Milk is food. Commercial dairy farmers are under so much pressure to increase milk production and cut costs that they often overlook that fact. As far as I know, there are no economic incentives for commercial farmers who are shipping milk to commodity markets to produce better-tasting milk.
The Quest for Better-Tasting Milk
If you’re not familiar with the pasteurization process, you can read all about it here. It all goes on the truck and is eventually blended with milk from many other farms anyway. I believe the very noticeable decline in the flavor of fluid milk in the U.S. is responsible for a nearly 50% decline in per capita consumption of fluid milk in since 1950. Even dairy industry insiders quietly admit consumers have forgotten what good milk tastes like. This is your marketing opportunity!
When you are selling your milk directly to your customers, it is extremely important to pay attention to and be knowledgeable about milk flavor, shelf life and safety. Those are the prime factors that determine the reputation your milk and brand will enjoy in the marketplace.
Study after study shows that word of mouth is the most important marketing tool for any business. Your customers will speak well of your milk if it has a good, clean flavor and reliable shelf life. We pasteurize our milks using a Low Input – Low Impact (LiLi) system is gentle on milk, resulting in a safe and delicious pasteurized product that can be sold on its own or used in various dairy products.
Note: For better or worse, your customers will simply assume your milk is safe. So it is extremely important to make sure that it is — for their sake and your own.
Controlling for Disease: Mastitis, Staph Aueus and More
Milk flavor is every bit as complex as the flavor of wine. Good-tasting milk starts with the health and diet of your cows. Needless to say, cows need to be healthy and milk cannot be tainted by mastitis, blood from injury, medications, etc.
Discard any milk that does not meet these qualifications. Mastitis, or an infection in a cow’s udder, is a topic that is far too complex to discuss in this blog post. I suggest carefully researching on your own if you are or are planning to milk cows.
Staph Aureus mastitis is incurable and highly contagious. The infection is not always evident. It comes and goes. Test a sample of your milk for it and if your milk tests positive for Staph-A, test each cow individually. Be sure to take milk from all four quarters for the sample. Isolate the infected cows and, at the very least, milk infected cows last.
In the end, it may be best to bite the bullet and remove them from you herd. Remember: Test all cows you are planning to buy for Staph A before you agree to buy them.
A Cow’s Diet Impacts Her Milk
Your cows’ diet or ration has a major impact on your milk’s flavor. It needs to be properly balanced — for example, feeding long-stem hay in some form is vital. Too much corn or grass silage, improperly cured silage or baleage with strong odors can significantly damage milk flavor.
A lack of vitamin E and other vitamin deficiencies will affect the milk’s flavor as well. Personally, I think it pays to keep it simple. Feed for body condition and herd health rather than production. A diet of green grass (be careful of the weeds in your pastures), dry hay, and a little grain is the perfect recipe to produce the best tasting milk.
I’ve shared my most basic methods for the proper milking of a cow on Mother Earth News before — and you can read it, here.
Cleaning Dairy Equipment
Everything that your milk comes in contact with once it leaves your cows must be squeaky clean and sanitized — don’t leave any remaining residue on your equipment. Both chlorine and iodine can cause noticeable “off” flavors.
Warm or hot potable water should be the last thing to come into contact with your milking and milk handling equipment. Always follow the recommended dilutions rates that are on the labels of your dairy cleaning and sanitizing chemicals.
General livestock care and sanitation is essential to your success — make sure you’re prepared and browse through our product selection here if you’d like to dive deeper into supplies.
Off odors will also imprint themselves on the flavor of your milk. The areas where you milk your cows and store their milk should smell as fresh and be as well ventilated as possible. Avoid manure, strong silage and ammonia odors in those locations and keep your dairy animals as clean as you can.
Believe me, I know odor problems can be a tough problem to solve on a dairy farm of any size. Just keep the above advice in mind and do your best. Your customers will appreciate your efforts! Believe it or not, storing milk in a cooler with apples can also hurt its flavor.
Milking Technique Influences Flavor Quality
Rough handling and over pumping of milk can damage the milk’s fat cells and give it an off flavor referred to as “rancidity”. The resulting slightly bitter taste is so common in milk today that most consumers don’t even recognize it to be a flavor defect.
I have found that I can pump my milk once with a standard impellor milk pump and not risk off flavors. But, if I need to pump it more than once, I will use a pump that is designed to be gentle, such as a positive displacement or diaphragm pump.
Cooling and Storing Fresh Milk
It is very important to begin cooling your milk as quickly as possible after it leaves the cow in order to retard the growth of bacteria, which can harm its flavor and shorten milk shelf life. Ideally it should be cooled to 45 degrees Fahrenheit or less within two hours after you are done milking. That is tough to do if your milk is in a container where it is not stirred or agitated a couple of times per hour.
Plus, if the milk isn’t stirred, the cream will rise and the thin layer between the cream on top and skim milk below is the perfect breeding ground for bacteria. You can significantly extend the shelf life of your milk if you keep it stirred. Obviously, the ideal tool for storing milk and achieving the best flavor and longest shelf life is a correctly sized bulk tank with an automatic agitator that stirs the milk for a few minutes three times per hour.
To learn important considerations about raw milk and potential risks, read Considerations for Drinking Raw Milk and the Threat of Leucosis and Johnes Disease.
Steve Judge is a long-time dairy farmer and micro-dairy expert at Bob-White Systems. Driven by a passion for the Slow Food movement and a desire for communities to enjoy locally produced, Steve's goal is to create appropriately scaled dairy technology and equipment that will give small-scale dairy farmers the opportunity to sell safe, farm fresh milk and dairy products directly from their farms to friends and neighbors. Read all of Steve's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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