Solve the Mystery of Milk

You might think the making of milk is magical if you don’t know how it’s made. That’s where the Milwaukee County Zoo’s farm comes in. That bag-like thing under the cow? It’s an udder. And it’s the place where milk comes out.

Tyler, 7, holds a glass of milk to show that milk comes from cows.

Tyler, 7, holds a glass of milk to show that milk comes from cows.

Even adults don’t always know about the udder. One woman asked Lisa Guglielmi, supervisor of the farm at the Milwaukee County Zoo, where cow’s milk comes from. Guglielmi showed her the udder and explained it was a mammary organ (a milk-producing organ). Another visitor confused a calf – a baby cow – with a pig. And yet a third zoogoer thought a Belted Galloway cow was a llama (an animal with a very long neck).

“The Zoo’s dairy farm is a great opportunity for people who haven’t ever visited a farm,” says Guglielmi. “And when we’re the only working dairy farm in the city of Milwaukee, the education becomes that much more important.”

Guglielmi has also met plenty of kids who don’t understand farming. “Many kids think food comes from grocery stores,” she says. “They don’t understand that food comes from farms. It’s grown and produced. The Zoo’s dairy farm teaches them the importance of farming.” The milking barn is an 1896 octagonal barn that was moved from Ozaukee County to the Zoo and erected in 1986. Workers put the barn back together piece by piece. (Kids, what does octagonal mean?)

Inside the barn you can visit the cows themselves. There’s no glass between you and their pens. Meet Amy, Ivy, Fern and Fiona. These are some of the names of the Zoo’s cows. They represent different types, or breeds. There are seven breeds of dairy cows: Black and White Holsteins, Red and White Holsteins, Ayrshires, Brown Swiss, Guernseys, Jerseys and Milking Shorthorns. The Zoo has housed all seven breeds at one time. In fall 2011, it did not have Guernseys or Jerseys on exhibit. It depends on the space available for these large animals. Cows can weigh between 700 and 1,500 pounds. (Kids, how much do you weigh?) Signs above the cows list their breed, the countries they come from (such as Scotland or Switzerland), and the strengths of their breed. For example, Red and White Holsteins produce a lot of milk. Ayrshire cows are hardy and tend to live longer than other cows.

Next, watch the cows being milked. At least twice a day, the Zoo’s farm attendants milk the cows. You can watch from bleachers and see them through a glass wall. If the cows are not being milked when you’re there, watch the video overhead. It shows you each step of the milking process. Farm attendants guide one cow into the milking parlor at a time. They clean the cow’s udder and attach it to the milk “claw.” The claw pumps milk from the udder to a container with a milk meter. The meter measures the amount of milk produced in pounds. (Do you know how many pounds of milk are in a gallon? Watch the video.) The milk moves into a glass jar and then into a bulk tank where it stays until a large milk truck picks it up. In the bulk tank, the milk is cooled and constantly stirred so that the milk fat does not separate from the liquid.

The Zoo’s dairy farm is part of the Northwestern Mutual Family Farm, which also includes a Goat Yard, horse barn, theater, gardens, Bee Exhibit, camel rides (in summer) and play areas. The dairy play area, known as the Munchkin Dairy Farm and presented by Northwestern Mutual Foundation, sits right near the milking parlor. As you race from the tractor to the truck, pause to read the signs. You’ll learn how trucks deliver dairy products and why cows need silos to survive. Then head toward Belle the Dairy Cow. This life-size mechanical cow shows you a cow’s body parts. She’ll even talk to you!

Lots of kids love cows. One of Guglielmi’s favorite zoogoers is Jared, an autistic teenager who spends hours with the cows. “He sits with his mom and dad and watches the cows for three, four or five hours,” says Guglielmi. “His parents bring collapsible chairs and give him time to be with the cows. It’s relaxing for him. It makes him feel at peace.” Jared even carries a picture of Ivy, a Zoo cow, with him. And he always brings his beloved book of fun cow facts.

Guglielmi sees the simple connection kids have to cows. They grow up making cow noises, singing songs like “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” and eating and drinking dairy products. The Zoo helps this connection come alive as kids meet real cows and learn more about milk.

“The Zoo’s dairy farm shows kids why we’re called the ‘dairy state,’” says Guglielmi. “You come to the Zoo and you get to see the heart of Wisconsin.”

By Erica Breunlin