The constellation Orion is bright in the southern sky as Keith Atwood pulls a tanker truck up to the dairy barn at Albion Ridge Hutterite Colony near Picture Butte, Alta.
At 5:30 a.m., he has one of the later starting shifts that today will collect milk from nine southern Alberta dairies.
Atwood has already prepared the first pages of myriad paperwork required to track milk amount, quality, location, collection and delivery.
There are no lights, no people and no cows in sight at Albion Ridge, though smells reveal the cows are standing somewhere nearby, chewing their cuds in the dark.
The colony has yet to come awake for the day. Atwood unwinds the milk collection hose, plugs it into an electrical outlet and prepares to start pumping from an 11,000-litre tank in the colony’s immaculate dairy anteroom.
Outside, the behemoth 39-foot trailer and new Peterbilt tractor are lit by moonlight, their motors rumbling smoothly.
Inside, Atwood tests the level in the tank, calculates the number of litres, agitates the contents and takes a milk sample. He carefully hoses off mud tracked into the room from the puddle-pocked yard.
He is methodical. With two and half years of hauling milk for D & B Leslie Trucking and another 18 years of long haul trucking with other companies, he’s comfortable driving the back roads and carrying milk from dairies to Alberta Milk customers.
He loves his job.
“I’ve spent too many years sleeping in a sleeper,” he says, indicating the bunk in his truck. “This way, I get to sleep in my own bed every night.”
Atwood is the swing driver for D & B’s three milk trucks in the Lethbridge area, sharing shifts with two other drivers. The firm has 12 trucks running in Alberta and is one of several milk truck firms operating in the south.
Truckers for firms contracted by Alberta Milk travel almost seven million kilometres per year. The 56 milk tankers plying the province’s highways and byways collect and deliver 677.6 million litres of milk every year.
Mike Southwood, general manager for Alberta Milk, says the bulk haulers are crucial links in the supply chain.
“Producers don’t get (the milk) off their farm without those people,” he said.
“More importantly, because that’s their livelihood, is getting that milk from their bulk tank to the right processor.”
However, the drivers’ most important job isn’t driving at all. Instead, it’s the role they play in milk sampling and grading.
“We see them as bulk milk graders first and foremost and then milk truck haulers second.”
Back at the dairy farm, the pump emits a signature rumble that indicates the tank is dry. Atwood winds up the hose and electrical cord and stows the milk sample in a cooler. It will later be sent to the central milk testing lab in Edmonton, which will examine each sample for quality as well as butterfat and protein content.
Producers are paid based on the milk’s components, so proper sampling and sample integrity are crucial.
Atwood climbs back into the truck cab, but only after first removing his boots. The truck is new and the cleanliness expectations for anything to do with milk are high.
Atwood and his milk truck brethren are more than truck drivers with the requisite Class 1 licences. They also carry provincially regulated bulk milk grader licences, obtained after they pass a written test, barn test and on-the-job training.
The milk haulers are thus authorized to sample milk at each dairy and ensure it meets specifications for temperature, smell and visual cleanliness. They can reject milk if they find it wanting.
“If somebody screws up, somebody’s got to pay for that milk,” says Atwood matter-of-factly.
Milk from several dairies is combined in the tanker, which has only two compartments. If a milk sample tests positive for antibiotics or high bacteria count, the owner of the dairy will have to pay for the entire portion of the load.
Five hundred litres of milk can be worth $4,000. This isn’t a business of small change.
Atwood guides the truck back onto the gravel road en route to the next dairy on his schedule. Milk must be picked up from each dairy, by law, every second day.
That’s why milk trucks run in all kinds of weather.
“We don’t figure out if we’re going to go. We figure out how we’re going to go,” says Atwood about winter driving.
He recalls blizzards in which his boss, Doug Leslie, has driven his pick-up truck ahead of the milk trucks in his fleet to guide them down nearly invisible, snow-covered roads.
Asked about this later, Leslie says he has a good network of farmers who will plow roads to ensure the trucks get through. Some of them aren’t even his dairy customers but instead operate feedlots in this area of Alberta known as feedlot alley.
Roads to farms are low priority for county snowplows, so those involved in milk transport must make their own way to keep the moo juice flowing.
“When conditions are really bad, you can plow everything and open everything up and within an hour it’s all closed in again,” says Leslie.
“Some of these back roads, it’s not uncommon to have six- or seven-foot drifts.”
On the bright side, Atwood says he never has to go through a weigh scale on his run and milk trucks are seldom, if ever, checked when Alberta Transportation sets up portable scales to check trucks. They also get a break on road bans because the milk has to be moved.
Atwood sips from a “go” mug as he shifts the gears that bring the Peterbilt up to speed.
“I haven’t drunk a glass of milk in 10 years,” he says in answer to a query.
“It’s something about the texture. I don’t like the way it feels in my mouth.”
He is, however, a big fan of cheese and yogurt.
At the next stop, Vanden Dool Farms, milking is already done for the morning, though its barely after 6. A blaring radio and the sound of whistling and wash water greet Atwood as he goes through the routine of collecting milk from another large, shiny tank.
This time he loads up the two-day production of 175 cows, which is more than 10,000 litres. A glance into the milking parlour shows freshly scrubbed apparatus. Again, there are no cows to be seen.
Next stop, Favour Holsteins.
“This is one of the nicest farms I go to,” says Atwood. “Always nice and clean.”
A dog wearing a cone, obviously skittish from recent misfortune, eyes visitors warily outside the dairy. Inside, Eric Vander Veen says a quick hello before continuing his chores.
The truck leaves the farm with another 8,753 litres. The push of the liquid can be felt as the truck slows to a halt at rural stop signs.
Atwood comments on the ubiquitous farm dog phenomenon. He says another driver carries dog treats in his pocket for the many farm dogs he encounters.
However, Atwood muses that the dogs are always disappointed when he shows up without treats.
“Oh well,” he shrugs.
It’s kittens we encounter at the Zmurchyk Dairy. They’re playing around the feet of Terry Cunningham, who is here to calibrate the dairy’s new milk tank.
Cunningham operates International Dairy Calibrations. He takes exacting measurements of the tank and creates a chart that correlates markings on the tank dipstick with the volume inside.
Milk tanks are like people, he explains. Over time, they get fatter in the middle and their volumes change.
It will take Cunningham about four hours to calibrate this tank. All dairy tanks must be calibrated every five years, he says.
Atwood loads 1,300 litres, the production of about 40 cows.
En route to the first milk drop-off of the day, at the Sunnyrose cheese plant in Diamond City, Alta., Atwood talks about the variety of dairy farms he sees.
He likens them to city garages seen from back alleys, ranging from tidy to haphazard.
“Over time, you see the ones that are more conscientious, just by the way they treat their farms,” he says. “The best ones seem to be multi-generational.”
The cheese plant, operated by Quebec-based Agropur, refuses entry to a visitor. A reporter with a camera is not welcome despite explanations about a story focus on dairy trucking rather than cheese making.
Three milk truck drivers, who are standing outside, where they will wait several hours to unload in the plant’s single delivery bay, are amused but unsurprised by the ban.
They tell tales of regulations on hair nets, beard nets, earrings and safety glasses that seem to change daily and are inconsistently applied.
Beneath their criticism lies frustration at the waiting times at this plant, which takes about a quarter million litres of milk daily since it underwent a major expansion several years ago.
Two trucks operated by L.J. Mullen sit in a row behind a D & B Leslie truck, while a fourth one unloads. Each truck takes more than an hour to unload and clean its tank before moving onto other dairy pick-ups.
By late morning, things are buzzing at the Gerlen dairy. Someone is feeding cattle, someone is delivering dairy supplies and a friendly, fluffy dog supervises the whole thing.
With another 6,870 litres aboard, Atwood moves onto Woolywind Dairies, where employees for owner Bernie Vander Wekken milk 57 cows.
It’s a tight little yard with puddles that show every sign of being a major challenge for a large truck to negotiate, especially when forecasted snowfall arrives.
Inside, Jared Timmerman is busy preparing a foot bath for the cows, which they’ll walk through to preserve foot health once they leave the milking parlour.
Atwood loads 3,397 litres. The milk hose gets muddy from sitting in a puddle between truck and doorway. He isn’t pleased. He wonders aloud about the absence of gravel.
Over at Marylander Holsteins, Tim Hummel is taking best advantage of the annual Take Your Kid to Work Day by getting several youths to hammer plywood back onto the walls of the milking parlour.
The cows started eating the batting insulation, Hummel says, so he ripped out the rest and got new spray-on insulation today. It’s just before a storm is expected and he is happy the work will be done ahead of it.
While checking previous pick-up amounts at Marylander, Atwood spots a major difference in today’s milk total versus that of two days ago. He asks Hummel about it, to ensure nothing is amiss.
It turns out to be a result of the recent change to daylight savings time. One hour can make a difference when it comes to milking cows. So another 4,578 litres go on the truck.
At the Peter Klok dairy, Atwood talks about the camaraderie shared by milk truck drivers.
“We’re kind of a fraternity,” he says. “It’s different from just being a truck driver. We are held to a higher standard.”
Shabby clothes are frowned upon, as is unkempt or overly long hair. Trucks and trailers are subject to random surprise inspections by provincial government regulators, including the interior cabs.
Most milk truck drivers have many years of experience. Atwood admits the job isn’t difficult, except when it is.
“Well, 345 days of the year, experience doesn’t matter. The other 20 days, with rain, snow, drifts and whatever, that’s where the experience comes in.”
Another 5,595 litres are collected and the truck heads to the last pickup of the day, at Jim Vandenburgh’s operation, J & N Dairy.
A barn cat crouches under the milk tank, waiting for the gush of milk that escapes when the hose is detached.
Atwood wonders about a much more friendly cat that used to frequent the place.
“Maybe he got friendly with the wrong person,” he says, as he loads up 4,988 litres.
The cat gets its small portion, too.
Back at Sunnyrose for unloading, plant managers will still not yield entry to a visitor, who must wait outside while flakes of snow twirl on a chill wind.
Milk trucker Galen Bourgoin offers his truck cab as a warm refuge. He too likes his work and tells stories of snowstorms, grandchildren and fishing in his native Quebec.
Atwood and his truck eventually emerge from the unloading bay. He’s nearing the end of his shift now and is headed back to home base.
He fills out the final paperwork. Tomorrow, he plans to start earlier because roads will be bad if the snowstorm forecast is true. A 5:30 start might not allow him to reach all farms on schedule.
He turns off the key in the Peterbilt and the engine rumbles to a halt.
It’s 11 hours and about 45,000 litres of milk later — another day on the milk run.