As I climbed a mountain of alfalfa bundles in my black Timberland boots and brown cargo shorts, I quickly discovered it's not best to imitate a UPS driver's outfit while working at a dairy.
The straw would scrape at my exposed calves and cause me to fight the urge to scratch at the sensation.
Later, after knocking over a calf's water bucket and having bovine backwash seep into my socks, it became clear that pants would've been smarter.
Work on a dairy farm is more rigorous than I expected. I didn't go in expecting a cakewalk, but I absolutely underestimated all the aspects of raising cows for milk production. I figured since I'd seen the "Reading Rainbow" about how dairy farms operate, I had a good grip on it.
I was wrong.
I wasn't sure what I'd gotten myself into, but one thing was certain: I'll do it.
For about five hours on an early August morning I helped out at Kaehler Dairy on Armstrong Road. I drove a tractor, fed calves and, of course, milked cows. Christina Nicolini, a family member, served as my tour guide for the day and helped me feel like I belonged there.
The work never stops at Kaehler dairy. Weekends and holidays don't mean a thing to cows. They need to be fed, milked, attended to and cleaned up after. And the folks at Kaehler Dairy clearly care about the operation and its product.
The nursing pen
The day started with feeding of the calves. Despite having been born less than a month ago, these animals are already packing on pounds like Kirstie Alley after a breakup.
They haven't fully cut their teeth yet, so much of the protein in their diet comes from the three pints of milk they get in the morning and evening. My job was to place the bottles in the individual pens.
There are four wooden sheds to a row, and it almost looks like a miniature Shantytown when you are looking over all the corrugated metal roofs from above.
The creatures are naturally skittish. Maybe it's because I was a stranger — or they were simply following the pattern of other females on the planet — but the majority of them would back away or find a way to make my life difficult when I approached.
Older calves are fed a mixture of dried corn and Canola pellets.
I couldn't resist. I tried it. Sort of like Grape-Nuts, but better.
Refilling the waters is the most time-consuming job that comes with feeding the calves, and I'm positive I did nothing but get in the way of worker Jose Ramon, a freakishly powerful farmhand who was kind enough to let me tag along.
Although he didn't roll his eyes or indicate any irritation, it had to have been difficult for Ramon to watch a rookie take 20 minutes on a busy morning watering pens — a job he could've done in half the time.
Mountains of alfalfa
Nicolini and I climbed stacks of alfalfa as she instructed me on how to properly cut the twine so the bundles fall apart easily. Each alfalfa bale weighs upwards of 50 pounds and they are stacked about six high.
To cut the twine, Nicolini uses what basically amounts to a sickle that fits in the palm of her hand. We then would kick the separated bundles to the ground for collection and distribution.
When I carelessly tossed one segment of alfalfa to the side, it exploded and sent particles in the air; not a wise decision from someone who has aggressive seasonal allergies.
I also spent some time feeding the adult cows with Miguel Cacho. He was patient with me as I drove a tractor at glacial speeds that deposited alfalfa in front of the cows. Cacho is an excellent teacher, and thoughtful. Having spent many hot summers at the dairy, he knows how hot the leather seats on the farming equipment can get and places paper grocery bags over the seats of every vehicle he operates.
Machines do most of the work when it comes to milking, but there was still plenty for Nicolini and I to do. Prior to attaching the pumps, cows need to have their udders wiped with disinfectant and checked for any lesions that could indicate the cow could be sick.
Once hooked up to the milking machine, the cows do their thing. The soft hissing and clicking of the pumps combine with the mooing of the livestock to produce a symphony of jaw-dropping efficiency.
Each pump contains four suction units that attach to the cow. It felt like it has about the same suction power as a household vacuum cleaner.
The most impressive part: The pumps shut off automatically. When it senses the amount of milk flowing through the cow has slowed considerably, the milkers just fall off.
The industry has clearly come a long way from workers sitting on a tiny stool, stooped over and straining to get every last drop into a tin bucket.
It does a body good
Of course, the highlight of the day was tasting the end result. Nicolini led me into the room that is home to a large refrigerated container that houses the raw milk before it is shipped.
While the thought of drinking milk that hasn't been pasteurized or homogenized may gross out some, it's something I looked forward to the entire time I was out there.
The milk is kept at a frosty 38 degrees and has a light sweetness and mild earthy flavor. It's rich. It's creamy. I would've given body parts for some Oreos.
The protein and vitamins it contains helped me regain my strength to return to the office and finish my day.
And I needed it.
As I drove back to the newsroom, I reflected on the instructive nature of Nicolini, the patience of Ramon and Cacho. They did well to help me not feel like the fifth wheel I most assuredly was.
So the next time you swig a cold Lucerne chocolate milk or top your burger with the Safeway brand's cheddar cheese, realize there is a good chance the product originated at a family-owned dairy in Lodi.
A dairy where workers climb mountains of alfalfa, lug bags of feed around and attend to the well-being of their cows.
Just like it's been done for generations.
Got a suggested assignment for "I'll Do It?" Contact reporter Jordan Guinn at firstname.lastname@example.org.