My life as a Victorian dairy maid – bringing the cows in

The morning cleaning of the farmyard done and several demonstrations of butter making carried out,  it was time to bring in the cows for milking. There weren’t many dairy cows, only four, and their purpose was to show what olden days cows look like. These were dairy shorthorns and they were sturdy red or rowan animals that had been bred in the north-east of England in the 18th century. They spent most of their time in one of the fields outside the farmyard so, come milking time, someone had to go and get them.

Bringing in the cows - Daisy thinks about going elsewhere
Bringing in the cows – Daisy thinks about going elsewhere

It was with some trepidation that I first took part in bringing in the cows. I mean, how do you do it? It’s not like you can just pick them up and carry them in; they’re huge and won’t necessarily do what you want. Fortunately, they had lived on the farm for several years and knew the routine so, on the whole, it wasn’t especially difficult.

You’d take a bucket of feed – what were called ‘cow nuts’ (compressed pellets of high-density feed given as a top-up to pasture) – go and open the gate to the field and then shake the bucket of nuts. The cows loved them and would generally follow whoever had the bucket. New to me, though obvious afterwards, is that cows are very social animals and they have a hierarchy, so the head cow walked at the front of the group with the subordinate cows following behind, generally in single file. If you had the agreement of the head cow, the foremost, the rest would follow. Except sometimes the foremost cow saw something interesting and changed her mind about following the bucket and would go ‘on the trot’. Apart from more bucket shaking and calling out, the only way I was shown to deal with this was to gently use their tails as rudders – you held the cow’s tail and moved it in the direction you wanted her to go in. For some reason, it usually worked and the she would move towards the farmyard. Once through the big gates, they’d make for the milking parlour and go into their stalls. So far, so good.

Milking Rose
Milking Rose

The next bit was easy – settle the cows with a few more nuts in the troughs in front of them, pet the cow and talk to her, then get a milk bucket and a stool and sit down next to her. Smooth on some udder cream, start gently squeezing and pulling at her teats so the milk came out. To start with it was hard work which made my hands ache and I found it hard to empty the cow’s udders; this had to be done, though, so she didn’t get mastitis and to start with, I needed help. Each cow could take me 20 minutes to finish milking. milking-2 One effect of milking cows is that it often makes them move their bowels so, after milking was done, the cows would be led back to the field and the whole cleaning up process was repeated. farmyard-cow Some of the things I noticed about cows – they may seem fairly placid, but they are not stupid. They each had distinct personalities and some were easier to get along with than others. I got on best with the secondmost, Daisy. Rose was the foremost, but she wasn’t friendly and she had teats like old carrots so was difficult to milk. Daisy was a sweetie, calm and mellow, and I became very fond of her. I’d chat or sing quietly to her as I milked and that always seem to relax her, so the milk came more easily. cow-field  During hot weather, I used sometimes to walk over to the field the cows were in and check they had enough water. One day, I was thus engaged when I saw Daisy looking at me from the other side of the field, so I called out to her a few times. She slowly ambled over to me and when she was close enough, she licked one of my boots a few times before leaning over the fence to have her ears scratched. Dear Daisy. It was good getting to know a cow.

4 thoughts on “My life as a Victorian dairy maid – bringing the cows in

  1. Delightful post, Miranda. It’s extraordinary to realise how, in little more than a generation or two, so many of these skills like hand milking and butter making have become completely distanced from every day experience. Steve x

    1. It was partly that distance that motivated me to do the job, Steve. I wanted to start learning some of the old skills before they were forgotten and I’m very glad I did.

      I don’t know why, but nearly all my life, when looking at so many things, I ask myself ‘So how would you do that?’ and then it niggles until I find out.

  2. Reminds me of my dad’s cows. Most of them had flower names – these were used as family names and we had enough Salvias for a bedding scheme. Others got individual names for various reasons. You might be able to guess how Houdini gained hers.

    1. Not sure how I missed your comment, Patsy!

      Houdini sounds like an on-the-trot cow. Bet she was a handful!

      I remember a farm I visited as a child where all the cows had names. He kept track of who was related to who by giving the calves names that started with the same letter as the mother’s name. One of them ended up being called Miranda.

Comments are closed.