I know I am the crop and livestock expert for Grainews (NOT) — fact is I’m just old, and no expert on anything — but every time I write a story about a dairy farming operation today, I can’t help but recall some childhood memories, growing up on an Eastern Ontario dairy farm.
This past month I talked to a young dairy farmer in Debert, Nova Scotia who along with his wife were milking between 80 and 100 head three times a day. My flashback goes to the late 1950s (I shudder to think that was about 60 years ago).
The Hart dairy farm had two dairy barns in my time. The accompanying photo (early 1950s) shows the “old” or original setup, while the new stable with a milkhouse was built in 1963. Contractor George Brunsveld was just finishing the new barn in the fall of 1963 at the same time President John Kennedy was assassinated. It has always remained as a timing reference point for me.
But the old dairy barn had lots of character. Probably by just about every measure today of animal welfare and milk quality it would be condemned. That’s not to say animals were mistreated or the milk produced by these old Holsteins was unhealthy — not by any means. Our dairy wasn’t any different than dozens or hundreds of small farms across the St. Lawrence Seaway valley, but it’s just that the rules and regulations for dairy operations are not only just different, but much stricter.
In this photo my brother Mark is standing beside a couple of the D19 milk cans my Dad used to ship milk. (It also appears that my brother is about to be attacked by a wolf. I don’t really remember that farm dog. It might be my Grandpa’s dog, Bud, who “disappeared” not long after I began roaming around the scene.)
In the barn
The main stable was in the back corner of the open front shed. It was a low-ceilinged stable that held about 15 milk cows, tied in a row in stanchions. It was the modern stable in those days — it had electricity, so therefore it had a few electric lights and power to run milking machines.
On the other side of the barnyard, (out of view on the left side of the photo at top) was the old log stable that did not have electricity. It held about 15 animals too and was used mostly for young replacement heifers and a few overflow cows from the milking herd. As I recall there was usually about half a dozen milk cows in the old log building that had to be milked by hand and it was usually my grandpa or my mom who would hand milk cows in that stable, while my dad looked after the high tech Chore Boy milking machines in the main stable.
When I got old enough to be pressed into child labour, it would often be my job to carry buckets of milk from the log stable along the stone steps that crossed one side of the barnyard to the main stable. The buckets of milk were dumped into strainers on top of the eight-gallon milk cans and I would carry the empty buckets back to the log stable.
My Dad shipped milk to Nestle’s Ltd. in nearby Chesterville and he owned about 10 of the eight-gallon milk cans. At the end of each milking there would be four or five cans of milk that had to be carried (so each one was about 80 pounds or so) through that open front shed and to a water trough located somewhere near where my brother is standing. Later I remember my dad building a wooden platform that was fitted to the back of a grey Ford tractor. That made life simpler. He would back the tractor into the far side of the open-front shed, load the milk cans on the platform and then carefully drive over some rocky barnyard ground to the trough.
The cans of milk were placed in the water trough and before electricity reached that far across the yard, my dad, grandpa or older brother would use a hand pump on top of the well platform to pump water into the trough to cool the milk over night. Milk from the morning milking didn’t have to be cooled. The full milk cans from the night and morning milkings were loaded on the tractor platform or hay wagon and taken to the gate at the end of the lane, where the Nestle’s milk trucked picked them up every morning.
It was a system that worked, and perhaps as simple as it was it kept our farm and thousands more operating for many years. I don’t mean to sound like a dinosaur but it wasn’t until new standards and regulations and a new milk marketing system was introduced in the 1960s that small dairy farms began to disappear. The cost of new technology began to weed out those who weren’t able to keep up.
That young Nova Scotia dairy producer I talked to was a bit apologetic they weren’t using all the latest technology and were still collecting milk in glass weigh jars in a milking parlour. And I thought, hey man, nothing wrong with that, just be thankful you’ve got electricity. I remember a time when…