Michael has worked as a relief milker since late December for a family in our congregation. Even though Michael didn’t grow up on a farm and has zero milking experience, they offered to train him. He has caught on to the job fast and is really enjoying it. It’s been a nice change for him from sitting at a desk everyday in a credit union dealing with frustrated customers. If it were me, I think I’d rather deal with the back-end of a cow too!
As a relief milker, he works shifts to give the dairy farm manager some breaks, or “relief”, from the every day grind. A working dairy farm is a non-stop job and requires very early mornings and long days. When you aren’t actually milking cows, you are monitoring pasture quality, machine maintenance, caring for any sick or injured cows, moving cows around to different paddocks for different nutritional needs, and much more. One cool thing we learned here is that dairy farmers turn their cows out on to turnip greens for a few hours every day to help boost milk solids. And boy, do the cows love the turnips! The cows also get a dose of apple cider vinegar and magnesium in their water.
Healthy cows are happy cows, and happy cows make tastier milk.
New Zealand dairy farms tend to use more Jersey, Jersey/Friesian, or Jersey/Holstein Cross to yield higher milk solids instead of milking for just volume alone. Although, there are some pretty high producers here in NZ. That Supreme Grand Champion Friesian we saw at A&P Show back in February produces around 10,000 liters a year! You can definitely taste the difference in the milk here compared to US milk. New Zealand dairy is often used to make high quality cheeses, so they aim for higher milk solids in their product. Fun fact: Jersey cows here are lovingly called “yellow bellies” because of their color and not because of a lack of courage 🙂 but they can still get up to mischief.
In a nutshell, as the cow walks on to the platform, there is a feeder of tasty grain waiting for her. Once she is locked on, Michael hooks up the “cups” to the udders. If a cow has a “dry quarter” then that teat is not hooked up to a cup. He is also checking for any signs of infection or injury. There is a simple test for mastitis that can be done on suspected cows. Any cows that have mastitis or are on antibiotics are clearly marked with paint. These cows still get milked but their milk is disposed of and not mixed in with the main supply since their milk will have too high of a white blood cell count and the antibiotics will show up in the milk. There are HUGE fines for dairy farmers who send out milk with antibiotics found in them. So all that “anti-biotic free” labeling on your dairy products is pointless because by law it isn’t allowed in there in the first place. On a daily basis, an acid wash is run through the entire system to clean out any mineral build-up and dirt. An alkali wash is done every Tuesday and Friday, and that cleans out any residual fats and proteins.
At the moment, there are only about 400 cows getting milked, which is about half the size of most dairy farms here in NZ. Michael works in what’s called a rotary shed, which is best described as a big merry-go-round for cows 🙂 There are also Herringbone sheds that are straight and narrow, but you are at a higher risk of getting pooped on in there. Sometimes I’ll go and help out when Michael is working in the afternoons. I basically hang out on the other side of the rotary platform making sure the cows get off. On cold or rainy days they want to stay on there as long as they can. I also attempt to keep everything clean with a giant fire hose. Of all the farm animals, cows are the messiest. There is a reason you practically dress up in a hazmat suit. Two words: splatter radius.
Things are slowing down a bit this time of year since the cows are now being milked once a day from their usual twice daily milking during peak season. Some cows are in calf and will be having their babies right before we leave (yes, I will post baby cows pics!). Some of the older girls who are not pregnant and have decreased in milk production will be sent off to the Freezing Works a.k.a turned into McD’s meat.
Overall, it’s been a fun learning experience for the both of us and has given us some insight into the NZ dairy industry. Our super-sexy, figure-flattering overalls will come home with us (thrift shop finds for under $20!) to use for various future outdoor projects. But sadly, no yellow bellies will fit in our luggage to bring home. Sorry Mom!
Thanks for reading!