COMMENTARY: Lessons Learned on a Kentucky Dairy Farm

By Sam Terry
Managing Editor
Jobe Publishing, Inc.

Reading Anne Craig’s story about the massive changes in America’s dairy industry caused me to reflect on my own dairy farm upbringing and a way of life that is fast becoming a thing of the past. Southern Kentucky has been the prime area for Kentucky’s dairy farmers for generations but driving through the area reveals that family farms, particularly those centered around dairy cattle and tobacco, are few and far between. Dairy farming has been a time-honored vocation that taught many of us valuable lessons in preparation for life.

Dairy farming takes dedication. Dairy families are a lesson in being selfless; they put the needs of their families, their animals, and consumers ahead of their own by working long hours every day of the year. You see, dairy operations demand daily attention and not just once a day, cows don’t get a day off and they don’t recognize holidays or vacation time, and they don’t move their clocks forward or backwards each year.

Growing up on a dairy farm one learns more about management than can be learned from a textbook. Multi-tasking is something that goes on every day because in addition to milking, feeding, and caring for cows and calves, there’s the clean-up after each and every milking, sanitizing of milking equipment and coolers, and storing milk at the proper temperature to keep it safe for consumers. The time between milkings is for covering other farm tasks and day-to-day activities and they are all accomplished around the milking schedule that never changes.

Dairy farmers know there’s a season for everything they do – cutting and harvesting hay, planting corn they will later harvest for silage, providing care when winter storms create an entire menu of problems to be addressed. Farmers are in tune with not only the seasons, but life cycles as they often nurture an animal from the day it’s born until the day it dies. Growing up on a farm you learn that everything and everyone has a time and a purpose.

Management gurus talk of managing people. Dairy farmers also manage people but they also manage their herd. It’s part of the job to know when a cow is sick, when she’s losing weight, when it’s time for artificial insemination, when she’s about to give birth, when her milk production is off, when her hoofs need trimming, when the cow’s milk must be segregated from the rest of the herd’s, and that’s just the beginning. Dairy farmers think of each cow and calf as another child needing daily care.

Dairy farming is a family affair. Feeding bottle calves is a natural beginning for youngsters in the family business. There have been thousands of school students who learned about time management and responsibility when they awakened early to feed the calves before heading off to school knowing that as soon as they arrived back at home, the calves were waiting for their evening feeding. When the cows escape their assigned field, it becomes a family affair to get them back where they belong – and then you must correct whatever it was that allowed them to escape.

For dairy farm kids in 4-H and FFA, showing dairy cattle was yet another life lesson in responsibility. In my case, it was going to the field and learning that I could pick any heifer of the lot and she would be mine. Victoria was her name, and in my mind, she remains the greatest Jersey cow that ever lived. Under my father’s watchful eye, Victoria and I learned everything about one another as we spent hours each day rehearsing for the show ring. Victoria depended on me for food and water and I depended on her for doing everything just right and maybe earning a blue ribbon. Taking Victoria to the various county fairs was not unlike taking a daughter to the fair pageant. Preparation and presentation was everything. As Victoria matured and had a calf, my responsibilities increased. I also learned about feed costs, milk production, and veterinary services and the impact each had on Victoria’s earnings. And, I learned about life cycles when Victoria’s time was done.

Growing up on a dairy farm also teaches the importance of doing things right. With dairy cows there was no cutting corners and that extended to scrubbing the milking parlor walls, cleaning the calves’ water buckets, and cleaning manure from calf pens. One learned it is easier to do something correctly the first time and continue doing it that way in the future. It’s also a good idea to constantly look ahead to things that need to be done and working ahead.

Patience is yet another virtue learned on a family dairy farm. The louder you talk and the more abruptly you move around cows the less likely she will do what you want. One learns that being calm is a good character trait and that your actions can also impact others.

It wasn’t until I was out of college and working in a rather mundane desk job in state government that I recognized that I was raised differently than a lot of other folks and I approached things differently. One day, break time arrived and I continued working on a report I was doing because I was almost at the end and then the task would be finished. My supervisor came over and told me I wasn’t supposed to work during break time. I explained that I wanted to finish my task while it was fresh on my mind and then take my 15-minute break. She thought that notion was ridiculous; clearly, she didn’t grow up on a dairy farm.

Perhaps our standards have changed along with the dairy industry, but I maintain that Kentucky dairy farmers and the children they reared were rarely harmed by hard work to earn an honest living. The life lessons taught on the farm have produced some of our state’s most authentic individuals. I’m glad to report that those lessons continue to prove valuable as a way of life is slowly slipping into the past.

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