The dairy industry in America is as old as America itself and the changes in every phase of its operation from style of cattle to the feeding of those cattle and the milking process is dramatic. It is documented that the first cattle came to the Americas in 1492 with Columbus. These straggly animals were distant cousins to the streamlined cows in today’s milking herd but they did provide fresh milk and butter for a hungry crew of sailors.
English settlers brought cattle to Jamestown in 1607 and later milk cows arrived with the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock. These highly regarded animals walked down the gangplank with the first men ashore. They knew that having milk cows in the colony was important for good health.
At first the milk cows ate the grass from the pastures during the spring, summer and fall and produced milk but they “dried up” in the wintertime when there was little to eat. Colonial Massachusetts farmers began to house their cattle during the harsh winter and feed them grain and hay. They discovered that the cows did not stop giving milk when they fed them well. This was called stall-feeding and made possible year round milk production. Cattle production grew rapidly into an important part of agriculture in America.
Cattle moved westward with the pioneers, usually tied to the back of those covered wagons by a long rope. When the train stopped for the night, women grabbed a bucket and stool and gathered a few pints of milk from those cows that had been walking all day. After settlements were made, fields plowed and crops put in, it was discovered that cattle manure had very good fertilization ability. Soon farmers gathered it and spread in on their gardens and fields where crops benefited.
Since in the beginning in America there were no cities, only small villages,
almost everybody lived in the country so farmers had cows to produce only what the family needed. As the villages grew in population, it became necessary to bring milk to town to supply the needs of “city folks” and thus the milk man created a new job! But it was a long time before milk bottles were invented so the milk man carried a bucket of raw milk from door to door and the housewife poured out a pan of milk for her household.
A few years later, dairymen would milk their herd of cows, strain and bottle the milk, load it in horse drawn wagons or hacks, drive into town where they had regular customers and would deliver fresh milk and butter door to door.
With more population growth and the invention of milking machines, and refrigeration what had been a sideline of farmers became an occupation called dairying. All the milk was still sold as “raw” but with the pasteurization process and then homogenization of milk and continued population demands upon the dairy industry, whole plants were set up. Some made cheese, others bottled fluid milk,
still others to turn cream into butter. New industries built rapidly, dairy farms became specialized in that they only sold raw milk to processors.
From that point important changes in the way milk is produced, the way cattle are bred to produce, feeding methods, disease control, overall health care, construction of barns, calf care, housing, indeed every aspect of the dairy industry changed.
There are six general breeds of dairy cattle, Holstein, Guernsey, Brown Swiss, Jersey, and Milking Shorthorn. Except for a few dairy farms scattered across the continent, the only dairy cattle most folks will see is the big black and white cow or Holstein. Records have convinced most dairymen that this breed is the highest producing dairy cow, the heartiest, and overall the most profitable.
Today’s high producing dairy cow, upwards of 19,000 pounds a year or 2,209 gallons, compares to early day cows which produced perhaps a gallon or two a day.
Today’s dairy industry provides jobs for millions not only on the farms but also in the processing plants and building and servicing the industry. Producing enough feed for the millions of cows in America is full time job for many. Rich alfalfa hay comes by 18-wheeler from Oklahoma and New Mexico to feed the hungry dairy cows in Erath County. Corn comes from Iowa and grain from Kansas. The cows are fed and milked and then that milk travels by refrigerated truck to Dallas and Houston and San Antonio. Milk from Erath County is poured into vats in Brenham and Blue Bell Ice Cream comes out.
As our nation grows and advances, so does agriculture and especially so does the dairy industry.