The Laborious Business of Raw Milk
As one of only eleven licensed producers of raw milk in the entire state of Illinois, there seems to be endless demand for the product while our production capacity has remained relatively stagnant over the last 3-4 years. In fact, drinking raw milk now seems to be the cool thing amongst the younger generations who are becoming disenfranchised with all the "fake" milks they grew up on (soy milk, oat milk, almond milk, etc.) My favorite newspaper , The Free Press, recently published an interesting article on the trendiness of raw milk.
So we have a steady stream of new customers calling and emailing the farm every day looking for raw milk, while our existing customers are frustrated because they can't get it anymore due to all the new customers. And everyone is unhappy because there is never enough to go around. "Why don't you just get more cows?" is the most common question we hear. The second most common is "Why does it cost so much?" (usually from the uninformed). And then of course "How early do I need to get here for milk?"
So today I want to address all of those questions with a very detailed explanation of how much labor it takes for us to produce raw milk, the challenges we face in increasing production, and our plan moving forward to eliminate the long morning milk line at the farm store.
MILK SALES GOING FULLY ONLINE THIS SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 19TH
In fact, for those that want to skip the extensive details of our daily cow care routine and want to know about how we get rid of the daily milk line, I will start with that topic.
Beginning this Sunday, and every weekend day after, the store team will check our milk production levels in the barn, and then will release for sale on our website the exact number of gallons we have available to sell that day, typically we can begin taking orders between 8:15 and 8:30 AM. Orders successfully placed that morning must be picked up that day before 5 PM closing time on weekends. As always there is a 2 gallon limit (4 jars) per customer per day. Please bring your own wide-mouth jar.
On weekdays, when the store opens at 10 AM, we will release for sale the daily milk production between 9:15 and 9:30 AM, and all orders placed that morning must be picked up before store closing at 6 PM. Follow this link to our online milk sales page.
While this new system in not ideal, it does allow us to avoid the many unhappy customers who drive to the farm, wait in line for milk, and then go home frustrated and unhappy if they end up not getting any milk.
For those of you curious about our production limitations and all the labor that goes into producing grass-fed raw milk, please read on.
Guernsey Heifers with Annalise, Anna's favorite cow
THE DAILY DAIRY CHORES
Most of our customers can envision the daily routine of milking the cows ... and yes the actual milking process takes anywhere from 60-90 minutes, twice a day to milk our current group of 20-24 cows. But what is less obvious is all the preparation work that goes into getting the cows milked, the cleanup after milking, and all the daily tasks that go into feeding and caring for a herd of well over 40 grass-fed dairy cows. Here is a detailed breakdown of a typical day in the growing season (slightly different than winter)
5:30 - 6:00 AM - first person in starts the sanitizer cycle for the milking equipment and begins setting up the milk parlor with teat wipes, CMT buckets, cleaning rags, and mineral rations to be fed to the cows during milking. 2nd person heads out to the pasture to bring the cows in from their overnight grazing paddock. Depending how far out from the barn they are in the pasture rotation this may take anywhere from 30-45 minutes to get them back to the barn. While out there we move the water tank to the next paddock and setup fencing so they are on fresh grass when they return from milking.
6:30-6:45 AM - cows are back in the holding area of the barn and we begin moving them into the milking parlor which can hold a maximum of four cows at a time for milking. Each cow has to be meticulously cleaned with antimicrobial teat wipes and sometimes paper towels if they are very muddy or dirty . After cleaning we test the milk from all four quarters of each cow for high somatic cell count which is an indicator of mastitis. They are then dipped with iodine teat dip, wiped off again with a clean paper towel, and then the milking units are placed on the cow to start the milking process. Typical time is 8 - 12 minutes for each cow, some go faster than others. Usually if we have two milkers the entire time we can get through all the cows in about 65-70 minutes, but often one milker has to run off and do other chores so more often we are milking for a full 90 minutes.
8:00 - 9:00 AM - morning milking is completed and the cows are led back out to their morning pasture rotation by one farmhand, the other begins cleaning the barn, milk parlor, and milking equipment. After the barn is cleaned then both members of the morning crew usually tend to other livestock chores including chick care, pig care, turkey care, and broiler moves.
10:00 - 12:00 Noon - during this part of the day we would sometimes be working on dairy-related tasks such as cleaning out the loafing yard, turning the dairy compost, maintaining the dairy pastures or fencelines.
2:30 - 4:00 PM - one of the afternoon shift members would drive out to the pasture and setup the dairy grazing paddocks for the following day (moving electric fencing). After that they would begin pushing the cows back toward the barn for the evening milking, if they are at the far end of the field this could take up to 45 minutes.
Around 3:15 PM - the other member of the afternoon crew would begin cleaning out the bulk tank in the barn, sanitizing the milking equipment, and setting up the parlor for milking.
4:00 - 5:30 PM - evening milking assuming no problems or issues with young heifers or calves is usually completed by 5:30.
5:30 - 6:30 PM - clean the milking equipment, parlor, and barn, push the cows back out to their evening grazing paddock.
During the grazing season we also check on all the animals (pigs, chicks, turkeys, layers, cows, broilers) before leaving for the evening, to make sure all the automatic waterers and fences are working and everyone is where they are supposed to be. If all goes well the evening crew is ready to leave the farm by 7:00 PM.
Other less routine dairy-related tasks that we have to work on include time spent cleaning out their shelter (mostly winter-related), cleaning and moving their field water, assisting with calving when needed, and occasional vet visits to check pregnancies, or tend to other ailments that pop up from time to time. We also collect and submit a milk test to the lab once per month, and do a deep clean of the parlor and milk room every week. During the winter we don't have to manage pastures but we do have to feed them hay twice per day into 3 feeders, and also transport and manage the hay inventory.
Total Weekly Hours devoted to Cow Care + Milking ~ 13 hours/day x 7 days = 91 Hours.
OTHER MILK-RELATED TASKS
The farm store team also has to transport the raw milk from the barn tank into the store tank, clean and sanitize the heavy stainless-steel transport cans, clean out the store tank at the end of each day, and work with customers to pour milk, answer phone calls and emails about milk, and in general deal with a lot of milk-related issues. We estimate the store team spends approximately 3-4 hours per day on milk-related tasks.
Adding up the hours, 91 hours per week on the Operations side, and about 24 hours on the store side, we need to allocate approximately 115 labor hours per week to the raw milk enterprise. Spreading that cost over the production from 20-24 cows results in a very high labor expense per gallon of milk.
WHY NOT GET MORE COWS?
When we began leasing the Brunner Forest Preserve site back in 2015, we decided to build a modern milking parlor inside the long-abandoned barn, and the plan was to build a space that would accomodate up to 24 milking cows given our limitations on pasture accessible to the barn as well as cow yard and shed space. We could get a few more, but then we are running short of pasture and sleeping areas in the winter. So for that location, 24 cows is really the maximum we can milk given the resources available.
FUTURE PLANS FOR OUR RAW MILK BUSINESS
If we were sharp business people and true capitalists, we would keep raising the price of our raw milk until demand was reduced to equal supply. That would also likely make it profitable even with the high labor input. However, our mission is really to feed our community with healthy, nutrient-dense foods that are good for them and for the planet, so we don't really want to get too aggressive on pricing. We just need to earn enough money to pay the bills and keep the farm going.
So, instead we will go to online sales only to eliminate the long lines this weekend. On March 1st we will introduce a Loyalty Program, and we will encourage all customers that want raw milk to enroll in the program so we can begin tracking their purchases. Our most loyal customers will be able to reserve milk in the near future, and our Farm VIPs will even have the opportunity to enroll in our herdshare program which has been closed to new participants for the past five years.
And finally, we are changing things up with our daily milking routine. On March 1st, we will also transition to once-a-day milking (mornings only). While this will greatly reduce our labor hours and make scheduling our operations staff much easier, it will also likely reduce our milk production to some extent. We won't know by how much until we start.
However, we are excited that Nicole Broda, our Dairy Grazing Apprentice graduate for the last 2 1/2 years, has agreed to take over management of our dairy operation in March and she will be milking the Moo Crew six days per week. With her consistent oversight, plus a bunch of new Guernsey heifers that we will be bringing into production over the next year, we expect to increase the amount of raw milk we will have available for customers.
Cliff, Anna, and the Farm Team