Friday 12 February 2016

Task 56: Milk a Moo Man cow

I have a feeling this is going to be a longer blog than most - there's lots to tell you about!   

I'm going to begin by introducing you to Iris, the very special little girl who was my companion on this task. She's 2 years old, she's gorgeous and she's the younger sister of Thea in whose memory I'm fund-raising for Shooting Star Chase Children's Hospice Care. 

I asked Iris at Christmas whether she'd be willing to come along with her grandmother Carol (previously seen heading down the Thames on a Clipper with me) to help me milk a cow. Iris said she was up for the challenge - well, perhaps more accurately, Iris's parents, Annabel and Rob, very gamely gave my idea their blessing. So it was now down to me to source a willing cow....

But hold on a second, just how exactly did the cow-milking task come about?  In truth, it all stems from an appointment with my dentist. As a health care professional with excellent clinician-patient communication skills, he had been asking politely about my then embryonic sixtyat60 plans. 'Do you know, I was listening to an interview on the radio yesterday' he said as I settled into the chair, 'It was with a woman who was doing a challenge a bit like yours, and she described how she'd just tried milking a cow.....' By then he was mid-procedure and I was unable to utter a word in response (you know how it is at the dentist). But in my mind I went 'Aha!' and I shamelessly squirrelled away the idea for myself.  

As I added the cow milking task to my list, I couldn't resist upping the ante.  'If I'm going to milk a cow, it has to be a Moo Man cow' I thought.  Shall I elaborate a little?  'The Moo Man' is a funny, beautiful, emotional, eye-opening observational documentary about a dairy farmer in Hailsham called Stephen Hook and his herd of cows, led by the magnificent Ida (see Ida below). The film shows Steve's fight to establish an independent raw milk delivery service and bears witness to the amazing bond that he has with his cows. The Moo Man was selected to be shown at the Sundance Festival in 2013 and it went down a storm there (the Sundance Festival director called it his 'crazy favourite'). My friend Linda and I saw it at our local cinema in Uckfield a few months later and agreed that it was one of the most touching and stand-out documentaries we've seen in a long time - hence my wish to milk a Moo Man cow. Of course it was an absolute given that Task 56 would be categorised as a 'Select a Celeb' in the sixtyat60 list.

Now as you may have observed from what I've written so far, there was one crucial flaw to Task 56 - I had no idea whether Farmer Steve would be willing to let a complete beginner milkmaid loose on the udders of one of his prize cows. There was only one way to find out. Two months ago I plucked up my courage and emailed the Hook & Son Sales Team, my heart in my mouth (that poor heart of mine does seem to have visited my mouth rather a lot over the last 8 months).  And guess what, in less than an hour I received the fantastic news that Steve was willing to help me and Iris achieve the task. I was so excited!! And after various communications between us over the next few weeks, a date was set for Task 56 to take place.

Last Sunday, the big cow-milking day finally dawned.  Carol and Iris were ready bright and early for their key roles as Task 56 companions, together with Carol's husband, Grandpa Pete, who very nobly agreed at the eleventh hour to be chauffeur, photographer and grand-daughter holder as required. Here are the three of them on our arrival at Longley's Farm. Please note Iris's very smart new wellies and the woolly hat she's purloined from her Bam-Bam (aka Carol).

We were given a warm welcome by Phil (Steve's father), and by Steve, who was getting stuck into the morning milking session.  We took a little wander round the farm before going into the milking section. Iris found some 10-week old calves, who definitely took a shine to her (and to Carol's hand).

Then we returned to the milking parlour to be greeted by a group of very relaxed-looking cows who were already connected to the milking machinery. Steve explained that every cow belongs to its own family within the herd, and is called by the name of its birth mother. Kate is the biggest family (the 200th Kate calf was born recently) and there are other fine-sounding families, including Ida, Rowena, Kitty, Teena, Ruby and Jill. 


Once milked, the first group of 5 cows were free to leave and one by one they sauntered zen-like back into the yard. The next group lined up by the machinery and my task started in earnest. Steve asked me to don an apron and gloves. All of a sudden I took on the appearance of a farm hand - but would the cows be convinced??

Steve demonstrated each stage of milking the cows, which I then attempted to replicate as masterfully as I could. Before each procedure I was asked to place my hand on the cow's flank (see photo) to let them know I was about to tamper with their udder regions. The first stage was to clean and dry each teat (did you know that cows's udders have four teats? I certainly didn't - but then I think you're only too aware by now that I have many worrying gaps in my general knowledge). 

Now came a key stage for the purposes of my task. Each teat had to be squeezed manually to remove any milk that might have been sitting there for a while, making it vulnerable to bacteria. Steve demonstrated on the first cow and I then attended to the other four cows - yes, that's a total of 16 teats I had to squeeze! Here's the evidence that I was successful. Just look at that squirt of milk. Well done Carol for catching it on camera.  Was Iris impressed? I like to think so. 

Next came the attachment of vacuum suction machinery to the teats.  I was given the responsibility of attaching the machinery to 'Jill 41', who tolerated my cack-handed attempt with stoic resignation. Her milk began to collect in the glass bottle like magic - such a satisfying moment. After the milk had been collected, we checked her udder to make sure it was nice and soft. Then I removed the teat cups and applied iodine to the teats. Job done!

I removed my apron/gloves, we said our goodbyes to Steve, Iris waved farewell to the cows, and the four of us headed home. 

What an udderly moovellous morning we'd had (just had to pop a pun or two in somewhere). Carol, Peter and I were very struck by how docile, gentle and friendly the cows had been throughout our visit. Steve says that from the moment that the calves are born two rules are applied - no shouting and no arm-waving. Goodness, if only those core principles could be applied on a global scale.... 

And what did Iris think of her visit to the Moo Man farm? What I can tell you is that she was an absolute little star from start to finish. We were very proud of her. Her favourite moment was watching some tiny calves being fed by a mother cow (the little black one on the left was just 5 days old).  Although she was a bit taken aback by the cows' lack of toilet training.


I'm truly indebted to Steve Hook and his fantastic team for supporting my sixtyat60 challenge and to Steve for a wonderful visit last Sunday - it was a privilege to witness first-hand the relationship he has with his gang of four-legged girls and as you can tell, my Moo Man cow-milking experience was a memorable one. If you'd like to read about Hook & Son farming methods, produce and services, my suggestion is to take a look at their website at - it's a really well designed site packed full of info, and you can register to receive regular newsletters, which are far better written than my blog!

And finally, the biggest of hugs and a huge thank you to my tiny bovine buddy Iris for coming to the Moo Man Farm with me, along with her lovely grandparents.  Iris's whole family was an absolute inspiration in their care of Iris's big sister Thea throughout her little life. Their devoted love enabled Thea to engage with the world and achieve milestones way beyond anyone's expectations. She chuckled, she chatted, she played and her personality blossomed, regardless of the profound difficulties she was born with.  And I see this same wonderfully devoted love by the family for Iris, who, as this blog shows, is a real joy to spend time with, whether it's showing off her new wellies, bonding with baby calves or singing 'The cows on the bus go moo, moo, moo' very tunefully in Grandpa Pete's car. So this post is dedicated to two small sisters, Thea and Iris, both of whom hold a very special place in my heart. 


I'm doing the sixtyat60 challenge to raise funds for Shooting Star Chase children's hospice care in memory of little Thea Redford. Shooting Star Chase provided Thea's parents Annabel and Rob with much needed respite care, support and expertise during Thea's life and offer a vital service to children and young people with life-limiting conditions and their families - they are there to make every second count. Only 10% of their income is government-funded, so they are reliant on upon their supporters' generosity. You can find out more about the work of Shooting Star Chase by visiting their website at  And if you'd like to make a donation, do please visit my JustGiving page at  

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