Getting to Know Your Dairyman

In nearly every posting I harp on the importance of verifying your farmer with your own eyes and nose.  Go visit your farmer.  If your farmer hasn’t invited you to his/her farm by the third conversation, find a new farmer.

We buy raw milk from Steve Mansfield of Roodhouse, IL.  I have inspected, and continue to inspect, his facilities, pastures and herd.  I trust that he is more concerned with my welfare than with his own wallet.  In fact, I am reasonably certain that he prioritizes his wallet somewhere behind God, family, community and the ecology…though that list may not be in sequence.  He is thoughtful, generous, educated, inquisitive and experienced…things you should look for when interviewing your prospective dairy farmer.  I believe raw milk is good but not all raw milk is equal.  You, the consumer, need to make sure your farmer has clean, slick, fat, healthy animals.  Make sure his dairy is nearly spotless because there is no inspection service here.  You are electing to be the inspector.  You need to be an educated inspector.  This PDF will give you a fair start.

Back to my farmer.  Steve has lived here his whole life.  He owns 140 acres across the road from his mother’s farm.  Steve keeps a full-time job in town and, as a consequence, farms at a much smaller scale than he would like to.  Steve keeps a beautiful herd of Jersey cows (mine are from his herd), raises a flock of layers (he bought from me), keeps a few pigs (he bought from Mike Butcher) and puts in a large garden in addition to his small orchard and keeps a collection of orchids in his solarium.  Yeah.  So where most “farmers” deal in commodities and buy food at the grocery store, Steve and his wife Cindy deal in finished product and shop down the hill from their house.  These are real farmers.

Steve has been dairying for 20 years, initially selling to the creamery in a nearby town, later scaling back and selling directly to consumers.  He currently milks 7 cows in a Grade-A milking parlor.

I asked him a few questions.  Well, I asked him a lot of questions while we were hauling pigs, hauling cows and holding his grandson Saturday morning.  I’m able to quote him most of the time but sometimes it’s just my memory of our conversation.

The Farm

Are you doing anything unusual…even among grazers?
Steve laughed when I asked this then offered a list.  I am under the impression that these are the main points, not an exhaustive list.  He “keeps the calves on the cows, milks once/day, gives no grain to his cows, the cows are on pasture for 20-22 hours each day and he doesn’t milk his cows out so there is plenty remaining for the calves.”  If you have been raised around dairy at all you know this is all just crazy talk.

If you haven’t been raised around modern dairy, watch the video below.  I could dedicate an entire series of posts to the video.  Instead, as you watch the video try to calculate how much fuel is used to feed the cows and handle their manure.  Just try.  Ask yourself if it is more sustainable to bring the feed to the cows or to take the cows to the feed.  Try not to think that their cows don’t get to lounge in the grass, how short their productive lives are or of the environmental impact of that slurry pond overflowing during a heavy rain.  In fact, you might feel better if you just skip the video.

How do you maintain your pastures?  
Steve says he renovates his pastures every 5-8 years to beat back the fescue.  Our fescue is infected with an endophyte and rather than bore you with details I’ll just say it lowers feed intake and milk production.  To fight this Steve tears up pasture and seeds a mix of either clover and perennial rye or alfalfa, timothy grass and orchard grass.

Give me a rundown of the typical day in the life of your cow.
“The cows walk to the barn from as far as 1/4 mile away.

“They then stand outside of the barn hollering for their calves until I get them into the barn to milk at 7:30.

“Then the cows rejoin their calves who enjoy breakfast and lick the udders clean.  This is a boost for udder health and prevents me from spending my morning doing calf chores.

“The calves are then separated into a pasture of their own where they spend the day grazing.

The cows head back to the pasture and get down to business mowing the grass.”

What do most dairies do with calves?
“Most dairy heifer calves in the US are taken from the cow, fed milk-replacer and are kept in calf huts individually.  Once weaned they will follow a grow-out program then will be added to the dry-cow herd, most likely in a free-stall barn so they have room to roam, lay down and eat at the trough.  The bull calves are treated similarly but are shipped as early as possible to be fattened for beef.”

Here’s an overview of the very efficient, possibly immoral process courtesy of the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension…Wisconsin tax dollars at work.

Raw Milk

The May 2012 issue of Graze published several articles emphasizing the need for producers to educate consumers about the risks involved with raw milk and the need for consumers to evaluate the farm that supplies your milk.  The risks vary from a number of possible diseases to our own weakened immune system and a need for our bodies to adjust before we can digest real, living milk.

Do you feel your average customer understands what raw milk is?
“Most of our customers find us through the Weston A. Price Foundation or through Real Milk.  As a result they are well informed before they find us.”

How are the risks of drinking raw milk different than the risks of consuming any other type of raw food?
“Well, there has been e coli found in Spinach so really it just comes down to evaluating the source of the food.”

…and later, “Johne’s Disease affects 70% of the dairy herd in the US.  Confinement dairies don’t notice it because they burn out their cows in 2-3 years and it affects older cows.  Pasturization doesn’t necessarily kill the organism that causes Johne’s disease and there have been links between Johne’s and Crohn’s in humans.”  Steve runs his cows for up to 14 years, a good indication that his cows are disease free.  He has tested in the past and it has always come back negative.  Don’t be afraid to ask your dairy farmer.  It’s pronounced “Yoh-knees”.

How do you help educate your customers?
“We just talk about food with them.  Most customers are well aware that this is a different liquid than the stuff at the store.  It’s just not a big deal.”

We are very happy with our dairy farmer.  I hope you can find a similar farmer to build a relationship with.  Steve isn’t just some guy I buy milk from.  I count on him to enhance my family’s health and pay him a premium price for that care.  Food isn’t just something you stuff in your face at intervals.  We need to learn to look at it as medicine.  Find a source of medicine you trust with your life.

Before you charge off to find a source of raw milk, take some time to educate yourself on the potential risks.  The organizations I listed above are a great place to jump in.  I also recommend this link.  There are numerous CDC and USDA reports that indicate that raw milk is anywhere from slightly to significanly more dangerous to your health than pasteurized milk.  I believe the real danger is not the lack of pasteurization, it’s the lack of farmer accountability.  Weather you are buying meat, milk or spinach, get to know your farmer.