It was not an easy birth.
Cow No. 643 was straining. Her mouth was open and her tongue was sticking out.
"I don't like to see it when their tongue's out," Ralph Frye said as he looked at the 4 1/2-year-old cow that was born in the very barn where she was about to calve for the third time. "Usually it means something is wrong."
At risk was the unborn calf and a cow that, over the course of 15 months after her last pregnancy had given 30,384 pounds of milk, worth about $5,000 to Mr. Frye.
It was nearly 11 a.m., well into Mr. Frye's day at his Latrobe farm.
Pennsylvania dairy farms produce 10.3 billion pounds of milk, or 1.2 billion gallons annually, according to the Harrisburg-based dairy industry group Center for Dairy Excellence. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that farming in Pennsylvania was a $6.7 billion industry in 2011. Milk and milk products accounted for $2.3 billion in sales
But all that money and all that milk depends on individual farms with cows like No. 643 who was having a very dangerous morning.
Mr. Frye's livelihood depends on his cows.
He starts his day around 6 a.m. by bringing his milkers into the barn. On a recent day there were 38 cows to milk and each walked into an individual slot.
Milking is a multistage process. Even discounting all of the other aspects of raising a herd, the time in the barn is a complex dance from cleaning off the teats through taking off the milker apparatus.
Milking each of the 38 cows requires Mr. Frye to bend over or squat at least five times. It is up and down nearly 400 times a day, every day -- and that is before factoring in other work around the farm.
After 37 years of solo farming, when asked what hurts the most, Mr. Frye answers, "It would be easier to say what doesn't hurt."
He walks between the cows with a milking stool, a single legged stool with a spring at the bottom of the leg, strapped to his backside. When he is down next to the cow, he leans in, often into the dirty side of a cow that has been lying in a barnyard.
"That's why I wear a hat," he says.
The actual act of drawing the milk out of the cows takes about 5 minutes for each cow and Mr. Frye has the capacity to milk four at a time.
Within minutes of taking off the milking apparatus, each cow lies down for a rest as the next cow takes its place. By the time Mr. Frye is done with his morning milking at 8 a.m., the milking parlor looks like nap time at a pre-school and the stainless steel pipe that carries the milk to the holding tank has warmed to body temperature from the milk running through it.
As the cows rest in their stalls, with the barn quiet except for the sounds of the birds that fly in and out, Mr. Frye is still busy in a room at the end of the barn, one that is kept clean of the detritus of the barnyard. He takes the milking apparatus into the milk room where the tank holding the milks sits and where all of the milking equipment is cleaned.
An hour after he is done milking, when the equipment is hooked to an industrial cleaning machine, he feeds the calves in their own stalls either grain or milk. Then he rouses the cows so they can eat the combination of hay, corn and brewers malt that he has prepared and poured into a long trough for their breakfast.
By 9 a.m., he is keeping an eye out for the milk truck, which comes every other day to draws the milk out of the tank on the farm.
The Fryes are paid for their milk at prices set by the federal Milk Marketing Board. In April, the price set for Federal Order 33, a district that includes Cleveland and Western Pennsylvania, was $18.49 per hundred pounds of milk.
Mr. Frye said Turner Dairy, which has a high quality requirement, pays more than the federal rate, but out of that the dairy deducts the cost of transporting the milk.
He said the "mailbox price" for a hundred pounds is $20, but before he gets a check the dairy deducts about $1.25 for hauling, 15 cents for advertising such as the "Got Milk?" campaign, and 5 to 7 cents for the federal order that controls the prices.
That means Mr. Frye is receiving about 19 cents of the $3.42 consumers pay for a gallon of milk.
Doug Matthews, who hauls Mr. Frye's milk to Turner Dairy, has a process of his own, drawing a sample from the tank that he marks with a bar-coded sticker that he labels with the date and the milk's temperature. He also measures the depth of the milk in the tank with a dipstick.
Mr. Frye keeps close track of his cows' output. Recently his best milker was putting out 117.9 pounds of milk a day or 13.7 gallons. He said he likes to get an average of about 65 pounds or about 7.5 gallons of milk from his cows every day.
There is a circular calendar in the milk room with magnetic cubes numbered for each cow in the herd. Each cube has a different color on each side. White is for cows that are milking but not pregnant; purple is for a cow that is pregnant. No. 643's cube was yellow because she was pregnant and no longer milking. Cows are dry, or not milking, for six to eight weeks between calves..
On top of the calendar are arrows for when the cow was inseminated and when calves were delivered. Each day Mr. Frye moves the overlying arrows one notch to keep track of when the cows that are pregnant are due.
As Mr. Matthews drove away with 4,775 pounds of milk or 555 gallons, Mr. Frye walked into the barn to check on No. 643. She was still contracting, but not ready to give birth.
That's when he had a chance to sit down. It was about 10:30 a.m., more than 4 1/2 hours into his day. The milk truck was gone and Mr. Frye was in the kitchen of the house that he and his wife had planned to live in temporarily about 33 years ago.
Mr. Frye has a neighbor who raises pigs and chickens. He gives the neighbor milk for the pigs and receives eggs in return. It was two of those eggs, with cheese on top, that Mr. Frye ate for breakfast.
Ann Frye had already been to her doctor for a check up that morning. On the way home she picked up a half gallon of milk from the store. The milk was from Turner Dairy; the Fryes have strong brand loyalty for their dairy the same way Atlanta only drinks Coca-Cola products and Pittsburgh uses Heinz ketchup.
She said the doctor asked if her husband were still drinking raw milk.
He and his wife are around the cows, milking and feeding them every day, so he figures anything the herd has, he probably already has, too. He will not feed raw milk to anyone else, particularly his grandchildren, who were the reason Mrs. Frye bought the milk.
It was 10:55 a.m. when he saw that No. 643 had her tongue out.
Clearly other chores were going to have to wait.
Mr. Frye walked to the other end of the barn and came back with a plastic glove that covered his right arm from his fingers to his underarm and reached into the cow to check on the calf. What he found was a calf that was slightly twisted to one side; its forelegs were crossed and the nose was below the pelvis, so no matter how hard the cow strained, the calf was stuck.
He frowned and walked to the other end of the barn again. He came back with a new pair of gloves and a set of calving chains draped around his neck.
After gloving up, Mr. Frye straightened the calf's legs so they were no longer crossed. Then he held one end of the chain and made a loop, like a dog's choke collar, that he placed around a hoof. The other end of the chain went in the same manner around the other hoof. In the process, he had to turn the calf, push its nose back and then up over the pelvis and drag its feet out with the chains.
When the calf was in place he pulled. Mrs. Frye grabbed a few pieces of bailing twine, looping them through the calving chains at one end and around a fence post at the other to give her husband more leverage to pull the calf. She held one end of the twine while he pulled the calf out.
After it had begun to emerge, he allowed the cow to push it out the rest of the way. That, he later explained, pushes the amniotic fluid and placental material from the calf's nose and mouth.
"It's only a second," he said later. "But it's an important second."
And then the calf fell to the floor of the barn with a thud.
At 11:13 a.m., less than 20 minutes after Mr. Frye had first checked the position of the calf, he pulled the 90-pound newborn over to the side of the pen.
Then he looked over to his wife.
"It's a bull," he said.
On a dairy farm, where the cows are inseminated, young bulls are sold to be raised for beef or veal.
The cow started to lick the newborn, cleaning him up.
"She's a good mom," Mrs. Frye said, watching the cow caring for her calf.
Mr. Frye filled a 5 gallon bucket with water mixed with calcium, phosphorus and electrolytes to make sort a bovine version of Gatorade that No. 643 sucked down quickly and then went back to licking. He brought a second bucket out and she immediately drank half of it.
"I like to get two or three full buckets in them," Mr. Frye said.
And then he was off again, to turn the rest of the herd out into the field to graze, to turn No. 643's cube from yellow to white and to plant the tomatoes he had promised his wife he would get into the ground.
By noon he was on his knees in the garden with just four hours until it was time to milk again.
Ann Belser: email@example.com or 412-263-1699. First Published May 26, 2013 4:00 AM