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Lynn Hummel: Cows don’t have names anymore

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When I was a kid, dairy cows had names. Some of the most popular names were: Bessie, Maggie, Heifer, Queenie, Bluebell, Flo, Buttercup, Daisy, Half Pint, Elsie, Babe, Missie, Sweetie Pie and Yvonne. Actually, Yvonne was the name of a famous cow that went missing in Germany and wandered around the countryside for three months before she was found and brought home. Part of the problem was, I’m sure, based on my experience, cows respond to English only and they were probably calling for Yvonne in German.

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Probably the most famous cow ever was Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, which, by legend, kicked over a lantern while Mrs. O’Leary was milking her and thus burned down the barn and started the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. It was learned much later that the story of the cow kicking over the lantern was just a made up story by a reporter who wanted to give the fire a dramatic twist. In any event, the name of Mrs. O’Leary’s innocent cow’s name was never learned.

At my uncle’s farm, they milked about 15 cows and they recognized and called each one by name. Dairy people tell me that when milking herds get to 40 or more, there is no way to give them all names and remember them. Since then, cows just have numbers. That is far too impersonal if you ask me. I’ll bet the animal rights people have a definite opinion about that development.

At my uncle’s farm, uncle John and my older cousins, Walt, Alvin and Carlisle, milked while balanced on stubby little wooden stools with only one leg in the middle. When I tried the stools, they seemed too tippy for a little guy. They milked by hand, of course, and they were fast and steady with an occasional squirt for a nearby cat or a little cousin. I was allowed to try a hand at it, but I could never make it work right. All I got was a few drops.

When a bucket was full, they’d carry it to the separating room to separate the cream from the milk. My big cousins could swing a bucket full of milk in a total circle overhead without spilling a drop. That’s when I learned there were more natural forces than gravity and it amazed me. Still does.

But time has marched on and there are no more cows with names, one leg milking stools, hand milkers or swinging buckets of milk. There have been milking machines for years, but now I’ve read about precision dairy systems operated by robots. A five unit system might cost $800,000 to install for a 150-300 cow herd, so it’s not cheap. But it is slick. The toughest job is to train the cows just to fall in line to be milked. That takes about three months. But once trained, the cows are attracted by a precise amount of feed at the milking station and they just queue up. Then a robotic laser attaches the milker and starts pumping. The butterfat and protein are recorded while the milking takes place. Ten minutes later, the process is done, a computer unlocks the gate and the cow marches back into the barn. If there’s a problem, the robot calls the dairyman who’s off doing other chores and tracking the milking process on his or her iPhone or iPad applications. The trained cows are essentially milking themselves.

Cows who can milk themselves deserve names. So should the robots, for that matter. The first cow named should be called Blessings, and Iron Fingers for the robot. But milk is still milk and we all need it, so don’t forget to have a glass of skim, one percent, two percent or whole with your next sandwich.

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