Making Dairy Products From a Milch Cow

Eleanor Wrigley describes one winter when her heifer loses a calf during birthing and becomes a milch cow. She describes making dairy products and enjoying the fruits of her labor such as cheese and butter.
By Eleanor Wrigley
January/February 1975
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This miniature Hereford makes a delightful addition to the farm.
PHOTO: FOTOLIA/SASKIA MASSINK


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Eleanor Wrigley's heifer loses a calf one winter and becomes a milch cow. Eleanor starts making dairy products from the colostrum and the milk, thereafter, and enjoys homemade butter and cheese. 

According to the calendar, today was the first day of spring. Eight inches of new snow have covered any evidence that might prove it, and the old layer is still several feet deep. We keep joking about the return of the Ice Age. Up here in northern Alberta, though, the idea of glaciers isn't really very funny.

When I turned the horses out of the barn this morning I was appalled at how emaciated Celtie looked. She's the biggest of the three, and she went into the winter round and sleek. Her bones are showing now. Because our hay crop was poor last summer, we're running low on fodder and have had to switch the horses to barley straw, with oats morning and evening. That's enough to carry them through till green grass, and the smaller two look fine . . . but on Celtie, the change of diet is obvious.

Horses aren't the only livestock we've had to worry about this winter. Last fall we bought two heifers . . . pasture-bred, so we had no idea when they would deliver. The first calf came one night when Bob had a broken finger and I was violently ill with "stomach flu", as it's called here (I'm rarely sick, but this was something else). By the time Bob and a neighbor got the calf — a bull — pulled out, it was dead.

If I had it to do over again, I wouldn't buy heifers to learn on. They almost always need help birthing . . . and time is crucial. The trouble is that as the calf comes down the birth canal the cord is scraped and pinched by the cow's pelvic girdle and the connection between mother and young is cut off. Before the baby is actually born it's already on its own and, if calving is slow, as with a heifer (a cow bred for the first time), the contractions keep the newborn from breathing even if its nose is clear of the birth passage.

Another potential problem is that — unlike a human baby, which is all head and nothing much to follow — a calf is big around the pelvis and may get "hip-locked". This is compounded by the fact that many farmers breed their cows to bulls of larger types in order to get huskier offspring. Our neighbor to the east owns the biggest spread around and has been using Charolais bulls with his Hereford-Angus herd. It's not surprising that right now, at the height of calving season, our local vet (his office is 30 miles away) has been averaging 15 Caesareans a day next door . . . at a daily cost of $300.

Sometimes, when a cow labors in vain long enough, she just closes up and there's no way to get the young one out. Another of our neighbors, Bill Dixon, had a calf hip-locked. He was using a calf-puller . . . a machine that looks like something left over from a medieval torture chamber. It's essentially a long steel bar with a wide fork on one end that goes against the back of the cow's "thighs". There's a winch on the other extremity and its steel cable is attached to a chain, the ends of which are looped around the calf's ankles.

Anyway, Bill's calf-puller bent, losing him valuable time . . . so he got out his biggest tractor and hitched it to the calf. Then he found he was just pulling the mother backward around the barnyard, and tied her to a big tree. The tractor dug a hole in the ground. Still no calf. No cow either, of course.

We were lucky — we salvaged Buttercup, the heifer in trouble — but we felt terrible about losing the youngster. On a subsistence farm you can't afford slip-ups like that.

Before he left, our neighbor said, "If you want a milch cow, be sure to milk her as soon as she gets up." I couldn't imagine being able to do anything of the kind. Buttercup had been a range animal when we got her and, even though we'd barned her every night since then, the heifer was so freaky you couldn't keep a hand on her. Besides, although I'd been dealing with the goats ever since we moved up here last July, I'd never milked a cow before.

The heifer stayed down all day, and so did I. Then, at suppertime, Bob reported that she was up . . . and I rose and dressed and took my pail to the barn, full of misgivings. I shouldn't have worried! Buttercup mooed once — a lovely deep sound — smelled me and then, I think, decided I was her calf. Her udder, I found, works the same as a goat's (except much more copiously). She was as shaky around the knees as I was, but the two of us managed to fill the pail with more milk than the three does had been giving. (We used this colostrum to make custard, thanks to the colostrum recipes in MOTHER EARTH NEWS.)

Buttercup continues to be delightfully easy to milk and she's never given me the slightest trouble. I don't even tie her . . . just kneel, press my head against her side and get on with it. (Bob says I smell of cow, even when I'm wearing some of my left-over-from-the-city Chanel No. 19 . . . but he claims he likes it.)

I find it best to work from the side of the cow that enables my stronger hand — the left — to handle the rear teats (they contain the greater quantity of milk). Actually, though, sometimes I operate from one side and sometimes from the other. I have this crazy theory that it's best not to get any animal stuck into more grooves than you have to. Livestock easily get habituated to doing things just so: being fed, milked and let out of the barn at the same time every day, for example. It is important to tend them consistently, but a critter so habit-ridden that you can't milk it unless it's in exactly the right place — or can't harness it except from the left side — is a nuisance at times when you can't fulfill the requisite conditions. Suppose you're driving to the vet and have to milk in the truck, or for some reason must put the animal into a different stall . . . or what if an emergency comes up and a neighbor has to do your chores for you in your absence?

Well, anyway, now we have a milk cow. The timing worked out fine: Two of the goats are nursing twin kids, and the third doe is due to deliver next month . . . so we simply stopped milking them and switched over to Buttercup. Bob and I both got one terrific case of diarrhea at the time of the changeover — I suspect it was the difference in bacteria — but it lasted only 24 hours.

We get about two gallons of milk a day (Buttercup is not a dairy breed but a Hereford-Shorthorn cross). That's plenty for drinking, yogurt and cottage cheese. I have no separator, so I skim off the cream with a ladle and end up with enough to make approximately two pounds of butter a week (a real turn-on for me . . . with goats we never had the cream).

I've tried making butter with both sweet and soured cream and we find we prefer to age the liquid slightly, so I let it set out at room temperature for a day before use. I have an old patent churn, a glass jar with a screw-on top which has a sort of eggbeater arrangement built into it. The cream needs to be a little on the cool side (about 62°) at churning time . . . and I know when the butter "comes" because the feel and sound of the action change.

I'm a book farmer (although I also talk to local folks about how-to) and all the manuals I've checked make a big fuss about "gathering" the butter and "grains the size of wheat". Forget it. I simply drain off the buttermilk, dump the solid remainder into a bowl and pour some cold water over it. Then I squeeze the mass against the side of the dish to remove the milk as I change the water twice. When the liquid runs clear, I add and work in about 1/4 teaspoon of salt per pound of butter. One of my guides cautions against smearing the spread too much in the process, so I just sort of press it and turn it . . . like kneading bread dough. The product is very pale: "winter butter", my neighbors explain.

Buttermilk, by the way, makes delicious cottage-type cheese. Bring the fluid to blood heat — the point at which it feels neither warm nor cold to your fingers — and let it stand an hour and a half. Then warm it to 140° and keep it at about that temperature until the curd sinks. (I'm getting a lot of use out of my dairy thermometer ... it's probably my hardest worked kitchen tool.)

I've been making cured cheese, too. We cut into the first round today: a delicious, white, semi-soft and slightly salty Muenster type. Two more wheels are aging down in the basement.

I recommend Richard Langer's Grow It! ($8.95) and Helen Walsh's Starting Right With Milk Goats ($3.00) — both available from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Bookshelf — for good, clear cheesemaking instructions . . . but I've also improvised a little. For example, after the curd has drained (which means essentially that you've made cottage cheese) it has to be packed into a cheese hoop. Well, who has a cheese hoop? Instead, I used a can opener to take the top and bottom out of a jam tin. Jam and peanut butter both come in the right-sized container around here, but you could use a coffee can.

I then set my "cheese hoop" in a piepan, cut off enough cheesecloth to line the container, pack in the curds and fold the cloth over the top (without bunching it up . . . I want my cheese nice and flat and even). Next I put the cut-out bottom of the can on top of the curds and weight it down with a quart jar full of water. During the day I pour off any whey that collects in the pan, and the next day I change the quart jar for a half-gallon one and take the whole business down into the cellar.

In a couple of days I remove the cheese from the hoop, carefully take off the cheesecloth, slip the round back into the mold and stand it on its side for two days so the air can get at both top and bottom. Then off comes the hoop entirely, and the cheese just lies in state on a board for three days. During that time I wipe it with a damp cloth (if there's mold I add a dollop of vinegar to the water). Then, on each of the next two days, I rub one tablespoon of salt into the rind. The wheel we cut into today was a little over two weeks old and well worth the trouble . . . which isn't really much when you get into it.

I was thinking today while I shoveled horse manure out of the barn that one of the joys of being a farmer is the possibility it provides for the exercise of that most human art, innovation. Mixing feed is like working in a laboratory: measuring out a little of this and a bit of that, trying new proportions to see how the animals like it, changing the formula for a pregnant goat, substituting something for an ingredient you can't get. Farming is constant experimentation.

Just one example: We tried leaving a heat lamp turned on in the chickenhouse 24 hours a day during January, in hopes of getting more eggs during a low-production time . . . and got no eggs at all. When we killed a couple of hens (not for retaliation, for fricassee), we found that their ovaries seemed atrophied. I think we messed up the birds' internal timetables. So we tied the heat lamp into our regular lighting system, with a timer that turns the electricity on and off to provide 14 hours of "daylight" and warmth . . . but leaves the flock's quarters co-o-o-old at night. Sure enough, eggs again. (When we put in the timer system, we were amused to find that some of our neighbors felt such things are unfair to hens . . . but we had eggs to sell early this winter when nobody else was getting any.)

Anyway, first day of spring seems like a good time to take stock, stand back and think over the winter. I'm amazed at how painless it was. You see, I've never liked cold weather. I grew up in Massachusetts, went to college in Ann Arbor, Michigan and have lived in diverse parts of the U. S., from Rhode Island to Florida and California. I had thought Berkeley's climate was just about perfect but I take it all back . .. it's too static.

Fifty below zero is scary only when you haven't experienced it. You learn to dress for comfort instead of style . . . and warm clothing is inexpensive and easy to come by up here. I got a down-insulated parka for $27.00 last fall, some Ski-Doo mitts with leather palms for $4.00 and some fancy snowmobile boots with felt liners for $17.00. On really cold days we put on two pairs of long johns under our jeans, with a pair of big, baggy wool trousers (mine are Army surplus) over the top. We may look tacky, but we're cozy warm. I haven't been uncomfortable all winter, and I spent a good deal of time out in the weather.

In general the cold is exhilarating and it's stimulating to match wits with Mother Nature. All the same, you learn to take the bitter with the sweet . . . and vehicles are generally a part of the bitter. I have to admit I don't care for dragging cars and trucks out of snowdrifts, and I downright hate crawling around under them putting on chains. And they're always breaking down in really icy weather, just when you need them most. One of the first things you learn here is never to go out in a car or truck without being dressed warmly enough to survive if your transport gives out and you have to walk five miles.

What's really surprising about all this is that I'll be 42 years old this spring. Until last July when we moved to the farm, I'd never done anything more physically demanding than rock-dancing. I had a fulltime desk job and ran a city household complete with dishwasher and cleaning woman. Yet, since last summer, Bob and I have put in and harvested a garden (just used up the last of our carrots and are reduced to eating the plastic supermarket kind . . . blech!), broken eight acres, built a farmhouse complete with fieldstone fireplace (the fieldstones were harvested from our new breaking, which next summer will be planted to alfalfa and oats) and performed the necessary slavery involved in keeping three horses, two cows, three goats — now seven — and thirty chickens. We'll add some pigs and sheep this year.

Our running water runs when the pump handle goes up and down and we own a wood-burning furnace that keeps us chopping. The propane that makes the refrigerator cold and the cookstove hot always runs out late at night in bad weather. The toilet (euphemistically called "chemical") contains a pail that has to be carried some distance to a compost pile which will one day feed my flowerbeds . . . hard work in deep snow.

And? And if I have to spend the precious 25 or so years of the rest of my life exactly as I've spent the last eight month — often weary, usually dirty, at times frantically busy — I will consider myself richly blessed.

Well, must go check Daisy (the other heifer) again. She's been promising delivery any minute for a week now, so we're looking at her every two hours night and day (the view gets rather boring). The last time I saw her she was standing out in the snow switching her tail like crazy, and there sure aren't any flies around today. Maybe something's happening . . . hope we get a live calf this time.

Late bulletin: There's more bull around this place than ever . . . a miniature Hereford, and he's delightful!


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