A few months ago, while I was squeezing a cheesecloth filled with pulped nuts to make almond milk, I realized that I had yet to milk a cow. It took the gush of almond juice between my fingers for me to realize that this was the closest to milking a “teat” that I had ever gotten.
Another reason is more personal and slightly embarrassing: I love animals, but they make me skittish. I grew up in the suburbs and I never had pets (my boyfriend’s rabbit, Hector, is a recent exception). I am skeptical at the idea of forming a symbiotic working relationship with an animal, especially one with significant tonnage and a powerful kick. Even when I watch cows peacefully grazing in a pasture, the way they whip their heads and stomp their hooves remind me that, if they were to coalesce and stampede in my direction, I’d wind up looking a lot like a cow pie.
The thought of crouching under one of these titanic quadrupeds to yank at their most sensitive parts was more than a little unsettling to me. If I was going to learn how to milk a cow, I was going to need a patient, animal-loving expert to help me do so.
Every so often, social media brings us moments of serendipity. When the Maine Animal Club’s Milk-a-Cow event popped across my Facebook feed, it felt like kismet. The club of students at the University of Maine has hosted the event for the past three years at the university’s farm, the J. Franklin Witter Teaching & Research Center.
“We thought it was a good idea because it’s a good way to promote farming and dairy farming to the public,” said Hadley Moore, president of the Maine Animal Club. “Most people may not have family members that own a farm [but] it’s important for people to understand what goes into the care of animals.”
Moore said the event, which serves as a fundraiser for the club to travel to events like out-of-state animal science competitions, livestock judgings and quiz bowls, really took off last year, ballooning from a couple dozen attendees the previous year to over a hundred. More importantly, Milk-a-Cow is popular with families and kids, which means the student instructors would be ready to handle a jittery, uncoordinated novice milker like me.
Learning to try
Hand milking always seemed arcane to me. Many dairies rely on milking machines, which have four rubber-lined cups that pump milk from a cow’s teats into a tank, because they are exponentially more efficient. According to the American Dairy Association, milking machines can milk a cow in five minutes. Before milking machines were popularized, farmers could only milk about six cows per hour.
Milking machines present a double-edged sword for dairies, though. While the number of dairy farms in the United States has decreased dramatically in the past few decades, the overall production of milk has increased, in part thanks to mechanization. The supercharged production per cow has led to an oversupply in the market while demand continues to fall, driving milk prices well below the cost of production.