Why the heck would anyone want a milk cow? Milk her twice a day, feed her twice a day, provide fresh bedding, move her manure, feed her calf? Tend to every need of a massive living animal every single day without fail? And in exchange you get milk? I can’t even drink that stuff – I should trade all that time and work for a rumbly and gassy stomach!?
Well, no. You shouldn’t. And I wouldn’t either. For most of my life, I too thought that a milk cow was the dumbest of ideas. New facts from reading a pile of books, buying a cow, milking her and drinking the milk have persuaded me to change my position.
The milk cow, at her best, is the center of every aspect of the farm – daily fresh food for the farm family, food for the community, cash from the community, calves for more milk or meat, value-adding to marginal pasture land, beneficial microbes for immunity and gut health, fertility for the pastures, fertility for the garden. At her best, she gives way more than she gets.
First, the work: Like any animal, she needs (in order of increasing importance): shelter, food and water. Cows are big, so they need substantial amounts of shelter, food and water, compared to the negligible requirements of say a pig or a few chickens. Our shelter is a repurposed 8’ x 16’ corn crib, we have many acres of pasture and we also feed purchased hay to get her the 30-50 pounds of dry matter she eats every day, and we have water hydrants at several points throughout the farm to provide her the 10-20 gallons of water she drinks every day. We want to keep her clean, so we provide bedding in her shelter – purchased stemmy hay or chopped cattails. She poops, so we clean up the manure with a pitchfork and throw the soiled bedding and manure into a pile to later move with the tractor. She needs attention, so we talk nice to her and groom her with a brush. She needs to be milked, so we milk her once a day, by hand, into stainless steel buckets. Then we filter, bottle and refrigerate this fresh milk. Right now, 7 days after calving, she is producing about 3 gallons per day. She just calved, and we separated mama and calf, so we also need to take care of the calf. We feed him twice a day from a bottle, 2-3 quarts per feeding, keep his bedding clean, talk nice to him and rub his back. All-in, this is about 80 or 90 minutes of work, most of that time milking. Milking will get faster as my hands get stronger (such a soft city boy), as her teats get bigger and the post-calving udder swelling goes down, and it will go considerably faster if we ever choose to go the route of machine milking. But it will still be a good hour of work every day. 2 cows would not be 2 hours of work, and 3 cows would not be 3 hours of work – there would be some economy of scale in reducing the work time per cow or per gallon of milk. But, right now, we have one cow – the family milk cow – and she requires 80 or 90 minutes of attention every day.
Now, the idea: Until a couple years ago, I never would have considered putting this time and commitment into a stupid milk cow. I didn’t even drink milk. Couldn’t. Just a few ounces of grocery store milk or ice cream was a guaranteed rumbly stomach, gas and loose stool. Too much information? Probably not, because you know exactly what I’m talking about. Something like 80% of adults have this same reaction to grocery store milk.
I figured that adults just weren’t meant to drink cow’s milk. That probably kids weren’t even meant to drink cow’s milk. But, returning from Colorado to live in Wisconsin again, something didn’t jive. What were all these barns for? Drive 10 miles through any part of the southern half of Wisconsin and you will pass at least a dozen bank barns built near the beginning of the 20th century. These barns were all built to house dairy cows and, up until the 1970s or so, they were full of cows and operating as independent dairies. Why did everyone have dairy cows? Why were there so many family farms? If milk, as I had learned, is inflammatory and difficult to digest and cows are a plague upon the earth and a burden upon the dairyman, than why were there literally tens-of-thousands of family farms in Wisconsin that kept, bred, fed, milked, sold and drank from dairy cows? And why have people been keeping cows for thousands of years in Western Europe? And why were cows brought on the first ships to come to America? Clearly the cow and her milk must have been a valuable commodity for the farmer and for the community, given greater value than today. What has changed? Maybe 80% of adult’s haven’t always been lactose intolerant?
I started reading the books – The Independent Farmstead, Keeping A Family Cow, Farmacology, Dirt to Soil… Maybe we had been mislead. Or we have just forgotten. Maybe some of both. It turns out, at least the books were saying, that milk IS a valuable food product – maybe the most valuable of them all. That the cow is not a blight upon the land. That properly managed, the family cow, or the small dairy herd, is maybe the most sustainable and regenerative, nourishing, profitable and independent of all farm enterprises. So the books said.
The books also said that the reason that I, and 80% of other adults of European descent, couldn’t comfortably digest milk is not because milk’s inherent properties, and not because we are lactose intolerant, but because of the way the milk is processed – namely, pasteurization and homogenization. Pasteurization, I learned in third-grade, was the miracle discovery that made milk fit to drink. Third-grade taught me that it was dangerous to drink milk without first pasteurizing it, and that countless millions of babies and even adults had been saved from disease and death through the taming of raw living milk into sterile pasteurized milk. Homogenization wasn’t touched on in third-grade, or really ever explained to me. But my new books explained that homogenization is the un-separating of the milk and the cream, and that it is accomplished by forcing the milk through a small opening under intense pressure. This high pressure breaks the fat globules into particles so small that, instead of the cream floating to the top, the cream (fat particles) stay in suspension. This homogenized milk looks nicer, apparently, than allowing the cream to rise to the top of the bottle. The books said that these two processes were maybe not the miracles that we learned in third grade. The books said that sterilizing the milk via pasteurization actually took away most of the wonderful properties of the milk, because the sterilization killed the beneficial microbes that protect the milk from pathogens, altered the shape of the proteins so that they are less useful to humans (or to a calf), destroyed the enzymes that we (and calves) rely on to make the myriad nutrients bioavailable, and destroyed the enzymes that are meant to make the milk easily digestible – thus the gas and rumbly tummy almost everyone experiences from processed milk. And the books said that homogenization was not a harmless improvement to the appearance of milk, but that it made the fat globules so small that it caused gastric distress. Contrary to processed milk, the books said that fresh, raw milk from your family cow is the most nourishing and healing of food products and that it has been safely consumed and locally distributed for millennia.
I believed it. I believed it so much that I bought a cow. And then another one, when that first one didn’t work out. I bought hay, and milking buckets and jars and funnels. I planted pasture. I read more books. I built a shelter, and a milking stall. I tended to our heifer daily, waiting for the day that she would calve and that milking would commence.
This was a lot of confidence, considering I had never drunk raw milk. Neither had Andrea. This would be a lot of hassle, expense, sunk cost of labor and life energy and money, if the books were wrong, if I had been reading the wrong books and I should just believe everything I learned in third-grade.
So far, my experience matches the promises of the books. We are a week into milking. Every day I squeeze her teats until her udder is empty and I have around 3 gallons of milk and cream in the bucket. Of this, the calf gets a 1 or 1-½ gallons. And I drink at least a quart a day. Today I drank a half gallon. Raw, fresh milk. And I have no gastric distress. If anything, less than usual. No acne, no rash, no achy muscles, no ailment at all.
Some people might think I’ll get what’s coming to me for drinking all that dangerous raw milk. Maybe. But first, before you cast judgement with great certainty, read a book from someone that has nothing to gain (financially) from their thesis. There is a lot of money tied up in the production, processing, distribution and sales of processed (pasteurized and homogenized) milk. Maybe some people or organizations have financial motivations, conscious or not, for their position on the vital importance of pasteurization. You’ll have to decide for yourself what to think.
The milk cow is the miracle of this farm. She converts grass into milk. Grass – the easiest and most abundant and regenerative thing to grow, but mostly indigestible to humans and other monogastrics – into milk, a complete food with all the macro nutrients, all the essential amino acids, loaded with micronutrients, loaded with vitamins and beneficial microbes. The milk from our cow is the closest I can come to pure, wholesome food. The sun is at the base of every food chain. All biological energy (and fossil fuel energy, and climatic energy) on Earth comes from the sun. But I am not a plant, so I can’t photosynthesize to directly use this energy. Maybe I could eat the plants to get the solar energy, but this requires substantial effort in harvesting, storing, and processing or cooking those plants. I surely can’t eat the plants raw and expect to get much in the way of essential amino acids, fatty acids, cholesterols and other nutrients vital to my wellbeing. But our milk cow can. She can eat nothing but grass and clover, and from this she can assimilate and synthesize all of the molecules that she needs and that I need for complete nutrition. The grass and the clover are growing in the soil ecosystem that I steward at this farm, and the grass and clover are collecting the solar energy that shines down upon every square foot of this earth, and Bonnie is converting that solar energy into something that completely nourishes me for daily energy and long-term well-being. It’s a gosh dang miracle. It’s pure. I planted that grass and clover, I know what chemicals have been applied (none), I know this cow and the pharmaceuticals that have gone into her (none), the feedstuffs that have gone into her (nothing but pasture and hay). She is pure and wholesome, living in an organic environment with fresh air and sunshine, and her milk is accordingly pure and wholesome. She is harvesting yesterday’s sunshine – the pasture and hay – and making it into today’s fresh and wholesome food.
I think that’s enough for now. There is more – the other benefits for the farm from her hoof action and her fertility and her microbiome and her calves – and other benefits to human health from her microbiome, her milk’s beneficial microbes and her milk’s bioavailable nutrients. That’s for another time, maybe. Or you can google it, or read a book. For now, signing off, with great gratitude and abundance to have the cooperation of this beautiful beast to work this corner of the earth and to provide nourishment of all kinds to the farm family and the community.
Thanks for reading.