Every Day, Twice a Day, the Cows Must Be Milked. Singing to Them May Help.

Feb 18, 2016

Allen Healy and his wife Caitlin Jones run Mermaid Farm and Dairy in Chilmark with their brood: two boys and a couple of border collies, who mostly keep the herds of sheep and cows in line - the pigs, too, if and when they get out - and any people who come by the farmstand for vegetables, grains, yogurt, lassis, raw milk, cheese and meat.

In full disclosure, my son Max has worked there since he was 14.

There's a lot going on at Mermaid Farm. But one of things that has to happen every day, twice a day, is milking the cows. I visited Allen Healy and the milker one evening in January.

“They’re averaging around 40 to 45 pounds a day,” Healy said.

His son Everett, who helps with the record keeping, put in, “Rowan did 16 and Avril did 18.”

He was talking about the cows Rowan and Avril, not people. About 8.6 pounds of milk equals one gallon.

Healy went on, “When it gets cold, they make less milk. They’re putting more energy into keeping warm than making milk. Which is important, because if a cow doesn't make enough milk, then… the margins are so small in this operation, we really need to keep the production up.”

These days there are four humans taking care of the cows' twice-a-day milkings. Caitlin Krol is a relative newcomer to the farm. She has a dozen years of experience growing vegetables, but she never expected to become a dairyman, never mind fall in love with it.

“I really love it,” Krol told me. “And I can’t imagine doing anything else. I had no idea that would happen. It was wild but very pleasant and welcome. It’s a beautiful routine. I really enjoy all the smells and sounds and the sounds, the clicking of their heels. I just think they’re really beautiful animals.”

Calf, born on December 23, 2015.
Credit Ali Berlow

Krol is calm, beastly in strength and works hard. She's steady and extremely shy - just my presence in the milking parlor made her more nervous than the cows I think. She probably got less milk because of me.

Healy said a pound or two per cow doesn't sound like much but when Krol milks, say 7 or 8, 9 times a week, and she gets that extra pound or a couple, it adds up. It's a significant amount.

The milking parlor is like an oasis. Krol said she craves it, and that when the cows come in, "the edges of their ears have had pearls of ice on them, but it melts by the time they leave the parlor. When it snows, it looks like they are covered in glitter....melted snow covering their warm bodies..." That's what she wrote to me.

Her gift in getting more milk out of the cows? Maybe it's because she sings to them:

“I don’t know how that happened,” Krol admitted. “I think I did it because it relaxed them, and it was relaxing for me. And I don’t know how that evolved, but the acoustics in here are really good.”  She laughed.

If you've ever had a baby, you know how much relief there is in finally letting down your milk. Like a parent singing to their infant child, it calms them both. Then the children grow up and cows eventually go dry.

The milking is done for the night, the ladies have left the parlor, as they say. Krol finished cleaning up. Healy is out on a tractor doing something. The kids are playing in the dark by the barn.