How to Milk a Cow


Ruby, a Jersey dairy calf, on the left with two friends

Woodside Farm, New Zealand

For 16 days I lived and worked at Woodside Farm, a small family farm outside of Dunedin, New Zealand. Woodside is home to part-time farmers Marion and Lee who raise a modest array of cows, sheep, hens, rabbits, and bees as well as grow various fruits and vegetables. In exchange for room and board, I assisted in all sorts of farm activities. My primary responsibility was milking the dairy cow Stripey.


My accommodation

Woodside Farm, New Zealand

I wanted to WWOOF in New Zealand to learn about farming and to see what the farming lifestyle could teach me. In the weeks prior, living out of a car and moving everyday proved to be quite exhausting. WWOOFing would help me recharge before returning to the road.

When I first started, everything about the farm was unfamiliar. In fact, I was unprepared for how overwhelming being completely new and ignorant could feel. Early on, Marion and Lee went about their work and I followed along, responding to direction as necessary. This was particularly effective for one-off jobs like moving cattle or placing fencing.

Milking, by comparison, was quite different. Twice a day, every day, Stripey was milked. Each time, the procedure was long and complicated. The equipment needed to be sanitized, the cow cleaned, and the entire process executed in a specific order. On most occasions, the raw milk was bottled, adding another set of tasks to the job. The sheer number of steps made all of it impossible to master much less remember in a short amount of time.


Marion positioning the milking machine

Woodside Farm, New Zealand

With each repetition, however, I did start to learn, completing certain sequences without explicit direction. A few days into it, I was optimistic I could learn the entire procedure without assistance. Then I started making mistakes — skipping steps and forgetting measurements. Eventually, I was able to move past these errors, but the lesson was obvious. Learning isn’t always a simple, straightforward accumulation of skills and knowledge. We devote the time to learn, but must let go of any expectations related to speed and progress.


Bottling milk

Woodside Farm, New Zealand

As my time at Woodside continued, I developed a new appreciation for the work of farming itself. While farm labor can sometimes be strenuous or tedious, the connection between the effort expended and the output achieved is basic and clear. There is a special satisfaction to toil in the dirt and to produce the very food you eat.

There is also routine. To some degree, I started traveling to step away from routine. Yet, cow milking by definition occurred routinely, and routine in it of itself is not evil. Routine or more broadly regular work provides the scaffolding to craft a lifestyle and achieve ambitious goals.

It was also clear that even for a small farm like Woodside the work is never done. There are always jobs to be done and projects to start and finish. Fulfillment must be found in the day to day rather than some final achievement.

That said, I am proud of my contribution and grateful for my farming experience.