What's black and white, 5 feet tall, eats 55 pounds of food daily and drinks enough water to fill a bathtub?
Fittingly, since June is Dairy Month, the answer is a cow, the bovine that provides milk for people to create a multitude of delicious and important dairy foods.And there's more to Dairy Month this year than just producing milk. There's an unusual but colorful milk barn at the father-son dairy enterprise of Terry and Todd Gardner south of Richfield. "Todd said he would paint it white with some trim," mused Terry, the father.
The "trim" ended up being a barn that is painted white all right, but with large black, irregular spots that resemble a dairy cow. Visualize a dairy cow without head and feet, and sure enough the barn has a strong likeness to the kind of cows the Gardners are milking . . . Holstein.
"Got Milk?" That's the theme for Dairy Month, aimed at reminding people the importance of the dairy industry. That is something most people probably give little thought to while they drink regular milk or buttermilk or while eating cheese or cottage cheese. So important is cheese that it pretty well sets the price of what the farmer gets for his product, according to Terry Gardner.
And things have changed in the dairy business. The gone are the farmers and dairymen who milked by hand. Now it's done with milking machines, some that automatically detach when the milking is done.
Years ago, farmers kept milk cans beneath a tree to keep it cool. Today it flows into huge storage tanks, is kept refrigerated and is shipped over hundreds of miles to the consumer. "Now you have to be a scientist to be in the dairy business," Terry Gardner said. The Gardners have a nutritionist/ veterinarian who works with them in adjusting the dairy herd's rations, something highly important to milk production.
Cows are temperamental, a problem the dairyman faces each day.
"When the wind blows we can drop 1,000 pounds of milk a day," Todd Gardner said.
Then the young dairyman explained: "The cows stand with their butts to the wind and don't eat!" They must consume a lot of feed and water for maximum milk production.
It also seems that if stress can be removed and the animals can lie down and relax, yet still eat often, they give more milk.
And there is still another difference at the Gardner dairy operation. "The cows stand on clean, concrete slabs that are four inches lower, so their heads are straight across from where they are eating," Todd Gardner said. If the cows don't have to pull down hay from above, or lower their heads to pick it up, the stress is less and the result is better production. The Gardner cows each produce about 78 pounds of milk per day.
"Some dairymen would call you a liar," Terry Gardner said, but the figure is true. Each cow produces enough milk, on the average, for a revenue of about $7.80 per day. But that's a far cry from the net profit. There are three milkers who must be paid, feed to buy at continually escalating prices, equipment to pay for, storage and shipping costs, medications and an array of many other expenses that are heaped on today's dairy industry.
It seems a dairyman has to expand his operation and get bigger to make it pay, not unlike some other industries. "When we came here we were producing 10,000 pounds of milk every other day," Terry Gardner said. "Now we produce 18,000 pounds per day."
Milk production is measured in pounds but, when broken down into gallons, the Gardners gross an average of about 99 cents per gallon. The retail price in the grocery store can be two or three times that amount, however.
"Dairymen are not united," Terry Gardner lamented. So for their profits, they must rely on someone else to set the price they get for their milk. They get some help through the Dairy Farmers of America organization, although it is not a union.
"Years ago when you saw the milk cans sitting out under a tree you knew that farm family had money," he said. "They weren't rich but they had a daily income."
And in that respect, perhaps some things haven't changed so much after all. The small dairy farmer continues to make a comfortable living but perhaps could make more money in another occupation.
However, while concurring that "you have to love it to be in the dairy business," the father and son plan to keep milking cows for their livelihoods.