In support of the legalize “raw milk” House Bill 367 on the table in the Alaska Legislature, I thought I should talk about cow and goat share programs that provide yummy raw milk and cream to share holders. In a share program you become a member of a dairy, buy a portion of the cow or goat, and then pay for the care and feeding of the animal with your share. It’s like a CSA but with dairy rather than vegetables. In return your membership/share entitles you to the animal’s products, in the case of a cow or goat that means fresh milk!
Our family has been a member of a Mat-Su Valley cow share for the past two years and we love it. It’s really great to get to know a dairy farmer and lots of fun experimenting making fresh butter, ricotta, and mozzarella cheeses, and to be reintroduced to real milk. For the longest time I just thought “I don’t like milk.” But now we call it liquid gold and thoroughly appreciate fresh milk.
I remember as a kid having a milkman come by the house few times per-week. He dropped of fresh milk with the cream-on-top. I don’t remember enjoying the cream though, my grandfather would always slurped that down first. What I do remember was the nice man who showed up at breakfast time, came in for a cup of coffee, and swapped stories with my grandfather. I’m not sure where the milk was from or where it was processed but I wish I did.
With the closure of Mat-Maid, the four remaining dairy farms in the Mat-Su have struggled to stay a float while waiting for the new creamery to open. Most of these farms are without a market to sell their milk and must dump the milk (6000 lbs, at one dairy) daily. One of the dairy farmers has maintained the size of the heard, generated a bit of income to buy feed for the cows, and has kept a small market for their milk by selling cow shares to folks interested in raw milk.
If you have been thinking about joining a cow or goat share program, that’s great! As a member of a share program you are directly supporting a local farmer and getting the nutritional benefits of a traditional food source. Some of you may be concerned about drinking raw milk having grown-up on a pasteurized and homogenized milk diet. I have to admit, I was concerned too. But after doing my own research, reading up on the benefits of raw milk, and talking to my neighborhood herbalist, I was sold.
If you are thinking that becoming a member of a cow or goat share might be a good choice for you and your family, here are a few suggestions to think about when choosing your dairy.
Considerations when looking for a source of local, raw milk:
1. How and where are the animals kept? Is it reasonably clean and comfortable for them?
2. Are the cows or goats clean, healthy, and bright eyed? This is important that the animals look clean depending on the weather and time of year. If they are caked with manure and look like they are not well cared for, then maybe you don’t want to drink their milk.
3. What are the animals fed?
The natural diet of cows is grass and pasture, which of course has many species of weeds in it, and cows can freely graze according to their daily nutritional needs. This is only possible for a few months of the year here in Alaska, so supplemental feed must be given in the winter so the animals get the right amount of protein to produce milk. Local hay and silage (fermented hay) are good replacements for pasture. If cows are given grain, as most are, it is best if they are given whole grain, unadulterated with as few (or no) other ingredients added. Ideally any feed given, has been grown in Alaska, considering the environmental impact of shipping long distance. Be aware that pelletized feeds often contain GMO soy and corn, two crops which are mainly grown en masse in the Midwest with added petrol-chemical fertilizers and herbicides. (For more information about this phenomenon see The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan.)
4. Look for milk produced without the use of anti-biotics or growth hormones, for the sake of the animal's health as well as your own. Most local dairies don’t give their herd antibiotics because they are healthy and fed a natural diet. When cows are pumped with corn and soy to fatten them up they become ill and must be give antibiotics. The cow share we belong to does not use either.
5. Raw milk from healthy animals is safe as long as it is properly handled.
If the animals are hand or "bucket" milked, which is likely on smaller dairy farms, all of the equipment used needs to be properly cleaned, as do the hands doing the milking, and the animal's udder needs to be carefully washed and dried prior to milking to minimize the risk of unhealthy bacteria making it's way into the milk. Additionally, milking and pouring into jars and just putting it into the fridge does not cool milk down fast enough! Jars should be placed in vats of ice water to speed cooling. Large dairies commonly machine-milk, the advantage of this is that the milk goes straight from the udder into a stainless steel cold tank. (Each tank must be tested for bacteria daily.) Of course the equipment used to machine milk all needs proper sanitation. While it is ideal to seek out and support small and diversified farms to obtain your fresh milk, there are some bigger dairies which are consciously feeding and lovingly handling their animals and they also participate in cow-share programs. Certified grade A or not, I would suggest choosing a dairy farm that tests their milk and animals for disease and pathogenic bacteria regularly.
6. Is the farmer willing to answer questions and show you around?
Will the farmer tell you what they feed the animals, can you watch them milk, how do the cows look and how does the milk taste and smell? It should smell sweet, not like the barn, and taste like creamy rich goodness. One good test is to find out whether or not the farmer and their family drink the milk themselves!
The bottom line when choosing a cow or goat share is the care and feeding of the animals, clean facilities, and a relationship that you have with the farmers feels open and honest. Ultimately, whether or not to become a member of a cow or goat share is up to you. Don’t take my word for it. Do your own research, use your intuition, and make the best decision for you and your family.
Good raw milk is an amazing elixir for strong immunity, relief from common allergies, and incredibly nutritious.
If you are interested in obtaining raw milk in your area, contact Stella Lyn at Red Moon Rising~Traditional Herbal Medicine firstname.lastname@example.org or call 907-746-9500 (Stella offers classes about the benefits of raw milk and making your own cultured dairy products)
For more information about the benefits of raw milk, refer to:
The Weston A. Price Foundation
Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon
The Milk Book by William Campbell Douglass MD