The Changing Dairy Cow

After wanting to do a post on the dairy cow for some time, I received a unique photo from Sid and Irene that was just what I needed. But first, a bit of background.

In the 1870s and 1880s, when our immigrant ancestors were establishing themselves in Fitch Coulee, Wisconsin farms needed an alternative to soil-depleting wheat. W.D. Hoard, founder of Hoard’s Dairyman magazine and later governor, was a leader in the state’s switch to dairying – and a huge change it was.

On 19th century Wisconsin farms, the cow’s capacity to produce milk was secondary. She was first of all a beast of burden, an ox for field work, and if she had milk left over from feeding her own calf, it went to making butter or cheese for the family. In the wintertime, she usually produced no milk and got by on hay, stubble or straw, whatever the farm had available. Take a look at Bertinus Estenson’s oxen from this 1886-87 photo and you may see a typical example of this animal.

Oxen owned by Bertinus, 1886-1887

In Pigeon Falls, Peter Ekern established a creamery in 1885 and sold it to an association of farmers in 1892. According to the 1917 History of Trempealeau County, Wisconsin, the main breeds of this creamery’s patrons were Holsteins and Durhams (Shorthorns). The most popular breeds in Wisconsin in the 1890s were Holsteins and Jerseys (Wisconsin: A History, Robert Nesbit).

As farmers needed more income, they began listening to leaders like Hoard and others from the University of Wisconsin, with the result that they began breeding for milk production. In 1890 Stephen Babcock of the University invented his butterfat test, and farmers began being paid by the butterfat content of their milk (when they sold whole milk and not just the cream). The barn Emil built in 1901, if I understand Sid correctly, held 20 cows.  The development of the silo meant cows not only received dry hay in the winter but also nutritious silage that increased milk production. So, Emil added two silos to his barn in 1916. Increasingly, the job of milking cows became year-around.

What breeds was Emil milking in those years? According to Sid, mixed breed cows were common, and from Sid and Irene, here’s a photo of one very unique cow. The date on the back of this photo is March 17, 1931, where Sid’s sister Clara has written, “[This is] the cow called ‘Twin Cow’ because she had four pairs of twin calves. These were the last ones before she was sold. Sidney is on the picture.” I can imagine four pairs of twins is very exceptional! (Soon after, she and three other cows were taken in trade for a cream separator.)

Emil's "Twin Cow" and calves, 1931

Sid said the cow was an Ayrshire-Guernsey mix, typical of much of his father’s herd. He also remembers a Holstein bull restrained in his own very heavy stanchion in a separate part of the barn. Later, Sid says, when Garven began farming, he switched to Holsteins due to his good experience working with Ofsdahls’ purebred herd in French Creek.

In Clara’s Homestead, I found another interesting dairy reference: her first cousin, Theodore J. Thorson, “purchased cattle of the breed known as ‘Shorthorns’ and built up a first class and profitable herd” between 1913 and 1924 when he died unexpectedly at age 44 (9). I’d love to learn more about this too.

Milking Shorthorn today

One point is certain: that dairy cows improved dramatically over the decades and our ancestors were part of that story. Jerseys and Holsteins may have been the dominant breeds in the 1890s, but Ayrshires, Guernseys, and Brown Swiss joined them as important breeds for much of the 20th century, with Milking Shorthorns occupying a lesser role.

This entry was posted in Bertinus Estensen, Emil Borreson, Farming, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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