January 18, 2008
Bovine baby sitter
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
MARK HOFFMAN/MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL/MCT
ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – Brian Herr is the ultimate temp.
He's on the job before dawn, knows his way around complex machinery, large dogs and big animals, and works weekends and holidays.
He'll even hire out for weddings but warns clients to "book the church, book the hall and book me ... not necessarily in that order."
Cows don't take vacations, but dairy farmers do – and when those farmers want to get away for a holiday in Mexico or a convention in Madison, Wis., they call in someone like Herr.
He is a relief milker, going from Wisconsin farm to farm, tending dairy herds, using his jack-of-all-trades skills around barnyards and milking parlors from Sheboygan County to Door County.
"It's not an occupation," Herr says. "It's a way of life."
Cows don't have baby-sitters, but if they did, they would look and act something like Herr.
He's 48 and single, has a ruddy face, strawberry-blond hair and a mustache. He's patient with the cows.
Perhaps even more importantly, he's patient with farmers and their spouses.
When Herr steps in for a farmer, he's not just handling any job – he's temporarily overseeing a family's patrimony.
While a farmer and his family are away, Herr is responsible for making sure livestock doesn't become "dead stock."
He'll tend the births, administer medicine, oversee feeding and perform the all-important task of milking.
There are different milking machines and different routines at every place he goes. And like a relief pitcher in baseball, Herr makes sure nothing goes wrong, to get in and get out without any fuss.
Over the years, he has bruised a rib, broken his nose, rigged up an emergency generator after a lightning strike blew out the power, moved cows into the barn on a 105-degree day and worked through a long night when the temperature sank to 30 below.
"No two farms are the same," he says. "There's no right way to do things, no wrong way. You work with what you have. You adapt."
Relief milkers like Herr are a lifeline for farmers desperate to break the routine of working 365 days a year.
Long gone are the old times when schoolkids and nearby relatives might chip in for chores to help a family get needed days away from the farm.
Some relief milkers advertise, but most secure jobs by word-of-mouth. The average pay is $11.35 an hour.
But Herr, who can do many tasks around a farm, commands $17 an hour Mondays through Saturdays, and $19 an hour Sundays and holidays.
He works around 150 days a year as a relief milker. Some jobs will last a long weekend, others up to two weeks.
Most of the time, Herr commutes daily to his work, but on some jobs, he sleeps on the farm.
His dairy roots run deep. He's a fifth-generation farmer from Newton, Wis. An older brother runs the family farm.
"I had chances over the years to have my own place," he says.
"Farming is getting to be more specialized. A person like me can build a niche. I don't own anything, but I'm technically a dairy farmer."
For a while in the early 1980s, Herr worked a factory job but was laid off a week before he was eligible to collect unemployment.
He found temporary farm jobs, then worked as a herdsman.
"If I wanted to take time off, I needed my own replacement and I couldn't find one," he says.
His inability to find a replacement sparked an idea: Dairy farms needed a full-time relief specialist.
"I want to focus my business [on] the small family farm so small family farmers can take vacations," he says.
The busiest season is after Christmas, when there's snow on the ground and families are eager to take vacations. Things slow down in the summer, Herr says, but pick up in the fall.
Herr has steady customers, such as Todd and Lynn Marten. Todd's a fifth-generation farmer, Lynn's a nurse and they've been married for 18 years. In that time, they've taken nine vacations together.
"You're in a factory, you can take a vacation," Todd Marten says. "But here, you've got the animals."
Recently, the Martens managed to squeeze in another vacation as they joined five couples for a four-day weekend to attend an auto race in Michigan.
Before booking the trip, Lynn Marten didn't check with her husband; she checked with Herr, to make sure he was available.
"It's a 24-hour job, and farmers just don't take off," Lynn Marten says. "They get burned out just like anyone."
When that happens, it's time to call in the temp.
Herr likes the work and enjoys the satisfaction of seeing a farmer return from a vacation, refreshed and ready for the rigors of tending a herd of dairy cows.
"I've had some people come back from vacations and say they like the way the farm looks, that the place is cleaner," Herr says. "I have a lot of pride in what I do."
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