“Good news!” Dad announced as he sat down at the breakfast table the next morning. “Mexico banned the growth of genetically engineered corn!”13
“Are you serious?” Mom exclaimed. “Why, that’s huge!”
“It really is,” Dad answered, happily. “For a minute, after I read the report, I considered uprooting us all and moving to Mexico.”
We all laughed but I knew Dad was at least half serious. I glanced at Daniel but couldn’t read his expression. The news had interesting timing.
“Today, we need to start working with Josephine,” Dad told me, changing the subject.
“I was thinking that,” I replied. “Squirt is three days old and her bag is pretty full and tight. Especially for a first calf.”
“It’s probably the boiled wheat giving her extra milk,” Dad said. “I separated Squirt into the stall next to her last night so this morning, she should be too full to keep back the milk.”
The boys had already left the table and were bent over a platt map on the coffee table a few feet away. Will was showing Daniel the route we had taken the day before to get to Agua Bonita and the falls. Daniel wanted to know how long it would take to ride to Albuquerque, where he was from. Will got out a New Mexico map and they began to find and highlight an off-road trail and the distance between.
“I want you boys to do the dishes this morning,” Dad said, turning around in his chair to look at the boys. “The girls deserve a break from indoor chores and I need Mona in the barn.”
“Oh man!” Jake groaned dramatically, then asked, “Are they going to do the mucking out for me?”
“I’ll do it,” Dad said, “I’m going to be out there anyway. It looks like it may rain again today and Grandpa tells me it’s going to rain all week. So after chores, our project is to do outside clean up and get the farm ready for a wet week.”
“Okay, Dad,” Will said, briskly rolling up the maps. “Should I drive the tractor in? What about the implements?”
I left the table to get dressed in some old clothes for working with Jo and Squirt. This time, I was going to be prepared for getting dumped in the manure. Susanna followed me. She is my milking partner. We have a way of milking that is a little different but works really well for us.
Mom used to travel a lot before she married Dad. Long ago, in Thailand, she had visited a small dairy that had very high milk production for naturally fed cows.
She said it was run by two sisters who would milk the cows together, one on either side of the cow. They would wash the cow’s udder while chatting with each other constantly and then milk simultaneously, while still keeping up the low, but constant chatter. In record time, they got large amounts of milk and the cows were all healthy.14
Dad had wanted to try a similar routine on our farm. Susanna and I were a milking team and so were Will and Jake, or Dad and Jake.
The boys do most of the milking when we only have four cows lactating but when there are more than four at a time, Susanna and I join the milking crew. I love it and wish I could milk more often. I am always part of the training, though. I have a knack for feeling the intentions of the cow. That may sound funny but it’s a valuable skill.
Susanna came into my room, already dressed in her coveralls and looking younger than nine. She was as pretty as ever in her shapeless outfit.
“Does Daniel like you?” she asked, throwing herself backward onto my bed. I looked at her in the mirror while I kept braiding my hair.
“I don’t know. Maybe.” She rolled over and looked at me, grinning playfully.
“He does! I heard the boys talking. Do you like him?”
“No. Not like you mean. Other than that, I like him fine.”
“Come on! I won’t tell anybody!” She sat up and started bouncing up and down on the bed.
“Right,” I said dryly. Susanna threw herself backward again and sighed dramatically.
“I wish I was fourteen! You’re so beautiful, Mona! And you can do practically anything and everything around here. Of course he likes you!”
“Of course, of course,
a horse, a horse,
now I’ll sing it out in Morse. . .”
“Don’t,” I interrupted hastily. “But thanks for the compliments. That was nice.” I sat down on the bed beside her, winding a hair band around the tail end of my braid.
“I didn’t compliment you. It’s all true,” Susanna said, smiling at me.
“Compliments can be true. They’re supposed to be true. Otherwise it’s called ‘flattery.’”
“Whatever! Let’s go.”
We headed for the door and Susanna put her arm around my waist and skipped all the way, singing as she went.
what I say is true
haven’t got a clue
say you’ve got it wrong
here it is in song:
beautiful to me.
may not even see!”
“Hey. That’s a good one!” Dad exclaimed, tugging our braids as we passed him. “You should write that one down, Susanna.”
“Did you just make that up?” Daniel asked, surprised. Susanna blushed and was uncharacteristically quiet.
“She always makes up songs,” Jake waved a dismissing hand. “Most of them are stupid.”
“Just like most of your comments,” Will said, shoving Jake sideways. “It’s a good one, Susanna. Come on, guys. To the kitchen!”
Mom handed me a stainless milking bucket with a colander in the top and a double layer of cheese cloth pinned inside of it. She handed a bucket of warm, soapy water to Susanna. Dad carried a pot of boiled wheat and we followed him out the front door. Mom came with us, carrying a milking pail like mine. She was going to be Dad’s milking partner.
Near the inside of the barn door hangs a brass bell that plays the note middle G. Will made it in the shop when he was only twelve. It just happened to be middle G, more or less, and that really doesn’t matter—it’s just a fact. We’ve always used it to train our cows to let down for the bell. I took it off the wall and put it in my pocket.
First, we milked the cows that were already trained to be good milkers. They were in the small pasture, looking forward to some grain. We opened the barn door and three miniature Jerseys with full udders eagerly ran into their separate stalls and stood waiting for us. Their names were Lily, Sugar and Belle. Mom and Dad milked Lily, who had the most milk. Sue and I milked the other two. Then Mom left us, carrying the pails of milk back to the house.
Dad opened Josephine’s stall and led her after him with the bucket of boiled wheat. She tossed her head and kicked up her heels a little, anxious to get the wheat and still upset that she couldn’t have her calf.
The first night of being separated from him, she had bawled for a while, but had finally bedded down and gone to sleep. Now, Dad led her to the stanchion and she quickly put her head through to get at the wheat. We had fed her in the stanchion for the previous two days to get her ready for this day.
Once she was in the stanchion, I put a stool on the floor on one side of her and Susanna did the same on the other side. All the while, I was talking to her and keeping a hand on her so she was aware of us being back there and touching her.
“Ready,” I told Susanna. She began to wash Jo’s udder while I rang the bell. The water was warm and Susanna bumped the udder with her fist like the calf does with his face when he’s trying to get the milk to let down. She washed each teat much like the calf trying each teat, tugging on it a little and lifting up against the udder. In about one minute, the teats filled with milk and started to drip.
Meanwhile, Jo kept trying to lift a back leg, complaining about us getting the milk she felt belonged to her calf.
“You’ve got too much of it, Jo,” I told her. “He can’t drink it all. You’re a milk cow, and you make lots of milk. Some for us and some for your baby. Don’t worry, we’ll give him all he needs. You just stand still and let us get it.”
But she wouldn’t stand still. Although she knew us, she’d never had us down there pulling at her udder and so she kept shifting around and fighting us. We were ready for it, though.
Susanna and I both leaned forward and put our heads in the hollow between her hip and belly on either side of her body. This way, we could feel when she shifted weight and started to lift a leg. Just leaning into her at the right moment kept her from lifting a leg because it would throw her off balance.
We also both kept one of our forearms against the inside of her back legs, applying constant, light pressure that gave us yet another gauge of when she might lift a leg. All we had to do in that case was to keep that forearm against her leg and increase pressure. She would pull her leg back to get away from it, rather than kicking forward against it. Her instinct told her to get away from the pressure rather than to move against it. As long as her leg was standing still, we kept the pressure very light. Soon, she learned she was most comfortable with all her feet planted on the ground.
It may sound easy and in a way it is—physically easy. But what it takes is complete awareness and immediate response. We were training Josephine with very subtle but consistent pressure to do exactly what we wanted.
At first, we milked a little sporadically, often having to sweep our outside forearms away to keep her hind legs from getting to the bucket. We also had to push with our heads a constant pressure that made my back and neck tight. But after the first few minutes, she stood still and just ate while we milked.
All the while, we were singing together in a low unbroken rhythm, even when she lifted a back leg and we had to stop milking momentarily. We used the alphabet tune, for no other reason than because it took no concentration and we were busy concentrating on other things. We both replaced the words with whatever we were thinking. I was singing:
“Josephine, you silly cow,
Please stand still, I’ll milk you now.
I love you and you love me
So be good and I’ll be pleased
We’ll make butter with your cream
We’ll make yogurt, pudding, cheese.”
It was the first time she’d ever been milked so Josephine was too uptight to let down all of her milk. But we got most of it and I could tell that she was going to be a good milker. A few days from now, the process would be smooth and easy.
When we were done, I got up and rubbed her down, telling her she did good and I was proud of her. She didn’t want to go back into her stall so we opened the door that led to the small pasture so she could go out there if she wanted and come back to check on Squirt whenever she got worried about him.
We poured about three-fourths of a gallon of the milk into a pail and I went into Squirt’s stall. Josephine stood outside of the stall, mooing and demanding that we give him to her. But we couldn’t. It would mess up the training process. Squirt needed to learn how to drink from a bucket.
I straddled him, one leg on either side, and backed him into a corner. He was so little I could pick him up if necessary. Once he was in the corner, between my legs, Dad handed me the bucket of milk. I put my hand down into the milk, with my index finger sticking up out of it. Then I shoved Squirt’s head down and stuck my milky finger in his mouth. He could taste the milk and so he started sucking on my finger. The bucket and my finger were not at the angle he was used to, so he kept trying to pull my finger up out of the milk and lift his head. I kept pushing his head back down near the milk so he could suck up some milk.
We fought each other for about fifteen minutes and I was wearing out. He was frantic to get some of that warm milk, he just couldn’t figure out how. It didn’t help matters to have Jo standing right across from us bellowing like a fog horn.
Finally, it seemed as if by accident, he sucked on my fingers while my hand was down in the milk and he managed to get a good mouthful of it. A few seconds later, he did it again. The third time, he sucked for a good ten seconds and the milk level went down in the pail. Then suddenly, he lunged and stepped right into the pail, knocked it over and me as well, as he went bucking to the other side of the pen to get to his mom.
Dad and Susanna were both laughing but I was not amused. My back hurt and I was covered with milk. I straightened stiffly and climbed over the rail, throwing the pail toward the sink at the end of the barn.
“I’ll try again in a while,” I said. “Maybe when Jo quiets down for a while or goes outside. It drives me nuts to have her bellowing right in my ear while I’m trying to teach him to drink.”
“Good enough.” Dad nodded. “He got a good quart worth anyway, I think. He got the idea.”
“Yeah, I think so.” I rinsed out the pail and turned it upside down on a wooden table extending from the wall.
“How much milk do you think we got, Sue?”
“A couple of gallons!” she said, showing me what was left in the stainless bucket.
“That milk has antibiotics in it,” Dad said, “so make sure you only use it for Squirt or Miner and Major.”
Miner is our dog, named so because when he was a puppy, he was constantly digging holes and Dad commented that he must be a miner. Major is our barn cat, named so because she thinks she’s the boss and the name sounded funny when said with Miner.
We washed up in the barn sink faster than usual because Jo was still bawling at us, demanding we let Squirt out. As long as we stayed in her sight, she’d keep on complaining, so we left the barn as quickly as possible.
“How long will it be before we can drink her milk, Dad?” Susanna asked.
“They say to wait a day or two after the last shot,” Dad replied. “I still have one more shot to give her and I’d rather we waited a full three days after the last dose. We have plenty of milk right now anyway. So about . . . Tuesday of next week, we can start drinking her milk or using it for cheese.”
Suddenly, a blast of water hit me on the side of my head and Susanna and Dad got blasted from the other side.
Jake and Daniel broke from the cover, each holding a squirt gun and running in a low squat as though they were in a war zone.
“Sheesh. They’re working hard.” I rubbed the side of my head against my shoulder.
Susanna was squealing and running for the house and I knew she’d be looking for a squirt gun of her own. Dad was laughing and looking around to see where the boys had gone. He would probably join them too. Dad loves to play.
Jake and Daniel came around the corner of the house again, shooting out streams of water as they came. Dad and I started to run for the porch. Just then, I spotted Will on the roof with a bucket in his hands. He winked at me just before he dumped the whole bucket right on the boys.
Dad and I sprinted up the stairs and hurriedly shook off our rubber boots and dodged into the house. Susanna was heading back out with a squirt gun in her hands.
Mom was watching through a window, laughing and wiping her face with the skirt of her apron. Apparently, she’d already been targeted. She handed Dad a big water canon, already loaded.
“I want justice,” she said. Dad took the gun and went back out of the house, quickly putting his mud boots back on.
I carried the milk to the kitchen. “I’m guessing this is the rain we were getting ready for,” I said to myself.
Daniel was waiting for me on the other side of the kitchen with a loaded water gun in his hand. Instinctively, I raised the milk bucket up in front of me and it deflected most of the spray. I just kept it in front of me while he kept spraying. He soaked my legs, which were already soaked with milk anyway and then he was out of water.
I heard running footsteps coming from the dining room behind me and stepped sideways so that when the door flew open, I was out of sight.
Daniel opened his mouth to say something to the person coming through the door but it came out sounding like, “Eesh blblblidbing blelelbhindbl the dorllll!”
He was getting a full powered gush of water right in the face from Jake. Meanwhile, I caught a glimpse of Dad in the kitchen garden, sneaking up behind Daniel.
Suddenly, Jake stumbled into the kitchen, as though he had been shoved and jet streams of water came through both doors, soaking Jake and Daniel. It was Will and Dad. They had trapped the boys in the kitchen. I was sure grateful to be hiding behind the door instead of caught in the crossfire!
Needless to say, the kitchen was a dripping mess.