So you've read my post Milk: Helpful or Harmfulor other sources and realize that the only (animal) milk worth drinking is fresh, unpasteurized milk from cows, goats, etc. And now you are on the hunt for a good source of local, fresh, and SAFE raw milk.
It's not just a matter of "Oh, my neighbor has a cow and is selling milk!"
There are a few things you should ask about before deciding on a good source of fresh milk. As a dairy farmer myself, I will give you the inside, need-to-know info for making sure the milk you buy is good for your family!
But the way to get this info and decide for yourself if it is healthy milk is to visit the farm! This is very important for purchasing fresh milk!
When you arrive at the farm, look around. Do the animals look healthy? (Note: dairy animals tend to look quite thin, so do not fret if you see their hip bones!)
Are they waist-high in manure?
Do they have a large pasture area to roam and graze? (Note: While cows are grazers, goats are browsers--they prefer to eat bushes, tree leaves, etc. but will eat grass if none of those are available.)
Once you've had a look around the farm, here are some questions to ask your (potential) dairy farmer:
What is Done for Milk/Animal Testing?
Somatic Cell Count/Coliform
These tests are pretty standard in large dairy operations, but not so common (or necessary in my opinion) for very small dairy farms. Indicating the possible presence of mastitis, I find these tests to be necessary when producers cannot personally and closely monitor each individual animal. For those who only have a few animals which are like pets (as in our case), we observe our animals so closely that we will notice signs of these things being off before it would show up on a test. Consequently, I don't believe having these tests done are completely necessary when purchasing milk from a very small farm. However, if the farm you are purchasing milk from does not seem to provide very close, personalized attention to each animal or is a large operation, I would request to see regular somatic cell count numbers. They should be far below 100,000 mL (but preferably lower).
Johne's (pronounced "Yoh-nees") disease and paratuberculosis are two names for the same animal disease. Named after a German veterinarian*, this fatal gastrointestinal disease was first clearly described in a dairy cow in 1895. It causes thickening of the intestinal wall which prevents the animal from absorbing nutrients, severe weight loss, diarrhea, and eventually death. These animals will be eating but essentially starving to death.
The reason it is important to purchase milk from animals that test negative for Johnes is that this is the same mycobacterium that is seen in Crohn's disease, leading to the belief that consumption of animal products from Johnes-positive animals may be a contributing factor to Crohn's disease and potentially other bowel diseases. (The link between these two is highly debated with research on both sides. Based on the research I have done, I feel it is especially important to simply purchase milk from Johnes-negative animals when that milk will be given to small children.)
In the U.S., it is estimated that 8% of the beef herds and 68% of the dairy herds contain at least one animal infected with this mycobacterium. 1 This mycobacterium is not killed with pasteurization and a large percentage of milk from the grocery store may be from Johnes-positive animals, so buying fresh milk from a local farm with Johnes-negative animals is best.
There are other tests that can be done on animals to ensure they are healthy but generally, a small producer who keeps a close watch on each animal personally will see signs of illness and not sell that animal's milk to customers.
What Are Standard Animal Health Practices?
What is the animal fed?
I knew a local farmer who sold raw milk from beautiful cows. This farmer claimed to be raising them on grass hay and organic feed. Upon further questioning, I discovered this farmer was feeding his cows large square hay bales. I never buy large square hay bales, only small ones or round bales, because in our state, large square hay bales have to be treated with chemicals in order to prevent them from molding. This farmer did not know that information and was unknowingly feeding his cows chemically-sprayed hay.
It's important to buy milk from a knowledgeable farmer.
What kind of hay are they feeding their dairy animals? Is it sprayed with anything at all?
If it's alfalfa hay, is it Round Up Ready alfalfa?
Look at the hay yourself when you visit the farm? Is it yellow like straw or lush green like grass? Obviously, healthier milk will come from animals fed green hay!
For their milking grains, are they organic or transitional? If not, they are likely GMO.
(And yes, I believe it is 100% okay to drink milk from animals fed grains. Dairy animals are bred to produce such high amounts of milk that they cannot maintain their body condition from producing that much milk without grains. There are a select few dairy farmers who raise their animals without grains but costs are high and profit is likely to be very minimal so expect to pay more if your farmer knows what they are doing!)
What are they given for minerals? Dairy cows and goats require a constant, free-choice supply of supplemental minerals to maintain their health. With a good-quality mineral supplementation, you can bet that the milk will be that much healthier for your family too!
In addition to these things, on our farm, we also give our goats free-choice kelp and raw organic apple cider vinegar in their water, which not only boosts our animals' health but the nutritional content of the milk as well!
What is used for parasite prevention/treatment? What is the withdrawal time?
I'm not very familiar with cows on this topic, but when it comes to goats, they require strict parasite prevention/treatment programs. The majority of dairy goat producers use regular treatment with chemical dewormers. Many of these have milk withdrawal times but I know of a few producers in my state and other states who jokingly brag on social media about not respecting those milk withdrawal times. This means that the milk you are getting could have circulating chemical dewormers in them; products linked to birth defects, miscarriages, etc. It is imperative before buying goat's milk that you ask about their parasite prevention/treatment program! If they use words like "Ivermectin," "Safeguard," "Valbazen," etc., these are systemic poisons.
Just so you know though--raising dairy goats is HARD. (I have a post coming up on this!) Goats are incredibly prone to parasites and doing it with these chemicals is tough, so you may have a hard time finding a more organically-minded dairy goat farm.
(I spent hundreds of hours digging up research-based natural methods for keeping our goats healthy. Some of that research on what we now use for parasite prevention can be found found in this post here.)
Also ask your dairy farmer if there are any (other) medications used, when/how they are used, and what the withdrawal time is on those medications. If your farmer does not know the answer to the withdrawal time on them, that should be a red flag.
How is the Milk COoled?
While large-scale producers will have stainless steel cooling tanks, smaller producers have to find other ways of cooling down milk quickly to keep pathogenic bacteria from forming. Simply placing milk in a refrigerator right away is not sufficient for cooling the milk down to ideal temperatures within the ideal time frame.
On our farm, we place a large pan/bowl of ice water in our milk-room refrigerator where the jars of milk go straight after milking and straining. This gives us Grade B milk, one step down from Grade A (which is the stainless steel tanks). Placing milk in the freezer would actually lower it down to Grade D (which means it isn't cooled to ideal temps for almost two hours!). Those who place it straight in the refrigerator alone are providing Grade E milk, the lowest grade. (Check out this full explanation of grades and temperatures hereand why it's important.)
Taste & Freshness
Taste and freshness are pretty good indicators of a dairy animal's health. For instance with goats, the milk will taste bitter and/or very "goaty" if the animal is overloaded with parasites or suffering from nutritional deficiencies. The milk will also tend to sour faster or taste off sooner than other fresh milk would. I find that milk from healthy animals should taste fresh for at least seven days. (And remember that unlike pasteurized milk, fresh, unpasteurized milk from healthy animals does not go bad; it simply sours.)
Having A Hard Time Finding Milk?
If you are having a hard time locating some fresh, unpasteurized milk in your area, here are some ideas:
- Visit your local farmers' market. While raw milk usually can't be sold there, you may find a vendor selling goat's milk soap or other farm products that may indicate that they have dairy animals. Maybe they buy milk from a local farmer that sells it raw! Ask around! This is how I found our first ever source of fresh, raw milk!
- Check out http://www.realmilk.com/real-milk-finder/ which has lists of raw milk sources in states across the U.S.
- Contact your local Weston A. Price Chapter Foundation leader(s) and ask them! They usually have a few resources! http://www.westonaprice.org/get-involved/find-local-chapter/
The search for fresh, healthy milk the way God designed it can be tough at first, but it's worth the effort!
If you're considering raising your own dairy animals, make sure to subscribe to my posts for lots of upcoming posts I will have on raising dairy goats!
Be sure to subscribe for other upcoming posts, including additional posts in my "Questions to Ask" series on a variety of topics!
Blessings of good health,
~Sara Jo Poff
Natural Health Practitioner & Homesteader