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Land of milk and money

May 30, 2004|by BOB MAGINNIS

(Editor's note: Land use and farm preservation have been much in the news in the last year, but many are unaware of what's involved in working on a farm. With the help of Extension Agent Don Schwartz, Bob Maginnis spent a day in mid-April watching how a dairy farm works with the family of John Horst Jr. in Clear Spring.)

I turn into the farm lane a few minutes before 4 a.m., park my old pickup truck and pull on the calf-high rubber boots I'd been told to buy. The way it had been raining that week in April, I wondered if they were high enough.

I knock on the door of the milk house where 30-year-old Brent Horst and a hired hand are already milking the first few cows in the family's herd of 122. Horst shakes my hand, then asks me to follow him up a muddy hill to the old barn where the skid loader is parked.


It's dark, so I turn on a small flashlight I've brought. He stops inside and gets me a larger one, about the size of a can of Crisco, but considerably heavier. I use it to light his way because the lights under the new roof of the barn - and there's more than one on this farm - haven't been installed yet.

He scrambles over a 3-foot fence, grabs a long-handled brush and begins to clean up the "bunks" where cattle take their feed. The pre-dawn atmosphere is cold and damp, but Horst wears only a long-sleeved shirt as he works quickly, almost running, in an effort to get everything done by 7 a.m.

"Depending on how things go, sometimes it's faster or slower," he said.

The fact that Brent Horst is moving at all is a miracle. In June of 1996, after a visit to his girlfriend's home in St. Thomas, Pa., he fell asleep at the wheel and struck a telephone pole in Welsh Run. He broke his pelvis, and severe head injuries left him in a coma for 10 days. But he has completely recovered, except, his father told me, for a slight limp when he's tired.

There was no sign of any fatigue the day I visited the farm. He was bursting with energy, stopping only briefly to explain what he was doing - and to warn me when to stay out of the way.

He explains that cows will reject certain things in the feed they're given. As he cleans the feed area, he pushes the "rejects" onto the floor, where the skid loader will scrape it, along with all the manure, into a pit from which it's pumped into a new manure-storage system.

Horst said the new feeding area, made up of glazed tiles set into the barn floor, will help the cows take nourishment, since they like the smooth surface and don't have to raise their heads to get to their chow.

Once the feeding area is spruced up, he tows in a device called an auger that dispenses feed. Some bunks are located where the auger can't reach them, so he changes the bucket on the skid loader and maneuvers the feed into them.

In the stall where the cows lay, there is no straw, but a gray, sandy substance that Horst explains is limestone. It's used because it's inorganic and thus less likely to harbor the bacteria that causes mastitis, a condition that impairs milk production.

(Later he tells me it also helps when fertilizing fields because lime and manure can be applied at the same time.)

Horst switches buckets on the skid loader, then begins to scrape the manure from the aisles in front of the stalls. It's been raining and the rain gutters aren't installed yet on the new roof, so everything on the floor is the consistency of wet sand. Horst cautions me to stand back and I soon see why.

The little loader speeds across the gooey cement floor like an amusement-park bumper car with a snowplow attached, spinning around in a way that looks like fun except when I remember that it has to be done twice a day, seven days a week.

At 5 a.m., his father, John Horst arrives, explaining that his alarm clock didn't go off. Hours before daylight, he considers himself late for work. He gets on another piece of equipment and begins to add new lime to the stalls.

The scraping done, Brent Horst changes buckets again, then puts the loader away and begins to drive the last of the herd toward the milking machines.

"Drive" is too harsh a term. Using a short length of plastic tubing, he gently prods the big animals along. I hug the wall, knowing that I'm no match for a 1,000-pound animal that may be skittish with someone unfamiliar in the barn.

In the parlor, I'm amazed to see that the animals back into the milking stalls by themselves.

"Cows are creatures of habit," said John Horst, adding that each milking relieves the animal of 40 pounds of milk.

"Wouldn't you be glad to get a 40-pound weight off your back?" he said with a smile.

If you think farming is a low-tech industry, it isn't, at least on this farm. Each cow wears a necklace of sorts that contains a transponder. When the milking machine senses that, it identifies the cow by number, which allows a computer to keep track of how much milk each gives.

Each cow averages 70 pounds, for a total of 7,350 pounds a day, John Horst tells me later.

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