The call of the cows

Sunday, June 12, 2005

At Ramsey Creek Farms, the milk is like the mail -- it just keeps on coming. ¦ Whether it's three in the morning, five in the afternoon or nine o'clock at night, every 10 hours the Schabbings roust themselves out of bed, flick off the television or put a temporary halt to the various other back-breaking chores that are required of a dairy-farm family.

"When it's time to milk, you go milk," said Charles Schabbing, the 66-year-old family patriarch. "It doesn't matter what you're doing. Around here, the milk doesn't wait."

On this particular morning last week, the time arrives at a slightly more acceptable hour -- 7 a.m., which is still a time when many dreary-eyed Americans are flailing at the snooze button for the umpteenth time.

Not the Schabbings. They're already up and getting the milk parlor -- a barn-like building where the cows are milked -- ready for the next two-hour bout with their 120 dairy cows.

On this day, the workers are Charles; his 44-year-old son, David; two of David's four daughters, Erica, 18, and Victoria, 13; and two nephews, Collin, 12, and Tanner, 14.

The farm -- just west of Cape Girardeau's city limits near Notre Dame Regional High School -- is run by David and Charles, though Charles admits it's mostly up to David these days.

Charles and his wife live next door to David and his children. His oldest is living in another farmhouse a stone's throw from her parents.

The family's farm

Unlike other dairy farms, the Schabbings almost never bring on hired hands. In winter, Charles and David do a lot of the work. In the summer months when the girls are out of school, they all work together. This summer, they're watching Collin and Tanner while the boys' parents are at work.

So, naturally, the nephews are put to work too.

As David fills a jug full of iodine, used to clean the cow's udders, he laughs at the question of whether the children like the work.

"They have no choice," he says in a humorous but not-kidding tone. "Everybody around here works. You got a test at school? I don't care when your test is. You've got to work. I don't care how cold it is or how wet it is. That's part of it. Everybody chips in."

The children, who each get a paycheck, help with various tasks this morning: Tanner and Collin are raising a dip jar full of iodine up to the cow's udders to clean them. Erica is driving a Bobcat to scoop manure out of a pit area where the cows are about to be ushered into before entering the milking parlor.

Victoria is helping herd the cows into the pit. The cows seem to know the drill.

Erica just graduated from high school. A softball player, she plans to attend college this fall to study athletic training. She looks at her childhood on the farm from two sides.

On one hand, she says it's taught her discipline and a good work ethic. It's also given her a good deal of respect for her dad.

"I don't have the discipline he has, to get up at those hours, but he does it and he enjoys it," she said.

On the other hand, by not taking jobs in town, she didn't get to mingle with teens her own age.

"Not working in town, you don't get to interact as much with other people," she said. "But it's been good overall."

By 7:30 a.m., the cows are walking up a few steps into a raised platform and make their way, one by one, to each individual milking station. That puts their udders at waist level and makes them easier to clean before attaching the spidery milking unit hoses to each udder. The unit sucks the milk into two rows of weigh jars.

About a dozen cows are milked at a time, sending the milk through special tubes into a tank just outside the parlor. There, the 3,500 pounds of milk they get from their cows each time they're milked is cooled from 98 degrees to 36 degrees in a large, shiny tank.

Each cow gives about 70 pounds of milk -- 8.6 pounds makes a gallon -- a day, which ends up equally about 2.8 million pounds a year from the Schabbing farm that is picked up every day and taken to Prairie Farms in Pevely, Mo.

As the ceiling fan spins and ESPN announcers discuss the St. Louis Cardinals game, Charles and David taunt each other about baseball. Charles is a die-hard Cardinals fan. But David became a fan of the Baltimore Orioles as a boy when his father moved the family to Washington, D.C., when he gave up farming for 10 years to put his engineering degree to use with the U.S. Department of Transportation.

"We tease each other all the time," Charles said. "In here, it helps pass the time."

Charles is a third-generation dairy farmer. His grandfather started the farm during the Depression. His father took it over, and Charles has memories similar to his granddaughters. He left to become an engineer, but came back in 1964 when his wife, Pat, had health problems.

"I thought we'd have more help from the family," he said.

They've been on the farm ever since.

The cows continue to make their way through the station, during a process that takes about two hours each time they milk.

Charles wistfully watches two of his granddaughters working and he notes that there are fewer and fewer dairy farms all the time.

"To be truthful, the younger generation can go to town with a lunch pail and make a good salary with no investment," Charles said. "On a farm, there's a lot of investment."

The numbers bear out what he says.

Missouri had 2,800 dairy farms in 2004, compared with 3,100 the previous year. Missouri dairy cows numbered 123,000 in 2004, down from 129,000 in 2003.

The Missouri Agricultural Statistics Service reported that over the past decade, Missouri has lost 2,500 dairy farms, or 47 percent. The service conducted a survey of state dairy farmers who left the industry and reported that the main reasons were volatile milk prices, followed by a shift to beef, crops or other agriculture. Also cited: retirement, with no one to take over the operation.

Passing the milk

That's a topic at the Schabbing farm this day -- who will take over?

David's daughters have other plans, except for the youngest Victoria, who says she'd like to take over. Maybe his nephews will, though nothing's certain. He hopes for a son-in-law to come help someday.

But David knows the pull of town can be strong.

"You have to more than like this life, you have to love it," he said. "To most people, all they see is a 40-hour work week. They want the high-paying job in an air-conditioned office. They want to go out and play golf. They want their weekends free so they can go take their mini-vacations. They want two-week's paid vacation. And they don't want to work real hard for it. That's not what farming's all about."

Some assume David wants to get out of farming and offer to buy his property. He'd never do that.

"How could we give up our whole livelihood and what our whole family's been about?" he asks. "You put your blood and sweat into it. It's yours. It means more because it's something you did, something you built."

After the last cow makes its way through the milking parlor, the Schabbings talk about what's next for the day. For dairy farmers, there's more to it than milking cows. They raise some of their own hay. The plant their own corn to feed the cows. The have to maintain and upgrade the equipment.

While a truck waits as the milk is loaded, Charles has to take a sample of the milk down to the house to test it for bacteria.

In his house, his wife pours a glass of milk. Fresh from a cow of course. They all drink milk straight from cows.

Pat has been teaching piano lessons for 50 years. She is reflective about her years as a farmer's wife.

"I always said I'd never marry a farmer," she said. "And I didn't. I married an engineer. But we came back to the farm."

Farmers sacrifice a lot.

"It's just a way of life," she said. "You have to love it and you have to be a little bit crazy."

Pat says they've never been free to travel where they've wanted or to get too far away from the farm.

"It's like being on call 24 hours a day," she said. "But it's taught our children a good work ethic."

But she understands why the men in her family love it.

"It's rewarding," she said. "David wanted to be a farmer since he was 7 or 8. They like working with the animals and the ground. God gave them those things to work with."

Charles agrees.

"It's what we do," he said. "It's what we've always done."

Meanwhile, back at the milking parlor, David is cleaning up, getting the parlor ready for the next round at 3 p.m.

"It can be tough," he said. "But as long as you're happy doing what you're doing -- and I've always been happy doing this."

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