In the hot and sticky Pennsylvania summer of 2018, I was lucky enough to meet the Mapes family and photograph their beautiful daughter, Jen Mapes, for a family session at their multi-generational farm. This place is gorgeous. Football fields worth of corn and hay stalks for the soft, brown, doe-eyed cows to gnaw away at all winter long. Rolling hills overlooking other farms across the Susquehanna Valley. An apple orchard the family watched her brother’s wedding in, behind a crest overlooking their parent’s brick farmhouse and several barns and grazing fields for their 100+ prize winning Swiss Dairy Cows. I was in love….and there were BABY COWS!!!!!!!!!!
Triggered by my addiction to all things fluffy, Bear's concerningly agreeable interest in farm life, and Buttercup being in PA as we make the most of summer, I kindly requested a tour for us, after asking if I could ride a cow. (Cows do not enjoy being ridden, unless they raised in such a manner as to be ridden, and you are a very tiny child). Once everyone regained their composure from hysteria, and concerns for my mental health, we gained tour authorization.
If you are not about early mornings, late nights and long days, the farm life is not for you. Morning milking starts at 6:30 am, and evening starts at 5:30 pm. Being a farmer is a 7-day a week occupation. The cows do not just stop making milk on the weekends, so everyone at the farm works a rotation, allowing for some downtime to enjoy life and relax. It is not just milking the cows and kicking back until the next milking either, there are so many other tasks requiring attention throughout the day, but we will get to all those in a bit. These are the lessons I learned:
1. The cows need the routine.
Milking the cows is necessary to keep them healthy. The cows want the milking, and will even push other cows out of the way to get to the milking stand. They know when it is time. and move in to the milking parlor once the gate opens. There is no herding or prodding, these ladies are ready to go. If not milked regularly, and one of the teats becomes backed up, she can get an infection called mastitis. Without antibiotics (while receiving medication, bands mark these animals, and ensure separation during milking) and proper treatment, the cow can become very ill, and stop eating and drinking water - it does not go well from there, no matter how hard the veterinarians and nutritionists try to care for her. Routine is not only necessary for the health of the bovine, it is how they operate. After the milking she meanders back to her own stall in the barn, all on her own accord! If you are having a hard time visualizing this, think of a dog going to its own bed every night, despite the whole house being available.
2. Sanitation and Health are the priority
Anything dealing with the sale of edible products must abide by the strict codes of the Food and Drug Administration, along with additional local and state codes, but farmers do not just make sure the product is clean for consumption and sale; they maintain all their facilities and equipment for the health of the animals and themselves.
Before the cows enter the milking parlor, Jen and her dad check each milking station, confirming the cleanliness and sanitation from the prior milking. A cleaning solution to dip the utters in - prior to, and following the milking machine use - waits at each station. As the cow steps up into the milking stall, the attendant dips the teats in the cleaning solution, and squeezes out the initial milk before hooking the machine to the utter, safeguarding the system from the outside environmental contaminates. An elastic pulley prevents the machine hook-up from hitting the ground as it automatically releases once milking is complete.
The dairy farmers carefully monitor each animal confirming she is healthy and capable of providing safe milk. With regular veterinary visits, nutritional monitoring of the dietary intake and output, and marking and tracking of the gestational cycle each cow her appropriate milking. Jen and her dad communicate across the parlor about the status of each cow approaching the stalls. If there was a band around her ankle marking her, her milk goes in the bucket milker and fed to the calves; if she was pregnant and not producing, she walks straight through the stall after a check for anything which might bring up health concerns. Each cow is known by name by the farmers, and that is exactly how they talk about them, just like we talk about our cats and dogs.
Following the milking, Jen pressure washes each milking stall, plus the rest of parlor, with sanitation chemicals and hot water. She moves on to the control room, flushing all the hoses and pipes - running from the storage tank to the milking stalls - with the same sanitation chemicals and steaming hot water, eliminating any remaining product and preventing contaminants from reaching the 1500lb tank with the next milking. Yes, a 1500lb tank. Companies measure the amount of milk from each farm and cow in pounds, not gallons like we purchase. This has to do with the butterfat content (the creamy stuff) and value of the milk. Jen clears these pipes and hoses to safeguard against anything getting in the system and festering, and ruining the next milking. During the milking, the milk flows through the hoses, surrounded by a coolant pipeline, into the tank and chilled to 38° F, preventing any bacteria from multiplying and growing. When the delivery drivers arrive to load up, they test the tank confirming no presence of antibiotics in the milk. Drivers do not load or deliver milk testing positive for a presence of antibiotics to the plant. Another delicate step to prevent a dairy crisis from reaching the shelves of your local grocer.
As she sanitizes, her dad is still hard at work cleaning up the barns and feeding stalls. He sweeps out the stalls, removing old hay, straw and any uneaten feed (old feed is the perfect for some awful gut bacteria, and this helps measure the dietary intake of the animals). He also cleans out and refills each girls water dish in preparation for their return and next meal. Then comes some science of creating their next meal. At Mapes View Dairy Farm, these cows are top notch, and receive custom mixed feed, done up by Jen’s dad. He pushes through with a wheel barrel filled to the brim, scooping out his nutritional concoction for the cows. He determines the appropriate amount of carbohydrates, fats and proteins, along with vitamins and minerals the cows need based on weather, their level of producing, availability of grasses in the fields, and their gastrointestinal output.
The lack of bugs completely astounded me. Being in a barn, around manure and animals, I prepared for flies, mosquitos, and the like (I even made Buttercup wear long sleeves and pants, despite the August heat, to prevent bug bites). Well I looked like a fool, ferocious fans guard each entrance, stopping those man-eating monsters from entering the facilities; plus, all the cleaning and sanitation measures prevent those little suckers from taking up domicile in the barn. Have you ever wondered why there is a gust of air when you walk into a grocery store? To prevent the bugs! I wonder who took the idea from who….
3. They keep it in the family
While most of the farms are indeed multi-generational farms, I am talking about the lineage of the cows raised and kept at the farms.
When a calf is born it is important for the mama to do her mom thing. She starts by licking the newborn clean. Imagine resting in a 101°F tub, and then out you come, all balled up onto the hard ground, wet and unmoving, unsure of the purpose of these skinny sticks attached to you. Well thank goodness the mom hangs-out and licks that little guy clean, warming the calf’s body and getting all the organs pumping. The afterbirth mom licks off her baby also brings nutrients back in to her system and ensures her health. As the baby finally gets the feeling of the world it is imperative to survival to get colostrum, the first milk with all the antibodies from mom, into the baby’s tummy. Jen also gives the calf a booster vaccine, just like a human baby to help protect against the environment. Sometimes, the mom does not know what to do, and Jen is prepared for this, too. She keeps an extra storage of the colostrum and is always ready to jump in and take care of the baby, from cleaning to feeding.
If the farm can keep the calf, they raise it until it is big and strong enough to join the rest of the herd. Once the calf can stand and walk on its own, Jen leads it to the calf barn to stay safe and allow monitoring. As the calves grow, Jen introduces their digestives system to mixtures of hay and feed throughout the day along with their milk meals. Jen continues monitoring the calf’s growth and health through the acclimation process with progressive feeding and familiarization. Based off changes in dietary needs, size, and approximate age, the calves join into groups with others of similar qualities. The groupings help maintain the safest environment for these long-tongued herbivores.
Around 15 months of age, the cows reach physical maturity and ready for breeding. The breeding actual helps the cows grow bigger and stronger, and once they birth the first calf, they are prepared to join the rest of the milking herd at the farm. A cow’s gestational period is nine months, the same as humans, and holding a baby in your tummy requires some extra rest and attention. These ladies move to another farm together, to visit with all the other prenatal cows. Since they are now eating for two, the nutritional needs require changes in diet, and activity. During the last of the nine months, pending no complications or health concerns, they settle back in to the routine at Mapes View Dairy Farm, preparing for integration with the milking herd.
Mr. Mapes prepares the future mamas with a regimented lifestyle and continued monitoring prior to the calves birthing. He slowly introduces the custom mix for nutritious milk in to their feed, and they have ample opportunities to meet and mingle with the milkers, getting comfortable with the new digs and housemates. As the cows began to show the outward visible signs of birthing, Mr. Mapes with Jen back at his side, gear up and prepare. Once the baby is born, it starts the circle all over again.
So today, drink a glass of milk, enjoy an ice cream sundae with whip cream, bake with butter, eat some chocolate, relish in the stretchy cheesy goodness on your pizza, put some lotion on your dry hands, the list can go on for days. The dairy industry is involved in so much of our daily lives, and we never even think about the care and effort required to get the end product to our homes.
Thank a farmer, hug a cow, just be present in your moment. I'm glad those cows are around, and farmers like Jen and her family are too.
You can learn more about Mapes View Dairy Farm by following them on facebook at: www.facebook.com/mapesviewdairyfarm
Special Thanks to Jen, Mr. and Mrs. Mapes (her parents), and the bird that flew in the car.