Why are fresh heifers so difficult?


It is interesting to hear the tone of disbelief in the teens’ voices when I tell them I grew up on a dairy farm, milking the cows every morning before school and again as soon as school let out for the day.

“YOU? You don’t LOOK like a farmer!” said one boy who was visiting the other day.

A couple other friends agreed. The questions came fast and furious after that.

Q: How early did you have to get up?

A: Usually 4:30 or 5, depending on how many first-calf fresh heifers there were at any given time.

Q: What’s a fresh heifer?

A: A young cow that has just had a calf.

Q: Why did that make any difference how early you got up?

A: Because they are difficult.

Q: Meaning?

A: Meaning that working with a newly-freshened heifer is like having to train a tiger to jump through a hoop. The young heifers don’t want to do any of the things you are asking them to do, like walk in to the parlor, like stand where you want them to stand, let you wash their udder, put a milker on them, stand politely and calmly while the milker stays attached.

If there is more than one newly freshened-heifer, it could easily add a good 30 minutes to the milking time.

Q: I can’t believe you did this. Every day?

A: Well, yeah … you didn’t exactly get time off for good behavior.

Q: Did you go to school smelling like … that? Because there is one boy in school who comes right from the milking parlor to school with that very, ummmm, distinct smell.

A: No way. We took great pains to NOT look like farmers, and definitely not smelling like a milking parlor was way up high on that priority list when I was 16. An extra long shower was required on the days we took our turn in the silo, forking down silage for the cows.

Q: What is silage?

A: Very, very smelly feed. Nothing in your world would help me to describe it for you.

Q: So you had to feed the cows AND milk them?

A: We kind of took turns sharing in all the fun. Bucket-breaking the calves was my forte.

Q: Huh?

A: Most people picture feeding a calf out of a baby bottle. Nope. They have to learn to drink milk from a bucket. They can be like bucking broncos when asked to do this – you put your fingers down in the milk, give them a taste of your milky fingers, then lead their head down in to the bucket. Some get it figured out right away. Others try to buck you and the bucket all the way to the moon, trying to tell you they do NOT want to drink their milk this way.

You might end up with more milk on you than they get in them the first few times. Calves can be mighty stubborn, and incredibly strong.

Q: Did you have to bale hay, too?

A: Yep. Hay and straw. Straw was a breeze compared to hay.

Q: What’s the difference?

A: Oh, about a thousand pounds per bale – straw is lighter, and it doesn’t tend to scratch your arms up nearly as bad as hay.

Q: So, why didn’t you just do straw and forget the hay?

A: Ah, you really ARE city kids, aren’t you?


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Judith Sutherland, born and raised on an Ohio family dairy farm, now lives on a 70-acre farm not far from the area where her father’s family settled in the 1850s. Appreciating the tranquility of rural life, Sutherland enjoys sharing a view of her world through writing. Other interests include teaching, reading, training dogs and raising puppies. She and her husband have two children, a son and a daughter, and three grandchildren.