I have belonged to several cowshare programs. But for me, it wasn’t enough just to get raw milk. The first farmer’s cooling system left something to be desired, and my milk was only good for about three days. Since we picked up milk every other week, let’s just say I ate a lot of yogurt!
Then I found a farmer with a better cooling system, but he fed grain, and the milk was packaged in plastic. I asked if he would do part of his herd as grass-fed only, but he declined. Now that I am in the business myself, I can understand his reluctance to do so. Production takes a pretty big hit when you only feed grass and hay, and he sold most of his milk to a commercial processor.
Processors don’t give bonuses for grass-fed milk. Finally I found a farmer whose milk was properly chilled and who packaged in glass. But still, there was that grain in the cow’s diet. Sometimes you just have to do it yourself to get things exactly the way you want!
I found out my neighbor, Steve Martin, had a certified organic herd, strictly grass-fed. I went down to his farm and asked if he would sell me a cowshare. He said he wouldn’t, since he shipped to Organic Valley and was concerned about his relationship with them if they learned he was doing cowshares. But he told me that if I wanted to buy a cow from him, he would rent me pasture and the use of his milking parlor. I asked how much he wanted for a cow, and he replied two thousand dollars.
I sent emails (I used our WAPF board) and put out fliers at my booth at the farmers market where I sell my own skin care products (www.ceres-co.com). In about two weeks I had gathered money from 14 families, enough to buy two cows. Steve was very surprised. He told me later that he didn’t think he would ever see me again!
So 14 families became the proud owners of two cows, and seven of us got on the milking crew. We paid $25 for use of the milking equipment, and we milked once a day. My husband and I had milked a herd of Guernseys back in the 1960s, but we didn’t have a pipeline milking operation, so all of this was new to me. Steve gave me a ten-minute lesson on how to use the equipment and left me alone. I was a little fearful, but the equipment was pretty easy to use. I then taught the others how to milk.
I called the WAPF office to find out what we had to do to be legal in Indiana, and I was referred to Pete Kennedy, now President of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund. Steve and I spent many hours in meetings, some with Pete included on the phone, and we communicated with Pete via email. We used a contract that Steve had drawn up with a former partner for a springboard, because in effect, this herd was a partnership. After many iterations of the contract, Pete finally gave us his approval and we were off and running. I cannot thank Pete enough for his help! Our contract has stood the test of time. When we were confronted by the authorities, they agreed that we were legal and have since left us alone.
The big thing about our contract is that we are wholly owned and operated by the shareholders. The “operated by” in Indiana is very important, and it is the sticking point that the authorities use to cause trouble for some cowshare programs. Our shareholders are all obligated to put in four workdays per year, and that includes digging thistles, keeping the electric fences clear of weeds, stacking hay and spreading biodynamic organic preps on the soil twice a year.
Shareholders will share in the proceeds from the sale of cows or calves once we generate enough revenue. For now, we are just squeaking by and to date have used money from the sale of animals and meat to meet our financial obligations. Purchasing hay is troublesome, with wild swings in price, so we use any excess cash to take care of hay bills in the years when the hay prices skyrocket.
Stock certificates are issued to each shareholder, and if and when they quit, they must sign that share over to the Walkerton Dairy Herd Association. We then have four months to sell the share to a new shareholder, at which time the shareholder who is quitting will be reimbursed for his share. Sometimes we are a little slow to find a buyer, but to date, all shareholders who have quit have gotten their money back, if they have met the terms of their contract.
We operate like a CSA. All of our milk is distributed to the shareholders each day. In turn, the shareholders pay their fair share of the ongoing expenses, no matter how much (or how little) milk they get. It does put a whole new perspective on food for shareholders. I tell people who are interested in our group that we are not a grocery store! You can’t order four gallons this week and a couple of quarts next week. You get what you get.
This has forced our shareholders to get pretty smart about how they use their milk, and we have a lot of cheese makers in our group. Also, since we distribute all of the milk, we do not skim off any cream, so our milk is loaded with cream!
Some participants in other programs ask how we can make butter and ice cream and still have rich tasting milk. Well, when your milk is from grass-fed heritage breed cows milked only once daily, the butterfat content is pretty close to 6 percent, which is nearly twice the butterfat content of commercial whole milk. We don’t sell cream—the shareholders get it all. Given that the other cowshare programs in the area sell cream for about twelve dollars a quart, we value the extra cream in every gallon of our milk at about three dollars. In the winter, when the fluid milk production goes down, the percentage of cream seems to go up, and I have seen quart jars of milk that are nearly one fourth cream. Yum!
We have cheese making workshops to help new shareholders understand how to use all that milk when we are swimming in it in the spring. I show classes of six people at a time how to utilize two gallons of milk in the best way possible. I use the cream, which I have cultured, to make really good butter (butter from cultured cream lasts a lot longer than butter from fresh cream). I show them how to make really good mozzarella cheese from the skimmed milk. It takes two days, so I start a batch the day before, culture the butter and get the mozzarella to the stage where we finish it. Then on the day of the workshop, we start another batch of cheese, culturing, cutting the curd, heating and stirring. The curd is set to rest for a day, and I pull out the cheese I started the day before. We perform the “taffy pull” with yesterday’s cheese, which has been reheated in the whey from today’s batch. And then we heat the whey to 200 degrees and add some vinegar or lemon juice to make whey ricotta. At the end of the day, everyone goes home with a bit of butter, some mozzarella and some ricotta— if we haven’t eaten it all while we sit around the table admiring our handiwork.
Establishing our dairy over the last four years has presented us with a rough learning curve. We’ve lost a cow—the vet said it was parasites. We butchered one of my favorites because we couldn’t get her bred the second time, and the same fate befell another because she had gotten rather mean. Since we do not dehorn our cows a nasty temperament in one of them is very serious. The shareholders put in their orders for the meat. We take the horns, the organ meat, the tallow, and one shareholder even took the hide from a cow that had a very beautiful coat. The butcher just shakes his head when we ask for the oxtail, the liver, the heart, the tongue. And when I ask him to make the hamburger blend at least twenty percent fat! For some reason, he won’t give us the tripe. Our vet tells us to ask for the cud next time we butcher, as it is a great probiotic for calves.
When we had a couple of sick calves, he told me to reach in the mouth of one of the cows and steal some cud, “but watch out for your fingers.” Well, both Kayla, my assistant, and I tried, but we didn’t succeed.
Those sick calves two little bulls, were not quite four months old. We were raising them for meat. They started to lose energy. It was during county fair time, and our vet, who has six kids in 4-H, was not able to come out. We talked on the phone a couple of times a day and he told me how Kayla and I should care for them. Kayla used to work for a vet, so we got bags of fluids and administered subcutaneous fluids twice a day. We watched them founder. One died before the vet got there, the other a couple of days after. It was heartbreaking. We are still waiting for results of the necropsy, since we do not want to raise any other calves here until we fully understand what happened.
Our herd is certified organic, and we were raising these two little guys for certified organic grass-fed beef. When fully fattened at two years, the value of their meat would have been over five thousand dollars. It was a financial and emotional hit for us. Since we were going to butcher them, I had not gotten close to them. I hadn’t even named them until I had to for the organic inspector. But when you care for a calf first thing in the morning, several times through the day, and last thing at night; when you finally lie down in the straw beside him and sleep because you are exhausted and can’t sleep in the house because all you can think of is the calf, you get close. It was devastating, especially when the second one died. We thought we were going to save him. He was getting better, we were even doing physical therapy because he hadn’t been able to stand for nearly a week and we wanted to keep his muscles toned. Then he suddenly took a turn for the worse, and was gone in a day.
People either don’t think at all about what goes into farming or, at the other end of the scale, they idealize farm life. The latter favor the pastoral images of calves cavorting in the sunshine, butterflies flitting over the wildflowers in the pastures, cows suckling their young, and the weather being always 72 degrees and sunny, with a light breeze. There are indeed times like that, but there are also times when despite your best efforts the calf dies; when it is -26 degrees and you worry about the animals that are outside all the time, with just a couple of windbreaks; times when it is -4 degrees when you go out to milk at two in the afternoon, and other times when it is 95 degrees with no breath of air and the flies cover you while you are putting milkers on the cows. There are the unhappy shareholders who don’t understand that “we are not a grocery store.” And were unhappy once when the power went off in the middle of milking and some milk went down the drain and didn’t make it into their jars.
But for the most part, it is a rewarding life. We don’t have ordinary shareholders. They understand what goes into making that milk, in part because they each spend four afternoons taking a good look at what goes on. And the shareholders who balk at how we do things, at what we must do to be legal in Indiana, often leave. But there is always someone willing to give it a shot, and most of our shareholders stick around. Since the purchase of our first two cows in 2007, we have grown from fourteen to fifty-five families, so we must be doing something right.
What we do are the things that I believe make the best raw milk out there: no grain ever, glass jars, a quick cooling system, rotational grazing, home-raised calves and cows, heritage breed cows for A2 milk (our bull Sam is a registered Guernsey, and they are tops for A2 milk), and having our shareholders get to know the girls. We have had about fifteen different shareholders work for some period of time as milkers. Some do it for a year and that’s enough. Others have been at it from the beginning. Right now we are looking for a shareholder who will want to milk since two of our current milkers are pregnant. One will take off six months, but the other will take off a couple of years. We have had a bunch of babies in our group. It is all because of that good raw milk!