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'I will never move to town': Nome, ND family one of the few still milking cows the old-fashioned way

An old-fashioned dairy farmer that still milks all her cows by hand says she wouldn't trade her lifestyle in for anything.

Rosie Johnson
Dairy farmer Rosie Johnson in her barn in Nome, North Dakota.
Ryan Longnecker / WDAY News
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NOME, N.D. — There was a time when small, family dairy farms could be found all across our North Dakota and Minnesota townships.

Now, some farms in the region are milking more than a thousand cows. One family near Nome, North Dakota, is one of the few hanging on, milking every day, the old fashioned way.

"Stand still," Rosie Johnson said as she talked to one of her cows about to be milked.

"Everybody says, 'Oh, they're such sweet, gentle, little cows,'" Johnson said. "No, they are not, they have attitudes."

Right now, the Johnson's are milking just nine cows; soon, 17.

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"We milk three at a time; nights, we milk four, which goes really fast," she said.

Rosie and her husband, Roger, have been milking for decades.

For Johnson, this has been a way of life since her childhood in Wisconsin. "When I was 10 years old, I got my first one for 4-H," Rosie said.

They have seen the ups and downs as modern milking passed them by.

"You got to live, and right now milk is at a decent price," Johnson said.

There's no pipeline system or fancy milking parlor here, and the Johnson's say there are so few farmers milking now that it is hard to find anyone to fill in.

"You (would be able to) get someone to come in, someone's kid, so you could take a day off if there was a family emergency or something, but here, nobody knows how," Johnson said.

Johnson still bucket milks which means putting surge milkers on the cows she knows by name.

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"Wonton, Belle and Sparkles are the three Jerseys (...) over there," Rosie said.

There are days she milks by hand, if a cow is injured or the power goes out.

"We were only out for two milkings," Johnson said. "We milked 40 cows by hand, turned them out (to) let them have water and started all over again," Rosie said.

The Johnson's primitive milking is practiced by so few, it is now hard to get parts for their milkers, but Johnson says they'll get by. Milking twice a day, 365 days a year; holidays and weekends.

CLIP.Still002.jpg
Farmer Rosie Johnson works to attach milking equipment to one of their cows. The type of equipment they use has become less common, leading to replacement parts hard to find.
Ryan Longnecker / WDAY News

"We've always done it, I don't know anything else, when my kids were both home, they would milk one weekend and we would go to Medora for our anniversary," Johnson said.

It is hard for dairy farmers to call it quits, it's emotional. This is such a way of life for them, even though it is hard.

"I've had both knees replaced and one shoulder fixed so far," Johnson said.

Where else can you come to work surrounded by cats, dogs and a horse? Johnson says it would be to tough to leave.

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"I've said I'll never move to town unless somebody forces me," Rosie said.

Kevin Wallevand has been a Reporter at WDAY-TV since 1983. He is a native of Vining, Minnesota in Otter Tail County. His series and documentary work have brought him to Africa, Vietnam, Haiti, Kosovo, South America, Mongolia, Juarez,Mexico and the Middle East. He is an multiple Emmy and national Edward R. Murrow award recipient.

Contact Email: kwallevand@wday.com
Phone Number: (701) 241-5317
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