Toward a Resilient Personal Food Strategy – Part 5 – Milk, Yogurt, and Cheese

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This is the fifth in a series of articles on our progress in devising a resilient food strategy. Monday we talked about bread and grains; Tuesday we dealt with vegetables; yesterday our focus was fruits; today our focus is on milk, yogurt, and cheese.


We’ve done less thinking about this group than any other category save fats and sweets. From time to time we’ve tinkered around with owning a milk cow, but the conversation has never been serious. The size of a milk cow seems frightening, for starters. A mature Holstein weighs in at about 1400 lb. So if the family cow needs attention, there’ll be no loading her up in the back of the pickup truck to take her to the vet. We’ll just have to wait for the vet to come see us.

That doesn’t mean we could never own a cow, of course. Amanda’s Mom grew up with a cow in her back yard in Troy, AL. Cows are docile, good grazers, and can produce milk reliably for years. We may decide at some point that keeping a cow makes sense for us. When and if we do, however, we’ll need to provide suitable pasture (right now we have none) and indoor protection from the cold. We read from time to time about allowing cows to graze in the forest, but the jury is still out on whether that’s an acceptable practice.

So owning a cow seems unlikely to be a near-term strategy. Dairy goats seem more within the realm of possibility. Goats browse readily in wooded areas, although they need to be moved to fresh areas all the time and are escape artists of the first order, so the fences (or other measures) for confining them need to be robust. Goats are curious and friendly, so there’s a cuteness factor that we must consider. Milking a goat is less daunting than milking a cow, because the goat is smaller. We don’t expect to keep any males on hand (they stink and are more belligerent), so we would need to interact regularly with someone who has a stable of males available. And we would need to be constantly vigilant to protect their health. For all their vaunted willingness to eat anything, goats aren’t all that hardy. They succumb easily to pests, disease, and other ailments.

The problem we face whenever we move from our present farming to incorporating livestock is the requirement that somebody be here all the time, or at least that somebody spend considerable time here every day. That’s a material increase in our commitment to the farm and to the farming process. Here and now, I would have to say we’re not ready for that, not only because it would keep us more tied down to the farm but also because it would require that we acquire a whole new skill set at a time when we’re still early in the learning curve for growing plants. We’ll hold off on the cows and goats at least for a while.

We don’t absolutely have to have milk. Any vegan knows that the human body can get along just fine without dairy products. So as in many things, this comes down to a question of the preference Amanda and I have for milk on our cereal, for yogurt in Amanda’s lunches, and for cheese. We could omit it from our diet if necessary and get our calcium from collards, broccoli, and turnip greens, but we’d rather not.

If we could buy raw milk, we could at least make our own yogurt and cheese. We’re always on the lookout for raw milk available for purchase, but the dairy lobby has made the purchase of raw milk extremely difficult, and there are precious few dairy farmers in central Alabama. Our understanding is that any dairy farmer who sells us raw milk would have to do so on the basis of a tacit (or stated) understanding that we’re using it to feed all our cats. So we fear that, at least for the time being, we’re stuck spending money off the farm for dairy products. Not much of a plan for resilience, is it? I’m giving us a D rather than an F simply because dairy products are not essential for our survival.

Strengths: plenty of land for browsing for goats
Weaknesses:
Not willing to stay on the farm all the time to care for livestock, lack of pasture land for cows
Key Projects:
Find raw milk available for purchase

Overall grade: D

Tomorrow’s focus: (5) Meat, beans, and nuts

4 thoughts on “Toward a Resilient Personal Food Strategy – Part 5 – Milk, Yogurt, and Cheese”

  1. Let me begin by saying that cattle (not just one cow) as well as other livestock makes sense for you NOW.

    About Cows:

    First a Holstein would be an absolutely horrible fit for Longleaf breeze. Holsteins have been bred over hundreds of years, as I’m sure you know, for massive milk production. This may lead you to conclude that that they are the ideal milk cow; they are if you have a factory farm farm and truck right to the pen every bite of food that they ever eat or have many FLAT acres of IDEAL grazing for EACH cow. The thing about Holsteins is that because they’re milk production is so high that at any given time they are on the brink of starvation. The food intake of such a cow has to be massive and available without much effort. If such a cow had to graze for all her food at Longleaf breeze she would likely die of starvation simply because the effort of walking up and down hills and long distances she would have to walk daily to get to the sparse woodland forage would be greater than her caloric intake. Even eating all day a Holstein would not likely be in good health. Also working against the Holstein would be it’s size. It would be difficult for such a large cow to navigate the narrow passes between trees to reach forage and also up and down the hills. Additionally as you mentioned cows of this size require specialized equipment like cattle catches, barns, and trailers.

    A Heritage breeds would be a much better fit for the hills of Longleaf breeze. Irish dexters for example are much smaller than average cows so much so that they are called miniature. They are used for both meat and milk. Scottish Highland cattle quite small and therefore adept at grazing on steep Scottish hillsides. The breed is also exceedingly tolerant of the cold and good at finding forage beneath the snow. They are also much cuter than Holsteins. I don’t know how well they tolerate the heat though. Lastly but not least is the Zebu breed. This is a breed of cattle that evolved from a different subspecies than European cattle(Zebus are from India) and unlike all other miniature breeds they evolved to be the size that they are. They were not bred down from a larger breed, Brahmas were bred up from them. They are good for both meat and milk. A fabulous dual purpose breed. Miniature Zebu cattle date back to at least 3000 B.C. and are thought to be the world’s oldest domesticated breed, known for being tough and hardy. Mature cows should weigh between 300 and 500 pounds and bulls from 400 to 600 a much more manageable size for the small farmer. This also means that their housing structures can be smaller and that they will be able to easily navigate the woods of Longleaf breeze. Also, since they are small you can have a small herd on the same land that you could have just a few large cows. This means that you can have a few calves every year and a continued supply of meat and milk should any of your herd succumb to illness, accident, or predation which will eventually happen despite all precaution.

    That brings me to my next topic: woodland grazing. The jury is definitely in. All the cows we ever owned were allowed to go into the woods and graze free choice which they did quite often. They ate whatever they found there and none of them ever got sick from it, not did it hurt the woods. They often took shelter from heat or cold winter winds in the woods. Out neighbor has quite a large herd and always let his cows graze in the woods free choice. In fact I have never known of anyone keeping their livestock out of the woods for fear that grazing there would harm them. I find the idea quite strange.

    Also, you mentioned that you don’t have suitable pasture; that meadow on the other side of the creek seems like fine pasture. It would also be improved by grazing, which is really good for grass and the manure will keep it naturally fertilized building up the soil year after year. Additionally some of the flatter hilltops could be cleared or thinned out in order to sustain more grass. Wild muscadines grow fine in the shade and both cows and goats will readily eat them. I think though that the land you have would sustain a small herd just as it is. Once there is grazing by cattle they will naturally keep the brush down since they will eat small trees and shrubs when they are just seedlings. (usually they just eat the leaves, which still kills the seedlings) Also, grazing will cut down on you maintenance some. You would no longer need to mow the trails as much, cattle will eat what is open and easy to get too first. We had an old logging road that our cattle always kept clear.

    Goats: Billy goats do stink, but that is mostly during the breeding season. Also, you won’t be petting him or anything. It’s unlikely that you will close enough for his smell to really bother you on a regular basis. Also, if you had one that was really that bad you could just pen him up separately far away from the house. You do have eighty eight acres after all. This would keep you from having to locate a breeder goat. We always had billys when we had goats and so did my grandparents. Goats are good birthers and can breed, give birth, and raise their young with very little help. Goats will also eat many more things than either horses or cows. Goats have small mouths and nimble tongues and so can eat the leaves off of briers and other thorny plants without being pricked, and they WILL.(Don’t let them near the roses) Also goats LOVE LOVE LOVE kudzu and will graze it so hard that it will likely be completely gone in a few years. Goats also eat plants that are poisonous without being harmed. The way they manage this is by eating only a few bites of everything they graze so they end up eating poisonous plants but in very small doses which leave them unharmed. Goats will also greatly contribute to the clearing of your underbrush and leave your land much more accessible In all my experience with goats they seemed to be fairly hardy. Their only weakness being to worms but a biennial worming took care of that.

    You spoke of the time commitment being a concern. You need not be on the farm all the time, just once a day. Animals are pretty resilient and can pretty much be left to their own devices most of the time. You need to bring them in at night, we never made any of our animals come into a barn at night. They will find shelter if they want it. All they need is access. Also, they can be trained to come home at night if you feel they need to be penned for protection. Our cattle would spend the night out most of the time even in the winter; they would move to the more sheltered holler or the woods though if it was windy.

    You mentioned that you would have to spend a considerable time on the farm everyday. This would be only if you wanted to milk your animals, which of course would take time daily. However, another option would be only to milk the livestock for a few weeks after they weaned their young in the spring. This could supply you with the raw milk to make a years supply of cheese without having the year round time commitment of milking daily. Also, cattle and livestock need not be constantly watched. My uncle who has several hundred head of cattle has cattle on property he doesn’t even live by. He does go and check on them daily usually but if your livestock doesn’t need to be penned at night or fed daily the can left overnight or for the weekend easily.

    Also other livestock such as waterfowl needs very little attention. I only walk down to the pond once a day to feed my ducks and geese. This takes me about fifteen minutes. The rest of the 24:45 they are left to graze and bath according to their own will. Overall my waterfowl are very very low maintenance and graze for quite a lot of their own food. I only feed them to supplement what they graze. They could probably do without my food all together. if they were fo A flock of ducks with a couple of big loud African geese to protect them would do just fine at Longleaf breeze. Especially a variety like Moscovies which can roost in trees or flying mallards which can easily fly to escape predators. Also waterfowl can easily swim away from predators.

    The human body may be able to get along just fine without dairy products, but not if that human body no longer has fossil fuel to bring out of season food long distances. You may not need to DRINK milk daily, but cattle and goats and exceptionally good and one thing. That is making grass which is inedible in all it’s forms(except of course the seed i.e. corn, wheat, etc.) into a form that is edible by humans, i.e. meat and milk. They perform this miracle of transubstantiation all year day in day out. Also, let us not forget that cheese is a form of dairy that can be stored for up to a year. Cheddar in fact is not even ready for several months. This ability to store this food is important for lean times when crops may not come in or are otherwise spoiled or unavailable. Also both cattle and goats can be used as draft animals as well as for food. Milk has always been an important form of nutrition for those people who lived in climates that get cold. Mongolians sustained themselves on mares milk on the grassy plains where there was little else to eat and during the long cold Mongolian winters. Vegans may argue that drinking milk or eating any dairy products is unnatural. If that is so I would say that so is importing tofu from China and eating a banana north of Cuba but that doesn’t seem to have stopped them any. I would also argue that eating dairy IS natural. Homo sapiens became the master race by devising clever ways to ensure a steady plentiful source of nutrition. Milk is it.

    As I said earlier a few weeks of milking in the summer would provide enough milk to make a years supply of certain types of cheese. Even if you don’t think you will use them for meat, starting to build a heard now is smart. You can slowly build up your heard as you increase and improve your grazing land and your knowledge and abilities grow. This would also be cheaper than buying cows or goats ready to milk and one spring when you think you’re ready you can start milking.

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