Got Milk? Our Life with Cows

For the past five years, we—mostly Jordan, Jessica, Kyra, and infrequently, myself—have been milking from one to three cows every day. Every Sunday, holiday, school day and snow day, cold or hot, wet or dry, usually twice a day in the waxing or waning light, some of us are out in the barn milking.

It wasn’t my idea.

Maple & Dandelion

It was my son Jordan (at age 10) after we moved here in 2005, who decided he had to have a cow. A what? We bought him a book about how to take care of a cow. He read it. Still he pleaded and begged, insisting that his life would not be complete without a cow. Finally, we relented. We had old barns galore, and fields of bright, uneaten grass. Why not? We handed over $700 for an adorable three-month old Jersey heifer (i.e., female calf). Jordan named her Daisy. It was April 2006.

After Jordan got his calf, Jessica wanted one too. The next summer, we bought her a heifer already named Precious. It was August 2007.

What do you do with a cow? You do what you do with any other family familiar. You frolic and play, pet and snuggle—being sure to lie alongside her, rather than have her sit on you. You can put on a halter and take her for a walk, or simply stand and admire. You take care of her. You grow to love her.

Maple’s “do,” upclose

Cows are calm creatures. They can’t kick or bite like horses; their legs don’t thrust backwards and they have no upper teeth. They are not as particular, either. They stand and munch on grass or hay; they lie down to rest and chew their cud. They like nothing more than a good scratch under the chin. They will follow you like a dog, and yet be utterly content on their own like a cat. And they are beautiful. My daughters know why their friends color their hair and circle their eyes with liner: they want to look like our cows.

Dragonfly’s eye

Still, there is something miraculous about a cow that makes her a unique part of the family. A cow changes grasses that a human system cannot digest into frothy white elixir that most of us can. The question to ask, really, when it comes to having a cow, is not what do you do with the cow, but what do you do with her milk?

First, she must make it, and that only happens after she gives birth. When Daisy was about fifteen months old, we had her bred. Nine months later, on March 11, 2008, Daisy gave birth to her first heifer, Dandelion. Jordan began to milk by hand, twice a day, every day, into a large stainless steel milking bucket.

The next year Daisy gave birth again (to Dutch, whom we sold). Then in 2010, Dandelion (whom we still have) gave birth to Daffodil (whom we sold); Precious (who died in April 2011) gave birth to Phoenix (whom we still have) and by May 2010, Jessica (at 13) and Kyra (at 9) were fulltime milkers too. Three cows equals lots of milk.

How much? It depends. Generally, each cow gives about one to three gallons of milk a day. Yet, in the two months before a cow gives birth, we stop milking, to give her time to gather her reserves. So depending on our various birth plans, we sometimes are milking two or one, or even briefly none. (We have now learned to stagger our births so as not to miss out!)

Then when a cow freshens (i.e., gives birth and starts making milk), her production soars. Her calf drinks about gallon plus a day for the first three months. Still, mom makes too much for the calf, so we help her by milking off the extra. We then keep the flow going once the calf weans. After a few months, the milk level settles to about two gallons a day, one in the morning and one at night.

Of course, there are always unexpected adventures. A cow tips the bucket or steps squarely into it. A child trips or the cat dips a paw. But generally, if we are milking all three cows, after calves are weaned and before the birth season rolls around again, we have up to 4 to 6 gallons of milk a day.

What do we do with all of that milk? At first, I had no idea. But the kids had worked so hard, every day and together, to get that milk into the house that I knew I had to do something with it. It was a gorgeous resource. We had too much to drink. I was determined not to waste it. And now, after five years, we have worked out our system, ferociously efficient, that serves nearly all of our dairy needs.

On a typical morning, the kids wake up. Mom makes breakfasts and lunches. Dad washes bottles and buckets, and makes containers of soapy water for scrubbing teats. The kids eat. The older three bundle up and leave for the barn, buckets and “soapies” swinging. They sing and tell stories as they squeeze and pull (though more at night than in the morning). The muscles on their forearms bulge. They take turns mucking the barn, drawing water, and serving hay. Jessica and Kyra feed the hens and the horse, and about a half hour later (longer when the cows are far afield on grass), the older three plop down their buckets of milk. Everyone gets ready for school and leaves by one of two buses or cars.

Left alone, if I haven’t already, I strain the milk through a wire coffee filter into a stainless steel pot which goes either into the fridge or onto the stove. A pot in the fridge sits and waits for its cream to be skimmed with a spoon twelve hours later. A pot on the stove sits and waits to be turned into cheese. Nothing happens until after my writing/dancing day, when the kids and Geoff return.

As 6 PM nears, the process kicks into gear once more. The kids go out to milk. At present we milk only one at night. In the kitchen, after skimming the morning’s milk, we pour it into bottles to drink—clear glass bottles we bought online from an Amish family. Our five children drink one and a half to two gallons a day. (What would we do without a cow?!)

The quart of cream that we skim from each two-gallon pot goes back into the fridge, waiting to complement the next cup of coffee, bowl of oatmeal, or pasta toss.

When three quarts of cream gather on the top shelf, we pour them into the butter churn Geoff’s mom found on eBay, and we crank. In ten minutes or so, the butter separates from the buttermilk, and, if not needed, goes into the freezer. The buttermilk we use for pancakes and biscuits.

If our ice cream is running low, we set aside four quarts of cream for our next double batch. Vanilla, chocolate, maple, or mint, we crank by hand, taking five minute turns, while finishing outdoor and indoor chores. We talk or sing, add chips and nuts. Jessica has figured out how to read and crank at the same time.

Cheese curds

Meanwhile, the whole milk in the pot on the stove begins its transformation into a soft or hard cheese. A soft cheese is made in less than an hour. You warm the milk, add the coagulant, stir, drain, and then crumble, press, or reheat-and-stretch. The result, depending on your choice of vinegar, lemon juice or vegetarian rennet, is farmer cheese, ricotta, cottage cheese, queso fresco, or paneer. The reheated and stretched cheese is always mozzarella.

When we collect a lot of extra milk, say four gallons or more, I try a hard cheese. It hasn’t happened much since last summer when milking three, but it will soon in another month, when Dandelion freshens. The hard cheese takes time—hours of stirring and waiting and monitoring the temperature and stirring and waiting some more. And then there is pressing and pressing again, drying, waxing, and then aging for at least three months. The differences in timing and degrees and months spent in the cooler determine the kind of cheese it will be. I never manage to follow a recipe exactly. There is far too much going on around here. So what comes out we call “Hebron Hollow Cheddar” or Parmesan. When it works—and I am still figuring out why it does or does not—it was was well worth the wait.

As dinner approaches, Geoff washes everything. New milk comes in, and into the clean and emptied pots it goes.

So there it is. The rhythm and the routine. Outside and inside, kids and adults, working independently and together to create experiences of deliciousness we all enjoy. We buy parmesan cheese when our own stores are gone. Sometimes the kids convince Geoff to splurge on Greek yogurt. But otherwise, by my count, we save at least a hundred dollars a week. And how we eat.

Take last night. Whole wheat spaghetti tossed with basil, parsley, tomatoes, and a crumbled garlic paneer made earlier in the day, topped with minute-young still-stretching mozzarella. Fresh whole wheat potato rolls just out of the oven, salad alongside, and for dessert, scoops of homemade ice cream—this time your choice of chocolate or chocolate chip. And soon our vegetables will have been gathered from the garden. The seeds arrived today.

Jordan & Daisy, Fall 2012

Did I mention that getting a cow wasn’t my idea?

Now I’m not sure I could live without one. Jordan was right.

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