Teaching – hands on
How a cow shed became a classroom
It’s one of the easiest jobs in the world. All you need is a bucket and a stool. Then you walk up to the cow, push her to one side to make a bit of room and sit down. Next, you take hold of her teats and squeeze them from the top downwards, starting with your thumb and your index finger, and tighten the other fingers as you pull gently downwards. Soon you will find that you can produce a jet of milk. You have two hands so you milk out two teats, two quarters of her udder, at a time. Once you get the hang of this you will find yourself with a bucket of milk within five to ten minutes.
This is what I learned to do, at the age of twelve, on a farm in north Devon. There we tied up the cows in a row in an old fashioned cow shed. In front of them was a manger, a trough if you like, and behind them a gutter from which it was easy to shovel up manure.
Years later I found myself teaching one of Thomas Hardy’s novels, Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Tess is working as a dairy maid and one of her jobs is to help milk the cows. At the time she is away from home and deeply troubled by her past. My students had to appreciate how Tess found comfort in her work, realising that the cows she milked didn’t question her, or talk about her behind her back, but let her sink her troubled head against their soft sides as they were milked. My students, sixth-formers in one of the world’s most expensive boarding schools, were not used to handling cows. Like most young people in western countries they lived city life-styles and had little to do with animals and the mess and smells that they often bring with them.
But we were in Switzerland and, just up the road in the next village was an old-fashioned dairy farm with an old-fashioned cow shed. Yes, I could take my students there and teach them to milk, by hand. I look up now at a photograph by the window and there is Francis, squatting under a cow and watching his hands to see if the milk is flowing.
At first the girls would not even come inside, but hovered in the doorway, pulling faces and complaining about the smell. This was a rich mixture: silage, fermented grass, which cows eat, and manure which dairy cows produce about once every hour. Then a sound reached the girls, not the deep lowing of the cows – they were busy eating at this stage – but the lighter sound of their babies, confined to nursery pens behind their mothers. One of a farmer’s jobs is to teach the calves to drink, so that they can be weaned early and do not depend on their mothers for food. This was different and soon the girls forgot the smells and found the babies.
You take hold of a calf’s nose from above, with your fingers protruding beyond its mouth. Then you stick your middle finger up into the calf’s mouth and push its nose down into a bowl of milk and hold it there until the calf tastes the milk. As soon as it does this it will start to suck. Then you withdraw your finger, slowly, and soon the calf has learnt that it has to drink if it wants the milk.
By this time the girls had accustomed themselves to the cow shed and allowed themselves to join in the main business of the afternoon. For a while they had become milk-maids and felt something of what poor Tess had come across when life was treating her badly, the capacity of a dumb beast to provide companionship.
Would you like to study like this?
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