnie are now getting about $14.00 per 100 pounds for their shipped milk. The price of milk has been down, and according to Pat, they would have to get at least $25.00 per 100 pounds to break even.

2. High Cost of Feed

Each month my sister and brother-in-law spend between eight and ten thousand dollars on grain, protein, minerals, and supplements as feed for their cattle. This cost is inflated when additional silage and hay or haylage must be purchased.

3. High Cost of Producing Crops

A farmer tries to grow as much feed as possible, but this is hard to do with the high cost of crop production and occasional drought. These production expenses include the high cost of diesel fuel for tractors, maintenance of tractors and farm machinery, the cost of seeds, fertilizer, and chemical weed sprays, as well as the hiring of some harvesting work and occasional, hired help.

4. Barn Maintenance Expenses

Unless a farmer is a handyman and jack-of-all-trades, he will have to pay a high cost for barn maintenance expenses. This would include fixing the cows' drinking water pipes and repairs to the milking pipeline system.

5. Vet Bills

Cows do get sick with ailments like mastitis. Veterinarians must be called and paid. With Pat being a vet, the only expense in treating animals is the cost of Pat's drugs.

6. No Loan Funding From Banks

Today most banks consider small dairy farmers a risk. For this reason, banks are usually unwilling to extend any loans to small farmers.

The New Large Dairy Farmer

The dairy farming industry today is evolving in the same way as the grocery business. When I was a kid in the late 1950s, the village of Honey Creek one-half mile down the road from our farm had two Mom and Pop convenience stores. Mom and Pop shops have now been replaced by big supermarkets all over.

This same phenomenon is presently occurring in the dairy industry. Small dairy farms like Pat and Donnie's are being replaced by large dairy farms that milk at least 200-500 cows and are funded by big corporations. Three of the evident characteristics of these large dairy farms are:

1. Milking Parlours

Cows are no longer milked exactly the way Pat and Donnie do. Milking parlors have now been used for some years. In the milking parlor system, cows come to a designated milking area rather than the farmer having to go to their fixed stanchions. In one variety of this popular system, cows come onto an elevated circular platform and are secured. The farmer who is in a pit maybe five to six feet below then can easily and quickly attach the milking units which operate similarly to the pipeline system.

2. Robotic Milking Systems

Robotic milking systems developed by the Netherlands have been commercially available since the early 1990s. An agricultural robot does the automation of the milking process, and it relies on computers and herd management software.

The robotic milking unit system comprises a milking machine, teat position sensors (lasers,) a robotic arm for automatic teat-cup application and removal, and a gate system for controlling cow traffic.

The system operates this way. When a cow decides to enter a milking unit due to feed in a milking box, a cow ID sensor (transponder) on the cow passes the cow to the control system. If the cow may be milked, automatic teat cleaning, milk cup application, milking, and finally teat spraying take place.

One robotic milking system can milk 50-70 cows per day at a frequency of two or three times daily. The cost of one unit is at least $200,000.

All of this information was taken from Wikipedia.

3. Use of Illegal Alien Labor

According to farmers that I talked with in Pat's area, the large dairy farms hire and employ a lot of illegal Mexican labor. This illegal help without documented work permits will many times work for less than the minimum wage. The big farmer also undoubtedly can get away from not paying their insurance or giving them usual worker benefits.

The small dairy farm is rapidly fading away in American life. The low price of milk, the high cost of feed, crop production expenses, vet bills, and maintenance costs are forcing an end to the family farm. It is being replaced by large dairy farms or agribusinesses just like many other small businesses today.

Robotic Milking

Milking Parlour


Problems Faced by Small Dairy Farmers

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2012 Paul Richard Kuehn

Related Articles