Monday, June 24, 2024

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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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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“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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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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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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“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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“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’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’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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“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.