Anyone who knows me well knows I am not averse to an early start. And by early I mean, up at 4am to drive to Devon/Wales/anywhere and make sure I avoid the traffic. I have been known to arrive at friends’ houses before they are actually out of bed. But yesterday was a record for me, I set my alarm for 2.30am, to be in the car for 3am, and at the Calf at Foot Dairy, Somerleyton (north Suffolk) in time for their 5am milking.
Ever since I heard about the Calf at Foot Dairy in February of this year, I have been desperate to visit, and finally managed to find a day that would work.
Before I carry on with what I got up to yesterday, I want to give you all a bit of info. about conventional dairies, and where your milk actually comes from. This will be very simplistic, and I urge you to do a bit more reading if anything I say interests you.
Cows have to give birth in order to produce milk (just like humans). But if you continue to take their milk, they will continue to produce it (again, just like humans). In a conventional dairy, a cow is put in calf on day 1 (usually using artificial insemination, so the exact characteristics of her offspring can be chosen). On day 280 (nine months later), the cow will give birth to her calf, which is immediately taken away from her (if it is a girl, it may be reared as a replacement dairy cow or sold to another dairy, and if it is a boy it may be slaughtered or reared for beef). Her colostrum (that rich, first bit of milk that is full of antibodies and goodness, which I spoke about in reference to sheep) will be milked from her and fed to her calf, but the calf will never feed directly from its mother, and from now on she will be milked twice a day for human consumption.
Over the next few weeks, up to around the 300 day mark, the cow’s milk yield will increase until it peaks, at which point it will gradually decline. Some dairy cows can produce 60 or 70 litres of milk a day at peak lactation (105-123 pints – imagine that lined up on the bar in your pub!). As we approach the end of the year at day 365, the farmer will look for signs of bulling (being on heat/in season) which show that the cow is fertile, and she will be artificially inseminated in order to calve on day 280 the following year.
In order to achieve maximum milk yields, it is best for commercial dairies to calve on the same day each year. This means that for 9 months, the cow is in calf (pregnant), she will then calve, have three months where she is milking but not in calf, and then for the next 6 or 7 months (most cows will be dried off for the last couple of months of their gestation period, so they do not milk every single day of the year) she will be both growing a calf inside her, and producing milk. This is a huge strain on her body! As such, most dairy cows will only be productive for a few years.
At the Calf at Foot Dairy, the calves stay with their mothers until their natural weaning age which is between 8 and 12 months. They are free to take as much milk as they require, leaving the dairy team to milk the cows once a day (dairy cows have been bred to produce far too much milk for one calf to feed on, so in effect, the calf does the second milking). The cows are not expected to calve once a year, some may, but some may wait longer. The cows will be milked into their teens, unlike conventional dairy cows which often don’t make it past 4 years of milking. They are pasture fed, so do not consume any grain, and they spend the majority of their time outside.
Back to my day.. They are extremely intelligent creatures, and they come when you call their names! At 5am, we went down to the marsh to walk them in for milking. They came when called, and in fact some mornings will actually be waiting at the gate ready to walk to the dairy. Each cow is milked individually using a mobile milking unit, and because the milk is sold raw and unpasteurised, the utmost care and attention is given to making sure the cows feet and teats are spotless before milking commences. Prior to milking, the milk from each teat is also tasted to ensure the quality. If the cow does not have a calf at foot, then all her milk is taken, but if she has a calf, then the milker will leave the udder with some milk in it.
Each of the cows is an individual, their personalities and behaviours are different, as is the milk they produce. One of the cows produces roughly 1 litre milk to 4 litres cream, and I was fortunate enough to try a little bit after she was milked – it was like nothing I have ever tasted!
Two of the less cheeky cows were saved until last for me to milk, although everyone was on their best behaviour yesterday! I sprayed the muck off their feet, so that if they kicked up, they wouldn’t make the clusters (the suction tubes that go on the teats) dirty, then I washed and dried all the teats and udder, before tasting the milk from each teat to ensure it wasn’t tainted. I then wiped each teat to remove any germs that could have come from my hands (which were washed and clean!), before attaching the clusters and beginning milking. After milking, each teat is dipped in an iodine solution which is antiseptic, and helps prevent infection.
After milking is over, the milk is bottled, and slowly cooled, before being put in the fridge for customers to buy. And that is it! No heating, no killing of friendly bacteria, no fiddling. Just fresh, raw milk. There are many cited health benefits of consuming raw, grass-fed milk and milk products. I do not confess to know them all, or know their validity, but some examples include milk being higher in enzymes, vitamins, minerals and healthy fatty acids, as well as the environmental benefit of pasture-fed versus grain-fed cattle.
The cows will then have a little lie down in the barn, and when they’re ready they will come outside into the yard to be taken back down to the marsh. Some days they have a long rest, and sometimes it’s just an hour or so, but they are free to do as they wish. We had some odd jobs to do, cleaning, mucking out, etc. but that was the bulk of the work, and I finished at 3pm.
I had a fantastic day, it was interesting as well as enjoyable, and I really loved seeing the cows and getting a glimpse of their personalities and behaviours. I don’t know enough about agriculture as a whole, let alone the dairy system to say what is right and what is wrong, or how things should be done. All I can do is increase my knowledge, and share my experiences. What I do know, is that these are some of the happiest dairy cows I have come across, and their milk is out of this world!!
If anything I have said interests you, I urge you to find out some more. As they say, knowledge is power! And if the Calf at Foot Dairy sounds interesting (you can have their milk delivered), then here are their details.