Walking down memory lane

Mitchell, Brown testing milk for combined 102 years

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SPARTA, Wis. – The walk down memory lane is a long one for Ron Mitchell and Richard Brown, who have been testing milk in Monroe County for 54 and 48 years, respectively. The pair has seen a lot of changes in the dairy industry throughout their combined experience of 102 years.
“I think it’s a good profession because you get to know so many people,” Mitchell said. “And that’s what the world is, people.”
Brown agreed.

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“Every day is different,” he said. “It’s not like going to a factory and sitting at the same machine all day long.”
When Mitchell took the job as manager for Monroe County Dairy Herd Improvement Association in June 1968, the milk testing process was very different from what farmers experience today. Milk was collected in buckets and weighed with a scale. Mitchell brought the scale, paper and pencil and a rack of test bottles. Each farm had their own barn sheet. Weights were recorded by hand, and samples were brought back to the DHIA office in Sparta.
Once at the office, Mitchell used a glass pipette to put a portion of each sample into glass test tubes which were then loaded into a centrifuge. Mitchell spun the centrifuge to separate the cream. Each test tube had to have the exact same amount of milk in them so they were perfectly balanced while spinning, or the tubes would break and the process would have to start again.
Once the centrifuge was finished, the milk and cream would be separated in the tube. The cream was then measured to calculate the butterfat in the sample.
“We recorded everything by hand,” Mitchell said. “We multiplied the butterfat by the production and the pounds of milk by the number of days. I don’t know how we got it all done.”
Milk was only tested for production, butterfat and somatic cell count.
“When I first started in 1974, everybody was trying to hit 600 pounds of fat for a rolling herd average,” Brown said. “If you had a rolling herd average of 600 for butterfat, then you had a terrific herd. A top herd average for milk was probably 16,000 pounds.”
Herd sizes in the 1960s and ‘70s were much smaller than today as well. Brown said most farms had around 30 cows, and if someone was milking 65 cows, then they were considered a large farm.
Mitchell and Brown tested two milkings in a row at each farm in the early days of the job. Farmers were not allowed to be given more than 10 hours of notice before milking, and they could not refuse unless they had a very good reason. It was all done to keep accurate records.
“We tested every morning and every night and a lot of days I did seven days a week,” Mitchell said.
The pair saw growth in the 1970s and ‘80s when farms expanded their herds and added pipelines and silos. The milk testing industry grew with them and switched from the Milk-O-Meter scale to the Surge True Test, which was an electric testing unit.
When milk is tested today, the pair brings the bottles to the office and stores them in refrigerators until the laboratory company picks them up.
Although they are able to test more cows today, the pair agreed testing milk has not gotten any easier since they started.
“Before, you would go to a herd and you might spend an hour or two in the barn milking and it wasn’t that stressful,” Brown said. “You took the sample and went in for breakfast. Now, you go to work in a big parlor with up to 20 units, and you could be in there for eight hours. It’s not any easier.”
Technology has allowed farms to gain more information from testing milk. One sample can communicate protein content, somatic cell count, milk urea nitrogen content, pregnancy, Johne’s Disease and mastitis cultures.
“They can do numerous tests in seconds,” Brown said.
Mitchell said the milk test results are like a report card for the farm. In Mitchell’s early career, he said the newsletter created friendly competition among neighbors because everyone’s results were shared.
“They were all trying to get their herd average better than their neighbors’,” Brown said.
While the career has proven to be a lot of work, both testers said they have enjoyed it.
Brown said his favorite time during his career was when there were more small farms.
“I liked when you could go down the road and see cows at every farm,” Brown said. “Now, you have to drive for miles just to find a herd because they’re so far apart.”
Mitchell said his favorite part about the job was watching families grow.
“We might have started testing with grandma and grandpa, and now we’re down to the kids,” Mitchell said. “I have probably seen four generations come up in my time. When I think back to all the people I have gotten to know, it’s a blessing.”

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