Lahey: Spilt Milk

May 21, 2013

The day before my first date with the Robie Farm dairy herd, Lee Robie gave me some last words of wisdom. “Don’t wear your best underwear,” he said.

Thus ended my romantic vision of farm life wherein the farmer walks on to his porch, clutching his coffee in the gentle dawn light, smiling as he gazes down on his herd, ambling home from verdant summer pastures.

But here’s what I learned: there is no gentle dawn light at four AM, and the cows do not amble home of their own accord. They amble home when the farmer speaks loudly and carries a big stick.

Lee’s cows spend their summers in bovine idyll, grazing on the banks of the Connecticut by night, napping in the cool barn by day. While the cows look like models for the New England Dairy Association commemorative calendar, their undercarriages could use a bit of a touch-up.

Armed with a bottle of iodine and a wad of paper towels, I sidle up to my first cow, beg her pardon, and squirt her udder liberally. As I wash her teats, they begin to drip, and the sweet smell of milk attracts the barn cat, which laps pools of hot milk out of my hand.

Lee follows me with the milking machine, connecting the silicone tentacles to the stainless steel piping, then the four teat cups to the cows with a deft and practiced hand.

But in my hands, the silicone tubes flop about like an unruly octopus, and I can’t begin to make sense of what goes where. Lee shows me how to hold the contraption and delicately - yet authoritatively – attach the complicated pieces of hardware to the tender bits of software, even the non-regulation members of the herd. Some cows’ teats cross in the back, some have have only three of them and – get this – some have dummy teats that don’t give milk at all . Flummoxed, I am not sure whether I should ignore the dummy teats or include them in the milking so the cow won’t feel self-conscious.

By the time I make my way to the far end of the barn, I know by ear when hardware is detaching from software, and when the flow of the milk is slowing. At one point, I prove my mettle by nudging the teat cup on to an udder with my foot while continuing to attend to a neighboring cow with my hands. The cows were impressed, I could tell.

By the time we finished the morning milking, I was pretty proud of myself, and eager to share my triumph with my family over breakfast. Unfortunately, my husband informed me that I was far too pungent to enter the house.

As I peeled off my filthy outer layer in our mudroom, I noticed a bright orange stain on my underwear, just above my hip, where I’d hung the iodine bottle from my belt. Good thing I’d heeded Lee’s advice and worn my least favorite pair.