Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Freezing milk in quarts, or cheese in smaller containers, is an easy way to preserve excess dairy production.
Every year, dairy animals such as goats produce too much milk, then too little, and homestead dairies have to be creative to avoid a cycle of waste before deprivation. In May and June, you’ll be flooded with milk, and by January or February you’ll be pining for those days of plenty. On our homestead, we used several methods of milk preservation and culinary planning to balance out these extremes and ensure we never had to buy milk even when our animals weren’t producing.
While you can stagger your breeding times to extend the milking season across several animals, this also creates more work and doesn’t easily fill the whole gap. Personally, we like having a period of time when we’re not tied to daily milking chores. On our homestead, we let the goats follow their normal cycle of fall breeding and spring kidding, creating the spring pulse of milk that slowly drops off over the summer. We generally dried the does off by the end of the year, a month or so after breeding, to allow their bodies to put energy into gestation. Thus there’s always a four-month gap of no fresh milk, sometimes longer depending on when we start back up again after kidding. Here are three approaches we’ve used on our homestead farm:
Freeze the Milk
It’s very easy to fill quart-sized containers with extra milk and chuck them in the freezer. This is especially useful during busy spring and summer planting times when time is tight, and can also temporarily help balance your freezer use. Freezers run most efficiently when they’re full, yet by spring and early summer most homestead freezers will have been largely emptied of the previous years’ stores, leaving temporary room for frozen milk. As a secondary benefit, this approach can also help buffer unforeseen shortages during the grazing season, for example if you need to discard milk due to animal health issues or medication.
We generally try to use ours within 6-7 months, using some as required for freezer space, and saving more for winter. The milk’s texture is usually a bit thinner and runnier than fresh, which may bother some drinkers, but as we don’t drink our milk, it’s not something we have an opinion about. Our primary use for thawed milk is to keep a yogurt culture going over the winter, as we easily eat a half-gallon of yogurt a week. A simple cheese like whole-milk ricotta is also easy to make with thawed milk, though we’ve had less success using it for aged cheese.
Make and Preserve Cheese
We find that fresh cheeses like chevre and whole-milk ricotta, which are very easy to make, also freeze well for the following winter. We’ll often use our milk abundance to make large batches of these cheeses, keeping a little out to eat fresh and freezing the rest in small containers. This is far more space- and energy-efficient than freezing whole milk, as cheese is much denser than milk, having removed the whey. You can also make hard cheeses, such as cheddar and gouda, which need to age anyway and thus “store” as part of their normal production. We tended to make 2 lb rounds at a time, storing/aging them in small, low-power-use wine cooler to maintain proper temperature and humidity. Making these in spring and early summer means the cheese will age about six months before you’re ready to eat it; cutting into your own wheel of aged cheese is an excellent salve for winter milk deprivation.
A basic wine cooler, like this Maitre’D from Danby, can properly store and age many wheels of hard cheese for later consumption.
Adjust Your Diet
We’ve long allowed our diet to follow the natural patterns of seasonal food production, rather than insist on having the same foods year-round. We eat an astounding amount of dairy when it’s abundant, and then replace those nutrients with other sources when it’s rare. This works quite well, as milk production peaks during the “hungry” months of spring and early summer, when other preserves are low and new crops like grains, beans, and potatoes aren’t yet ready. We butcher our meat supply in the fall, just as milk really starts to draw down, and eat through most of it by spring, when milk reappears. We don’t feel the need to have X amount of milk or Y amount of meat per day, as long as our seasonal and annual diets are well-balanced from the diverse, healthy foods we produce ourselves. This flexibility reduces the need to produce or preserve milk and other foods beyond what’s seasonal and convenient, freeing up time to do other things.
A Note About Whey
Making cheese produces a lot of whey, which is an excellent source of nutrition for people or animals. If you make cheese fresh during the milking season, the whey can be fed to chickens or pigs, used to start crocks of fermenting vegetables, added to home baking, used as a beneficial orchard spray, and so on. If you freeze milk for winter cheese-making, the whey then produced becomes an excellent source of mid-winter nutrition for a home chicken flock. Either way, don’t neglect the whey!
Freezing milk, making & preserving cheese, and eating seasonally can all help a homestead dairy get the most out of their animals with a minimum of waste or unnecessary work. With creativity, planning, and flexibility, you can enjoy your own dairy products year-round.
Eric and his wife, Joanna, founded their homestead farm in 2006, within a narrow Ozark-style valley with diverse landscapes and ecosystems. Chert Hollow Farm seeks to integrate food and farming into the ecosystem. He managed a home dairy goat herd from 2008 to 2014, and currently works part-time for a nearby artisanal goat dairy. Read all of Eric's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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