It was a weak whistle on this early morning.
The odd February weather had taken most of Randy Flory’s voice, so he whistled at the Holstein cattle on his family’s dairy in southwest Douglas County. They can be like people, he says, as he and his companion, Rocko, a “knothead” of a dog, motor through the darkness on a four-wheeler.
“You have to wake some of them up and tell them to get their day going,” Flory says.
Well, to be fair, the heifers are doing better than most folks. It is 3 a.m., after all.
Moments earlier, Flory had slowed the four-wheeler to an idle and told its passenger there would be a bull in this pen.
“He’s mainly harmless, but he does make a lot of noise,” Flory says.
The passenger doesn’t much believe him because Flory and the four-legged knothead seem to make it their business to know where the bull is any given moment.
At this moment, the bull is in the covered stall area. The old bovine is blocking one path, so Flory steers the four-wheeler down the other side of the stalls to check the barn for any straggling heifers. There are none, and he heads for the exit. The bull is still there, and now he begins kicking sand out of the laying stall — sand that Flory will have to replace. Flory slows the four-wheeler and musters a little more volume from his voice.
“You jerk,” he says directly at the bull.
Then he steers the four-wheeler to the other side of the barn because — make no mistake — the cows rule this place.
Well, for bit a longer anyway. The Flory dairy farm — you may have seen it atop its hill above Lone Star Lake — is having an auction March 7. Selling its herd. Selling its milking equipment. Closing the book on more than 60 years of Florys milking cattle in Douglas County.
“My wife keeps telling me I’m going to cry the day of the sale,” Flory says. “I keep telling her I’m not. I’ve been at it long enough. I don’t think there are going to be any tears.”
• • •
It is a tip about life that you won’t hear many places other than in a dairy barn — hopefully.
“At three o’clock in the morning, the girls don’t care if they poop or pee on you,” says Scott Flory, Randy’s brother and partner in the dairy business for the last 31 years.
Indeed, a morning constitution that falls on the concrete floor of the milking barn will splatter quite a ways.
Scott Flory spends mornings — he and Randy each get four days a month off — standing between two rows of six heifers that form a line atop concrete platforms. The udders of each are sprayed quickly with an iodine solution, then a quick wipe with a paper towel, and they’re connected to a milking machine. In about six minutes, a heifer will deliver anywhere from 30 to 50 pounds of milk.
The morning milking begins at 3 a.m. and is usually done by 5:30 a.m., after 150 head have gone through the barn. Scott does the morning milking while Randy does the outdoor feeding and chores. Come about 2 p.m., the process starts over for the afternoon milking, where Randy milks and Scott feeds.
“It is fun for a day,” Scott says. “Every day, not so much.”
Soon enough, the days will change. After the sale, the Florys will begin raising dairy cattle for a massive outfit in Arizona. A 6,000-head dairy will ship a few hundred head of cattle to the Flory farm where they’ll be bred and add about 600 pounds of weight before they’re shipped back. What won’t happen at the Flory farm is milking.
A change for sure, but don’t tell a man who has done the same thing for 31 years that all change is bad.
“It hasn’t really all sunk in yet, but I think once it does, it will be a big relief,” Scott says. “This is all a dying deal anymore.”
• • •
There is some help to be had here. Among the regular workers at the farm are 20 barn cats that run mice patrol, the four-legged knothead that helps bring the cows in, and a handful of college and high school kids who provide an extra set of hands in the milking barn.
Today it is Grant Metsker, a 4-H friend of Scott’s son. He’s been milking at the farm since 2005.
“I think he mainly just likes the company,” Metsker said as he wipes and waits alongside Scott.
Metsker milks on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays because his classes at Kansas University’s engineering school don’t start until 10 a.m. Engineers — such late sleepers.
Randy says the No. 1 reason the family is getting out of the business is because he and Scott are tired of it. But difficulty in finding help also ranks up there.
“You have to have some country blood in you to make this work,” Randy says. “There have been plenty from town who thought they wanted to do this, but come to find out, they didn’t.”
And Randy says it is no secret that Douglas County farm families are dwindling.
Indeed they are. Scott and his wife, Bobbie, have two children going to KU, majoring in something other than dairy farming. Randy and his wife, Cheryl, have three grown children.
It was a great way to raise children — “no other way I would have wanted to do it,” Randy says — but he never pushed the children to follow him. If anything, he pushed the other way.
“I only had one out of the three who thought he wanted to give it a try,” Randy says, “but he ended up deciding there was something a little better.”
Now there are grandkids. The oldest is 12, and his name comes up unsolicited while Randy washes buckets.
“Now that boy, he would get after it,” Randy says while dirty water fills the floor drain. “He really would. I can just tell. He would have gotten after it, if we would have stuck around.”
• • •
Randy Flory does not have a mother’s voice. But he tries. Well, sort of.
“How are you, darling?” he says to this just days-old calf confined in its own pen with its own dog-houselike structure.
Flory has about a dozen bottles he brings to the calf area each morning. There’s a wire hanger to hold each bottle, and most calves attack the bottle like a teenager devours a bowl of cereal. All kids are the same that way. But this little calf is so new she doesn’t know what to do yet.
Flory holds the bottle in one hand and her head in the other. He admits he and Scott hate this part of the job the most. Their wives usually take over the chore on the weekends, and they’re much better at it.
Flory, though, has the mothering tone down, although the words don’t always match it.
“You’re going to have to do it faster than that darling or else we’re going to be here all morning,” Flory says to the calf still struggling with the bottle. “Geez, dumb as a rock.”
It is about 4:30 a.m., and morning chores are past the halfway point. Earlier, Flory mixed and delivered 7,700 pounds of feed, a combination of hominy, alfalfa, corn silage and water, to the main herd. That same amount will be delivered in the evening. In addition he carried about 30 buckets of a different mixture to the younger members of the herd.
After chores wrap up at 5:30, Flory will eat breakfast and take a nap. By 8 a.m. he’ll be delivering hay to pastures that need it, and during growing season there is always a field that needs tending. The family farms about 1,000 acres of cropland and hay pastures, trying to provide as much of the farm’s feed as possible to control costs.
But all of that work happens after these morning chores because, really, nothing comes before the cattle around here.
Which brings us back to the bottle. Flory has to wake one calf up to give her the bottle. She struggles, and the powdered milk in the bottle disappears slowly. “Geez, darling, you’re about as dumb as the other one,” Flory says.
And then, of course, he waits.
• • •
It indeed is odd. Lightning in the western sky in February.
Rain begins to fall, and the cattle in the far pasture are spooked but not by the storm. Flory is driving a different truck today. The passenger door on the regular one doesn’t stay shut too well.
Another flash of lightning provides a glimpse at the herd.
“It looks like spring,” Randy says.
But it is not. For the dairy industry in this part of the state, it is much closer to an ending than a beginning. Flory is convinced the future of the industry is mega herds, 6,000 to 7,000 head that milk 24 hours a day. You won’t ever see those in eastern Kansas, he says.
“It is the wide-open spaces,” Flory says, “where you’ll see the milking done.”
But it will get done. Just not as many people will get the joy of “getting up before the chickens,” as Flory has said many times before.
“This is a dying art,” Flory says unsolicited. “It makes me feel good I was part of it.”
It is not quite 5:30 a.m. About all that’s left of the morning chores is a check of one pasture and its hay supply. The ride there takes Randy by his oldest son’s house. Randy’s cellphone rings. It’s the son. He was up and said hello. The pasture produces the bumpiest ride of the day.
“It is something to think that your family has done this for 60 or 65 years,” Flory says. “When that sale comes, it will be over. I think we’re the last ones with the name Flory milking cows in the county. When I was growing up, it seemed like every Flory was milking a cow. That does get you a little sentimental.
“You know, they all say I’m going to be the one that breaks down. I don’t think I will.”