The voluptuous Florette was so generously endowed that she was renowned as the beauty queen in the area, especially at the end of her pregnancies. Old farmers would drive for miles to come and gawk at her, or, to be more accurate, at her udder. No one had ever seen a larger bag on a cow. And that was exactly why we got her. Her udder was too big and hung too low to be practical on a commercial dairy farm. In what used to be called the milking parlour, now referred to as the ‘unit’, where milking time is money, an udder that differs from the norm represents precious seconds lost at every milking while the operator struggles to place the machine milking cups on teats hanging in an unfamiliar location. In the past, dairymen and maids who milked by hand were perfectly able to adapt to the peculiarities of individual animals, smoothly proceeding from cow to cow, not phased by any lack of uniformity in size or shape. So Florette was looking for a home. And we, as we didn’t know nor care about the ‘norm’ were looking for Florette (a cow, at least).
She had to be a Jersey
As soon as we read the wonderful original edition of The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency by John Seymour, we knew that we had to have a cow. And I knew that it had to be a Jersey cow. I had spent the happiest times in my childhood in the barn at my uncle’s dairy farm or in the fields behind it, with his Jersey herd. These gentle, productive creatures represented a calm and peace that I found nowhere else as a child.
Our Florette was a pure bred Jersey, about to have her second calf when we got her. We bought her from a meticulous, proud dairy farmer who raised beautiful pedigree Jersey cattle in a pristine and scientifically managed environment. She left a clinically clean, computer controlled modern dairy unit where she stood on concrete floors that were automatically flushed with water at regular intervals. Her feed was dispensed through feeding stations, the amounts controlled by the identifying computer chip she wore in a collar around her neck. When she arrived at her new home she might have felt that she had stepped back 100 years in time. Her little stable was clean, but rough as the walls were stone and the manger and stall separations were old boards, scrubbed clean and worn with age. Her bedding was soft barley straw spread over the cobbled floor and forked out twice a day or more often if necessary, hosed down by hand once a week or so. As an only cow, taken from her familiar herd she must surely have missed her companions. She was not in milk because at the time she was in calf, due about a month after we got her. This gave us all time to get used to each other and to prepare for the big event.
Eighth wonder of the world
Florette’s udder we discovered, was not only low-slung, but also an impressive size. As she approached the term of her pregnancy it became larger and larger and began to distend with the preparations her body was making for lactation until the teats almost brushed the ground. It was not long before we began to have impromptu visits from farmers in the area who had heard about this impressive udder and wanted to come to see it for themselves. Florette would stand proudly in her small pasture calmly contemplating the landscape, chewing her cud while her audience of old men would ooh and aah over the wonderful udder. This organ became the 8th wonder of that small world, much to the satisfaction of Florette who had never been given so much attention in her life before.
While we waited for her to calve and so that we could keep a close eye on her, we put Florette into the area of lawn that bordered the back of the house and connected to her stable. We set up a temporary electric fence around the apple trees that were there and she was able to graze, lie down to rest in the grass or go into her stall if she wanted. She particularly loved to eat the apples that had fallen off the trees and it was a delight to watch her evident pleasure as she crunched and savoured them, with sticky apple pieces and juices flowing down over her brown chin.
Michael had big brown eyes and danced a lot
When her time came she decided to have her calf in the grass under the apple trees and didn’t seem to be bothered by the small crowd that gathered to watch. The whole process was slow, quiet, dignified and perfectly natural, outdoors in the fresh air with the chickens walking around her and we and the dogs seated at a comfortable distance. Her calf was a handsome little male Jersey, who had big dark brown eyes, bellowed loudly when he wanted attention and seemed to dance and leap everywhere he went, tossing the tiny horns on his head about, so we called him Michael (after Michael Jackson).
Time to stand up
All fresh and new, Michael lay in the grass under the apple trees letting his mother clean him up, while the chickens pecked around nearby. Then all at once he decided he was ready to stand up.
Once he was up on his feet, Michael suckled from his mother to get the colostrum he needed, but as a dairy cow she produced far more than he was able to consume and so we had to make sure that she was milked dry at regular intervals.
Florette and I learned the process of hand milking on the same day. We discovered that in spite of her calf having taken some of the pressure off, her udder was still very hard and swollen. This had the effect of causing her teats to stick out at right angles and to be even shorter than they normally were. As a result of this distortion, the traditional method of milking, using fingers, thumbs and palms of the hands became simply impossible – all that would fit on these teats were a forefinger and thumb. For my seating to carry out this task, I had no milking stool and so I sat precariously on an upturned plastic bucket next to her.
A first time for both of us
This was a first for both of us. She had only been milked by a machine, I had never milked a cow before. Once Florette and I got used to hand milking it would take me about 15 or so minutes from start to finish. This first milking, however, lasted for 1.5 hours. It was agonizingly slow for both of us. I gave her some hay and some of her grain to occupy her while I started. The food didn’t last long enough. I was so inept at this to start that Florette became irritated and impatient and my hands began to cramp painfully as the time dragged on. I was bent over to reach the low hanging teats and had to hold the milk bucket at an angle to get the milk to flow into it. Although I got the knack of producing a satisfying stream of milk fairly quickly, the bucket filled slowly as there were so many interruptions. The process was so far removed from the efficient and regularly sucking milking machine cups that she had known that Florette found the business disturbing to begin with and would jerk to one side and then back again with sudden movements that knocked me off my bucket or pulled her short teat out of my hands altogether. Even the intermittent suckling of Michael on her other side would cause her to start in surprise and jump away. It wasn’t just the hand milking but the whole procedure that was new to her. Commercial dairy cows don’t feed their young, as they are taken from them and fed a commercial milk mixture from birth. So, although it should have been perfectly natural for her to suckle her calf, this was very strange to Florette. When the bucket was knocked over for the third time and my fingers were so cramped that I could barely move them, I got a sinking feeling that the whole thing had been a terrible mistake. I could see myself spending 3 or more hours every day of my life trying to get my cow milked. Store bought dairy products suddenly sounded really appealing. All of the romance of the idyllic situation that I had imagined had evaporated, seeping into the flagstones with the milk that was spilled.
By the time we had been at this for an hour and a half both Florette and I were getting very short tempered and the bucket was almost full. But at last it was finished, we had both done it! Michael was asleep in the straw. Florette, relieved of her burden, calm in the company of her calf, rested comfortably on the grass just outside the stable door and chewed her cud. I, however, contemplated the evening, a few short hours away, when, unbelievably, we would need to start this whole thing all over. And then came the even more painful moment when we had to pour all of this hard won milk, which was actually colostrum down the drain for several days, as it was not fit for human consumption.
The milking did get easier for both of us as time went on and we came to an understanding, Florette and I. When we finally were able to taste her milk, it was (of course) the best tasting milk in the world! She taught us a lot through this time we had with her and we had many more adventures together. Her arrival marked the beginning of our exciting farming life in this tiny community in the depths of rural Dordogne.