Maple Field Milk — the Milking Bail

Nick Snelgar’s diary continues

Week 2:  November 9 2011

We have this week experienced  very heavy  rain  in extraordinary ‘ropes’ from thick thundery skies. Our chalk land did its best to absorb the downpour. Talk about a top-up.

Now this time on this new blog  I want to describe the ‘milking bail’. The word was coined by the late Arthur Hosier in 1922. Hosier was a  farmer in north Wiltshire (near Marlborough) Southern Britain, working a farm of valleys and high chalk pasture sweeping up to 800 feet (260 metres) – land covered with wild grasses but inaccessible from the homestead. His thinking was marvellous and new. He could see that milking large numbers of cows would allow him only to graze the land immediately close to the  farmstead, the milking parlour, and the sheds where the winter food would be kept.

He decided to construct a mobile milking parlour on wheels and he called it a ‘milking bail’. The contraption consisted of 6 cow stalls each with its own personal feed trough together with a stationary engine to drive the milking machine. The cows walked into the stalls for the food on offer; were milked by machine, and afterwards walked out of the stall straight into the pasture. The milk was stored in churns and taken to the dairy at the end of the milking session.

By these clever means Hosier could follow his milking herd (which quickly became herds in the plural) with the equipment needed to milk them once rather than twice a day, bringing the herd back from the pasture to the fixed and gloomy parlour at the farmstead. All the muck and mayhem was left on the pasture as prime fertilizer.

What a fantastic leap of lateral thought. By 1932 Hosier had 4 herds each of 70 cows; each with its own cheap outdoor ‘bail’(ref: Graham Harvey-‘We Want Real Food’ and all his work on pasture farming)

So the endless task of scraping muck off expanses of concrete; the endless task of washing down with gallons of water twice a day; the timeless task of driving the herd to and from the pasture faded into Wiltshire memory.

The cattle were outwintered – no housing. The winter fodder was ricked in the fields – no buildings, and no endless maintenance of buildings.

The outwintered cows exhibited no disease (ref: Open-Air Dairying by A.J.Hosier; a journal of the Farmer’s Club Part 6 November 1927).

So this is the origin of the milking bail. Hosier invented a completely new approach to dairy farming which was cheap, nomadic, efficient and allowed dairy herds to access any pasture at any point on the farm.

We are in the process of building our own portable 2-berth milking bail at the moment and as soon as it is finished I shall describe it in detail with all attendant costs.

Our bail will be powered by a tractor using the power-take-off to run the vacuum pump. We will use bucket milkers and transfer the milk into churns for transport. All the twists and turns of our tortuous journey to find all the equipment will be talked about in this blog.

So nothing is entirely new. Successive generations try to put old inventions and methods into modern settings. I feel that this idea was lost too quickly and at great expense to the countryside. This is the start of the revival. I want to meet A.J.Hosier’s descendants and talk it through with them.  Milking bails were completely lost by the 1960s – trampled out of site by the capital grants and the subsidy pouring in from government.

Interestingly in the opening lines of  ‘Open-Air Dairying’ Hosier says “Farmers are looking for something that will give them just reward for their labours “.

Both our Jersey cows are enjoying a quiet life at the moment – just concentrating on looking after their calves and quietly ruminating and watching me over the fence as I tear about picking up pieces of secondhand equipment and putting them down again; lost in wonder at what it all means.

The Processing Room is under construction . Drains are being designed; screeds quoted for; mysterious plastic sheets to go on the walls are being sourced……..and today – a meeting with our local Environmental Health Officer (before we start anything).

And as Brucy and Tess would say on Strictly…….”keep on dairying”.

Nick Snelgar

11 thoughts on “Maple Field Milk — the Milking Bail

  1. My name is Chris we run a big house in Somerset as a wedding venue and are trying to produce everything we use from our 300 acres. One of our next projects is a milking bail for two Jersey cows, then I came across your article. How far have you gone with the idea can you give us some advice. Interestingly enough up until 10 years age Niel Hosier was our neughbour, quite a family his father amassed some 14000 acres in his lifetime starting with nothing, might be difficult today !! Regards Chris

  2. Thrilled to find your website. please send any info you are happy to share.
    I am only at the “thinking about it ” stage of establishing a mobile dairy
    My idea would look like a trailer with cooling vat to carry the milk, and generator for the bucket milking machine. bails attached to the trailer (quiet cows essential)

    For all the reasons above we want to take the machine to the cows. Aiming for raw milk products for our local community. Many people here are fed up with the corporatisation of our food industry and want to reclaim some autonomy.

    Look forward to finding out about your mobile bails.
    Regards Robyn

  3. I have been very interested in a mobile milking parlor for a number of years now. I didn’t know anyone else was crazy enough to try something like that! I can’t wait to see your progress!

  4. I have just re-instated an old milking shed and am awaiting ‘approval’ from the FSA to sell raw milk from my micro-dairy – could be today or tomorrow. I milk my Jersey cows who are allowed to keep their calves and are pasture fed for life – zero grain – I take the calves to the abattoir after gentle weaning at about 8 months for Rose Veal any older and I call it Baby Beef. I only have 8 milking cows so far and do not have the space to rear on beef much after weaning (I am a grazier and own zero land) The cheaper cuts of veal/beef I mince and mix with organic veg and seasonings wrap in an organic rich shortcrust pastry using local freshly milled flour etc, this is called the Suffolk Picnic. The dairy is registered as The Calf At Foot Dairy. I do direct sales from home and farmers markets. I Grew up helping out on the neighbouring farm with a mobile milking bail and would like to go back to this way of taking the milking machine to the pasture, as I do not have enough grazing at home to milk more than 3 cows at once. I would really appreciate a log and pictures of your milking bail. Good luck and I send you best wishes and support.

  5. I have just been writing my memories of my own time in farming for my family. I’ll paste in what I have written concerning te hosier milking bails we had.
    Milking bail. I suppose that the prosperity of our family was almost entirely due to the Hosier milking bail and the Milk Marketing Board. These, once ubiquitous portable milking parlors were the brain child of a pre-war, big scale farmer engineer. They were made in a village workshop in Colllingbourne Ducis near Ludgershall in Wiltshire. Hosier had made money during the depression by farming on Salisbury plain. He had the idea of keeping cows on the open expenses of the plain where it was difficult to do so using a farmstead parlour, owing to the great distances pastures might be from the farm. Hosier reasoned that, it would make sense to bring the parlour to the cows instead.
    He designed and built a 6 stall parlor on solid steel wheels. The cows entered the stalls from, in our case, a collecting area surrounded by twenty or so 4 wheeled gates connected to each other by chains.
    The whole thing consisted of 2 units. The milking parlor and the engine room and milk cooler rooms, the last 2 of which were mounted on another chassis. The last units were coupled together and moved by means of a large block and tackle. The block and tackle were coupled to the front of the engine room and other end to a huge 2 legged anchor which would be beaten into the ground ahead of the whole thing at distance approximately equivalent to the entire length of the unit. A horse would then be hooked up to the end of the tackle and would walk 4 times as far as it was needed to move the bail. Later a fergy would move it all by hitching it directly via a draw bar.
    The engine room contained a petrol engine cooled by having the cylinder encased in an open, cast steel tank full of water. This drove the vacuum pump, a 6 volt car generator, for lighting and the connecting rod operating the pulse valves over each stall. It also contained a coal fired boiler for hot water and steam for sterilizing the pipes and recording jars. In the cooler room there was a corrugated chromium plated copper and brass cooler down which the fresh milk, straight out of the cow, streamed like a whitewash waterfall, cooled by cold water from a 200 gallon water barrel parked in the field behind. Next to this cooler, stood the 10 gallon milk churn, which had to be changed, perhaps 10 times in a milking, when full.
    Every morning, especially in the summer, the 200 gallon water barrel had to be emptied and re-filled with cold well water from a stand pipe in the bottom yard.
    I remember the old horse standing in the shafts of the big green, cast iron water barrel mounted on the front axle of an ancient lorry on bald types, while the filling went on.
    Back at the bail, the cows would enter the milking area which was covered by a rectangular canvas awning, the only protection from the elements for the dairy man. Having entered the stall a cow was secured by a chain behind her rear and the dairy man would then shovel cattle cake into a trough next to her head. When she had been milked, the cow would leave the stall by means of a sliding door which was hauled straight up vertically by the cable attached to its top, the dairy man operating it from behind the cow and dropping it down again when she had departed.
    In later versions, a loft was added above the stalls allowing feed to be stored and fed into hoppers in the floor, ready to be shoveled to the cow.
    The Andover series chalk down land lent itself to this kind of out door milking. It drained very well, with pure chalk just 4 inches below the surface, and so the heavy steel wheeled unit seldom got stuck in the mud. In wet weather, the unit was moved every day to a clean patch of grass, keeping the udders on the cows reasonably clean.
    Rex Patterson, a local farmer, inventor, and long time friend of Dad’s, had more than a few Hosier milking bails on his downland farms. In the latter years, he would place these units, on a level area where the top soil had been removed, exposing the hard white chalk where no mud could accumulate without the dairyman being able to scrape it clean with his tractor counted squeegy. The following winter the whole unit could be moved to a freshly scraped site.
    The eventual demise of this kind of milking practice came soon after the terrible winter of 1963, when it started snowing on new year’s eve and was, perhaps 2 feet deep for 3 months. To make matters worse it drifted into huge banks behind any obstacle. At one point it rained on the surface of the snow where it froze half an inch deep. Everywhere was like a skating rink and as the rain was accompanied by a strong wind, I remember, the garage doors being covered in sheet ice from top to bottom for weeks. Everything was encased in a beautiful surface of rippling, shiny glass.
    However beautiful this may have looked, it was disaster for the poor dairyman and his cows, as you may imagine. The bails could not be moved as they were frozen to the ground. The cows would slither down the slippery, compacted snow ramp into the milking stalls. It may have been sub zero in day time, but at 5.00 in the morning it was often 20 degrees below zero. How it was possible to thaw the pipes etc necessary to get milking going every morning, is surely amazing. Trickling hot water from the spout of a watering can along the length of tubing, and I am sure paraffin blow lamps were put to good use. Those guys who endured that long, freezing winter were truly amazing.
    The relentless march of progress, “health and safety” and hygiene were to , eventually sign the death warrant of this highly efficient milking system. It came in the form of the bulk milk tanker. Milk churns were an inefficient means of transporting liquid. A flatbed lorry could only carry just one layer of churns, whereas the same lorry chassis with a glass lined tank mounted on it could carry perhaps 4 times as much bulk milk, along with a labour free, speedy turn around. Consequently, the fixed dairys were fitted with refrigerated, stainless steel tanks, where, if necessary 2 days production could be stored. On the bails, this was just not possible. The tanks had to be installed on level floors and calibrated exactly, the driver of the lorry reading the dipstick related to the individual tank. The bail system relied on churns, which had to be man-handled, full of milk, on the way out and they had to be washed thoroughly at the creamery before being hauled back to the farms ready to be used next day, on the collection round the following morning, 7 days a week.
    Regards, Roger Flambert

  6. Great to see this blog. We have just completed refurbishing the old cow shed and milking stalls to enable onsite butchery (not slaughter) of our pigs and occasional bullock from our small herd of conservation grazing Highlands. Most of our land is leased to next door for standard modern dairying where they overwinter on sand in sheds (we took over the farm as novices when my mother-in-law died). However we are beginning to take some of it back and with our strategy of trying provide healthy food straight from the fields direct to public (without supermarkets) I have been pondering whether we can offer raw milk alongside our out door grown pork and it seems blindingly obvious that mobile milking in the field is the answer. Please keep me informed of your progress and design!

  7. Roger Flambert
    Have you any photos of the hosier bail. There are 2 photos taken in 1928 and 30, end on but do not show any detail. I am trying to get details of milking bails for a modelling project.

  8. I have just started reading Hozier Farming System and proves there are no new idea’s although at the time this was one.

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