Monday, December 6, 2010

Winter Milking

Milking cattle in winter is a unique experience. All the metal and steel suck the cold in until its almost colder in the barns than out, even with the canvases rolled down on the outside of the barns to keep the wind inside to a minimum. I usually milk nights, so with the darkness outside, the barn is a shining beacon in a white, or black, winter landscape.

The sand steams when you go out to bring cows into the catch pen and subsequently into the parlor. When it’s very cold, when you look back towards the parlor from the far side of the barn, all the group of cows between you and the parlor, a fog settles in from all the steam off the sand, warmed from the cows’ bodies, and their breath converges so it’s almost impossible to see the milk house. Scraping gets challenging when the ground finally freezes hard, but until then the manure is sloppy, like pushing a half-melted chocolate milkshake, or rolling chocolate chunk ice cream if its colder. When the muck hits the white snow, it slops all over and the white is spoiled.

The milk lines inside are like blood vessels. They carry white life-giving fluid through metal veins. It heats the hoses enough to keep them pliable, but barely enough to warm your hands. We wear two pairs of rubber gloves and stick our hands in the flanks of the cows to warm them, much to the cows’ chagrin. Maybe it’s our course jokes about feelin’ up udders that makes them cranky.

It’s cold enough to make your teeth and knees ache. Or maybe it’s how all the metal and cement draw the cold, suck it in, and breathe out with it. When we wash down at the end of the shift, all the heat vanishes from the milk lines. Fingers are stiff and fumble on the milkers, chilled by the metal and rubber. The cold is like an entity, burning through wet clothes and heavy boots, stealing presence of mind and hope for dawn. Teeth chattering, you walk to your car.