Uh-oh... Latest Author's Notes
On one of the writing platforms I belong to I asked for and received critiques of the first 600 words of this book (The first 600 words are all that most publishers will read before they decide to ditch the book entirely - OR continue on because they are hooked or see tremendous potential with little editing required).
These are by two professional editors who give their critiques to members for free. They stress, from the beginning, that these will appear tough to those brave enough to put their 'babies' before their judgement - BUT, it is strongly emphasised - these critics are pussy-cats compared to what a writer faces when submitting their treasured manuscript to publishers.
So I 'bit the bullet' and nervously submitted the first 600 words of the first chapter of this second book in my memoir series. I have a twofold purpose in sharing just some of them with my readers now.
One is to show what writers go through - after all the creating and correcting and self-editing and rewriting and editing again and again - there's still the gauntlet of the professionals to run. I think this may be interesting and enlightening to readers who have little knowledge of 'behind the scenes' of the writing world.
The other reason is by way of explanation as to why this book's chapters will be changing in the New Year - 2017. I really don't have time just now to sit and deeply consider the critiques and suggestions and what my new direction will be - not yet. But I have glimmers of possibilities. If I can satisfy myself about these factors in Book Two - guess what? Time to look at and re-assess Book One. I'm exhausted just thinking of it.
And so here are a few comments (sounding negative... but in fairness, they have made many truly worthwhile suggestions to help me)
Well, I can see what you've tried to do here---make it 'human' and reader-involving by delivering an incredible amount of backstory in dialogue---but all you've ended up with is two people telling each other things they already know. It's unrealistic...
It comes across as not the comfortable chat of a married couple but the exchange of information between two people who have met up after a year spent apart, so give this another try, Christine. Give us a scene where we're eavesdropping on the conversation between two people who have shared a single experience, rather than have them individually (and self-consciously) directly convey to the reader what has taken place.
**And it worsened with the second viewpoint -
I’m afraid this opening leaves me cold. There’s no close identification with a particular character, or pair of characters.
It doesn’t work for me, just my opinion. I’d suggest rethinking it.
I’d like to see one of the characters in the city, feeling awkward... I’d like them to nearly get run over by a taxi, or get abused and instead of shrugging and getting on with their day, like most city dwellers do when confronted with a situation like this, breaking down utterly. This is the last straw—they can’t bear this existence any more.
This is the situation the character is in, the conflict at the heart of their story...
... There are plenty of ways of achieving an engrossing start to your story. This is just one of them. But I’d suggest thinking of it in those terms. Draw their current situation, but in real time, showing us what they’re feeling, illustrated by incident. Then describe the event that’s going to change all that, and make sure we know how profound that change is going to be, and what’s at stake for your characters. Now we’re on the journey with them.
It's been a fascinating experience. Daunting to say the least. And of course, first reaction is to defend your 'baby' and say 'No... that's not how it is. Read the rest - you'll see.' But the thing is, if I can't 'hook' my reader in the first 600 words, he'll never get to see the rest.
My one bone of contention is that I don't believe many 'regular-type' readers are as tight and unforgiving in their opinions as editors of publishing houses. It's all going to come down to the question of who I'm writing for - myself and sharing my life stories with those who'd like to listen - or the 'mores' and likes/dislikes of popular editing opinion. Unfortunately, the latter feels like a sell-out of my moral stance and all I believe about my writing.
So, come the New Year, I'm going to try to find the middle road where I can feel comfortable, whilst improving my work. Fingers crossed for me folks (can't cross my own or won't be able to type.).
**Oh yes, and should mention that my previous Author's Notes and Introduction are now at the end of these chapters - waiting to see what manner of pruning they will be getting. My overwhelming impression is that I must ditch some (a lot, probably) and weave other bits into the chapters as I progress.
It's a big job for an old lady... but maybe a New Year will bring fresh courage and spirit to face the challenge.
Chapter 1: Dairy Farmers? Really?
"A whole year, marking time back in the city." Kanute frowns and curls his lip at the thought. "Guess I was luckier than you. At least a Building Supervisor spends a large part of his day outdoors, driving from job to job. Out on the building site, mostly - supervising the trades’ workmanship and progress.”
"Tell me about it," I say. "For me it was stockings and high heels, and make-up every day. Hairdressers and new hairdos and spiffy clothes” I feel my nose wrinkling in disgust. “Hard to take, being in an office all day again, after the freedom of the farm."
How reluctantly we’d returned to city jobs. Our hearts stayed stubbornly in the country, far from the acrid smells of traffic and hot bitumen, where pollution crept around every crowded corner. The arched glow of city lights was a hopeless competitor to the never-ending expanse of tiny winking lights we loved… and craved. Whenever we couldn't physically escape to the country, we found solace at the beach, looking out to sea. The atmosphere held the strongest affinity to the clarity and space of all we had left behind with the added bonus of clean, salty air.
Twelve long months of increasingly desperate searching for our own corner of the world. Sadly but surely it became clear that buying any kind of productive farm, let alone the farm of our dreams, would be financially impossible.
"How depressing, was that?" I sigh, reliving the frustration and pain. "Weekend after weekend, we'd set off with hopes so high. This would be the one—"
I am interrupted by Kanute’s unexpected grin. A loud laugh rolls out as he says, "What about that farm in the Adelaide hills? The one tucked away at the end of that winding, leafy lane?"
I start laughing too. "The one we rejected, thank God. Our guardian angel sure had us firmly in her sights that day." Some years later we revisited that pretty, shady corner of the woods. The property now had a name on the rusting and precariously leaning gate, in lieu of the 'For Sale' sign - Poverty Point!
Reluctantly we accepted the inevitable, our thoughts turning to the possibility of share-farming; the dairy kind, we decided. Only one problem - or two. We were not only woefully ignorant of how this worked, we held serious doubts any farm proprietor would share his precious herd and property with two novices. We had no idea where to look for a solution. We only knew we desperately wanted to be farmers.
Countless times in our lives when we've dropped to our lowest ebb, a light has flickered at the end of our tunnel and brought us through the darkness. This time proved no exception. Our old friend Sven looked incredulous as we cornered him to pick his brains for information about dairy share-farming. He had expected city small-talk at the crowded Danish birthday party we were enjoying. With eyes stretched wide and eyebrows raised, he said, "Dairy Farmers? You two? Really?" As we talked and fervently shared our dreams with this experienced dairy farmer, he finally understood how desperate and dedicated we were to leaving city life. Typically, recovering quickly from his surprise, he promised to scout around and see if he could find any possibilities. True to his word, in a matter of days, Sven phoned to share some exciting news. In the strangest twist of fate, a dairy share-farming proposition had unexpectedly become available on a farm just 30 minutes away from his.
We had met Sven at one of Kanute's mother's many dinner parties, before we were married. In those days we were the epitome of young, up-and-coming business executive types. Nothing indicated a future when we would be shifting a lot of... manure, and leaning heavily on this small wiry man with the ever-ready grin, for advice and support ("Just don't worry about it, Christine… it's all going to be fine."). So much sound knowledge gained over many farming years in Denmark, and here in Australia share farming before the many years of owning his own dairy. Sven's hard-earned experience in all aspects of dairy-farming, land management and animal husbandry taught us invaluable lessons even before day one on our own dairy farm.
"We would never even have known about the share-farming proposition without him," Kanute still tells people, years later. His disbelief is as strong as ever, no matter the years since that fateful day. As Sven contacted and recommended us to the owner, he drummed into our minds the intricacies of a share-farm agreement, and what we should push for as our share. A wealthy lady in her eighties, Mrs. Lowe lived nearby on another of her several farms. Despite her great affluence, she found herself in needy circumstances of an unusual kind. Her dairy share farmer had left without warning - or anybody's knowledge of his whereabouts. Given no other choice, she had redirected the services of the manager of her nearby home farm to milk the cows. His vast previous experience managing a sheep enterprise north of Adelaide found him ill-suited to his temporary role and desperate to return to the work he did best… and the lifestyle he loved. Not milking cows.
What a crusty little old lady was Mrs. Lowe. Unforgettable canny, glittering eyes peering over tiny spectacles hanging precariously on the end of her nose. Small in stature certainly, but impressive in her shrewd and calculating approach to every problem that crossed her path. Her home was filled with valuable and rare antiques matching her haughty presence to perfection.
"What a daunting personality… even with Sven to introduce us and say so many good words about us." I feared her searching gaze would expose the quivering uncertainty we tried to hide, grateful the thunderous beating of my heart could be heard in my ears alone.
"I still can't fathom Sven’s deep belief in us and our degree of commitment," Kanute says.
I shake my head, and then nod, too. Little did our new 'partner-to-be' know that our collective milking experience belonged to Kanute and the hand-milking he had done as a boy, holidaying on his uncle’s farm in Denmark. Somehow, Sven recognised our passion and desire to have our own farm - and saw the optimism and energy we were ready to apply to our dream. Thankfully, he didn’t share his knowledge of our novice status with Mrs. Lowe, choosing instead to dwell at length on our enthusiasm and capacity for hard work, whilst reassuring her of his constant support. We never doubted Sven's persuasive powers and promised guidance were the factors swinging the balance in our favour; winning over that seemingly cold but astute businesswoman’s hard heart.
Although Mrs. Lowe would have guessed our apprehension, thankfully, she never knew the degree of physical pain hidden behind my smiling face. A minor whiplash injury to my neck, the result of a small car accident on my way to work that morning, had seen me wear a cervical collar (neck support) all day. It had been removed only long enough for x-ray confirmation nothing was broken or displaced. In hospital, the medical orders were to wear it for several days to support and assist healing of muscle strain and soft tissue damage. I removed this collar after the painful ninety minute drive to her farm, and before the all-important introduction and interview, fearing it would show weakness, or inability to be the strong and capable share-farmers she needed. Pride can be a wonderfully effective adrenalin pump, when hearts and souls are challenged to do well.
Against all odds, this wealthy old lady chose us to be her new share-farmers. The contract stated an offer of first right of purchase sometime far into the future... IF she should ever choose to sell. Sven's belief in us had strengthened our case, won the day and the share-farming agreement. His continuing support and superb advice would carry us through many dark days until the sun came shining through once again. What a formidable knowledge of all things dairy. It seemed there was no dilemma existed he had not investigated or solved. His sage advice and support on every pro and con of our current question or problem buoyed us up to achieve the near-impossible. In our first year we doubled the production levels of a sick and badly neglected herd of dairy cows at their lowest ebb.
"Thought we'd have years ahead to save, didn't we, love?" I say. Kanute answers with a nod and a wry grin.
Our stringently limited financial position dictated our delight with the prospect of many share-farming years ahead… not only to save, but equally importantly, to gain valuable experience in the dairy world. Those same frugal limitations led to our somewhat unusual share-farming agreement (although there are many forms of share-farming in use). Our contribution would be the labour for milking; animal husbandry and care of stock; all farm work, including fencing and maintenance of buildings and contents; and responsibility for all fuel for vehicles and machinery. We would also share 1/3 of all running costs in order to receive 1/3 of the milk proceeds. Mrs. Lowe's contribution would be the land, the cattle, and the machinery necessary to operate the farm.
"Yes, well… all too soon the machinery question caused the whole deal to come a cropper. Hmmph… trying to operate with only our rusty old ute, when we so desperately needed a tractor. She had to be kidding," Kanute says, and blows a large sighing sort of phew. "With all those farming years behind her, you'd reckon she'd have thought of that before we actually lived it. Guess such practical matters don't always occur to the lady of the manor…"
A particularly wet winter made using the ute firstly impractical, then rapidly impossible, as the paddocks became softer and muddier - and far too wet for anything else than a tractor. Fortunately, the local rural agents applied logic and reality to our bone of contention and we reached a final resolution. They were able to convince the owner we could not operate without the necessities of life - like that essential tractor. The most urgent task being the immediate need to feed out the bales of hay to our milkers. Like us, the agents clearly knew within a few short months the next pressing need would be a hay mower (not the lawn variety). The chosen paddocks were already closed up to allow their pastures to grow for silage and hay - the essential fodder for those cold winter months when grassy growth slows. Equally important would be its need in springtime, when the abundant fresh green growth contains few nutrients and the need for a balance of dry feed becomes crucial.
At a round table conference with the stock agent, the Owner considered all arguments most carefully in her usual serious ‘owl-like’ fashion, sighed heavily several times and then announced her decision. “Well ... it seems to me there’s only one answer. The Larsens had better buy the farm!” From that moment her obsession began... the farm must be ours. It was barely five months into our share-farming agreement and Mrs. Lowe had determined to sell it to us. To our additional surprise and joy, we discovered she wished to lease the property to us instead of share-farming and would extend our contract for as long as it took to get the necessary finance.
"Would deliriously happy describe how we felt?" I know my eyes light up all over again.
"Absolutely. Delirious… and dazed. Talk about the bitter and the sweet. Phew! Only three years or more earlier than even our dreams had permitted." Once again, our great mate Sven stepped right up behind us, advising and encouraging us to ‘go for it’.
And so our many trips to the city began. "How many do you reckon?" I ask.
"I really don't know. Too bloody many, if you ask me."
We trailed around one lending authority after another, stoically accepting their disbelief in our anticipated milk production figures; and yet never losing our confidence that we could do it, somehow. We were nowhere near ready for the rigorous demands of the lending authorities, having only a tiny 10% of the price available to put down as deposit. Although far too soon for us, nevertheless the challenge and the possibility existed right now… ready or not.
"Out came your trusty calculator and paper and pencil - like always." Another of the countless times I've felt blessed by my numbers man's prowess.
We worked on endless sheets of figures and predictions and educated guesses; and tossed and turned through many sleepless nights wondering how we could possibly do it. Between milkings we drove those countless three hour round-trips to the city, always starting out full of optimism that this time would be the one.
"How many more times will we return empty-handed?" I would say, feeling desperately downhearted. Kanute would give me a comforting hug.
"I know love. It's bloody hard starting milking SO late on these darkest and coldest nights… " He sighed heavily. Luckily for him, his disappointment and exhaustion would cause him to fall into bed, and sleep, on almost a single breath. Many silent tears were shed those nights as Kanute slept while I continued to relive that day's disappointments. And that one time we were too tired and miserable to go to the end of our large ‘dry cow’ paddock to ensure our heavily pregnant girls were OK… ahh that one hurts.
Just this once... we told ourselves, surely everything will be as usual. Some grazing, some laying down chewing their cuds, others sleeping.
But when we checked in the morning, one of our best cows was dead after a clearly desperate struggle. It’s not wishful speculation to say we could have saved her, because it’s true. The night we surrendered to our fatigue, instead of giving her the miracle of a bottle of glucose injected intravenously for milk fever, she would have lived. The most magical cure we had ever seen was right at our fingertips - always had several bottles on hand - so leaving this precious cow unattended was not one of our prouder moments. Decades later, that needless death still causes us a great deal of pain. Either of us only has to say, "What about 100?" for the inevitable next thought - if only...
Finally our own bank's Loans Manager gave us a straight answer. Not the one we desperately wanted to hear but a flimsy branch to cling to, a glimmer of hope. Kanute shared our expectation of producing 350 lbs. (approx. 159 kg.) of butterfat per cow in our first year. Crucial figures when the dairy farmer was paid exclusively for the butterfat content of the milk.
"Nice dream, Mr. Larsen," the Loans Manager said, with a knowing smirk. "The unfortunate reality is that the average production for a herd like yours - IF they were in top nick - is 300 lbs. butterfat per cow. That, Mr. Larsen, is not enough to service a loan as large as what you are requesting." Our crestfallen faces must have touched some softness buried deep in that banker's heart, because he added, "… but IF you could produce 350 lbs. in one year, come back and see me, and then MY bank will loan you the money. I guarantee it." As he firmly closed our folder, his raised eyebrows and shrugged shoulders showed his total confidence he stood on a safe and tidy platform, high above the hoi-polloi like us.
Some things are like the proverbial red rag to a bull. That Loans Manager, along with many others, had seriously underestimated our staying power and bloody-mindedness (some more polite souls may call this 'determination'). Twelve months later, when we reached that goal and then exceeded even our own guesstimate by 10% (and theirs by more than 28%), we triumphantly returned. With the greatest satisfaction we presented our figures and reminded him of his promise. With the most polite attitude we could muster and tongues firmly tucked into cheeks, we said, “We’re here to see you put your money where your mouth is!” Our trusty banker appeared momentarily stunned, then composed himself, magnanimously extending his congratulations whilst heartily shaking our hands. He seemed as impressed with our achievement as we were.
"You've proved your point, alright. Impressive!" He shook his head in disbelief. Did we also detect an undertone of approval… even grudging respect? "I'll take this directly to the Board's next meeting." And he did, and wonder of wonders, approval came within the record time of only one week. Our joy knew no bounds. As promised, our unlikely 'fairy godmother', Mrs. Lowe, had continued to steadfastly refuse all other efforts to purchase our farm, despite more lucrative offers. Now she fulfilled another crucial vow - that she would personally carry our second mortgage.
Our most fervent dream had come true. Our own farm, after all the agonising and struggling, all the heartaches and back-breaking work. Now to get on with the small matter of paying it all back. We airily brushed off the fearful mortgages to both Bank and Mrs. Lowe for the farm itself, and the stock mortgage for the dairy herd, and the loan for the larger stainless steel milk vat we now needed with our increased production. We are amazed we never once stopped believing in ourselves and our ability to conquer such formidable debts. Time would prove this self-belief was not misplaced. Against the odds, within three years we paid out the loan to the milk co-operative; and the dairy herd and tractor were also completely ours. A few years later, we also paid out the second mortgage to the Owner. In the decade that followed, our careful breeding and feeding brought our herd production average up to levels previously unknown for such a motley herd with the history of mismanagement ours had endured.
Way back, my Mum taught me these somewhat twisted versions of two old adages:
‘When you’re at the end of your rope, tie a knot in it… and hang on’, and
‘Bite off more than you can chew - and then chew like hell’.
It took a heap of blood, sweat and tears, but we achieved both, through many years of battling, much hard yakka, and severe belt-tightening. Despite the odds, we muddled through. The value of persistence shaped the way we have lived the rest of our lives, becoming our way of coping with the many calculated risks we have taken and won, and significantly intensified our resilience to downturns, disappointments and disasters. When the times got tough, as they often did, we faced the challenges head on and overcame all obstacles in order to live to fight another day. No prizes for guessing one of my favourite sayings - 'The strongest steel is forged in the hottest fire'.
Our memories of this decade never stray far from Sven, the man who made all things possible for us. What could we possibly offer in grateful return to the most amazing mentor we would ever have? Without even realising it, we were already repaying him in a most unlikely but totally individual fashion. He was barely surviving the loneliest time of his life as a widower with three small children to raise on his own, following his wife’s death soon after the birth of their youngest son. Sven had never found another to take his wife’s place. It seemed too much to ask of any woman - to become an instant mother of three - AND take on the demanding routine of a dairy farmer’s wife. Somehow, he had continued milking his cows, the only job he knew, to provide his family’s livelihood throughout this testing time.
Despairing of finding a wife, he engaged a string of housekeepers, often with the poorest of outcomes and never with any success. At last his eldest, a daughter, began relieving much of the emotional and loving needs of his family, freeing him to have a small piece of life of his very own at last. Luckily for us, Sven chose to spend a large portion of this time at our farm, after our respective milkings. Such happy evenings we shared - often into the wee hours of the next morning. No regrets about that… until a few short hours later when we all had to get up again to milk. We were young enough to bounce back. Not so sure how he managed, but he remained a glutton for punishment, repeating our late-night sessions countless times.
We discussed and solved all of of our country’s political problems, along with World affairs, plus the crucial questions of weather forecasts and of course, dairying.
"… and didn't you especially love discussing your good friend, Joh?" Kanute has a cunning glint in his eye, and his mouth tightens at the sides in a sardonic grin. I wrinkle my nose and bare my teeth, as I make a g-r-r-r-owl deep in my throat. MY good friend Joh, ha! One of Australia's State Premiers at that time; and I loathed him. I found his attitudes bigoted and his policies frighteningly repressive. Freedom of every kind ranks high on my list - freedom of speech and choice, and the right to protest. And yet… I smile as I revisit my fire and brimstone fervour and the passionate arguments we shared. This pair of rogues, with their warped sense of humour, loved nothing better than to 'wind me up' by pretending to take the opposite stance to mine!
Did I mention sharing a glass of red or three, chased down with coffee and biscuits, and the obligatory Port... or three? Memories flood back of Sven standing up in readiness to leave, refusing to sit down again because, "I'm definitely on my way this time," - but - “maybe ... oh-h-h OK... one more glass before I go.” He loved the challenges of our debates as much as we did, but by this hour of the night, he wouldn’t sit down again. No. He leant on our mantelpiece above the open fire, and without fail, the next sentence would be, "Just before I go…, I must tell you about... ” and we’d be set for another half hour, at least! Did we mind? No way. We loved and learned from every minute we spent with him. Not a 'marriage made in heaven', but perhaps the next best thing. Born out of need (from both sides) and grown by mutual respect, caring and learning, our special friendship has spanned well over half a decade… so far.
We continued to own our dairy farm for the next ten years, then left by choice to live a different farm lifestyle and not milk cows any longer. Sven found a wife - totally for himself, not for the sake of his children. By that time the three of them were adults themselves; setting off on their own paths; no longer needing a mother in the same way as earlier in their lives. In a strange twist of fate, Sven and his bride chose Kanute to be Master of Ceremonies at their wedding. He also built the house of their dreams for them. (Kanute's Builder’s Licence had followed qualification as a Carpenter and Joiner, plus many years in the Building Industry - all earned in our pre-farming lifetime).
Our friend is no longer with us, but we were amongst those who loved him dearly and shared his 35th wedding anniversary and another year down the track, his 90th birthday. Our friendship stayed strong and to this day can bring a glint to our eyes... of mischief still, and a happy tear or two as we relive the many yesterdays we shared for over half a century.
Chapter 2: The Milky Bar Kids – In the Beginning
The blaring air-horn of the milk tanker resounded through the dairy, all but drowning out the chugging and hissing milking machine. Seconds later, a sickening thump and a series of piteous yelps sent us racing out to the road, hearts pumping and filled with dread. Couldn't be one of our dogs? Mother and daughter were safely tied up back at the house… weren't they?
Earlier we had approached our first milking with our usual naive enthusiasm, and a large quota of bravado. Our determination that none should witness our woeful lack of knowledge and experience dominated the mix this day. We approached our 'maiden milking' with a ferocious mindset, trying to convince ourselves our shortcomings would be balanced by the degree of caring we brought to the job. After all, these poor creatures had been milked by a sheep farmer for weeks whilst the owner, Mrs. Lowe, searched for a share-farmer.
"So what's wrong with a sheep farmer milking cows?" you ask. Well-ll…
For starters, this reluctant milker rounded up the cows twice a day with the help of his trusty working dogs, and his equally trusty old utility. Hard to tell which 'moved' the cows faster - the incessant yapping at their heels, or the combined roar of the vehicle's motor and beeping of its horn as it simultaneously belched out great clouds of stinking smoke. This rowdy, smelly combination ensured great success… for him. Presumably his goal was to get the herd into the dairy in the shortest time known to Man or beast.
As spectators, there to 'learn the ropes', we found ourselves unimpressed by the quantity of milk spread over the paddock by the great swinging udders of the sprinters. Maybe we knew zilch about milking cows (except what this sheep farmer taught us), but it didn't take an Einstein to figure this to be all wrong.
"You know, we were a couple of real city slickers," Kanute says, shaking his head in disbelief. "Where on earth did we learn how to handle these large creatures so successfully for the next ten years?"
"Hmm-m-m… and another four years at Angas Plains." Must have been our deep love and respect for animals, coupled with a burning desire to take sole charge of our destiny, that provided us with the keys to our success.
On this first day, all loomed ahead of us. How graciously we had refused all offers of help with the confident air of two old hands at this milking 'gig'. How ironic in retrospect. Kanute and I are the most honest people and yet, on this subject, we blatantly lied and deceived everyone around us so none should see our quivering interiors. The trusty sheep farmer had actually done us a massive favour, we told ourselves confidently. Nothing we could do could upset them more than he had... could it?
After bungling our way through our first milking; our first full day; our first week - our 'girls' (the dairy herd) began to respond to our TLC - slowly but surely. They led us far along the steep learning curve of patience and understanding with animals that had begun on the other side of Australia, raising kangaroos, and to this day (40+ years later) is still our instinctive way to handle all our creatures, great and small.
It's not so hard when you start with a strong foundation of love and understanding. (Did I really say that? Rubbish! Lying again!) It's the hardest job in the world, gaining an animal's trust, especially one who has lost faith in humans due to neglect or shabby treatment. Kanute and I each wear scars on bodies and souls, that prove traumatised animals are ready to lash out in self-protection following much thoughtless and careless handling. But would we have missed the journey, or any part of it? No way!
Our herring-bone style dairy meant cows stood alongside each other in a staggered fashion - six each side of a waist-deep pit where we worked with swing-across sets of milking cups. A strong steel bar behind their bottoms and a thick concrete ledge behind their back feet stopped them from joining us down there... mostly. This old dairy had been the first herring-bone style in the area, a breakthrough in its day, but this one already had 'whiskers on it'… as we would discover. A long feed trough with a walk-space in front enabled hand-bucketing in the cows' rations of crushed grain. In the interest of speed and ease of handling, I had carefully lined up the spot where each cow's head would be, and evenly spaced out six bucketfuls in each trough. Sounded good to me, in my innocence.
On this first day, Kanute and I both went on foot to bring the cows in. Their size felt a tad 'over the top' for this ex-secretary, and my small dose of Dutch courage needed bolstering. Lesson No. l: When cows have been herded in by a sheep farmer and his dogs, and are then treated to quiet but firm encouragement by humans 'on foot', they respond in like fashion, gently, appreciatively, gratefully - and calmly move into whatever position or place you desire. Right?
Kanute coughs behind his fist, and clears his throat. "Actually, NO-o-o…," he scoffs. "They responded quite differently."
He's right. The drippy dames all had to stop everything they were doing, stare at us wide-eyed; 'poop'; turn around and start following us (cows are SO curious); 'poop' some more; finally start to move together (in the wrong direction); and for good luck, 'poop' again.
On this day, it required one human in front for them to follow, and one at the back to encourage the forward impetus. How we chuckle at the memory. We seriously had no idea! But at last they were in the concrete holding yard with the gate firmly chained behind them. With a press of a button, the milking machine sprung into action and finally we had 'all systems go'.
Except... the first cow entering the dairy stopped at the first pile of feed in the long trough and started eating. And everyone else started piling up behind her, pushing and shoving like a mob scene at the opening of a department store sale. Soon, there were cows in the engine room - and the milk room around the huge (and expensive) stainless steel, refrigerated milk vat. A couple went down the steps into 'our' pit; two were wedged tight between the tail rail and the trough; and another tried to jump over the feed trough, and succeeded in straddling it instead, totally unable to make her way forward… or back.
"And we thought we were nervous before our 'maiden' milking began," I say, and can't help a wry smile and a shake of my head as I recollect how sure we'd been that our bravado could overcome anything. Huh! Our stomachs and our nervous systems most closely resembled the stuff that jellyfish are made of as we tried to restore order to the incredible chaos threatening to overwhelm us.
"We had no option but to let them all out again into the dirt yard next to the concrete," says Kanute. His eyes narrow and his top lip curls.
And my nose crinkles involuntarily. Who could forget having to clean down the dairy before we could even continue? And post haste, remove the offending feed from the troughs. Aha! Lesson No. 2! You feed them after they have walked in and shuffled and arranged themselves… and 'pooped' again. (Where does it all come from?)
It's no job for the faint-hearted with all those huge heads and their 'poppy' eyes staring at you. Some wanted to sniff and taste us with tongues as long as a snake (well, nearly)… certainly as rough as sand paper. Others rolled their eyes, lay back their ears and tossed their heads in seeming disgust. Much head swinging and foot stamping took place as the girls tried in vain to withhold their milk.
It had taken us almost four hours from whoa to go to milk 26 cows. We were quite proud to find we cut that back to 2-1/2 hours at the p.m. milking. On that day, we would not have believed the 'norm' we would achieve much later, 65 cows in two hours! And even later again, 80 in two hours. Practice makes perfect, they say… and in this case they were right.
But this was 'easy street', as my Mother-in-law could have told you. She grew up in Denmark, milking three cows by hand, three times a day - forced to refuse the opportunity to learn hairdressing, because there was -
"No future in hairdos, girl... milk cows. That's the thing to do!" declared her Father, most sternly. Made good sense to him and his plain, hard-working generation in the early 1930's in Denmark.
Here in Australia, 40 years later, we thought it kindest to our new girls to keep our dogs tied up on our first official milking day, after their previous unhappy experiences with sheep-herding type dogs. In the late afternoon, once again on foot, we gently but firmly brought them in. No noisy, smelly vehicle or relentless barkers and heel-nippers, as we proceeded to lead them, like over-large lambs to the slaughter coming to meet their Milkers. And we were confident at this, our second milking, there would be no repeat of the morning's bedlam and mayhem following our exceptional and memorable 'false start'.
"Seasoned troopers this time, weren't we?" I laugh, but it's a little strained. As our second, more educated approach began to near its end, we were almost ready to heave a sigh of relief and congratulate each other loudly on achieving a new world record of 1-1/2 hours only. But... you know how you are advised not to 'count your chickens before they're hatched'? You shouldn't start whipping up a milkshake before you've milked the cow, either. Disaster loomed and struck from a totally unexpected quarter… but that's a whole other story (Chapter 10, The Gypsy in our Souls).
Suffice to say we slept like zombies on the night of this, our first day's milking. I remember murmuring, before exhaustion won out, "It can only get better from here on.... surely?"
And it did!