So you’re ready for RAW milk, now you are on the hunt for a good source of local, fresh, and SAFE raw milk.
It's not just a matter of "Oh, my neighbor has a cow and is selling milk!"
There are a few things you should ask about before deciding on a good source of fresh milk. As a dairy farmer myself, I will give you the inside, need-to-know info for making sure the milk you buy is good for your family!
The way to get this info and decide for yourself if it is healthy milk, is to visit the farm! This is very important for purchasing fresh milk. If the farmer denies your request for a visit, RED FLAG!
This time they spend with you can be very valuable, you should be able to see the animals and ask questions. However, if you are looking for a full tour of the farm and to spend some quality time with the farmer, it is not uncommon for farmers to ask for a donation for an hour long tour; $5-10. Farmers enjoy sharing their info, but for each individual customer it can be quite taxing and take away from work they could be doing to better their animals. Many farmers will have a set day they allow customers to visit, or if they have a farm store on-site they will likely host a tour on a certain day. Please don't be put-off if a farmer is not able to spend a lot of time with you. As long as they answer questions and seem trustworthy, that should suffice for this info.
When you arrive at the farm, look around.
Do the animals look healthy? (Note: dairy animals tend to look quite thin, so do not fret if you see their hip bones!)
Are they ankle-high in manure?
Do they have a large pasture area to roam and graze? (Note: While cows are grazers, goats are browsers--they prefer to eat bushes, tree leaves, etc. but will eat grass if none of those are available.)
Once you've had a look around the farm, here are some questions to ask your (potential) dairy farmer:
What kind of milk testing do they do for safety?
Coliform and somatic cell count tests (somatic cell not usually for goats) are pretty standard in large dairy operations, but unfortunately, not so common for very small dairy farms. They can indicate the possible presence of mastitis or a gap in the sanitation or milk handling process. Please see the safe handling of raw milk in our farm store. For cows somatic cells should be far below 100,000 mL (but preferably lower). If a farm is producing 5 gallons of milk or more a day, they should consider providing monthly milk tests. It is about $50 cost for each test with shipping. For the ease of mind and knowledge that you are providing your customers with the safest possible product, it is well worth charging a little more for the milk. And knowing your process works! If a farmer is unfamiliar with these tests, I would questions their understanding of safe milk handling... And probably not buy from them until they start testing and have safe results.
Johne's (pronounced "Yoh-nees") disease and paratuberculosis are two names for the same animal disease. Named after a German veterinarian*, this fatal gastrointestinal disease was first clearly described in a dairy cow in 1895. It causes thickening of the intestinal wall which prevents the animal from absorbing nutrients, severe weight loss, diarrhea, and eventually death. These animals will be eating but essentially starving to death.
The reason it is important to purchase milk from animals that test negative for Johnes is that this is the same mycobacterium that is seen in Crohn's disease, leading to the belief that consumption of animal products from Johnes-positive animals may be a contributing factor to Crohn's disease and potentially other bowel diseases. (The link between these two is highly debated with research on both sides. Based on the research I have done, I feel it is especially important to simply purchase milk from Johnes-negative animals when that milk will be given to small children and those with compromised immune systems).
In the U.S., it is estimated that 8% of the beef herds and 68% of the dairy herds contain at least one animal infected with this mycobacterium. This mycobacterium is not killed with pasteurization and a large percentage of milk from the grocery store may be from Johnes-positive animals, so buying fresh milk from a local farm with Johnes-negative animals is best.
There are other tests that can be done on animals to ensure they are healthy but generally, a small producer who keeps a close watch on each animal personally will see signs of illness and not sell that animal's milk to customers.
What Are Standard Animal Health Practices?What is the animal fed?
I knew a local farmer who sold raw milk from beautiful cows. This farmer claimed to be raising them on grass hay and organic feed. Upon further questioning, I discovered the source of these bales and that they had been treated with chemicals in order to prevent them from molding. This farmer did not know that information and was unknowingly feeding his cows chemically-sprayed hay.
It's important to buy milk from a knowledgeable farmer.
What kind of hay are they feeding their dairy animals? Is it sprayed with anything at all?
If it's alfalfa hay, is it Round Up Ready alfalfa?
Look at the hay yourself when you visit the farm? Is it yellow like straw from being sun-bleached or lush green like grass? Obviously, healthier milk will come from animals fed green hay!
For their milking grains, are they organic or transitional? If not, they are likely GMO.
(And yes, I believe it is 100% okay to drink milk from animals fed grains. Dairy animals are bred to produce such high amounts of milk that they cannot maintain their body condition from producing that much milk without grains. There are a select few dairy farmers who raise their animals without grains but costs are high and profit is likely to be very minimal so expect to pay more if your farmer knows what they are doing!)
What are they given for minerals?
Dairy cows and goats require a constant, free-choice supply of supplemental minerals to maintain their health. With a good-quality mineral supplementation, you can bet that the milk will be that much healthier for your family too!
In addition to these things, on our farm, we also give our goats free-choice organic kelp, raw organic apple cider vinegar and probiotics, which not only boosts our animals' health but the nutritional content of the milk as well!
What is used for parasite prevention/treatment?
What is the withdrawal time?
I'm not very familiar with cows on this topic, but when it comes to goats, parasites just come with the territory... They will be a constant battle, but it is not usually a huge problem. Raising goats without chemical dewormers, it is complicated, but possible. It invloves having a very nutritious diet with plenty of minerals and supplements, including copper, and access to fresh pasture or forage on a regular babsis. It also involves regular checkups on each animal to make sure their parasite load is not getting too hard on the animal. This includes checking for anemia and using the FAMACHA test which is very easy. When an animals is showing signs of heavy parasite loads there are plenty of herbal dewormers that can be used that do not promote parasite resistance and are completely safe for human consumption with out a withdrawal time. Unfortunately, the majority of dairy goat producers use regular annual treatment with chemical dewormers. Many of these are promoting resistance and have milk withdrawal times. Sadly, many farmers do not respect those milk withdrawal times. This means that the milk you are getting could have circulating chemical dewormers in them; products linked to birth defects, miscarriages, etc. It is imperative before buying goat or cow milk that you ask about their parasite prevention/treatment program! If they use words like "Ivermectin," "Safeguard," "Valbazen," etc., these are systemic poisons and should be avoided or consumed with caution.
Also ask your dairy farmer if there are any (other) medications used, such as non-theraputic antibiotics, when/how they are used, and what the withdrawal time is on those medications. If your farmer does not know the answer to the withdrawal time on them, that should be a RED FLAG!
Also, understand that a producer that claims that they NEVER use antibiotics, even as therapeutic use, might not have the best animal care practices. Antibiotics should always be a LAST resort for a sick animal, however, with-holding medication from a sick animal is cruel no matter how holistic your operation. In Organic Standard it is mandatory to give antibiotics to a sick animal who could benefit from them. In dairy production withdrawal times are respected and usually doubled for safety. For meat production these animals that have been treated with antibiotics must be culled from the Organic products, but can still be sold as long as it is transparent that they have received antibiotics for treatment and are not labeled Organic.
How is the Milk Cooled?
While large-scale producers will have stainless steel cooling tanks, smaller producers have to find other ways of cooling down milk quickly to keep pathogenic bacteria from forming. Simply placing milk in a refrigerator right away is not sufficient for cooling the milk down to ideal temperatures within the ideal time frame. For the minimum safety of milk it must go from 102F to 40F within 2 hours, this would be classified as Class D milk, it is technically safe, however, producers can easily do better. It is simple to submerge each jar into ice water or a semi frozen liquid like alcohol or propylene glycol in the freezer. If your producer is just putting milk in the fridge, do not buy it. They need to do better!
Check out this full explanation of grades and temperatures hereand why it's important.
Taste & Freshness
Taste and freshness are pretty good indicators of a dairy animal's health. For instance with goats, the milk will taste bitter and/or very "goaty" if the animal is overloaded with parasites or suffering from nutritional deficiencies. The milk will also tend to sour faster or taste off sooner than other fresh milk would. I find that milk from healthy animals should taste fresh for at least seven days. (And remember that unlike pasteurized milk, fresh, unpasteurized milk from healthy animals does not go bad; it simply sours.)
Having A Hard Time Finding Milk?
If you are having a hard time locating some fresh, unpasteurized milk in your area, here are some ideas: