By Jan Wolfsberg
Leo Yot rises early every day of the week except Sundays. He eats a bowl of Cheerios and drives to the dairy farm where he works. It is 2:30 a.m. and almost time for the morning shift at Edelweiss Dairy just outside Lynden.
Yot trudges into the barn office and pulls on his worn rubber boots. There are holes in the sides and a gash along the heel of one boot. His faded blue jeans look to be more gray than blue and are stained with brown splotches of manure.
Yot began milking cows 15 years ago, and it was not easy, he said. He came from Guatemala, first illegally, looking for work and hoping to support his family back home. The long hours were a strain on his marriage, especially at first, he said. After a while, he and his wife just got used to the strange schedule.
“We milked 800 cows per hour,” said Yot. “We worked so fast, and there were so many cows I never knew any of them.
“I can just look at a cow and know who she is,” said Yot with a grin. “They can be like friends to me. There are some mean ones. But mostly, they like me and my Spanish.”
Yot fires up a scraper tractor and begins cleaning the barn alleys. He hums to himself as he works.
At about 4 a.m. the milking starts. Yot listens to the familiar sounds of the milking system’s vacuum, and an old radio that scratches along to Toby Keith.
“To me, milking cows is a little comforting,” said Yot. “The cows are always steady for me, nothing is too unexpected or out of the ordinary. Once I get into the rhythm, with the music and the sound of the vacuum, everything flows.”
Yot is able to tell the cows apart and knows each by its udder. Looking each cow over, Yot punches their identification number into a computer before hooking them up to a milking machine.
Now Billy Currington is playing, and Yot moves quickly between cows. Sometimes he catches a line or two that he knows and sings along with a heavy Spanish accent.
Milk meters next to every machine measure how much each cow is milking. The numbers top off around 30 pounds. When a cow does not milk her usual amount, Yot takes note to tell the boss later.
His boss has given him raises every year of his employment, he said. Yot does a good job reporting sick cows and treating simple ailments that he finds. “I am paid 15 dollars an hour now. This is more than I ever would get in Guatemala,” he said.
In his early 20s, Yot worked on low paying construction site jobs in Guatemala.
“We had no machinery, so we did all the work with our backs,” said Yot. “You can only lift 100 pound concrete slabs for so long before your back goes out.” He now has off-and-on back pain that prevents him from doing physical jobs on the farm. “I can’t buck heavy hay bales like the farmer and his sons. But that’s a bad job anyway, so I don’t complain,” Yot said.
Not all the cows like to cooperate. Some young cows are not used to the routine of the milking procedure kick at Yot. Several times, he takes a cow hoof to the arm, and once to the nose. He curses in both English and Spanish and continues. There are more cows to milk.
“A couple years ago, a young cow that had never come through the milking parlor before decided she would rather be dead than be milked,” said Yot. “She kicked like crazy, and stepped on my hand so hard she broke some of my fingers. That was just a little painful.
“Red Bull helps get me through the long days,” Yot said after taking a gulp. A dozen empty cans fill the trash can in the milking parlor. “I usually drink three or four a day. It gives me wings!”
He works from 3 a.m. to 8 a.m., and then sleeps several hours during the day before the afternoon shift.
“Between work, and trying to get a few hours of sleep here and there, and doing stuff with my family, I don’t have much time for a social life.”
At 7:30, the last cows come through the milk parlor and Yot heads home to breakfast.