Every January begins with my inbox filling up with requests for raw milk as people researching their resolution to eat healthier stumble upon the health benefits of this delicious and nutritious traditional food. Due to Oregon laws only allowing for a couple of cows if you’re going to sell it raw, I can’t increase my milk production, even though my waiting list is approaching the 6 month mark.
This is frustrating for both sides – I’d truly love to be able to provide milk to everyone who needs it for their immune system, eczema, allergies, auto-immune diseases, overgrowth of yeast, osteoporosis and the myriad diseases and disorders people I talk to are using it for. But I’m maxed out on production, so the best I can do is offer them tools to seek out their own safe milk.
Since farm-fresh, unpasteurized milk is only available on the farm and not in stores, you the consumer must do your legwork to find it and make sure it’s safe. The raw milk industry in Oregon is unregulated – dairies are not inspected and there are no food safety requirements to sell raw milk. In spring 2012 we started the Oregon Raw Milk Producers Association, an education based organization to mentor raw milk producers and an effort to self-regulate the Oregon raw milk industry. Members of ORMPA will commit to producing the highest quality product they can by pledging to adhere to common standards, the first of which will be having their milk tested monthly for a very reasonable cost by a certified lab to provide a Standard Plate Count and Coliform Count. This will be the start of providing transparency to consumers so you know what you are buying.
Before purchasing raw milk from a farm please do some legwork to keep your family safe. If a farmer follows the proper procedures to produce safe, clean, and nutritious raw milk, it is very easy to do so every time. When looking for a farm to purchase raw milk from, I recommend the consumer take the following steps, none of which are cost-prohibitive and all are easily attainable by all raw milk producers, whether you have 1 cow or 50.
1. Only drink raw milk from farms who test their milk at least monthly and can show you results in the format of “Standard Plate Count” and “Coliform Count.” If the farm doesn’t or won’t test for this, do not drink their milk.
2. Ask for a tour. Do not buy milk from a farm until you tour the facility – milking parlor, pastures, barn for winter shelter, feed/water areas, milk processing and storage area. When you meet the farmer they should be open to sharing their practices and answering all your questions. Do you trust this person, what they say and do? Ask for references of several customer’s names and numbers who have been getting milk from the farmer for some time and call the customers. Ask them how they like the milk and how long it stays fresh (7-14 days minimum).
3. Look at the cows out in the pasture/winter barn. Are the cows on tall (4″-8″) green grass vs. dirt? Or in wintertime are they in a covered shelter with deep, clean bedding underfoot with little visible manure around? Are the cows clean, is the feeding area clean, is the barn clean, how does the place smell? How many cows are on the property vs. the acres of grass? Are the cows rotated to fresh pasture daily? Every 2 or 3 days? Does the farmer have access to irrigation so the cows are on fast-growing grass for 9 months of the year, or is the grass gone by July, meaning the cows are truly grass-fed only 3-4 months of the year? Tall grass pasture keeps the cows cleaner and therefore the milk safer to produce.
|Healthy cows have sleek shiny coats all winter long.|
Healthy milk cows such as Jerseys, Guernseys, and Holsteins do not grow shaggy winter coats. Healthy cows being fed properly have smooth, shiny coats year round. If it’s shaggy, long, dull then they are not getting their proper nutrition and this will affect the safety of the milk. The photo on the left was taken a couple weeks ago on a sunny December day that was freezing cold and represents healthy cows with sleek, shiny coats.
4. What does the farmer feed the cows, in addition to pasture? The most nutritious and safest milk comes from grass fed cows on tall, green pasture. These cows should be supplemented with some kind of grain, perhaps rolled barley or oats, and also hay throughout the summer to balance their rumen. They need minerals daily properly balanced with their feed. In the winter months when grass is not growing the feed should include high-quality grass and alfalfa hay, a few pounds of some grain balanced with proper minerals. Dairy consultant Tim Wightman will work with FTCLDF members free to develop a nutrition plan for their cows.
5. Look at the milking area. Is it clean? A dirt floor in a barn can be a clean place to milk, look to see if it is free of manure and bedding. How is the milking equipment cleaned? (vinegar/water rinse, hot soapy water rinse, “Clean In Place” dairy sanitation.) And how are the milk jars sanitized? Where is the milk handled and is that area clean? How is the milk chilled (jars immersed immediately in ice bath is ideal)? If the milk is just placed in a freezer or fridge it cools down much slower which could allow for illness causing bacteria to grow.
6. Testing. How often is the milk tested for bacteria? Cows should be tested daily to weekly with the California Mastitis Test and at least monthly milk samples should be sent to a lab for cultures. Ask to see the written results of lab tests which must include a coliform count of less than 50 and a Standard Plate Count of less than 15,000. The farm should be able to provide the past 3 months lab test results and have the current month’s lab results posted in the milk pickup area. Testing costs $30 per month so is very affordable and absolutely mandatory in order to produce safe raw milk.
7. Ask if they use organic and/or sustainable farm practices. No hormones; occasional antibiotics only when necessary, 50% or more of the feed coming right off the farm. Regular vaccinations should be used following an organic dairy plan.
8. The farm should be a member of FTCLDF. Membership for Farm To Consumer Legal Defense Fund is $125 per year and the benefits far outweigh the cost. The farmer has free access to raw dairy consultant Tim Wightman who will help them balance their nutritional demands of their herd in addition to assisting with any questions they might have about raw milk production. Please support your raw dairy producer in becoming a member – if they can’t afford testing or FTCLDF membership then take the initiative to set up a donation fund – guaranteed they will quickly raise the $125 annual fee to join and additional funds for testing. Or, support them in increasing the cost of the milk to cover these two items.
Overall, be an informed consumer. Be confident in the choice to drink raw milk so you can educate your friends and family who will ask how you can be sure it’s safe. If you follow these procedures then you will be assured the milk you bring home is safe to drink. Once you bring your milk home make sure it’s kept covered in its container and refrigerated to 37-40 degrees F.
Consumers of raw milk in Oregon also have the responsibility to educate themselves on the high costs involved with producing hand crafted food on a small scale. If raw milk dairies are following the proper procedures for feeding and handling the cows and the milk, they are lucky if they cover the costs of production. It is a very difficult lifestyle to own dairy cows on this small scale. If you plan on enjoying the remarkable taste and health benefits of raw milk, plan on paying what it’s worth.