New book helps readers learn if dairy life is good fit for them
By Sue Wika
I’ll admit it. I was a fan of Gianaclis Caldwell before opening her most recent book, The Small Scale Dairy: The Complete Guide to Milk Production for the Home and Market. As I’m an avid homestead cheesemaker, Caldwell’s 2012 book Mastering Artisan Cheesemaking: The Ultimate Guide for Home-Scale and Market Producers occupies a place of prominence among my many cheesemaking guides. So my expectations were high for Caldwell’s treatment of small scale dairy farming.
Caldwell didn’t disappoint. Akin to her previous work, she skillfully discusses the culture, business, science, and the practical aspects of small scale dairying. After finishing 13 detailed chapters and profiles of dairy farmers from across the country, the reader will feel empowered with a firm grasp on what is entailed in starting and running a dairy.
The author writes from the vantage point of experience, based on her own raw goat’s milk cheese dairy. She has written a guidebook that offers support and ideas to those considering milk production as well as those already in the business.
The Small Scale Dairy is divided into four parts: the big picture of the small dairy; the philosophy, science, and art of the small dairy; designing and furbishing the model dairy; and moving beyond the bottle. In addition, the appendices provide supply and equipment sources, sample charts and forms, a sample milk purchase agreement, and sample processing and dairy barn floor plans—useful stuff!
As a sociologist dairy farmer, I’ll point out that most treatments of animal husbandry and farm business omit thorough coverage of one very important element—the farmer!
My favorite chapter is titled, “Is the Small Scale Dairy Right For You?” As often as I meet people who reflect on their dairy farm experiences who say “never again,” it seems I encounter an equal number of folks enamored with a pastoral life, complete with the routine and dedication demanded by dairy farming. If you fall into the latter, then read Chapter Two thoroughly. Caldwell discusses the importance of assessing your suitability for dairying.
For example, “Does your idea of a vacation involve getting up several hours earlier than normal to finish the chores in time to attend a raw-milk educational conference, then arrive home late, do chores again, and still get up on time the next morning?” Then you might be a dairy farmer.
Caldwell concludes that chapter with unbiased discussion of selecting the species (cow, doe, ewe) that might best fit one’s dairy business.
Speaking of business, the author provides helpful ideas for marketing milk, how to set prices, regulatory issues, and insurance and liability. I found her flowcharts and detailed worksheets quite helpful in thinking realistically about the business end of dairying.
In my years of working in local food systems, I’ve encountered a growing number of people clamoring for stand-out dairy products. If this niche appeals to you, then you’ll be well served by the detail Caldwell provides on how to help your dairy animals to make the best milk and how you need to treat the milk to keep it at its highest quality. I think that any dairy farmer is tickled when a customer comments on how the milk tastes so sweet or that their artisan cheeses present complex, titillating flavors. This doesn’t happen by accident, and it’s not typically due to one magic bullet. Good milk is the result of a multitude of factors.
Caldwell explains how superior milk is reliant on genetics, farm environment, animal well-being, and animal nutrition. She presents in-depth information on udder health, from the making of milk to best milking equipment (and that includes discussion and photos of hand-milking), to preventing and dealing with mastitis.
Quality milk is also highly contingent on post-milking handling. Caldwell provides detailed coverage of hygiene and temperature. For the handy and cash-strapped among us, Caldwell provides examples of how we can improvise our own remote milk chiller using a chest freezer and aquarium or water-feature submersible pump.
“The Milk House and Bottling Room” chapter begins with this premise: “Construction in a dairy can be summarized by a simple tenet— each room that represents a step forward in milk’s journey to the consumer must be proportionately better constructed, easier to clean, better illuminated, and more protected from outside contamination.”
Another chapter takes the mystery out of using and understanding laboratory milk tests. Caldwell reviews milk test lingo, as well as provides guidelines for doing your own lab tests.
And in today’s era, the book would be incomplete if it didn’t cover the topic of risk reduction. Caldwell covers the key principles of Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) and walks the reader through the steps of creating a risk-reduction plan to have in place prior to selling raw milk.
Caldwell is spot-on as she highlights the importance of healthy soil and good forage management for healthy animals and good milk. This is where art and observation enter the scene. The ability to “read” one’s animals and land takes time and experience.
Caldwell provides many practical suggestions in the housing and habitat chapter on animal containment. Both newbies and experienced farmers will pick up a few tips.
In our perennial forage-based small scale cow and goat dairy, the animals are moved strategically to maximize production, minimize parasites, and improve soil health. The goats are contained in paddocks surrounded by only two strands of electrified polywire. This is possible because we take time to train kids to electrified fencing in nursery paddocks. And, I’ll reinforce what Caldwell states: the best way to keep your animals in the paddock is to ensure the presence of quality feed inside the enclosure.
We do things a little differently from most in our small scale dairy: We dam-raise our kids and calves; we milk once daily; and we “milk-through” (only freshening the animal every two to four years). This style of dairy management best fits our life and business. Small scale dairying is not etched in stone—there are ample opportunities for adaptation.
At the end of the book, the author turns to domestic art and some enjoyable end products of a well-run dairy—fermented milks: yogurt, kefir, cultured butter and buttermilk, as well as crème fraiche and sour cream. Caldwell is an award-winning cheesemaker, and her attention to process and detail are evident in the provided recipes.
In sum, I’m glad Caldwell wrote this book. Caldwell’s passion for dairy farming exudes from the pages. As a sustainable farming educator I indeed would recommend this book as essential to anyone contemplating beginning a small dairy. Likewise, I would endorse this book for those who currently operate a small scale dairy and who might be considering taking it to the next level of direct sales and additional processing. In addition, farm-fresh milk lovers will benefit by knowing how to source the most nutritious milk possible.
Dairy farming is a particularly celebratory form of agriculture. Every day is like your birthday: you receive a delicious gift from your land and your girls. Savor that excitement as you build your small scale dairy.
Sue Wika and her partner, Tom Prieve, operate Paradox Farm near Ashby, Minn. She and Tom are sustainable food production educators for the Sustainable Farming Association.
From the July | August 2014 Issue