Vagneur: The glory days of milking cows |

Vagneur: The glory days of milking cows

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

It was a memorable time of day, the evening milking of the cows, and for what reason I’m not exactly sure, but I think it had something to do with witnessing a close-up of the rhythms of ranch life. Whatever else happened that day, the cows got milked at night.

It’s an intimate act, the milking of a cow, at least if you do it by hand, unlike modern procedures at today’s large dairies. Get the cows in the barn, tether them up to their stall and a bin of oats, position your favorite handmade stool to sit on, and as you sit down, pull the specialized, stainless-steel bucket over in front of you. Put your head into the cow’s warm flank, mostly to let her know what’s coming, but also to help steady yourself on the one-legged milking stool.

There it is, right in front of you, the evening’s work, a heavy, swaying, bulging bag of milk, adorned on the bottom side by four tender teats, outwardly full and ready to burst without the hand of human intervention, many times insistent droplets of the treasure within straining the bounds of containment, coalescing on the tips of teats, letting you know the cow will appreciate your attentions.

Strip down the teats by hand, rubbing the dirt, mud and whatever else off onto the ground, and then choose your method of draining the udder. Some people like to stagger the hands, grabbing a front right and a left rear teat for milking, or vice-versa, and then reversing the strategy when each zone of the udder nears empty. Some cows have a preferred method in which to be milked, and the new hand who doesn’t honor that preference leaves himself open to getting kicked off the milk stool, a partial bucket of milk wasted on the barn floor.

Now if this is confusing to you, think about it like this: Cows have one udder; humans have two. What is a teat to a cow is a nipple to a human. The word “teat” comes from the old English “titt,” which, as you well know, is still used in slang today, mostly in reference to anatomical features of women. This explanation may not have been necessary, but I’m sure it helped in some regard.

It takes a few pulls on each teat to get the milk started; the first couple of squirts are aimed away from the container to make sure no contaminants are squeezed into the milk bucket. We always had barn cats, as most country people do, so it was natural for both the cats and the men to perform the symbiotic ritual that was fully accepted. The cats would line the wall of the barn, eyes fixed on the men’s hands, mouths at the ready, and the men, ever good at directing the aim, would squirt each cat — 5 or 6 yards away — in the mouth several times. It was entertainment for the men, nourishment for the cats.

When finished, the men would haul the full milk buckets (5 gallons or so each) back to the house about 50 yards away, where the cream would be separated from the milk using what is simply called a cream separator. We kept the milk for our own personal uses and for lacing the food of other livestock. Pigs particularly like milk mixed with rolled oats.

The separated cream would be saved in large cans labeled “cream cans,” and on a certain day of the week, we would put them on the side of Highway 82 near the Gerbaz ranch with our name on a small, attached ticket. A truck would drop off the empties from the previous week, pick the full cans up, deliver them to a dairy in Glenwood Springs and four or five days later, we’d receive a check in the mail for the volume of cream we’d sold. Try that today.

Back in those times that have affectionately been called the Quiet Years, many houses in Aspen kept a milk cow in the backyard or on the lot next door. Red Rowland, who lived at First and Francis, had the last legal milk cow in Aspen, although after a flurry of “modern Aspen” zoning in the early ’60s, the cow had to be grandfathered in to be acceptable.

John Cleveland Osgood encouraged his miners in Redstone to each keep a milk cow in the community plot provided them through his beneficence, and Billy Grange, a famous rancher on the outskirts of Basalt, still milks a cow on a regular basis. Rumor has it that Kate McBride keeps a couple of milk cows on her place for the health benefits of raw milk, but the glory days of milking your own cows for cash money are long gone, mostly due to government regulations.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at