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Milk Hauler Finds a Balance with Job, Family

by Carolina Keegan

Published: Friday, May 26, 2023

A Mile in His Shoes

A passion for trucks and agriculture drove Adam Bailer, 44, of Hudson into the milk hauling business.

For the final article in this series, I decided to focus on someone in the dairy industry in celebration of June Dairy Month. So, I paired up with a milk hauler to find out more about the care that goes into milk transfers. Here is what I learned after walking a mile in his shoes:

Bailer's workday begins about 11 hours after the last milk haul. I met him at Prairie Farms in Fort Wayne at 6:30 a.m. on May 10 to unload the previous night's load, which was picked up at 9 p.m. He drove in through the weigh station and backed his truck into the delivery dock.

Before unloading, Bailer submits two milk tests and the receiver, who confirms the safety of the milk, takes his own. Once the milk was approved, Bailer coupled a hose to the tank of his truck and let the liquid flow.

After about 30 minutes, the tanker was unloaded and we hopped in the truck. Bailer drove around to the weigh station once again and got his outgoing weight, then we were on the road.

Generally, Bailer picks up two loads of milk per day, one in the morning and one at night, but at least once a week he picks up a third load from the farm.

"I only haul Irish Acres Dairy and I'm not in a rotation of having a relief driver, so I work seven days a week," Bailer said.

Because he picks up the milk every 11 hours, only hauling for one farm allows him plenty of time for family. And with four children and five grandchildren, this is one of his top priorities.

"Looking at that schedule, it may not look like there's a lot of freedom, but it really feels like I do," he said. "I know people would think it's strange, but I do get some short days. And just because the tank at the farm is ready at 5 p.m. doesn't mean I have to be there at 5 p.m."

He compared hauling milk to running a dairy farm.

"I've met a couple different farmers over the years who say the only thing worse than milking cows is hauling it," he said.

The jobs are similar in their nature, he explained. The work simply needs to be done every day.

"It's something you just have to really like, I think," Bailer said. "I like the routine of it, getting up every day and being productive."

Although the schedule is demanding compared to other things, Bailer says it doesn't bother him. In fact, if he isn't working, he starts to get an itch for it.

"If I go on vacation, by day three I kind of miss the truck and getting up first thing in the morning and hitting the road. I think that's just a product of liking the job."

Bailer has always been involved in trucking. And he always knew he would be. In kindergarten, when asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, he always said race car driver. When his teacher finally coaxed out a different answer, he chose truck driving as his alternative.

Before he began hauling milk, he drove for a steel company, but that wasn't as enjoyable for him.

"Then in 2005 a guy called me and offered me a job out of the blue. I've been here ever since," he said.

Bailer did not grow up on a farm, but he had lots of friends who did, and this connected him to the dairy industry. In his teenage years, he spent a lot of time on farms and even worked on some. Eventually the agricultural influence took root, and he bought some land in the country and began renting out some farmland.

When the call came from Graft Milk Transport LLC, Bailer was able to connect his two passions for driving and agriculture.

His first day on the job was easy compared to what he had been doing prior to that, he said.

"I had a pretty good idea of what I was getting into. I'd been around milk hauling before," he added, explaining that some of his family members used to haul.

Bailer mostly delivers to Prairie Farms in Fort Wayne and Anderson, but sometimes he drives to Battle Creek, too. In one month, he delivers 3.5 million pounds of milk from Irish Acres Dairy in Butler by himself. And he enjoys that route.

"Being an introvert, I don't have to be around a lot of people," he said.

And Bailer doesn't have too much interaction with his bosses at Graft, so it doesn't feel like he's under a lot of pressure.

One of the greatest challenges of milk hauling is inclement weather. Whenever there is low visibility on the road or strong crosswinds, Bailer's job becomes more complicated.

"We can't always wait out a storm in the winter," he said. "In extended periods of bad weather, we just have to go."

Bitter cold and heavy snow account for the worst days because it not only makes driving difficult, but the cold will affect the milk and cause difficulties in loading and unloading it.

Semi-trucks can also get uncomfortable in the summer, even with air conditioning. The cab sits right on top of the car-sized engine with only the aluminum floor to filter the heat radiating off of it. So, after the temperature reaches 65 degrees F, "the cab turns into an oven," according to Bailer.

"This is the thing most milk haulers will tell you is the worst: the wait time at the receiving plants," Bailer said. "This is by far the worst part because it can be really bad sometimes. Sometimes plants have breakdowns, but there are all different reasons."

In the 20 years he has been involved in trucking, Bailer says he has noticed higher turnover rates and fewer truck drivers interested in getting a license to be able to haul.

To get involved in milk hauling, truckers have to take a test for the sampler's license, which proves they can identify things that would make the milk unacceptable and that they know the proper procedures for collecting and delivering the product.

When we arrived at Irish Acres Dairy, Bailer began moving quickly to get the milk into his truck's tank. Immediately, he went into the storeroom and activated the milk agitation to make sure the liquid wasn't separated. Then, during the 10 minutes this took, he began preparing the wash fluid for when the tank was empty. After the milk was sufficiently agitated, he climbed up to take two samples and a test.

The test evaluates butterfat and milk content, and identifies any bacteria, antibiotics or somatic cells, which indicates an infection in the cows. This determines the quality of the product, which, in turn, determines the price the farmer will get. Bailer put the milk into a small plastic device with a thumb tab to test it. When the milk settled, he pushed the thumb tab down, which causes two green lights to shine, based on the antibiotic content of the milk. If it contains antibiotics, one light will shine darker than the other.

"We check for antibiotics and bacteria here and at the receiving plants," Bailer said as we waited for the milk to move from the holding tank to the transfer tank.

Seals offer another form of protection. Colored zip ties are used to seal the tank in two locations.

"If you show up with a broken or missing seal, then that load gets rejected," Bailer said. "It can be a real bummer in the winter when it's really cold. Ice can cause breaks."

The truck tank is also washed between receiving plants and also at the end of each day to ensure biosecurity.

"Part of my job is inspecting the tanks (on the farm) to be sure they're cleaning properly. Every time you empty them, you wash them. The longest milk ever sits in a tank on the farm is about 13 hours," Bailer said.

"As long as cooling systems and wash systems work properly, biosecurity isn't really much of an issue," he added.

After the milk was transferred from the farm's tank to Bailer's truck, which took about 40 minutes, he flushed out the farm tank and the connecting hose using the cleaning solution. In total, it takes Bailer 10 minutes to prepare the milk for his truck, 40 minutes to transfer it and 10 minutes to clean up.

He took a couple minutes to show me the basement under the tanks where the milk comes straight down the line from the milkers. It is then pumped into a tank in the parlor that filters the milk into a cooling panel, from where it is pumped into the holding tanks.

Milk temperature has to be at a minimum of 44 degrees in Indiana, but Prairie Farms dictates a minimum of 40 degrees.

Bailer's truck has a holding capacity of 65,000 pounds of milk, but the maximum limit for Prairie Farms is 48,000 pounds, so he's never in danger of overfilling. Driving with so many pounds of milk just behind the cab is an interesting experience, especially on a bumpy road. If the milk sloshes forward, the driver feels it right away.

"One time I took my son with me and the road was rough, The milk started rolling around a bunch and hit the front. His eyes got really big," Bailer said while gesturing to show how big his son's eyes got and laughing. "He didn't know what was going on. He thought we'd been in an accident."

Some hazards of the job include moving up and down the tank ladders, driving conditions and long-term health risks, such as arthritis.

The two minutes it took to observe this process cost Bailer an hour and a half at the receiving plant. When we got back to Prairie Farms, another truck pulled in just in front of us, meaning we would have to wait to unload. When unloading for the day, it takes approximately one hour to unload and wash in addition to the time it takes the receivers to take their tests.

But this setback was minor compared to others Bailer has encountered.

"Receivers have a lot to do with how our days are," he said as he explained that not all receivers value milk haulers' time.

Luckily, he said, the Prairie Farms crew in Fort Wayne are among the best he has worked with.

While we waited for the milk to unload at Prairie Farms, I asked Bailer to explain what the certification tests were like for milk haulers. The tests contain questions about procedure and product handling ethics.

If the milk temperature is too high, smells like onions, contains antibiotics or if it contains foreign debris of any kind, the milk is dumped.

But the hardest part of the job is managing boredom, Bailer said. He described it as a job where employees "hurry up and wait." To occupy himself, Bailer listens to a variety of podcasts and audible YouTube videos.

In his free time, Bailer spends time with his kids and grandkids, plays softball, hunts, fishes and at one point in time was involved in racing and coaching baseball.

For the most part, though, Bailer just likes to drive his truck and connect with farmers and other milk haulers.

"This is one of those jobs where as long as you are physically able, you can do it forever," he said.

And he plans to do just that.

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