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1608 PD: Idaho dairyman thankful for old back injury

Heather Pilkinton Published on 06 November 2008

Vic Robinson’s dairy, just outside of Richfield, Idaho, is reminiscent of the small, family dairies that were once the staple of Idaho’s dairy industry. It isn’t much to look at, and it lacks a lot of the modern equipment found in today’s high-tech operations; however, Robinson wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Are you sure I can’t talk you into taking a goose or two?” he says of the 50 or so who honk loudly while waddling out to the nearby field. An array of different animals grace the little dairy; along with the cows, the geese and some horses, a mismatched menagerie of chickens make their home around the barn, and an old farm cat can be seen scurrying by, hoping to score a field mouse or two.

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But for Robinson, it has always been first and foremost about the cows, because it has been the cows that have taken care of him through everything, including two very dark periods in his life.

Robinson has not always been a dairyman, although it is hard now to picture him in any other occupation. In fact, Robinson had originally worked for the canal company, until a back injury forced him out of that job.

Unable to work and facing a back surgery, Robinson bought himself a few cows to milk. A month later, his back injury had completely healed.

“The doctor told me to keep doing whatever it was I was doing,” he says.

Which he has for 30 years.

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And he never did have that back surgery.

Robinson was well established in the dairy business when he married his wife, Janet.

“We were friends in high school, but I never thought she would be interested in someone like me. She was a cheerleader and the Homecoming Queen, and I was just an old plowboy,” he laughs, thinking back. But marry they did, and together, they had their daughter, Jessica.

Robinson and his wife had been married six and a half years when he lost her suddenly to a brain aneurysm. He suddenly found himself not only a widower, but left with the responsibility of raising a 6-year-old little girl on his own. Again, his cows came through. They not only helped him cope with the loss of his beloved wife, but they also provided him a way to stay home and raise his daughter, even providing “babysitting services.”

He tells the story of “Friend Cow,” and how she became Jessica’s babysitter. He talks of how she would lie down in the pasture, and Jessica would lie down beside her, the old cow protecting the child just like her own calf. He says the old cow was better than any babysitter he could have ever hired.

Because Robinson feels he owes his cows so much, he does his best to take care of them.

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“Most of my cows are born here, and most of them die here,” he says, “I have cows that are 12 and 14 years old who are still milking.” Robinson continues on to say that he does his best not to stress his cows and tries to keep everything as close to nature as possible. He has never used bST and has an incredible somatic cell count that averages between 90,000 and 120,000 (he says he gets stressed if it goes any higher). He also relies on his own intuition for treating sick cows, only calling in the vet if absolutely necessary.

“One thing about having such a small herd,” he explains, “is that you know every cow. If one comes in, and she seems a little off, doesn’t go for her grain, then I know she’s not feeling good. I also handle each cow every day, so I know if she’s warm or has a little fever.” This allows him to treat the cow quickly with a very low dose of antibiotics.

He says it also helps him stay connected with his cows.

“My cows like to come into the barn,” says Robinson. “They like to be milked.”

His caring nature doesn’t end with the cows; the calves are treated just as gently, and it shows.

“I raise my own replacements,” he says, walking by a row of hutches filled with heifer calves. He stops in front of a white-faced calf. “Her mother looks just like her, and she is an incredible milker,” he smiles proudly. This thought is interrupted, however, when the calf in the next hutch butts Robinson in the leg, looking for her dinner. He scratches the calf’s ears to let her know dinner will be there soon enough.

Out in the pasture where the cows are grazing, heads suddenly raise and ears prick up as Robinson walks by. Some cows instinctively head for the barn. The cows are kept on pasture most of the year, and fed hay only in the winter. Robinson and his partner, Blaine Sorensen, raise the bulk of their feed on a little over 400 acres of farm ground; this, combined with the small herd size and the raising of herd replacements, helps keep the dairy’s overhead extremely low.

“We put up about 70 percent of the hay, so we have to buy the remainder and the grain.”

He takes the opportunity to show off his one and only “hired hand,” a registered border collie named Red: “She’s the best cow pusher anyone could ask for.” Robinson, who also raises and sells registered border collies, states dogs don’t come much smarter than Red.

At that point, an older cow with a giant “B” on her hind quarter wanders by; this elicits a confession from Robinson.

“I snuck off to watch a game the other night, so my partner milked the cows for me for a few hours,” he says. “That ‘B’ was to let him know to milk her into the bucket for the calves.” Robinson doesn’t feed his calves hospital milk, even on the rare occasion when he has some.

He does admit the days are long.

“If you can get everything done in 14 or 15 hours, that’s a good thing,” he laughs. However, he also insists he wouldn’t have it any other way. At 62, he feels he has at least another 20 years in him.

“I’m not even worried about retiring,” he says. When asked if his daughter, now 23 and a recent college graduate with a degree in education, has shown any interest in the dairy, he just shakes his head and explains she loves teaching.

But that’s OK with him, because he understands how important it is to love what you do, and there is nothing else he would rather be doing. PD

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