By Charlotte Smith
Eight years ago I had never heard of raw milk. I was absorbed in raising my kids and working as a real estate broker in the boom of ’05, focused on following up on each and every lead and selling overpriced houses for at least 10 percent over the purchase price.
My kids both had developed eczema when they were six years. My twelve-year-old daughter’s eczema was covering her face, including her eyelids; she was red, itchy, scaly and miserable at all times. My nine-year-old son had it over large areas of his extremities. The incessant itching drove them both nuts. The pediatrician said they might outgrow it after their teen years and in the meantime they would probably develop asthma, too. Whenever my son developed bronchitis the pediatrician sent us home with an inhaler, insistent that it was finally the onset of asthma. I never questioned his expertise or knowledge or wondered whether there was anything else I could do besides apply steroid cream.
Then one day in casual conversation a family member mentioned he’d heard that people were using raw milk to control their eczema, allergies and asthma. I’d never even heard of raw milk at that point, but as a mom desperate to try anything to relieve my children’s suffering, I set out to find some.
In Oregon, raw milk sales are allowed under an exemption to the dairying law―you can sell raw milk if you only have a couple of cows, you don’t advertise and people pick milk up on the farm. Eight years ago, when I heard about raw milk, it was much more difficult to find a source than it is today.
Around the same time, I also stumbled upon the Weston Price Foundation online and our journey of healing with traditional foods began! I had no idea how our life would change.
The local Weston A. Price Foundation chapter leader referred us to a local garage coop where we picked up our first gallon. Within a week we were back for three more gallons. Two weeks after drinking our first sip of raw milk my son, Austin, showed me the backs of his hands. For the three previous years his hands had been constantly red, irritated and covered with scabs from the incessant itching and scratching. Now, two weeks after drinking raw milk, they were cleared up. My daughter’s eczema took about six months to heal completely, but it did.
I spent the next eight years researching what exactly happened. That first year, the only thing we changed in our diet was the addition of raw milk and the removal of pasteurized milk. Since then we’ve incorporated all the traditional foods into our diet, slowly replacing highly processed and allergenic foods with nutrient-dense, real food, after discovering that proper nutrition and digestion resulted in improved immunity and nutrition absorption.
After the first year of drinking raw milk I looked back over the year and in hindsight I became aware of even more health improvements. We usually suffered ear infections through the winter, resulting in at least two or three rounds of antibiotics for the kids. That first winter, not only did we avoid antibiotics, we really didn’t experience any illness either, save for a runny nose here and there. I was used to seasonal hay fever and spent April through July taking allergy medications. For the first time since I was a young child, I needed no allergy medication and suffered no symptoms.
We have since become Weston Price chapter leaders and help direct others towards nutrient-dense food and healing raw milk; we are witness to hundreds of people and families experiencing health improvements similar to our own.
Fast forward four years to 2009. The real estate market was waning in the crash of ’08 and I was contemplating changing careers. We had five acres of pasture land, an adequate barn, and were spending three hundred dollars per month on raw milk, and still felt like we had to ration it.
I came up with the most brilliant idea―I’d get a cow, milk her and sell the surplus. Our family would have amazing raw milk for free and I’d make a little extra money on the milk I sold. There was no way of knowing, save for actually doing it, that it’s actually easier to pay three hundred dollars per month for your raw milk than get into the raw milk micro-dairy business. Note I said easier but not more fulfilling by any means!
When you produce a food product that nourishes and heals families, builds connections and community, it is the most fulfilling and gratifying occupation. And that’s exactly what raw milk is―raw milk is love, community, family, health and deep connection to animals, the earth and all that springs from it.
It is also difficult, dirty, stressful and expensive to milk a couple of cows. Consider the hardships that I and my colleagues face on a daily basis.
Milking a few cows is challenging, monotonous work and very hard on family life. In order to be profitable you must do most of the milking yourself and this takes place at breakfast time and dinner time. During the last eight years, I’ve heard several times a wife give her husband the ultimatum―it’s either me or the cows. Since the typical small farm is a deeply committed family endeavor the obvious choice the farmer makes is to sell the cows to save his family. This leaves dozens of families without their raw milk.
The few times I’ve been left high and dry, I asked the farmers why they didn’t raise their price and hire some help so the business would be more sustainable. They responded by saying that they thought their customers wouldn’t support it—but they hadn’t even asked. As a mother desperate for raw milk for my children, I would have paid thirty dollars a gallon for milk, but the farmer wasn’t even aware of this. Paying this amount would still be a drop in the bucket compared to our health care expenses before we discovered raw milk.
Other production challenges are faced when inexperienced people with good intentions buy cows when they have no knowledge of basic health requirements―so they end up with unvaccinated or improperly-cared-for cows dying of pneumonia, or cows with Staphylococcus aureus they have to put down after paying fifteen hundred to twenty-five hundred dollars or more for the animal. Again, dozens of families are left without their raw milk supplier, and the producer has no money (and still very little knowledge) to purchase another healthy cow.
When people contact me for micro-dairy consulting, the first question I ask is why they are doing it. If money is the number one reason, I respond by saying then they should not get into it. If you are concerned with profit first and foremost, then when the going gets tough (and it will) and money is tight, you will make decisions that affect the quality of the raw milk. Cutting corners in a raw milk dairy always equates to lower quality milk: the obvious cuts are in vet care, proper minerals or supplements, pathogen testing, proper sanitation, chemicals in the correct dilutions, good quality feed for the cow and proper equipment. When I decided to get milk cows, I spent a solid six months reading everything I could get my hands on and researching micro dairy production.
I visited about six dairies, both micro dairies and conventional, and gleaned a lot of information from the farmers. I especially learned what they wished they had done differently in their barn set up so that as we were building our milking parlor we would have the benefit of their experience. I studied and researched proper cleaning and chilling techniques for the milk. I talked with my vet about how to test the milk to see whether it was free of pathogens.
I thought everybody researched the micro dairy operation this way before they went out and bought their first cow. I soon became aware that this was not the case―I started receiving calls from people who said, “I brought home a cow today, and I’m selling the milk, what should I do?” I thought this was absurd―the idea that people would purchase a milk cow and, having no experience, would sell milk to others. This seemed very irresponsible as there is such a huge responsibility and liability with cows―and yet it happens regularly. Yet who am I to judge, or so I thought.
The raw milk community is small and very interconnected. It is not uncommon for a new customer to show up and during the initial meeting mention that they previously purchased milk from a nearby dairy, but the milk soured within three or four days―often evidence of improper chilling or sanitation procedures. Since we had a reputation in the community for milk that lasted two to three weeks, they decided to make the switch even though our milk was more expensive. Individuals were often having to drive to the other dairy twice a week to get their milk because it would not last. They determined they would save the money in the long run because even though our milk cost more money, they would only have to make one trip per week.
I heard the same complaints over and over, often about the same few farms. My first response was always to request they please inform the farmer of their complaint, as I would always want to know whether someone received some of our milk that was less than stellar.
The people who actually communicated their complaints were typically met with defensiveness. I felt like I had no right butting in other farmers’ business because everything they were doing was legal, so I did not ever get involved.
In the spring of 2012 I received a call early one Monday morning. It was a doctor who was desperate to get raw milk and wondered if I could help him. He said his local farm had shut down that morning. I was instantly alarmed because I knew this farm and did not know they had plans to cease raw milk production, so I immediately feared for the worst―you don’t usually just stop milking cows and selling the milk cold turkey unless there’s a catastrophe.
Within a few hours the catastrophe was confirmed―this farm family and several of its customers were ill with virulent E. coli. This went on to be a very heartbreaking story of illness, and it was played out in the media for months. According to news reports, the outbreak sickened twenty, including the farmer’s family of five. Apparently eighteen recovered completely but two young children are still suffering from serious illness.
That whole week I was sick with sadness for those who were ill, and I also felt immense guilt―guilt because it seemed like I should have been able to do something. I had been receiving information for months from several sources that this farm’s milk was souring quicker and quicker―evidence that their milking procedures and handling were not up to par. Apparently the farm was a muddy mess, with several species of animals mixed together, and not even any hot water for washing containers and equipment. But I was passive and did not take any initiative because I didn’t want to offend them and also because they weren’t doing anything illegal.
Our dinner conversations for the next few weeks revolved around the subject of some sort of support for raw milk producers in Oregon. At that time there were no available resources for us―the universities, the extension office, the Department of Agriculture, nobody could (or would) tell us how to milk a cow, what sanitation procedures to practice, or even what equipment to buy. It was all up to each individual to research on their own and learn the hard way, making expensive or dangerous mistakes.
So early last summer I founded the Oregon Raw Milk Producer’s Association (ORMPA)―an organization to educate producers to help raise the bar in milk quality. This group has taken off―we’ve had consultants in three times in the last nine months for day-long trainings covering various very basic aspects of milking cows. We get producers from all over our state and nearby states attending or calling to inquire about how we set this up. Obviously there is a huge need and desire for this in Oregon and across the country.
At our most recent training, we introduced the idea of common standards among raw milk producers and fifty producers present at the training supported this concept. The idea behind common standards is that we have a set of “best practices” or “common standards” for safe raw milk production which, if you are going to produce raw milk, you agree to adhere to. With freedom comes responsibility. If raw milk producers want to maintain their freedom to produce and sell raw milk, then they must produce it responsibly. Opponents of this idea,in my experience, are often avid consumers and supporters of raw milk, but are not producers themselves. They often express the idea that requiring farmers to meet basic standards is akin to regulation, or they say that farmers already meet their own basic standards, and that’s good enough. They often feel they are protecting producers by defending their right to produce raw milk with no common standards.
I find this to be a very narrow perspective and my experience shows why. In areas where raw milk is unregulated, it is of a very inconsistent quality. There are no government agencies to provide any training, education or advice of any kind, because there’s no government funding for unregulated industries. Producers often bring their first cow home without thought to needing hot water in the barn, proper equipment, or a clean place to handle the milk, let alone any idea of what might be the “best practices” for raw milk production.
Our dairy, Champoeg Creamery, has also been “listed” by the Raw Milk Institute and adheres to the RAWMI common standards. Listed farmers have shown evidence of farm and product safety, have in place a Risk Analysis and Management Plan (RAMP) and operate in an open and transparent manner. This organization offers great credibility for the farmer who has put in place common standards such as those we’ve listed below.
The Oregon Raw Milk Producers Association has collaborated with Tim Wightman, president of the Farm-to-Consumer Foundation, to draft some basic or common practices for micro dairy producers in our state. I’ve outlined below the common practices we have proposed for Oregon raw milk producers. Producers have been supportive and eager to adopt these procedures in their barns. It is a road map to success in raw milk production, because in order to meet each standard the farmer must acquire some education or knowledge in that specific area, which in turn creates the opportunity for improvement of their product.
Good raw milk production begins with the purchase of healthy cows. The cows you purchase should be certified Johnes-free; goats should be certified free of caseious lymphandentis (CL) and caprine arthritis encephalitis (CAE). In addition the cows should be free of brucellosis (tested or vaccinated) and/or maintained in a vaccination program for purchased or newborn heifer calves between four to six months of age (not required with goats). The animals (cows or goats) should be certified free of Staph aureus, E. coli, and Pseudomonas mastitis. Your most likely source for healthy cows is a dairy farmer using pastured methods and following the ORMPA standards, and not a cow from a confinement herd or a sale barn.
While you might think of Oregon as a place with beautiful lush pastures, this is not the case for most of our micro dairies. Most have very little land, few of them practice managed grazing (where cows are moved every day to new pasture), and most seriously, in the Pacific Northwest, we are plagued with mud during the rainy season. Even though our climate is mild, we cannot keep our cows on pasture during this period; they need warm, dry shelter.
Most micro dairy people in Oregon think their cows are on pasture during good weather. They have a paddock or pasture, and the cows are on the whole pasture rather than rotated in smaller paddocks—rotating cows takes time and money. So this big pasture is not managed properly, the grass is of poor quality, and the cows hang out in one area near the water or feed bins, typically in their own manure. They might as well be confined. This is the reality and the norm. But the farmer is ignorant and calls their cows “pastured” and the public believes him.
In Oregon, cows need to be in confinement during the three muddy months of the year, if the pastures are managed properly. Since the majority of dairies do not manage their pastures, the cows should be in confinement for an even longer period.
My farm is the very rare exception―we rotate pastures nine months out of the year. The grass is tall and lush when the cows go on it. Obviously raw milk consumers should seek out farms that do rotational grazing or at least encourage it in the farmer they get milk from. Most importantly, the cows should be managed so that they are kept clean and dry at all times. Here are the guidelines we came up with to ensure that cows remain healthy in the typical Oregon micro dairy.
Most of our micro dairy farmers think they do not need the services of a vet, but twice annual visits from the vet are an important investment. You can’t even put a dollar value on the education a producer receives from the vet’s sixty-fivedollar visit—a small price to pay for protecting yourself against the loss of a valuable dairy cow.
The vet shows up and will talk about fly allergies, milk fever, ketosis, mastitis, little bumps and weird things on the udder, snotty noses, coughs, environmental issues, feed―the list is endless and one question leads to another.
Also, the relationship with the vet that the twice annual visit gets you is priceless. If a farmer has a cow for a year and is milking without any vet contact, then has a sick cow and has to find a vet to call, the overworked vet will perhaps not respond as readily to someone unless he knows their farm, their cows, their needs. This relationship-building is incredibly important. My vet will text me at ten in the evening Saturday night if I have a problem, because we have developed this relationship.
Regular herd checks by a licensed veterinarian with monitoring of overall health of herd including but not limited to:
Please note that vaccination is a controversial subject. Many farmers with good, lush pastures never vaccinate. However Tim Wightman recommends it for the situation we have in Oregon.
By the way, cows on pasture do get worms―they are often in the system already, but when stress is kept minimal there is not an overinfestation so medication is not necessary. Even if your cows are purchased from a grass-feeding herd, just moving them a few miles down the road can stress them enough to have the worms take over. Or, perhaps the cow calves twins and gets a uterine infection, or prolapsed uterus, or milk fever—these situations can cause enough stress to allow worms to proliferate.
All of the above cleaning and sanitation supplies can be purchased through a local DeLaval distributor if you have one, or online through Hamby Dairy Supply.
In my experience, the most important element of these guidelines is the milk testing. Even if that is the only common standard encouraged, it will go far towards improving milk safety. Very few raw dairy producers test their milk monthly. When they do, they find things that should not be in their milk and they are shocked: E. coli, Staph aureus, very high coliform counts and plate counts. The process for fixing those problems means higher standards in sanitation, cleanliness and cow health, and improved equipment.
I have not met a producer yet who refused to make improvements when faced with test results that show evidence of poor sanitation. And in researching how to make the improvements, they naturally become more educated in cow health, proper nutrition and sanitation. Requesting monthly milk test results for standard plate count (SPC) and somatic cell count (SCC) should be the very bare minimum a consumer asks for, but most don’t. Only about 5 percent of the more than two hundred producers in Oregon test now. Those 5 percent have full customer bases, a waiting list, and can charge more for their milk to cover the costs of high-quality production. The others struggle.
All tests related to milk quality should be performed at a qualified milk quality lab that does these tests on a daily basis, and is in fact in the business of performing these tests.
The two key tests, which should be performed monthly with yearly average target levels, are:
Please note that these levels are very easy to achieve with a properly managed herd. Other tests, highly suggested, are:
In addition to milk, the farm well water should be tested yearly for coliforms and other bacteria, with less-than-detectable levels.
Again, all tests related to the culturing of milk for pathogens should be performed at a qualified food safety lab, certified by the State and or Federal government to perform the cultures. On-farm testing is not recommended. These tests should be performed every six months.
If a preliminary positive result occurs of any pathogens listed here, a voluntary recall of all batch-related products must be implemented with discontinuation of deliveries of the product.
If confirmation of the culture is positive, consult raw milk safety experts on probable causes and identify potential remedies. Restart distribution when three consecutive tests results come back negative. Individual test submittals should be no less than three days apart and represent at least five milkings between samples taken.
SOMATIC CELL COUNT (SCC): This test determines white blood cell count level in the herd or animal tested. A high SCC is typically considered to indicate mastitis in the herd. However, herd access to non-approved water sources can raise SCC. A high SCC in an animal may also indicate a cold or injury. If the SCC is elevated, the milk (either of the individual cow or from the bulk tank) should be cultured or DNA scanned to determine the presence of mastitis.
STANDARD PLATE COUNT (SPC): This test used to determine effectiveness of cleaning practices of milking equipment. It should be taken from milk bucket if using vacuum system, or from the bulk tank or final container, to gauge effectiveness of cleaning practices. The test is ineffective if the sample is taken directly from the cow.
COLIFORM COUNT: This test should not to be confused with tests for pathogenic coliforms. It is an indicator of shelf life and amount of air and quality of air the milk is exposed to in handling. Higher levels of coliforms shorten the shelf life. Taking samples in the milking area will raise coliform counts, as will taking samples in any area not designated as a properly managed milk pouring area if no bulk tank is used. False low or no coliform counts can be obtained by chemical introduction—either by mistake or on purpose—such as hydrogen peroxide or out-of-balance milk house cleaning solution, or over-treatment of udder in preparation for milking is not preferable to 10-50 per ml and not a sign of good hygiene, but an indication that other organisms are growing unchecked in the milk or milk products.
MILK UREA NITROGEN (MUN) tells us the effective use of protein in the cows’ diet. If kept within parameters then no excess protein will turn to urea and harm the milk animal. If the values are too low, the milk animal may run out of energy to produce milk and maintain body weight.
WATER COLIFORM TEST: It is imperative for any dairy to test the well water for any contamination of harmful coliforms. If the raw milk dairy is located near a large animal production facility or if the farm is purchasing water to augment well water supplies, additional test for Campylobacter and/or Salmonella are suggested. Most county water quality districts have access to labs that do these tests. Wells that supply dairy animals for water are required by law in most states to have restricted access by all animals within 50 to 100 feet of the well head and proper drainage so as to not allow runoff to enter into the well head during heavy rains.
This article first appeared in the Summer 2013 edition of Wise Traditions in Food, Farming, and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation. Join the foundation to receive the journal, email alerts, and conference discounts.