Elizabeth doesn’t drink cow’s milk herself, but when I asked if we could get some so I could attempt to make my own yogurt and cheese, we hopped in the car and drove in the opposite direction of the grocery store. When it comes to milk, the organic dairy farm just down the road is the grocery store.
Mark and Sarah Russell have been raising cattle for two decades, and have been certified organic for 13 years. When Elizabeth, her niece and nephew, and Worrill and I arrive, we are greeted first by their exuberant cat Elvis, who loves nothing more than to be held like a baby and cooed over. Unfortunately for Elvis, we are more interested in the farm’s lovely ladies: the 96 cows whose milk makes the Russells a living. The family keeps one or two bulls (male cows) on the farm for impregnating the heifers (female cows before they have their first calf), but for subsequent pregnancies they use artificial insemination. It’s cheaper, more reliable, and allows them to differentiate the herd’s gene pool and breed for desirable characteristics.
The calves that were born in February and March aren’t quite ready to join the rest of the herd in the fields yet, but they crowd close to the fence to assess their new visitors. “That’s Fabian,” the Russells’ 9- or 10-year-old son David points out a brown and white calf holding his head above the rest; “I’m going show him at the fair.” After a quick sniff test, Fabian deems my outstretched hand harmless, and begins licking my fingers, then the back of my hand, my wrist and up my forearm. Cow tongues, it turns out, are as rough and prickly as a cat’s, and can stretch farther than you’d expect. “David won the Quiz Bowl tournament at his last 4H event,” Mark tells us with a half-smile. “Yeah,” David adds, “I was the only one who knew what calf diarrhea is called.” (In case you’re curious, it’s “scours.”)
In our next stop, the milking parlor, the Russells explain how the cows file in to their stalls each morning and evening during milking season (they “go dry” for a couple of months prior to calving), how they hook up the milking machines to the cows’ udders, and how the milk travels through a series of self-cleaning pipes directly into a huge tank. The milking machines shut off and release automatically when the utters have been drained, so the cows can let themselves out and get back to grazing as quickly as possible. Each of their cows produces approximately five gallons of milk daily, so the whole herd produces about two TONS of milk every day! It is kept cold in the tank until it is shipped to the Organic Valley co-op the Russells belong to, which handles the pasteurization, bottling, marketing, and distribution of milk from thousands of similar farms across New England.
We head down the dirt path towards the fields, and Mark unhooks one section of the electric fence surrounding the pasture so we can go meet the herd. We wade through the tall grass, avoiding the occasional half-baked cowpie. The most forthcoming cow, a golden brown Jersey named Firefly, saunters out ahead of the rest to greet us. Through some imperceptible bovine sign language, she gives the “all clear” to the others, and soon we are surrounded on all sides by curious cattle. If the herd stampeded, we’d be in trouble, but they are content to nod their heads up and down and bat flies out of the way with their tails.
“My sister calls them the Motley Crew,” Mark says, and it’s easy to see why: there are plenty of black and white Holsteins (the most common dairy breed in the United States), but also red and white Ayrshires, Dutch Belteds, and other Jerseys like Firefly. They rub their noses against us, let us pet their powerful bodies, and blink their long eyelashes at us. When we start walking back toward the path, they gradually move apart from each other and set back to munching on the grasses that their four stomachs will turn into foods humans can digest–milk and meat.
We make our final stop next to the milk tank, where we fill the four glass jars we brought with milk the cows gave just this morning. This is “raw” milk: unpasteurized, unhomogenized, and containing no additives or preservatives. Vermont allows farmers to sell a certain quantity of raw milk directly to consumers each year, but it is illegal to sell unpasteurized milk on most store shelves throughout the United States. Pasteurization (heating to a particular temperature for a specified length of time) kills off any bacteria that may be present in the milk, but also zaps some harmless bacteria that may be beneficial to the digestive system. Many people who have become accustomed to drinking raw milk say they detect a “cooked” flavor in pasteurized milk, as well.Any milk labeled “UHT (ultra-high temperature) Pasteurized” has had any trace of life cooked out of it, and will not curdle into yogurt or cheese no matter what you do to it. Most organic milk sold in stores, unfortunately, falls into this category. It doesn’t move off the shelves as quickly as cheaper, conventional milk, and is therefore processed to ensure a longer shelf life.
I notice a pronounced difference in the flavors of milk from pastured cattle as opposed to corn-fed cattle (many conventional (non-organic) dairies feed their cows a mixture of corn, grain, and a variety of waste by-products), which tastes much weaker to me, but haven’t drunk enough raw milk to compare. However, I need all the probiotics (good bacteria) I can get for successful culturing into yogurt and cheese, so I am thrilled to have such a convenient source of raw milk nearby. Thanks to Mark, Sarah, and David, and especially to Firefly and her herdmates for sharing!