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0806 PD: Milking across the Pacific: One herd's five-day journey aboard a cargo ship

Walt Cooley Published on 23 August 2006

When there’s any excuse to visit Hawaii, most people take it. Dairy cattle and herd genetics broker Marty Mickelson used his excuse to visit the island four times one summer.

His trips, however, were barely a vacation. Mickelson was moving a 280-cow dairy herd from Hawaii to Oregon by cargo ship.

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“No one, as far as we knew, had ever brought milking cows from Hawaii to the mainland by boat,” Mickelson says.

It didn’t take long for Mickelson to wonder what he had gotten himself into.

Mickelson of Lewiston, Utah, has been buying, transferring and then re-selling purebred bulls, beef bulls and clean-up bulls from dairies throughout the United States since 1982. Usually he pulls his cattle behind a blue Dodge pick-up with a 30-foot cattle trailer. In almost 25 years, he says he has put nearly 2 million miles on five different pick-ups while delivering cattle. However, that mileage doesn’t include the more than 10,000 miles he traveled in cattle containers between Hawaii and the West Coast during the summer of 2004.

“Two days into the first trip while standing in the freight container, I wondered why in the heck I ever did this,” Mickelson says. “I thought, ‘My next trip to Hawaii is going to have nothing to do with cows.’”

But between early May and mid-July 2004, Mickelson’s next three trips to Hawaii were all about cows.

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Brokering a deal
“When the seller called, I asked him twice, ‘Where are you from?’” Mickelson recalls. “I said, ‘Hawaii. That’s a big trip. We’ll come and look at them.’”

Mickelson told his wife he didn’t know if he would buy the herd, but that he was definitely going to take a look – both at the cows and Hawaii.

Mickelson was stepping into a shrinking dairy industry. Between 2000 and 2004, Hawaii’s dairy herd shrank, on average, by 11 percent each year. So when Dave Kugel wanted to sell his cows to move with his wife to the Philippines, finding a buyer in-state wasn’t going to be easy. Most dairies weren’t expanding, and if they were, they had an excess supply of replacements.

Moreover, for Mickelson, what started as a leisure trip to Hawaii turned into a right-time, right-place deal.

While visiting Kugel in Hawaii, Mickelson received a call from a dairy owner in Oregon who needed 300 cows. Mickelson told him he was looking at 300 cows right then and asked if he would be willing to buy them. He said if the buyer wanted them, he would find a way to get them to Oregon. Kugel’s willingness to sell at below market value and the caller’s immediate need for replacements negated transportation costs, and the deal was done.

“The price was comparable to what [the buyer] could get locally,” Mickelson recalls.

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For each of four trips, Mickelson filled seven 40-foot-by-8-foot freight containers with 10 cows each. He says moving the cows by boat was the only logistical option. He checked with airline companies to see if he could fly the cows to his buyer in Oregon. But airlines said they could only give Mickelson up to 24 hours notice to have the cows ready and they couldn’t guarantee how many containers they could fly at one time. An airlift option wasn’t feasible, Mickelson says, for the herd’s 2X-milked cows.

So Mickelson arranged for the cows to travel on the S.S. Kauai, a cargo ship capable of carrying more than 29,000 tons or 1,626 containers. To be cautious, Mickelson decided to take only dry and tail-end cows on the first trip.

The journey begins
For Marty Mickelson and his 14-year-old son Austin, the ocean journey began at 6:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning in Waianae, Hawaii, 30 miles west of Honolulu.

Mickelson and Kugel milked the herd’s 30 tail-end cows. Every half-hour, the group working at Evergreen Hillside Dairy sent a trailer loaded with cows, hay cubes, automatic waterers and feeding troughs to the dock in Honolulu.

By evening, the cows were loaded on the ship, and by 9:30 p.m. Marty and his son had boarded. They brought with them rubber gloves, cloth towels, iodine, a show milker and several 5-gallon buckets as milking equipment.

“When we loaded the ship, we fully intended on milking the cows twice a day, if we could,” Marty says.

He soon found out that would not be possible.

Marty and his son were up by 6:30 a.m. the next day. There were no lights in the cattle containers, so the duo worked while the sun was up. Marty ran the show milker, filling the 5-gallon buckets. Austin carried the buckets from the cattle containers to the side of the ship then down a small stairwell without guardrails in order to dump the milk.

One milking took nine hours.

Later, Marty wrote about the on-board milking experience: “It takes the cows about three days to figure out what we want them to do. It’s so simple – just stand still.”

But after dinner, the day’s chores still weren’t done. There was laundry to do.

The cloth towels and their milking clothes had to be washed and dried in the ship’s laundry room. The team didn’t get to sleep until late that night.

On the third day of the trip, the ship’s captain came to Marty to ask if they had any dead animals. Marty told him, “No, and we don’t plan on it.” Out of curiosity, he asked the captain what he would do if an animal did die. The captain said he would call together the crew to drag the animal out of the container and push it overboard. The captain said that during a recent trip, he had a container of beef cattle, in which 14 animals died.

Marty says none of the cows got sick, but they were stressed because there was nowhere to lie down. The bottom of the container was sprayed out daily, but retained an inch of water. The watery environment caused a few cases of mastitis, Marty says.

For the next four days, the milking routine continued. Marty says there was plenty of time while milking to rethink what he had gotten himself into.

“I thought, ‘Why are you doing this? This is stupid,’” Marty says. “But we committed to do it, so we did it.”

By the end of the trip Saturday, everyone was glad a land-based parlor would be doing the next milking.

“There’s nothing like the day when you first see land after being on that ship for five days,” Marty says. “It’s almost like holding your first-born son. The most exciting thing that you can imagine is seeing land.”

The cows were unloaded at a port in Seattle and then trucked about 300 miles to Redmond, Oregon. True to his statement to the captain, in four trips none of the herd’s 280 cows died.

Marty and Austin helped unload the cows in Oregon before heading home to Utah. The Mickelsons had a week to prepare for their next trip. Meanwhile, the S.S. Kauai would head back to Hawaii. Both Marty’s team and the ship would meet up again.

Milking across the Pacific
When the cargo ship and Marty met again, Marty had 70 lactating dairy cows and more equipment and help. This time he brought his oldest son, Thayne, and Thayne’s friend, Colby Law. Marty also lined the bottom of his seven freight containers with a 4-inch layer of wood shavings for cow comfort and mastitis prevention. He also brought floodlights for the containers.

Using both show milkers connected by rubber tubing to a 55-gallon barrel, the three men finished milking all 70 cows in nine hours, the same amount of time it took to milk 30 cows the first trip.

“The second trip, on the first day, the cows were lying down chewing their cud. The waters were calm, and we didn’t have any problems after that first load,” Marty says. “Each trip was a little better because we knew what we were getting into.”

The extra equipment meant Marty and his team had more time to get to know the crew and enjoy the scenery.

The ship’s 24 crew members had quickly learned about Marty and his team on the first journey. In subsequent trips, the crew fell in love with the flavored Gossner’s shelf-stable milk Marty brought with him. The milk, a product of a milk and cheese processing plant in Logan, Utah, paid dividends in the form of future help or favors from the crew.

Before one of the trips, the ship’s first mate refused to sail from port until the load order was changed to make it easier for Marty to milk. Marty’s group also got a tour of the bridge and a chance to steer the ship. While visiting with the crew, they usually chuckled at their sea stories.

One of the bridge crewmen asked Marty if they had any milk snakes in his area. He claimed that in the South, milk snakes would lie in the grass and wait for cows to come by. They would then latch onto one of the cow’s teats and suck the quarter dry.

“We got a kick out of that because he was very serious,” Marty says. “We laughed and told him they must only be in the South, because it’s too cold in the winter in our area for milk snakes to survive.”

That story and others from the journey still make Marty and his boys grin and chuckle. They still occasionally call each other shipmates.

“It was a bittersweet vacation,” Thayne says. “It wasn’t my favorite, but I would do it again.”

Marty agrees, although he says if he did it again he’d take longer to move the herd and only move dry cows. He has since received other calls from dairies in Hawaii that are going out of business or would like to sell their cows. And current production trends suggest there will probably be even more opportunities in the future. The National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) recently reported Hawaii’s milk production in April was 4.7 million pounds per month with a herd population of 4,500, a 20-percent decrease already from the state’s herd size at the end of 2005. Pacific Business News recently reported most of the milk produced in Hawaii is used for cream or ice cream. Fluid milk for consumption is regularly brought in from the West Coast on the same cargo boat Marty and his temporary herd piggybacked for four weeks one summer.

“At first I didn’t think I’d do it again, but I would,” Marty says. “Maybe its like a woman having a baby; after a couple of years you look back and think, ‘Well, it wasn’t that bad.’” PD

Walt Cooley, PD Associate Editor

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