When is the last time you stopped and thought about who is milking your cows — and how?  Well, I’m asking you to think about it now.

The job has never been easy. In fact, the pre-industrial dairymaid described by Avice R. Wilson in “Forgotten Harvest” was a hard-working, strong woman with few other career options. She spent half of her 14-hour workday milking and making cheese, and the other half boiling water and cleaning equipment around the dairy barn. She understood that she was in the food business. Her pay was docked if cheese went bad. When the economy and transportation opened up, she moved to the city to live the “life of leisure” cleaning houses. She was replaced by the share-milker, as in present day New Zealand, or the farmer’s wife.

Over time, the job of milking cows has become mechanized, having a profound influence on the workforce. 

On large dairies with more than 1,000 cows, foreign-born workers perform much of the work today. Yet, on farms with fewer than 60 cows, family members still do much of the milking. Even on larger operations with multiple family owners, family members still provide much of the milking and calf-care labor.

Hard work

Milking is hard work. Speed is often the priority. The pay is generally less than construction work, yet often provides the workers with a place to live and work year-round.

Many workers do not speak English. And turnover is often high because people leave for higher-paying jobs or return home for important family events.

An important job

A friend recently told me that he stopped making cheese after 20 years because his mind was always “in the cellar.” How many of us have our minds in the parlor? How many of us wander into the milking barn for a conversation or just to hang around? It’s often noisy, and the lighting isn’t always good. It can be frustrating to see things happen that seem beyond our control — despite our best efforts.

We must change that.

In order to produce consistent, high-quality milk, you must make harvesting milk one of the most important jobs on farm. That means training employees on proper milking techniques in order to reduce mastitis and promote herd health. You also must share with them the importance of what they do. In addition, the job must be comfortable enough, lucrative enough, or enjoyable in some other way to retain the employees you have trained.

Ideally, the job should be good enough to attract people who are motivated to care for animals, produce quality food and help keep family farms in business. 

Ask yourself: Is the job of milker on your farm good enough to attract quality employees? And, beyond that, is it good enough to make them want to stick around? Remember, the only way to make quality milk is to make it a quality job.

Meg Cattell is a consulting veterinarian and organic dairy producer in Windsor, Colo.