A little more than eight years ago, when Joan Small and Hale Miller installed Rose in their Tenants Harbor barn, the Jersey cow attracted considerable attention from towns people who hadn’t seen a cow in St. George for many years.
“The last cow in town was Jimmy Skoglund’s and that was 20 years ago,” says Miller, who is a lobsterman. “I had been wanting a cow for a while but the logistics of it were difficult—trying to fish and take care of a cow really wouldn’t work. Without Joan it wouldn’t have been possible to have it.”
Small refers to Rose as a “family cow,” noting that many people in the midcoast area kept family cows on small lots often not much more than an acre in size right through the 1950s. “We had a couple of cows when I was a kid growing up in Cushing, and my grandparents had a couple of cows, so I was exposed to them, but I never milked. Then Hale had an interest in a cow and there was an opportunity to get Rose, who was the perfect cow—she had had one calf and had been bred back [meaning she had been bred again] and she had been trained to milk.” Small smiles in memory and adds, “She was an angel.”
Her first year with Small and Miller the three-year-old Rose gave birth to Dash, a male calf. Her next two calves were also male, but luckily found homes on a farm in Jefferson where they became breeding bulls. “The problem with male calves,” says Small, “is that around the age of 15 months they can become a problem, so unless they can be used for breeding they are usually slaughtered.” So it was a real joy and relief when Rose finally gave birth to Daisy in late August, 2013.
Knowing that there wouldn’t be enough pasture for two bovines at their in-town property, Miller went to Skoglund to see if he’d be willing to let Rose and her calf spend the summer months in his pasture on Route 131 near Wiley’s Corner.
“Jimmy said ‘What better use for this land?’” Small recalls. “So in 2014 we put up fencing and brought Rose and Daisy to their new summer home.” A spring supplied the needed water and a wooded area provided shade and a measure of shelter. This past year Small and Miller also erected a temporary shelter to see if the two animals would use it, which they did—and Small was glad to have the cover if she had to milk in the rain. The next step will be to put a lean-to structure on skids so it can be repositioned as needed. Small says that in addition to bushhogging she’d like to lime and seed the land to encourage more cow-friendly growth. “But even just having the cows on it and fertilizing it naturally, the land has improved,” she notes.
Daisy gave birth to her own calf—Clover—this past December 29 during a snowstorm. Training Daisy to milk, Small acknowledges, presented a challenge she didn’t have to face with Rose. “Rose was such an easy milker, although at the beginning she wasn’t thrilled to have me doing the milking, especially because I didn’t really know how to do it. Before she arrived I had had a few lessons, but when she came to me she had to be very patient because it took me forever to get the milk out.” Thinking about that period, Small offers a wry chuckle. “We spent a lot of time together early on!”
Small says she finally became pretty proficient at milking. “You sort of have to get a feel for it, like riding a bike. And after a while I sort of knew how much milk was in there, and I had a scale so I could weigh it. At the beginning I wasn’t always getting it all out and that can be a bad thing. But I’ve always kept calves, so that’s always helped on that end. But now with Daisy, this has been a new experience, because no one had ever milked her and she didn’t like it very much. At first she didn’t even want Clover to suckle, but instinct prevailed. Now she seems to enjoy it. She gets this blissful look. And she is learning that when I milk her it further relieves the pressure.”
Eventually, Small believes, Daisy will be producing three to four gallons of milk each day, with Clover taking about a gallon for herself. “I’m most happy if Daisy has nursed before I milk so I know I’m not taking anything away from the calf.”
Keeping family cows, Small acknowledges, can be a time-consuming occupation. And getting away overnight is pretty much out of the question unless the cows are in a dry spell. “It is hard to find someone who can spell me on the milking—someone who knows how to milk—unless they are in their eighties.”
Each day Small is is in the barn by about 5am, milking the cows, cleaning up after them, giving them fresh feed and also tending to a flock of chickens. “The traditional thinking is that you allow 12 hours between milkings, but I really think it’s better to milk three times a day unless there’s a calf. If I can, I like to check on the cows at midday to give them more hay and water. Jimmy does that for me when the cows are in his pasture during the summer and I have to work.”
Small works as a gardener during spring, summer and autumn months and also keeps a vegetable garden. Around the edges she spends time using the raw milk to make soft cheeses, cream and, if possible, butter. She also helps process the meat from pigs raised organically by friends in Owls Head.
But she has no regrets about the work involved. “I like the rhythm of this life. And when you’ve got your own milk, your own eggs, your own cheeses, your own vegetables, berries and apples—along with access to local meat and fresh fish—there’s not a lot that you need from the grocery store,” she says with satisfaction.
Small has decided that she will no longer breed Rose because the cow has consistently had birthing difficulties. Not so with Daisy, whose calf was born without incident. And she shouldn’t need to be rebred for several years since she’ll have plenty of milk for the family, which includes Miller’s high school-aged son Eli, for that long. Clover will stay with her mother for the near term, but Small and Miller will be looking for a good home for her with someone who also wants a family, not a commercial, cow. As for Rose, Small says, “I plan to just keep her for a friend.”—JW
PHOTOS: Julie Wortman