I was seven years old when Dad declared that it was time I learnt to milk the cows. “You can start by coming down to the shed in the afternoons and feeding the cows”, he said. As it was wintertime I dressed warmly in old trousers, which my brothers had grown out of, and a pair of rubber boots. These boots had also belonged to my brothers. They were both for the left foot, but that didn’t matter as one boot was two sizes bigger that the other. I felt important now that I had a real job to do, not just a baby job like collecting eggs or gathering twigs for kindling.
We had the usual type of cowshed for that era. The cow walked into a stall, put her head through a wooden bail and a rope was pulled which closed the bail behind the cow’s head preventing her from backing out. She was then leg roped and her tail hung on a nail so that she couldn’t flick it into the farmers’s eyes. Six cows could be milked at once, unlike many sheds these days where 40 or more cows are milked at a time, with the operator staying in one place and the cows moving round on a revolving platform.
A wooden trough or manger ran along the front of the stalls, into which dry feed like bran, oats or chaff was tipped so that the cows could eat whilst they were being milked. The feed was mixed in a big wooden box about 2m x 1m and about 90cm deep. Tipping the dry feed into the manger for each cow was to be my new job. I was sure I could do that quite easily. But I hadn’t reckoned on the size, nor the greed of some of the cows. I remember 3 cows in particular. There was a red and white roan named Renee, an almost black one with brown stripes called Brindle, and an allover red one named Mabel. They were all equally huge and just as impatient for their feed. As soon as they saw me approach with my tin of feed, their heads would come over the top of the manger on their seemingly telescopic necks as they tried to get to the feed with their long tongues before I could tip it into the manger. I was not scared of these cows; I was terrified. It made no difference that Dad said they wouldn’t hurt me. It was all very well for him, he was big and I was little. Crying didn’t help either because I still had to tip the feed in quickly because, until I did, the cow wouldn’t keep still enough for Dad or my brothers to milk her. Eventually I learned to throw a handful of feed from a good distance into the manger, and while the greedy animal had her head down searching for the few grains, I could tip in the rest. Most of the cows were no trouble and stood still as they waited for their feed.
After a few weeks, just when I was getting used to feeding the cows, without fearing that Renee, Brindle and Mabel were going to eat me too, Dad said “Now you can come out here with us and learn to wash the cows’ udders before we put the milking machines on them.” There I made my acquaintance with the other end of Renee, Brindle and Mabel, and the rest of the herd. But that is another story.