Saturday, November 21, 2009

Our milk association - the nuts and bolts of it

Let me tell you a little about how our milk association runs.  I have touched on some of this in previous posts, but it's time for a refresher.  (To that end, I will remind you that when a cow has a calf, she "freshens.")

Indiana does not allow the sale of raw milk.  I will not get into what they imagine they are saving us from by depriving us of this wonderful food.  The law is the law.  Fortunately the law does not prohibit imbibing in this white magic if one owns the cow.  Many farmers have devised a way to accommodate potential customers by allowing them to buy a "cow share," which entitles them to come to the farm to pick up their milk and pay a boarding fee for their piece of some cow in the amount of so much per gallon for the milk, the assumption being that if you need more milk that week, then you need to pay higher boarding fees for your chunk of a cow because you need a bigger chunk of it that week.  Okay, it works.

I participated in three such cow share programs over three or so years.  Each one was an improvement over the last - first one had a problem with freshness, fresher milk at the second farm because of state of the art cooling system, glass jars at the third farm instead of the ubiquitous plastic.  But none of the three were certified organic, and they all fed grain.  Grain boosts production.  Never mind that it also reduces conjugated linoleic acids (CLAs) dramatically, by as much as 80%.  Sorry if I am repeating myself, but we are sorely in need of those CLAs.  They boost our immune system to help us fight heart disease, cancer and diabetes.  So I wanted milk from grass fed cows.  I just couldn't find it.

When I did find it right in my own neighborhood, the farmer didn't want to do these "loophole" cow shares, especially since he was shipping to Organic Valley and didn't want to compromise that relationship in any way.  In the end, we bought two organic cows from him and rented his milking parlor to get our own milk.

One would think that there are not that many people willing to make such an effort to get those three things - organic milk from grass fed cows packaged in glass jars.  I didn't think there would be.  But in no time all of the shares were sold, and we had seven shareholders lined up to milk. Eventually we moved the cows to my farm.

We are unique.  Steve suggested that we put together a contract that was on the lines of one he had with his former partner, so we used that for a springboard.  Then we called the Weston A. Price Foundation to get some legal advice.  They pointed us to their lawyer, and after many phone calls and emails with him, we had an agreement that met the law in both letter and spirit.  We are wholly owned and operated by the shareholders.  All of the milk is distributed to the shareholders each day, each shareholder receiving milk one day a week.  To make the math a little easier, we chose to sell seven shares per cow - as we add a cow and sell seven more shares on her, we can keep the number we fill each day equal on all seven days of the week.  This is plenty of milk in the spring and summer.  However, in the fall, when the cows are all pregnant again, a lot of the fodder they are taking in is going to grow a baby instead of making milk.  Production drops, and rather precipitously once the cold sets in and the pastures are providing no grass at all.  Hard to graze on a paddock covered in snow!

So we have this huge variance in production - more milk than we know what to do with in the summer, and not nearly enough by January and February.  We have dried them up on February 15 the last two years.  They need a two month rest  before freshening again, and since most of the herd freshens in April, it makes no sense to keep milking only a couple of cows that may not be due until June or July.

During the good months, shareholders make and freeze butter, mozzarella and ricotta.  If you leave some headroom in the jar, the milk freezes quite well, and it is sure better than store bought milk, come February.  We have gotten used to this rhythm in production and no one complains.  That is just how it works.

This year, Steve butchered two young cows and asked me if I knew of anyone who wanted to buy some of the meat.  I posted a note on our e-board and was able to help him sell quite a bit of it.

Steve called me a couple of weeks ago and asked if I wanted to take in one of his cows because she freshened late (August 31) and he was going to dry up his whole herd mid-November.  Would we milk her all winter and then send her back in the spring?  I reminded him that we quit milking in February, so I thought that would be that.  Then he called back and asked again if I wanted the cow.  I said, "Since we will dry her up in February, what's in it for you?"  He said he wanted to say thank you for my having helped him sell so much meat.  Well, you could have knocked me over with a feather!  I jumped all over that one.  It would cost us about $500 for hay, and $2.50 a day to milk her.  So down she came.  She is a great milker, producing nearly 50% of what our whole herd was doing.  Then Steve called again.  One of his cows just freshened, is just as good a milker as Phyllis, would we take her, too?  Would we?  Forgive me for waxing poetic.
        Does a pig oink?
        Does a cow moo?
        Is ice cold?
        Is the sky blue?

I posted a poll to our e-board and asked if the shareholders were willing to pay a one time hay assessment to feed these two girls in exchange for getting a lot more milk.  Then I asked the milkers if they were willing to give up their two months off in the February to April dry time.   Everyone is on board!  Milkers are lined up.  Delilah came down with her calf in tow, and even with the calf taking his six to eight quarts a day, we are swimming in milk again!  Rosie, Buttercup and Lucy freshened late, so we can milk them through those two months.  It is certainly worth it to keep milking when there will be five cows still giving milk.

These shareholders are hardy souls, willing to go along with whatever the cows give, showing delight when their totes are chock full of milk in July, and giving thanks for the extra cream they get when the fluid milk production goes down in late fall.  They deserve this wonderful gift!  Make hay while the sun shines, and make butter while Phyllis and Delilah are here.

There are 15 chickens in the Moop tonight, one snoring old black dog beside me, one yappy little one, one young black one, a white cat purring on my lap, three heifers in their proper paddock, three calves in their pen, one bull, and not seven but NINE cows!  Oh, yes, and one little five day old bull calf, hanging out with his mom, Delilah.

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