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On the Edge of Common Sense: A happy day in the milking barn

Baxter Black Published on 11 September 2014

When someone tells me they grew up on a dairy farm, I say, “You have paid your dues, my son.”

The offspring of a dairyman that follows in his father’s footsteps is as scarce as a second-generation Nobel Prize winner, bomb dismantler or president of North Korea. So it is with pleasure that I congratulate those dairymen who are havin’ a heyday this year.

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They, like all farmers and ranchers, have had ups and downs. I remember 1973-1974. I have bad dreams about it. I was running an animal health/grain mill store in Idaho at a time when dairymen were beginning to move north from California.

Record-high prices for grain and low milk prices sank the milk/feed ratio to 1.5. I had heartbreaking conversations with desperate dairymen asking me for one more load of feed on credit.

In 2009, another national dairy wreck devastated the industry, sinking the index to a 1.6 ratio. But this year, the ratio hit a record 2.55. The price for milk hundredweight is twice what it was 10 years ago.

The beef cattle business recognizes the impact the dairy business has on cattle prices. Last year’s president of the National Cattlemen’s Association was a dairyman.

The crossover began in the feedlots when they found an expanding market for Holstein steers, animals whose carcass rarely reaches choice. Fast-food burgers and taco meat has bolstered the price of the dairy breeds since half of their offspring are male and there is a place to go with old cows.

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In Idaho, I worked for a company that fed potato waste. One of the products was a slurry that was high in energy but 90 percent moisture. The final ration was soupy but nutritious. I remember calculating the as-fed consumption in a pen of 1,000-pound Holstein steers; 119 pounds a day.

They were not very popular with the cowboys. As Dr. Eng said, “It’s hard to be a cowboy when the steers are following you around.”

In spite of Dr. Spock’s recommendation that we all become vegetarians and no human at any age should drink cow’s milk, the 99 percent of us homo sapiens who are born omnivores kindly refuse to revert to the drudgery in which herbivores live their lives.

Sorry, Doctor, but we made that choice as cavemen, which allowed us to evolve to the top of the heap and rightfully have dominion over all the animals, bovine or not.

A bright future technologically is making dairying a less hands-on operation. It may become common for robots to take over tasks we could never imagine.

As it gets harder and harder for dairies to find a labor force that is willing to do the manual labor, the more they welcome the robots. And maybe these advances might entice more of the next generation to stay on the farm.

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’Cause let’s face it, milkin’ 12 head of cows by hand in a bucket before breakfast every morning is hard labor, and there’s a few ol’ timers that can remember doing it. You can find them in the nursing home after retiring from a comfortable life of working for Merck, DeLaval, Progressive Dairyman or Ohio Farm and Dairy. They ran away from home.PD

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