Sunday, March 16, 2014

I milked a cow and learned about our food system (Part 1)

Yesterday, my wife and I went to Branched Oak Farm and got to help milk their cows.
Cows finishing up their milking
So far, this has been my favorite experience on my list. There is no way that I ever would have done this sort of thing had I not put together my list. Someone on Facebook suggested doing this and I thought it was something weird and out of place with everything else. In the days leading up to going to the farm, I got to thinking more about why I am doing this and decided that it's a great way to learn about our food system that we've become so disconnected from.

We were at the farm for almost 3 hours and talked a lot with the farmer about the current state of the food industry, so I'm breaking this into two posts (though, they're both still long). This first one will focus on simply the milking process and the second one will focus on the conversations we had about the food system.

Summary (TL;DR version)

Overall, dairy farming is a fairly simple process. That's not to say that it's easy. Doing this every day during the heat of summer and cold of winter would wear on me. I think everyone should see if there's a farm around them that will allow them to learn more about where their food comes from. If you have kids, this would be a great learning opportunity for them.

I don't see how these farmers make a living at it, but I am definitely going to try to purchase what little dairy I do buy from these local little guys to support their environmentally sustainable and compassionate practices, and I would encourage you to do the same (it tastes better too!).

About Branched Oak Farm

Branched Oak Farm is a little organic dairy farm just north of Lincoln, NE. They primarily do dairy and some vegetables. The farm is 240 acres and they have about 25 cows. Only 10 of which were currently being milked when we visited. This is because the cows get milked 305 days a year and 15 were in their "off" rotation. So, during the summer, they go up to around 25 cows being milked per day.

They sell their products (primarily various cheeses) to Whole Foods, fancy restaurants (e.g. The Grey Plume and The Boiler Room), and other small places. You can also go to the farm and buy raw milk (which can only legally be bought at the farm in Nebraska, more on that in part 2).

Their herd is mostly Jersey cows, not the typical Holstein black and white cows you normally think of when you think of milking cows. They select their cows primarily for their longevity and the fat percentage. The fat percentage is mainly because they need that for the types of products they produce.

You would think that most dairy farmers would also select for longevity, but unfortunately they don't. Cows generally start lactating at the age of 2 (after their first calf) and then average 2.5 lactations before they're turned into ground beef. This means most dairy cows are slaughtered around the age of 5, this is a terrible waste to me, but I'll talk more about that in part 2. In general, this farmer lets his cows live out their life. So, his cows live about 15 years or so. As they reach the end of their lifespan, he might send them off to the slaughterhouse or, more frequently, they'll simply die on the farm of old age.

The Setup

My wife is the dairy buyer for ConAgra Foods (think ReddiWip, Swiss Miss Cocoa, Healthy Choice), so she knows a whole heck of a lot more about dairy than I do. She and the farmer got along swimmingly because people love to talk about what they know, and they both know dairy. Anyway, she had been to a dairy farm before through work, but it was a much larger operation that this one. Still, she knew pretty well what they did. Overall, she said the process is pretty much the same at scale as what we did, just bigger.

The first step is preparing the parlor for the milking and the food for after the milking. The parlor is a much more ergonomic setup than the stereotypical sitting on a bench next to the cow and reaching down to milk. In the picture below, you can see you're able stand and work with the udders.

The steps to prep are fairly simple:
  1. Set out some alfalfa in the outside pen for the cows to eat after they're done milking. Alfalfa makes for good milk, evidently.
  2. Scatter some lime on the floor. The lime give the cows a bit more footing on the cement and also will help balance out the pH of the soil as the cows track it back out into the fields.
  3. Put some grain in the trough so that the cows have something to eat while milking.
  4. Prep a bunch of rags for cleaning the udders.

Milking Process

Once prepped, we grabbed the dogs to help herd the cows in. The milking process was surprisingly simple. It's almost like this is something that's been done for hundreds of years and people have gotten a lot of experience with it...

Once the cows are brought into the parlor, it's pretty much the following steps repeated for each cow.
  1. Touch the cow on the tail/leg to let her know that you're there (you wouldn't want your doctor to just surprise you with a prodding hand, would you?).
  2. Wipe off the udders with a wet cleaning rag.
  3. Squirt each udder 3 times to get rid of the milk with the heaviest amount of bacteria. This also stimulates the cow to drop her milk. I really thought getting the milk to come out was going to be harder, but it came out surprisingly easy. Though, if you were to milk cows by hand for hours, I would imagine your hands would get very fatigued and cramp up.
  4. Wipe the udders down again with a wet cleaning rag.
  5. Dry the udders.
  6. Hook up the suction device. Again, this went on very easily. Once you arrange the suction cups vertically, they latch on to the teats very easily.
  7. Let the suction run until the cow is done (about 10 minutes each cow).
  8. Disconnect the suction cups. Once you turn off the suction, these essentially just fall off.
  9. Dip each udder in iodine so that the now somewhat more exposed udder doesn't get infected once the cow goes back outside.
  10. Dry off the udders so they don't get frostbitten in the cold.
  11. Apply Bag Balm to the udders so they don't get too dry. I've seen this product used by people for a long time, but this is the first time I've seen it used for its original purpose.
That's pretty much it. After all 5 cows are done, you simply let them back out into the pen that you set up with the alfalfa so they can eat to make some more good dairy.

After all the cows are done, you clean up the mess the cows made, and by mess I mean the urine and feces that they tracked in and created before milking. Thankfully the cows didn't poo or pee on us, but the farmer said you sometimes do become a shithead while milking...
I think Angie is prepping the last cow here

Economics of Dairy

After we were done milking and talking, we wanted to buy some of his products. One, to simply repay him for spending 3 hours with us. Two, to just eat some delicious dairy products. We picked out a couple cheeses and some yogurt but he wouldn't take our money. So, we took 3 hours of his time and about $15-$20 worth of product. We felt kind of like cheapskates.

On the drive home, we started talking about how profitable his operation is. The short answer is, I don't really see how he does it. He's an organic farm, so he can charge quite a premium on his products so I don't see how non-organic farms are profitable. Here's how I see the economics break down:
  • Each cow produces about 30 lbs of milk per day.
  • As a rule of thumb, it takes about 10 lbs of milk to make 1 lb of cheese (the primary product of this farm).
  • Let's assume that he can sell his cheese for $20/lb (which is probably on the high side). That means he's getting $2/lb of raw milk.
  • This means each cow is producing $60 worth of milk per day.
  • Assume he milks on average 17 cows per day for 305 days. That means he takes in $311,100.
I don't really know the cost side of things, but I really can't imagine that his costs are much lower (if at all) than $311k. The milking parlor alone had to have cost over $100k to put the machinery and whatnot in.

Comparing this to a conventional farmer who has a significantly lower price per pound of milk shows why farms are becoming more and more industrialized and a little less like the idyllic image of farming in America.

Don't forget to check out part 2 where I get all preachy.

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