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Duane Reum, 88, of Lansing, poses for a portrait at the end of his shift at at the Dairy Cattle and Research Center in Lansing on Sept. 28, 2023.

Ageless devotion: MSU’s 88-year-old cattle caretaker dedicates life to dairy

At 5:15 a.m., Duane Reum slides into his leather Red Wing boots and puts the keys to his 1972 International Harvester pickup truck in the ignition.

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Duane moves between barns during sunrise at the Dairy Cattle and Research Center in Lansing on Sept. 18, 2023.

The truck's vintage headlights shine his way as the tires rumble five minutes down the road and roll to a stop in the gravelly lot of the MSU Dairy Farm

Monday through Thursday, Reum clocks-in before 6 a.m. for his morning duties at the farm.

At 88 years old, with over 50 years of experience in dairy farming, Reum is among the oldest MSU employees, according to MSU Media and Public Information Communications Manager Mark Bullion

In 2019, a member of the Reum family forwarded a Facebook advertisement of an open position at the farm to Jen Reum, Duane’s daughter. Jen helped her father curate his first resume, complete the online application and helped prepare for his first job interview.

Duane was hired

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Duane Reum, 88, of Lansing, waits patiently for his turn to move cows through the milking station at the Dairy Cattle and Research Center in Lansing on Sept. 18, 2023.

“He never had a job where he had to clock in, so I wasn’t sure how it was going to go,” Jen said. “We were looking for something for him to do, and this just seemed like a perfect fit.”

Working as an animal and facilities caretaker, Duane helps with daily milking duties, mowing the vast lawns at the farm and general cleanliness of the barns.

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Duane Reum, 88, of Lansing, rearranges the cows’ grass along the barn to create a flat area at the Dairy Cattle and Research Center in Lansing on Sept. 18, 2023.

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Duane Reum, 88, of Lansing, drives passed cattle while performing cleaning duties at the Dairy Cattle and Research Center in Lansing on Sept. 28, 2023.

Four years later, Duane comes home from work eager to tell his daughter stories from the farm each day. While Jen doesn’t share the same passion for cows, she said it’s been a constant her whole life

“He just likes being around cows, I don’t know how to explain it,” she said. “I think he must have loved them a lot more than I did.”

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Duane Reum, 88, of Lansing, pets a cow after finishing his shift at the Dairy Cattle and Research Center in Lansing on Sept. 28, 2023. Each of the cows at the dairy farm have a designated name and number when they are born, allowing the workers at the farm keep track of which cattle has been milked and return them to their designated stations. Because Reum is with them most mornings from when they are calfs to adult cows, he can identify the cows based off of that identification or from his understandings of their personalities. “She remembered me from being a calf,” he said when one cow stuck their head out to be pet by him.

In 1939, at the age of four, Duane met a cow for the first time while helping his neighbors with chores. The friendly, spotted animals left an impression on him.

While the Reum family and his Grandpa Roscoe’s legacy was filled with many farmers, Duane and his father became the first members of their lineage to work with dairy after seeing their neighbor's success. In 1951, they began milking cows on farm shares, where farm owners rented land for the Reum family to use.

In 1954, Reum attended Michigan State University for a degree in dairy production with the mission of running his own farm. In 1960, that dream became a reality

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Duane Reum, 88, of Lansing, holds a photograph of his graduation class from MSU at the Dairy Cattle and Research Center in Lansing on Sept. 18, 2023. After helping his father manage a dairy farm for three years, Reum went to MSU with the intent of running his own farm. He didn’t agree, however, with one of the professors course instructions. “I see you've never been in a diary farm,” Reum said about him. Knowing that his real life experience was more valuable, “I swore I wouldn't go back to the class,” he said. 1960 was his first year managing his own dairy farm.

“I can't explain why I like cows; I just like being around them,” Duane said. “I mean it's kind of like dogs, you know. Some people get along with dogs. I like cows.”

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That love shines through Duane as he weaves through the barn to lead the movements of over 200 cows. His gruff and skilled hands curl around the intricate metal fence structures that control the cows’ course to the milking station. He knows the familiar hum of a cow in heat, needing to be milked, the moo of a cow “angry” with him and the longing look of a cow wanting to be pet

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Duane Reum, 88, of Lansing, unlocks a gate for cattle to move through the barns to get to the milking stations at the Dairy Cattle and Research Center in Lansing on Sept. 18, 2023.

“I can walk down the barn and see the cows, and if they stick their chin out, they want attention,” he said. “I’ll stop and I’ll rub them, and nobody else in that barn that works there does that. It’s just my behavior.” 

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Duane Reum, 88, of Lansing, places his hand on a cows nose after clipping it into its designated area at the Dairy Cattle and Research Center in Lansing on Sept. 18, 2023.

Duane’s commitment to the cows extend beyond his occupation. His whole life he has only ever drank milk and water

“I never touched an alcohol beverage,” Duane said. “Milk and water is all I ever drank. When we quit milking cows, I don't like the taste of bought milk either.”

His age doesn’t deter him from quality work at the farm. In fact, when Reum clocks in, it provides a sense of relief, Hannah Sheathelm, his coworker said

“I would choose working on moving cows with Duane over a lot of other people,” she said. “I’m amazed by that man every day.” 

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Duane Reum, 88, of Lansing, laughs with his coworker Randy Bontrager at the end of his shift at the Dairy Cattle and Research Center in Lansing on Sept. 28, 2023. While Bontrager eats during his lunch break at 11:30 a.m., Reum is ready to head home after his morning shift at the farm.
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Duane Reum, 88, of Lansing, talks with his coworker Fermin Jimenz-Krasselat at the Dairy Cattle and Research Center in Lansing on Sept. 18, 2023. Jimenz-Krasselat is a herdsman at the Dairy Cattle and Research Center and Reum helps him make sure things run efficiently at the milking stations during the morning shift.

Duane’s presence at the farm is invaluable, Jim Good, the dairy cattle farm manager said

“Duane gets benefit out of the job and we get benefit out of Duane, more so than just his physical duties that he performs,” Good said. “I think there’s a lot of value in having him here.”

From living through times like World War II to surviving the West Nile virus, Duane is a living history book. His work ethic is unmatched and that is something that other workers can benefit from, Good said.

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The work log of Duane Reum, 88, of Lansing, from two days of working in the morning at the Dairy Cattle and Research Center in Lansing on Sept. 28, 2023. Reum said he typically underestimates his hours because he doesn’t want to be restricted. Under Reum’s title, he is allowed to work 1039 hours per year at the farm. In 2022, Reum had to take two months off because he worked too many hours at the farm.

“Duane is no stranger to hard work,” Good said. “He is special, and it’s good for all of us to have him here.” 

Duane has no plans of leaving anytime soon, he said

“To me, I never looked at it as a job,” Reum said. “All I ever wanted to do was farm and milk cows.”

“To me, I never looked at it as a job,” Duane said. “All I ever wanted to do was farm and milk cows.”

Through the childhood nostalgia of farming or the company of the gentle cows, Duane’s love for dairy hasn’t dwindled in his 70 years of working, and the farm loves him right back.