It seems it was not so long ago when every family farm had a milk cow. That was certainly the case before store-bought milk came along.
But even after milk was made available in grocery stores, it was much more economical to secure milk directly from the cow to meet the family’s milk demands. Most family milk cows were of the Guernsey or Jersey variety. Unless the farmer was selling Grade B milk to the local cheese factory, Holsteins gave too much milk. On the other hand those Guernsey and Jersey cows yielded milk that was high in butter fat.
There’s an old saying that goes like this ... “The cream will always rise to the top.”
Well, when you let milk from a Jersey cow set overnight, you could skim a half-inch of cream off the top on the next morning. That was rich cream. With that cream, you could churn the finest yellow butter and create the finest dishes.
Many farms had a brindle-colored cow that was often a cross between a Jersey and Hereford (or heaven knows what else). Brindle cows were usually gentle and milked like the house was a’ fire.
Once each year, the family milk cow gave birth to what became a stable calf, also called a veal calf. The calf was kept up in the barn (for a number of reasons) until it went to market.
The main reason the calf was kept up was that it made it easy to keep the milk cow close to the barn. At milking time, the cow would be waiting to get back to her calf. You rarely had to go looking for the milk cow.
After the farmer hand-milked the cow to secure enough milk to meet the family’s needs, the cow would be turned in the stable to (as one of my friends once said) let the calf finish cleaning up. There was plenty of milk for the family and the calf.
Another reason the calf was confined to a stable in the barn was because stable calves yielded the finest veal. Kept in a stable (usually a dark one on the interior of the barn), the calf got very little exercise and fattened quickly on its mother’s milk.
Because the calf’s sire was usually a beef-type bull and its mother a cow of the dairy variety, it was not suited for beef production (lack of muscling being one factor). But those calves were ideal for the Eastern veal market.
Since most farms had a milk cow, there was an ample supply of veal calves going to market on a regular basis. The first graded calves sold at livestock markets in this area were of the veal variety. The best calves were graded fancy, and the second grade was good, as I recall. The ideal weight was between 180 and 250 pounds.
The late Woodrow Wilson Wilburn of the Dixon Springs community was the kingpin of veal calf buyers in Middle Tennessee back in the day. He operated at stockyards under the buyer’s initials WW. There is no telling how many loads of veal calves that W. W. Wilburn shipped to the markets of the Northeast.
Some might remember the Neuhoff Packing Company, once headquartered in Nashville. Mark Holder reminded me that Neuhoff was big in the veal calf market in the 1950s.
It is no secret that those calves, kept up in close quarters, were hard to do anything with once they left the barn. My brother, John, reminded me that you had to wait and let the milk cow bring the calf back to the barn once it got out. You sure couldn’t drive them. And they could kick like a mule.
But, alas, the family milk cow and stable calves are a thing of the past.
Sometimes, when I take a trip down memory lane, I recall milk buckets, milking stools, and thick, rich cream.
My late mother use to say nature’s three most perfect foods were raw milk (straight from the cow), fertile eggs and honey.
My brothers, my sister and I cut our teeth on all three.