Credit: Shae Ashamalla

Senior Russell Sorbo was working 60-hour weeks at the milking unit by his sophomore year.

A mile northwest of campus, nestled between half a dozen agriculture fields, Russell Sorbo shuffled around in the dark.

It was 3:30 a.m., and Cal Poly’s milking parlor reeled of manure, hay and iodine cleaning solution. While the campus slept, Sorbo herded 250 cows into the parlor, ten at a time.

“Woah, woah, woah. Hey ladies, come on,” Sorbo told them.

For the past four years the dairy science senior, who will graduate on Sunday, has been part of Cal Poly’s 30-student team that milks the school’s cattle herd every morning and afternoon — 365 days a year.

No exceptions.

“You can’t turn off a cow,” Sorbo said. “I wish you could. ‘Cause a break would be nice once in a while.”

Dairy never stops, especially for the biggest student-run dairy farm in the country. Cal Poly produces around 62,000 gallons of cow’s milk each month, which they sell to local farms along with cheese and ice cream. Without students like Sorbo, none of it would happen.

Sorbo strolls down the parlor, 10 cows on either side of him, attaching every teat to rubber tubes that flow into a 3200-gallon metal tank. He has NASCAR pit crew speed; each udder hookup took him less than three seconds. Agricultural business freshman Amber Cummings, who Sorbo is training, does it in five.

The students and animals move to a playlist of Snoop Dogg, Mexican funk and mid-2000s hits that blend together with the noise of machinery. Digital lactometers measure milk by the gallon like gas station pumps.

A tray to Sorbo’s right holds all the essentials: dill pickle sunflower seeds for the students, rubber gloves and an ancient spray bottle with black goo labeled “hoof wart solution.” 

Cummings is having a messy shift. “I got shit in my mouth,” she grumbles.

“That’s initiation. Welcome to dairy,” Sorbo replies.

Usually, the morning shift marks the start of Sorbo’s 28-hour workday. He gets up at 3 a.m. to milk until 7 a.m. Then he has class from 9 to 4, works security at The Graduate bar for eight hours, then another 3-7 milking shift.

“Then I can take a nap.” 

This has been Sorbo’s routine, twice a week, for the past few years.

He doesn’t mind being up before the sun. He can’t sleep more than four hours a day, anyway.

Sorbo ran the morning shifts during San Luis Obispo’s January rainstorms. He didn’t have to evacuate the dairy cows, but it’s tough to herd and milk 250 of them sheltering in pens, frozen in fear.

“The thunder made it 10 times worse,” Sorbo said.

He stared up at the morning sky through the parlor’s open ceiling.

“I probably weighed an extra 35, 40 pounds from water weight. I had about a gallon of water in my boots.”

Sorbo prefers goat’s milk to cow’s milk. In seventh grade, one of Sorbo’s teachers, who owned goats themselves, inspired Sorbo to buy two — without the approval of his parents. Somehow, Sorbo convinced them to move from San Diego to a farm in nearby Ramona, CA. 

Sorbo was showing the goats around the country by his senior year. Now, the family has a 100-goat operation, using the milk in soaps and other products that they sell locally. 

“Once I’m home, I plan to make it a couple hundred-to-a-thousand-goat dairy,” Sorbo said. “That would make my life amazing.”

Though Sorbo spends hours a week with cows, he’s ready to be done with them. 

In 2018, Sorbo was leading a black steer out of a trailer at the San Diego County Fair when it started bucking. To protect a group of nearby children, Sorbo led the cow back into the trailer, where the animal trampled and dragged him.

The cow lacerated his liver and kidney and ripped apart nerves in his leg. Five years later, he still freezes up when he sees an all-black steer.

Over the first few months of his senior year, Sorbo slowly started learning how to walk normally again. But he only stayed in the hospital for a week — then it was back to work.

“I’m not a huge cow person,” Sorbo says, spraying wart solution on a hoof.

The milking unit manager, Jennifer De Vries, called Sorbo wise beyond his years — a fitting description for someone who was working 60-hour weeks in the dairy unit when he was a sophomore.

“He’s quite sarcastic, but at the end of the day he’s dependable and one of the most dedicated members of the team,” De Vries said.

On the morning of June 28, a few weeks after he graduates, the milking will end. Sorbo will clock out for the last time. But his work is far from over.

“I’ll rest when I retire,” he says, his eyes trained on udders, his brain dreaming of a rare six full hours of sleep sometime in the near future.

Still, the work was all worth it for him.

“I’m a guy that wants to wake up early, smell the beautiful air and then smell a large pile of manure,” Sorbo says. “That’s a good morning.”