Four farmers, a journalist, and 10 ready-to-be-milked udders walk into a milking pit…
BY MADELINE ZELAZO
“Here we go,” chirps Chris Ziemba as he taps the button for the milker.
In the same motion, he slaps on a radio and adjusts its dial, pumping the room with ACDC’s “Back in Black.” I stood there with imaginary explosions going off behind me, suddenly feeling way more enchanted with the task at hand.
If you have yet to experience being eye-to-udder with a cow, I promise, it will stir up stuff for you. And if that doesn’t, then being ankle-deep in cow manure, like I was at Broadlawn Farm, will.
As I attached the automatic milking system (AMS) to the udders of cows, I became grateful for modern technology, and also deeply considered what it means to grab a gallon of milk from the grocery store.
Broadlawn Farm has been owned and operated by the Ziemba family for three generations. It sits just under a mile from the birthplace of Susan B. Anthony in the small, rural town of Adams, Massachusetts. Beginning with their grandfather in 1936, the Ziemba “boys,” who have worked on the farm since 1981, have all learned what it means to be a dairy farmer.
The farm is run collectively by the Ziemba brothers: Mark, Tim, and Chris with the help of Mark’s wife, Sonia, their cousin Mike, and Tim’s son, Tim Jr. The six of them assemble twice a day— at 3:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.— to feed, clean, and milk their 350 cows, a process that takes approximately four hours each round.
If the fact that there are two Tim Ziemba’s isn’t confusing enough for you, try keeping track of a barn of animals that all look the same. Among the 350 cows at Broadlawn Farm, the majority of them are Holsteins, which give the highest quality milk. There are also three Brown Swiss cows, which do not produce as high of quantities but do have a higher fat content. All of the cows have tags on their ears, mandated by the state to keep track of them, along with numbers issued individually by the Ziembas to each and every cow once they are born.
Typically, you can begin milking a cow at about three years old, possibly sooner depending on the way the cow is maturing, which can usually be measured through their height and width, the farmers explained. The two-month-old cows, that were already bigger than me, sucked on my fingers as I roamed the nursery, the section of the barn that stored the cows too young to be milked.
Don’t even try to ask the Ziembas which cows are their favorites, because you will be met with “they are all good girls” and “favorite? They are all my favorites!” Digging deeper, I discovered that Tim Ziemba Sr, has a special relationship with number 12. “She likes to be rubbed behind the ears, I was actually doing it this morning and she was following me around the barn,” Tim said.
Although they are numbered, none of the Ziembas need to read their tags to recognize their girls. After spending a couple hours watching them at work, it was clear that they knew all their animals intimately; Mark Ziemba pointed out the moms to a few of the calves in the barn out of memory.
There are roughly 150-200 cows born to Broadlawn Farm each year, each with a life span of about 10 years. Like many farms, the Ziembas used to practice artificial insemination, but stopped a few years ago when it became too costly for the farm. Now, they produce and raise all of their own cattle with their one bull named Luke, who is an incredibly active guy considering he is the only bachelor. They aim for each cow to have one calf each year– an industry standard, given the pregnancy period for cows spans just over nine months.
The cows eat a well-balanced diet of hay, corn, grain, corn silage, and weather permitting, pasture. The farm grows all of their own food at the farm and across patches of land scattered throughout Adams. “We fertilize the land and rotate crops meaning that we swap our hay fields to corn fields every couple of years,” Tim Ziemba explained.
Ziemba’s cows are free roaming cows which means that they have the luxury to meander around the fields all day except during milking hours. Most of the cows knew to begin lining up in the barn for milking, but we sloshed through cow manure up to our ankles to bring on the others. My boots were consumed by the quicksand-like manure as I walked with precision back to the barn, careful not to fall as Tim Zimeba Jr. yelled to me, “careful, sometimes there is ice underneath that makes it really slippery.” My heart was racing. Is this what it felt like to live on the edge?
The barn is the most important support for the cows even though they are cold-weather animals: they have no way to self-regulate their body temperature like humans do through sweat. For this reason, many of the cows take to the barn for protection during the hot days just as much as the cold ones. “They like the cold, but I’d say 10 degrees is their limit, they don’t like it when it gets that cold. They hate it when it’s hot and muggy, they hide under trees and in the pastures where they can stay out of the sun. Anything over, I’d say 75 degrees, they hate.”
In September 2018, Ziemba’s farm burnt to the ground in an electrical fire that began during the night that claimed “a barn, and a bull, as well as all of the winter’s feed.” As we walked through the new barn, Tim Ziemba told me about how it went up in under six days, thanks to a crew of Amish workers who had been trucked in to rebuild. The fire was detrimental to the farm in many ways, but they came back stronger as a result.
In fact, Broadlawn Farm was just granted an award for recognition of a year’s production of high-quality milk. Every other day an 18-wheeler truck comes to the farm to empty the milk tank and to test the milk for quality; “If there is anything in it for bacteria count, the medicine, penicillin, or antibiotics, then it is less premium,” Mark Ziemba explained.
In addition to this, the farm also undergoes routine inspections from animal control who check the herd health and other entities issued by the state and the milk company,
Agri-Mark Inc. located in Springfield, MA, who inspect the general sanitation of the farm.
Once the milk is brought to Agri-Mark, it is processed and pasteurized, mixed in with the other milk from similar local farms, and bottled, it is then distributed to grocery stores and other vendors in the Berkshire County area.
The next time I am standing in the cooler aisle at the grocery store, staring into the abyss of all things dairy, I will think about all the hard work that I witnessed, standing in a milking pit, eye-to-udder with a herd of cows.