Focus on Agriculture: Farmer’s hours or banker’s hours?


I received a legitimate question about the hours that a dairyman works. The inquiry was related to the old adage "up at the crack of dawn to milk the cows." It has been said that those of us on dairies rise before the rooster crows. I am not entirely sure about that, as I recall a couple of guests at my home who complained that my rooster was crowing all night, keeping them awake — perhaps due to the proximity of a barn light right next to my chicken house. 

But, that is another story — back to the dairyman who rises early to milk the cows. The person who questioned me wondered why dairymen couldn't work “banker's hours” and milk the cows at 9 a.m. The thought was perhaps the cows needed more time during the day to produce milk before their next milking, being milked twice a day. Partially correct.

Without delving into a complete physiology lesson and lecture on a cow's anatomy, simplified, the bottom line is this: When a cow gets milked (whether by humans, machines or her calf nursing), her udder starts to produce more milk. 

As the udder fills up (it is sort of like a big sponge), the rate of milk production slows down. When her udder is full, that can be a lot of pressure, and the rate of production decreases. The cow wants relief — they do line up to get to the barn because they want that milk gone and the pressure relieved.

My dad changed from milking two times a day to three times a day as it increased the cow’s production: Because her udder was emptied three times, she produced more milk in a day. We only milked three times a day for about a year, as I remember. The increased cost of labor, equipment, electricity, etc., made too big a dent in the income from the increased milk production. We went back to milking two times per day.

Dairies in the United States generally milk two times a day — 12 hours apart, thus equaling out the time the cow has to produce more milk. So, back to the discussion about why dairymen get up so early rather than working “banker’s hours” and starting to milk at 9 a.m. The simple answer is: They can. 

It is largely a personal choice, or is influenced by factors such as the arrival time of the tank truck that hauls milk from the farm to a processing plant. We cannot be putting milk into the tank while the truck is emptying it — again, another story.

So why would someone want to get up at 3 a.m. to milk their cows? Let’s do some math. 

Just for this discussion, let’s say that our dairyman takes five hours to milk his cows (all dependent on the number of cows he is milking and the type of milking barn he has). So, he gets up at 3 a.m., sets up the barn, gets the cows in and is milking by 4 a.m, finishing at 9 a.m. 

Once done, he has the whole day in front of him to do what he wants (needs) to do. Oh, but wait … 12 hours later, he repeats the process, so he is again milking cows from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. 

He already missed breakfast with his family and didn’t see his kids leave for school. Now, he has missed dinner with his family, any sporting events or after-school activities his kids participate in. But, he can crawl into bed by 10 or 11 p.m. and grab a few winks before getting back up at 3 a.m. to do it all over again. 

Another option? Let’s say he wants to eat breakfast with his family. Then he heads to the barn at 9 a.m. (banker’s hours) and is milking from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. He has dinner with the family and maybe a basketball game or dance recital before milking again from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. 

Clean up, get into the house and crawl into bed for a few hours of sleep so he can be up for breakfast with his family.

So, this is a somewhat lengthy, complicated explanation, but it is up to the dairyman. Some people like being awake in the daytime and sleeping at night — others are night owls and like being awake at night and catching a few zzz’s in the daylight. 

Other factors come into play as well. Is this strictly a family operation? How is the labor divided up between mom, dad, kids of various ages? (Yes, it is legal for us to work our kids; we can't hire kids, but we can work our own!) 

Perhaps dad does the morning milking while mom gets the kids off to school before going out and feeding calves. Then, maybe mom does the evening milking while dad feeds the cows, does maintenance, fieldwork, cleans the barns. Sometimes, the kids come home and do the afternoon calf feeding, help with feeding cows and youngstock, drive a tractor to cut and haul grass to feed or fill silos for silage. It is a family affair.

On larger operations with one or more employees, the jobs become more specialized. Perhaps an employee does all the milking (except on their day off, when mom, dad or one of the kids fill in), and that frees dad and mom up to do all the other roles with the kids filling in as needed depending on their age and abilities. 

As the operation gets bigger, one or more employees do the milking, someone does nothing but feed cows, someone else is responsible for the calves' feeding and care, and someone does herd health. Someone does the “farming” part of the operation — mowing, raking and baling hay or planting, irrigating and cutting corn for silage. Somebody also has to do the bookwork. Unfortunately, there is more and more of that to do thanks to government regulations, which takes time away from caring for the cows.

Dairying has a lot of specialized skills, and the small “mom-and-pop” operations as we called them when I was in high school mean the family has to master them all, do them all — seven days a week, 365 days a year — including on their birthdays, Christmas day, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July. The cows don't care; they want relief from that pressure!

I joke about being a retired "ol’ gray mare" and sometimes describe myself as a dinosaur. I have some pretty traditional beliefs, but they serve me well. I miss my cows and working my draft horses. 

I never thought I would have to live a different lifestyle, but life sometimes gives us unexpected opportunities to learn new things and walk down new paths. I bought my current property and designed and built my home in which to live out my days. 

I built my birds a palace. There are three rooms: one for quail, one for meat birds and one for laying hens. (I gave up on the ducks a few years ago as they kept hatching out more than I could eat.) 

I built a small run-in shed and little hay storage barn, established an orchard, and have a big garden because I want quality fresh food with no added coloring, chemicals, preservatives, sugar, etc. I eat real food and plan to continue doing so. I honor those who provide me with nourishment. I believe that we are what we eat.


Maureen Harkcom is president of the Lewis County Farm Bureau. She can be reached at