Chapter 14

What Happened to the Dairy Business

This is one of the more disgusting stories I need to tell. When I was a boy there were many dairies around over the countryside. Dad ran one through the depression, Grandfather Kennedy had one that started before Dad's, and ran later. Uncle Erlo Davis and his brother Uncle Urso each had one that I was familiar with, and there were many others also. These dairies (except Dad's) sold milk to a small company to be homogenized, pasteurized, bottled and sold to customers in the local market.

Dad got out of the milk business when he could no longer bottle it himself. Dairy is truly dreadful work: long hours from milking in the early morning, working all day and milking again in the evening, seven days a week. When Dad sold milk, you had to deliver milk to the customers before they had breakfast, before 6:30 or so, to assure freshness.

After the adoption of milking machines the worst fate that could befall a dairyman was to have the electricity go off. Then the cows had to be milked by hand. This was much slower, and ruined the day's work, and sometimes you weren't ready for the truck that picked up the milk.

After Dad quit, the government got into the business of regulating the dairies. Somewhere a bureaucrat wrote a set of rules defining how sanitary milk should be produced, and inspectors began to arrive at each little farm to regulate how the cows were handled, how the milk was processed, how the facilities were designed, etc. The milk house had to be so many feet from the barn, its interior surface had to be made of such and such materials, you had to use certain brands of cleaner. The barn not only had to be cleaned, but limed daily, and manure hauled away daily.

(Illustration 14-1)

Another from the 1956 set. The topography is pretty typical of West Virginia upland meadows.

In the strip mine business, going on at this same time, there was great profit and great corruption. The mine boss met the inspector with a one hundred dollar bill wrapped around a cigar, took him to meals, and padded the inspector's income. Thus the inspector was unable to see the more expensive errors to correct, just a few inexpensive ones to show his superiors he was doing his job. On the other hand, the farmers were Scotch-Irish and oldline English blood. They went to church, struggled to pay their miserable little debts, and wouldn't think of offering baksheesh.

They had to put up with being fined for having a 75 watt bulb instead of a 60 watt bulb in the milk house, for having milk stone on perfectly clean buckets, for using the wrong brand of filters, for dirty windows, for not enough lime in the walkways, for cobwebs in the feedway, and so on. Many of the regulations were arbitrary and had little or nothing to do with the cleanliness of the milk. The inspectors did well for a while, but before long they had little to do, because one by one, the dairies dropped out.

Near the last there were two kinds of dairy left - a local company composed of elite dairies that sold a branded, slightly higher priced milk, and the very small dairies that sold to Carnation, which made their milk into condensed milk. The Carnation Company sent out trucks to pick up milk from many small, out of the way dairies. Often run by older men, these farms frequently did not provide the equivalent of full time employment, but in many cases enough for conservative people to live on. The regulations were not so strict, because the process of condensing the milk allowed a little more leeway. Then the big dairies in the upper Midwest came online and milk became very cheap - Carnation left the Clarksburg area, and the mini dairies had no market.

Finally the elite dairy, which advertised Ayrshire milk, could not compete with imported milk, and these farms too, changed to beef production. One characteristic of dairies, large and small, was that most of them made corn silage. Even the tiny little dairies with a dozen or fewer cows back on some dirt road had a silo. This is because, acre for acre, more feed value and more palatable feed can be made by fermenting corn, stalk, grain and all. The nutritional requirements for a dairy cow are much greater than for a beef cow during the winter, and almost directly proportional to her production. So as the dairies waned, corn silage also decreased. On some of the larger farms even now the old silos still hold corn silage, but it is used to fatten cattle, rather than to produce milk.

One of the elite dairy farms tried to sell milk directly to customers from its own store. We bought from them, as did a lot of folks in the area. The story is that when they did a careful financial analysis after about two years, they were losing around $1.54 a gallon. They too, went over to beef.

There were four breeds of milk cows when I was a kid. Jersey and Guernsey were bred for the amount of cream (once highly prized) they produced. They had lower volume of milk. The Holstein-Friesian (now called Holstein) breed produced high volume and low butterfat and solids. They were derisively referred to as "water wagons" by the supporters of other breeds. Ayrshires were in the middle in terms of the volume and solids. Almost all commercial milk cows are of one breed now. Guess which! I read the other day that a high producing cow can now supply ten times what her calf can use.

Aside There is an animal gaining in popularity which was little seen in my youth, the goat. They are in demand because they eat bushes and broadleaved species that cattle and sheep won't. They are used to clean up spots that are too steep for tractors. Build a fence (usually electric) around the steep spot, put in the goats, and they "do what comes naturally." Goats are amusing to watch. Sometimes they will stand up on their hind feet to reach leaves on a high branch. Sometimes one will stand in place and a second one will put its front feet on the first one's back to reach some sprig. They will straddle a branch to bring it down within reach.

They are devilish about getting out, though. But if you feed them a little grain each day they will follow you right back into the pen. There is a market for the meat in cities, and you can drink the milk, but there is little market for it, and it tastes awful if it stands too long before use. Goat's milk cheese is made in some countries, but no one makes it around here, or any other kind of cheese for that matter. Kids (the human kind) love goats. And (unfortunately) coyotes love them,

Copyright © 1998, 2006, 2008, 2011 S. Tom Bond (stombond at