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Ruminations: Confessions of a New Milkmaid

Illustration of a milkmaid or cowgirl with milk pail riding a goat

The first time I saw udders up close and personal was from the rear of a brown Nubian goat. It was my first day as a volunteer at Sprout Creek Farm in Poughkeepsie, New York. I had my hands on two plastic cylinders protruding from a metal contraption, reminiscent of something from the Jetsons; it was meant to suction onto those two udders to milk the goat. I was terrified to use them. I didn’t grow up around farm animals (or any animals, really, besides a lazy cat), and I feared doing anything that would hurt the goat. I listened carefully to my milking mentor:

“Hold the two tubes pointing toward your own body, like you’re milking yourself. Then ease them forward between her legs, then up over each teat, quickly—left, right.”

I leaned forward, tentatively pulling the left cylinder upward, followed by the right. They stuck onto the udders and started noisily slurping milk through the device into long tubes that thumped like a heartbeat as eight milkers operated in sync. These pumped the milk to the creamery, a room ten yards away, where it would be used to make delicious Hudson Valley goat cheese.

The whole procedure of milking a goat has a very set choreography, as I learned from my mentor (an intern for whom the farm was a pit stop on the way to the Peace Corps): tap the goat’s side to warn her you’re starting; twist the correct nozzle before and after milking; dip the teats in one solution before milking them, rub that off, dip them in another solution afterward; change rubber gloves between goats; and never use the same rag twice. The health of the animals is at stake and, in turn, the health of the people eating their cheese.

I quickly discovered that rubber boots would have been a better choice than sneakers, as test squirts of milk and remnants of chemical dips were sloshed on the floor toward the drain. After my first try I was instructed to move on to the next goat on the line. My first goat had been docile, but this young one was feisty. The older goats are more accustomed to the milking process, but the younger ones still act out from time to time. My mentor had to hold the second goat’s legs to keep her from trampling my forearm. She then taught me another useful trick: Pushing a fist gently into the goat’s upper udder keeps her calm and well behaved, like rubbing a puppy’s ears or picking up a cat by the scruff of its neck.

If I thought learning to milk a goat was hard, I faced a much greater challenge when I moved on to the cows. The basic principle is the same, but the larger scale changes the game completely. For starters, the number of teats doubles from two to four, so instead of holding a tube in each hand, you balance the whole device in one hand and use the other to attach it to the udders one tube at a time. Getting this right proved extremely difficult for me because I have small hands. You have to work fast, look out for restless cow legs, and try hard not to let the milkers suck up any wood chips from the cow’s bedding. The milk goes through a filter, but it’s not good to rely on it too heavily.

My worst moment occurred while trying to milk an old cow with small teats. The first time, the milker just wouldn’t suction onto the udders – it slipped right off when I let go. I tried again, and just as I thought I had it right, I heard the unmistakable plop of cow patties coming from my next-door neighbor. Maybe I imagined it, but I swore I felt spray hit my back. I stood up, disgusted, only to be accosted by my cow-milking mentor, a high school girl who worked part-time on the farm: “You can’t do that!”

Distracted by the “scatastrophe,” I hadn’t realized that the milker had slipped from the udders again and fallen on the wood-ship bed. “That costs $2,000,” she yelled, “You can’t just drop it. This is a farm, you’re gonna get dirty.” She pushed past me and put the milker on correctly. She pushed past me and put the milker on correctly. I was mortified, and I explained that I hadn’t realized it had dropped. She softened but said, “You’ve gotta look.” I felt like a useless city spoiler for the rest of the day.

After that I tended to be assigned to easier duties, like collecting eggs from the chicken coops and cleaning cows that were going to auction. I did eventually improve my cow-milking technique, though the small-hands problem never got easier. I found myself missing the ornery goats that had just entered their dry season and wouldn’t be milked again until spring. In the Sprout Creek market after a long day of volunteering, I would find myself skipping over the delicious cow’s milk cheeses, usually my favorite, and going straight for the chèvre.

Sarah Begley

A graduate from Vassar College, Sarah Begley is a digital editor and food writer for Time Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @SCBegley

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