Monday, April 5, 2010

Safe Milk

I have been consuming raw cow's milk for about five years. As I mentioned previously, it was getting more and more difficult to purchase the milk, due to the location of the farm and demand exceedingly supply. Some days, I would make the nearly 2 hour trip to find them sold out of the day's milk when I arrived. Now *that* is disappointing.

So I got my goats and now I have one in milk and slowly but surely, I've been able to snatch one or two cups a day from her without too much trouble. Once the kids are weaned, I can expect around 2 quarts of fresh milk daily from just the one goat. Once all of them are in milk.... pure milk heaven. I will be able to supply all the cheese, butter, and milk products my family needs.

A reader recently asked how I prepared the milk and how I knew it was "safe". As a raw milk veteran, I have heard this question many times. But now, instead of discussing theoretical facts (you are more likely to get sick from eating deli meat, per capita, than drinking raw milk), I can talk specifically on how I handle my milk and how I have no problem drinking it.

If you are remotely interested in learning more about the safety and health benefits of drinking clean, properly-handled raw milk, you can start at or read an excellent book called The Untold Story of Milk. There is no question that contaminated milk from confinement cows living in horrid conditions 100 years ago made so many people sick that pasteurization (which reduced child mortality from 50% to 7% in Chicago) was a miracle. But a simple fact remains: if the milk is not contaminated to being with, you don't need to sterilize it. Just like irradiating beef because of fecal contamination doesn't make the meat clean, it just means you are eating radioactive cow shit. Keep the fecal material out of the meat and you don't have to irradiate it. Raw milk from healthy animals does not, in itself, contain pathogens that make people sick.

And really, that's where it all begins for me: healthy animals. I purposely sought out a breeder of dairy animals (not pets) who had a herd which annually tests negative for three terrible zoonotic diseases: CAE (Caprine Arthritis Encephalitis), CL (Caseous Lymphadenitis), and Johne's disease (linked to Crohn's in humans). I looked at milking and production records, but also at biosecurity practices of the breeder, who lectured me as soon as I arrived on the property on how to keep the animals from being exposed to pathogens which can make people sick. I paid handsomely for these goats, but there are no bargains when it comes to your food. If you are considering buying that $50 goat on craigslist from an untested herd, think again. Don't gamble with your life.

Luckily, goats are easy and cheap to test, so I will continue to test for the big three diseases annually. I need to wait until the girls are 6 months old before they get added to the testing cycle.

I feed my goats as well as I can, with fresh hay and organic grains. But I don't feed them as well as they deserve, which is to be rotated on fresh browse and pasture daily. Once the pastures and orchard are established, I hope to do better. My goats have free access to fresh minerals, powdered kelp, livestock yeast, and baking soda. A properly working rumin is the key to a healthy goat. And a healthy goat is your best defense against pathogens.

Since my goat is about 24" tall, her udder is only 7 or so inches off the ground so a normal milk pail is too tall to fit under her. I bought a seamless, stainless steel sauce pan with no rivets or creases inside the pan. This is important so you can properly sterilize the pan. Some people milk into plastic, but I find that plastic scratches and so you can get bacteria in the scratches which is difficult to sanitize. My stainless steel pan is washed with the dishwater once a day and also hand sanitized with a dairy cleaner to remove milk stone.

Once the milk leaves the goat, it becomes my responsibility to not contaminate it. Before I milk, I place the doe on the milking stand and brush her off, hoping to dislodge loose hairs. I then use a commercial udder wash (iodine based) in a bucket of warm water and I sponge off her udder and her belly (both of which have been shaved) with a clean disposable milk towel. I use another clean milk towel to dry her. I then wash my hands thoroughly.

Once the doe is clean, I milk the first three or four squirts from each teat (goats have only two teats) into a strip cup which is designed to help you identify clumps or flakes or other signs of mastitis. Plus, the first few squirts have the potential to contain the most bacteria, so those are discarded. Once we're all ready to go, I place the pan under the goat, grab both teats and start milking.

The first couple weeks of milking were disasters and the milk was discarded. I was too clumsy and would end up with milk on my hands or dripping back into the pan. I don't want milk running over my fingers into the pan. Now I've gotten the hang of it, so I can milk directly into the pan without any additional contact. Once the pan is full, I immediately pour the milk through a specialized milk strainer which removes any foreign material like hair or flakes of skin and the milk is placed immediately in a clean glass container and in the fridge.

I then dip the goat's teats to avoid mastitis and depending on her udder condition, I might massage her with some bag balm or other moisturizers. I also take this time to check her over again, make sure there's no heat or lumps in the now empty udder, no weird discharge from her eyes and nose. I give her a carrot and she goes back with the herd.

Easy as pie. The milk is then consumed or used in cooking. I don't have enough milk yet to make cheese or other fermented foods, but that will come soon. I have no doubts as to the health and quality of the milk. I haven't examined it under a microscope or had it tested, but it tastes and smells good and I've had no ill effects.

As a side note, I did unwittingly perform an experiment where I left milk out for four days in a bowl, completely forgotten in a corner of my kitchen. Not only did the milk not sour and start to smell, but when I finally discovered it, I saw it had clabbered. Intrigued, I stuck my head in the bowl to get a good whiff and I smelled... cheese. It smelled like feta. Not sour. Exactly like cheese. I did not try the milk, because you really are supposed to clabber milk by covering it with a cloth to keep foreign contaminants out. But I will try to clabber some milk soon.

People have been consuming milk from their own dairy animals for millennia with very few problems. Like many aspects of agriculture, the real problem arises in trying to concentrate milk production and then ship the product many miles to the waiting population. From goat to fridge to my tummy is a short, and sweet, trip. I also have the ability of being picky with the milk. If a stray hair gets in the milk prior to straining, I can choose to give the milk to the dogs. I know exactly what gets in the milk and since I will get more milk tomorrow, I can be judicious. A little common sense goes a long way.

A little common sense also applies to the dangers of food borne pathogens. I live with someone with a somewhat compromised immune system, so I am very aware of pathogens that make you sick. However, we are much more likely to be killed riding our horses, or even eating raw spinach, than from drinking our milk. Hundreds of thousands of pounds of ground beef are recalled and people discuss the recall over a Big Mac (arguably they are safe since a Big Mac contains so little real beef), but you mention raw milk to people and they involuntarily gag. Hysteria is a little one sided. You cannot eliminate all risks in life and I view the perceived health benefits of drinking our milk far outweigh the possible consequences. To me, life is about living deeply and richly and I feel better when I have my milk. This is my choice alone, however, and I respect everyone's individual choices when it comes to their body.


Andrea said...

I think I was a raw milk convert when you gave me some to try. I was skeptical until I tasted it. Now I think this summer better come faster so I can try some goat milk too!!!

Julie said...

I'm a longtime reader of both your blogs (I'd really love to be able to grow some of my food one day once I'm out of grad school and live in a place with an actual patio/garden, and I LOVE Percherons and Lord of the Rings, hehee), but this is my first time commenting. I have two questions - I've read that pasteurizing at a much lower temperature for a much longer time than is commercially done works and doesn't have such a detrimental effect on the flavor of the milk - have you ever tried that? I'm just curious to know if it's true, since it makes theoretical sense from a biochemistry standpoint (less heat causes less damage to milk proteins, etc) but I wonder if it really does preserve the flavor of raw milk.

My second question is about your comment on irradiated beef - I come from a molecular biology/genetics education background and as far as I've learned and experienced in graduate school, irradiating something does not necessarily cause that thing to *become* radioactive. You are bombarding it with a certain type of radiation, but that should not be able to change the atomic structure of the beef such that it becomes radioactive itself. At least, that is my understanding based on what I've learned. Do you know of any websites that say otherwise? (Not that I want to be eating beef that had fecal contamination, this is just my curiosity as a biologist!)

Sylvia said...

mmmm....raw cow milk. *loves*

Daun said...

Welcome! The irradiated beef comment was a bit of a hyperbole to get the point across. You still don't want to be eating whatever it is they are irradiating. I have no evidence that the meat becomes radioactive, but I personally am not very interested in it. Same goes for microwaves in general, but millions of people use them without issue.

As for the pasteurization at low temperatures... Keeping milk raw does not just preserve the flavor, it preserves the nutrients. Vitamin C and many beneficial enzymes (including lactase which helps to digest the milk) is destroyed by heat treatment. Many people who are lactose intolerant can, in fact, drink raw milk.

Also, homogenization is very harmful to the fats in milk which causes them to "turn" faster. Homogenized milk goes putrid. In fact, so much protein is destroyed by the processing of milk, that it is often added back as a powder. But this is not disclosed because it's a ubiquitous practice in the industry. I think "normal" milk tastes chalky and chemical.

So I am not particularly interested in treating my milk and haven't tried to pasteurize it in any way. When you say the low temperature pasteurizing "works" do you mean it destroys harmful pathogens?

My goat vet book says that 145 degree F for 30 minutes or 161 F for 15 seconds is sufficient but warns that post pasteurization contamination is a very real concern. Keep in mind that many things survive even pasteurization. Just be careful out there.

NMS said...

Ah, now I know! This was an awesome blog.
See, I thought that milk straight from the animal had whatever bacteria the animal needs, and that bacteria would be bad for people. My mistake.
Now I want to find Raw Milk in my grocery store. :D

JeniQ said...

mmm raw milk. I remember it from my childhood on the farm. I still get all my beef from the family farm.. but live too far away for the milk (700 miles).

Great educating post! Thanks Daun!

Gina said...

I am very interested in learning to produce some of what I consume. I live in a very suburban area right now and until I am done with grad school this is the way it will have to be.

I love your blog because it has 'real life' doing it for the first time info.

A quick question do you think that you could produce so much if you did not work from home?

I really want to have some sort of dairy producing animal, I am also looking at mini cows but am still several years away from making a decision- what made you chose goats?

MD said...

Great and informative blog. Now, how the hell am I going to get a steady supply of raw milk?

Daun said...

MD, You are lucky, you live in Maine. You can buy raw milk at retail at Whole Foods!