The cows move from the milking equipment out into the field and 64-year-old Richard Groves slides the lever to let four more come into the barn and clangs it back shut.
I arrived a few minutes before 6 am and he walked out of the barn to meet me with a gentle smile and handshake. Rough farmer hands, but friendly. He apologized for having me out so early to his farm northwest of Graham, where he had already rounded up the cows from the field.
“We don’t start as early as some,” he said. “I’m not a morning person. I’d rather work all night long than get up early.”
But such is the life of a dairy farmer.
“It’s a good life,” he says, “but it’s a hard life.”
Crossing the gravel road through the dust my car stirred up moments before, the scent of freshly cut hay also lingers in the air. Inside the barn, steps lead down to where Groves moves efficiently to do the morning milking, with equipment straddling his work area on both the north and south sides of the building.
5:59 am: he turns a knob on a panel and releases feed from galvanized chutes, swings the lever to open the gate and brings four cows in on the north side of the barn, then closes it again. He pulls off five or six giant paper towels from a large roll hanging near the machinery, tears one off and shoves the others into the front pocket of his jeans.
He reaches for a bottle filled with a semi-transparent solution, walks over to the first cow and dips each teat into the container to kill any bacteria. He uses the paper towel to wipe them down and squirts a little milk out of each one.
He then proceeds to hook them up to the milking unit, which includes cups that remove the milk, milker claws where milk pools momentarily as it is removed, vacuum tubes that suction it through the pipes and a pulsator that regulates the cycle.
6:04 am: as soon as he finishes the north side, he spins around, whips open the gate on the south side, turns the knob to release more feed and brings in four more cows.
And the process of dipping, wiping, squirting and hooking them up begins again.
‘Jerseys on this place’
Groves has lived on this same land his entire life.
“I grew up right here,” he said. “My grandfather registered his first Jersey in 1897.”
He started as a young boy helping his dad and his granddad.
“There have been Jerseys on this place ever since I can remember,” he says while turning around to check on his first four.
6:08 am: he grabs another bottle, filled with a deep reddish-brown colored solution – iodine – to prevent disease. He unhooks the first four cows, dips the teats into the iodine solution, then prods the cows through the barn and out into the field.
6:12 am: he releases more feed with a quick turn, clangs the lever and brings in four more on the north. He closes the gate and then starts the process of unhooking the four on the south and releasing them out into the field.
6:14 am: knob turns, feed drops, cows eye it… waiting to be let in. He turns around and starts hooking up the ones on the north.
He moves effortlessly throughout the barn wearing boots, jeans and a brown T-shirt that reads “Milk Rules — there aren’t any.”
His dairy operation is one of only four left in Nodaway County, including the one run by Northwest Missouri State University.
And he said there are several reasons why he believes that is the case – the high costs of keeping up the farm and cattle, the swings in milk and feed prices and all of the rules and regulations they must follow. Plus, it’s a just plain, hard work.
‘one of the most tested products’
“We’re milking 56 head,” he says, which takes about an hour and 45 minutes to two hours to milk them all.
The process of milking each one, however, takes just a few minutes. From the milking unit, the milk travels through pipes and into a receiving jar and bulk tank.
Groves said they keep the milk at a 35 to 37 degree temperature and it gets picked up every other day by Robert’s Dairy in Kansas City. In that two-day timespan, they produce 3,500 pounds of milk.
“We’re down from what we were, but it’s starting to pick back up,” he said.
6:16 am: four more come in on the south, while several others wait right outside the barn, peeking through the gate, ready to get in.
6:23 am: north side off and out into the field.
Groves, who also serves on the Dairy Herd Improvement Association board, said the milk is bought by the Dairy Farmers of America.
“When the driver picks it up, he keeps a sample and it’s all tested,” he said. “Milk is probably one of the most tested products to make sure it’s safe for the consumer.”
Their facilities are also inspected every three to five months, overseen by the state milk board.
6:26 am: four more come in on the north.
6:29 am: the south ones go out.
For as hot and unbearable as the summer sun and humid heat can be on a farmer, the bone-chilling winters the Midwest is known for can be especially tough on a dairy farmer.
“When the weather’s real bad, you’re out (nearly) all day long,” he said.
The cows are kept inside, he said, which requires more work than when they’re left out in the field.
6:30 am: south ones in and hooked up.
6:32 am: north ones off and out.
The consistent flow of animals in and out of the stalls is surrounded by the repetitive, rhythmic sucking sounds, an exhaust fan whirring round and round above our heads, cows flicking flies with their tails as they buzz around and birds chirping outside the barn.
6:34 am: south ones out and four more in.
6:37 am: north ones also come in.
‘enjoy working with the cattle’
He and his wife, Sue, have one daughter, Sherry Schniedermeyer. She and her husband, Steve, who is the FFA advisor at Nodaway-Holt, have two sons, Steven and Cody. They both show livestock for 4-H and FFA and all travel to the Missouri, Iowa and Nebraska State Fairs.
“The boys had the Grand Champion cow in the (Missouri) State Fair last year,” he said. “And the same cow was the Grand Reserve Supreme at the Nebraska State Fair.”
6:41 am: the south side cows are unhooked and sent out.
6:45 am: he looks to bring in more, calls out to them, but nothing… “Looks like I’ll have to go get a bunch,” he says.
6:52 am: Groves releases the ones on the north side and heads out into the field to find the remaining cows.
While it’s a cool, breezy, not-quite summer morning with rain clouds looming in the distance, the sun starts to beat down on his balding head. As he walks through the field, guiding them into the barn, his gentle smile sneaks through, surrounded by his gray, woolly beard.
This man loves his animals. And his life.
“I enjoy working with the cattle,” he said. “You have to like working with the animals or you’re not going to do this work.”
And, he said, there’s always something new to learn.
“In the dairy business, you never stop learning. And you have to really like what you’re doing to make it work.”
7:08 am: back inside the barn, Groves drops more feed, smiles and says, “I had one where she wasn’t supposed to be.” He brings in four on the north side and the process begins again.
7:11 am: south side in.
7:16 am: north side out.
7:18 am: north side in.
Altogether, Groves said they have around 175 cows and heifers (a young cow that has not produced a calf yet), and most of which have been raised on their farm. But they also buy one or two each year from different blood lines.
And they all have different personalities.
“Some like to be rubbed down,” he said. “And others like to be left alone.”
7:20 am: three on the south side come off, but one is still pumping.
7:25 am: north off and out.
7:27 am: four more in.
7:30 am: the last one on the south side finally comes off and they all head out.
Just like their personalities are different, so is their milking lifespan, Groves said, which varies from cow to cow.
“We start them at two years of age,” he says, and laughing adds, “And I’ll keep them as long as they pay for themselves. We’ve got some who are 10-12 years old.”
7:31 am: south side in.
7:34 am: north side out.
‘always something to do’
Right now, Groves said the price of milk is good but the feed prices are really high. And the cattle use a lot of it – 1,100 pounds of feed a day.
“And that’s just in the barn,” he said. They also feed on hay, silage and wet cake out in the field.
7:36 am: north in.
7:41 am: south out.
7:42 am: Groves slips out of the barn, looking to see if there are more to come in.
A black, tan and white calico kitty lurks nearby, darting in and out of the cows while they feed. He sneaks over to a bucket of fresh milk on the barn floor, just milked separately from the rest of the cows, and laps a little before scurrying off again.
7:44 am: north out and last four in.
7:47 am: he hooks up one final Jersey on the south side.
7:54 am: north off and out.
7:59 am: the last one on the south side comes off and goes out into the field. And with that, the morning milking is complete.
But this is the just the start of the day for Groves. After the milking is over, there is plenty still to do.
“There’s always something to do on a farm,” he said.
Bottle feed the calves, or “kids” as he calls them, clean the milkers, wash the floors and clean out the barn. Then field work, planting crops, cutting hay and general farming chores.
And around 4:30 pm, a second daily milking occurs.
“It’s a hard life,” he says, “but it’s a good life.”