Petrifilm plate count- Brine

Just a quick update on our little Nelson Jameson incubator and the aerobic plate count petrifilm plates: It dawned on me that that is a great way to test our cheese brine for its microbiological safety. Ran the first test on Friday and the brine, which is about 6 months old now, had zero growth. Very reassuring.

Also, I had told you all that you would have to purchase a plate spreader, but low and behold, a new one comes with every packet of petri film.

My lab geek mentor, Shawn Fels from The Rogue Creamery, is coming out in a few weeks to do some cool air quality checks – for molds and yeasts- in our creamery. I’ll update everyone on those. He’ll be using some fancy equipment, but also petrifilm plates specifically for counting fungi.


Doing Standard Plate Counts- On the Farm

Aerobic plate count Petrifilm Plate, red dots are colony forming units, black dots have been counted using a Sharpie pen

Who would have thought having your own on-farm lab would be so easy- and affordable? I am kicking myself for not trying this sooner.  Doing our own, in house, milk quality tests will help our small, licensed dairy to stay on top of cleaning regimens and milk quality. Even though our results will not be official (you have to be a certified lab to have official results) they will still assist us and even help inspectors know that our food safety program is more complete. So just what is a “plate count and how do you do it yourself?

Plate counts were traditionally preformed by taking a small sample of a substance and pouring or swabbing it onto a glass petri dish that held had a gelled growth medium. The plate was then kept warm for a certain number of hours after which a lab technician would literally count the number of “dots” on the plate. The dots were each a cluster of bacteria called a “colony forming unit” (cfu for short).  The most common plate test is the “standard or aerobic plate count” (SPC or APC).

Fortunately for us, 3M makes a wonderful, simplified product called Petrifilm Plates. These plates are ready to use, needing no added growth medium. They are also inexpensive, costing about .70 cents each (for the aerobic count) and come in a box of 100. You will also need an incubator and luckily, a compact, low tech unit (costing about 70.00) is sold by the same company from which we already buy a lot of our supplies, Nelson Jameson ( They also sell the 3M Petrifilm plates and other needed

Compact Incubator from Nelson Jameson

supplies. In addition to the aerobic count plates, it is a good idea to also buy coliform plates (a box of 50 is 38.00). You will need a count plate spreader (a little plastic disc made especially for spreading the sample onto the Petrifilm plate) and, if you want to do swab tests on dry surfaces, 3M Quick Swabs work great. The Quick Swabs are a bit more expensive, about 1.50 each and come in a box of 50.

The SPC grows all kinds of bacteria from milk or swabs of surfaces- even the good bacteria. For example, if you took a sample of milk during cheesemaking, the plate count numbers would be through the roof, but that is what you would want. Milk fresh from the udder, however, should have very low counts, preferable less than 1,000 cfu per milliliter.


Step by Step Instructions for Plating a Milk Sample

  1. Obtain a 1 ml sample of milk using a sterilized 1ml syringe or a pipette.
  2. Lift the film on the room temperature Petrifilm plate and place the sample in the center.
  3. Lower the film gently.
  4. Center the plate spreader, smooth side up, over the sample, lower onto film and press firmly to spread the sample in an even circle.
  5. Place the Petrifilm in the incubator at 90 F (note: the compact incubator from Nelson Jameson states that the shelf temperature is 10 degrees lower than the thermometer readout, so adjust your temperature accordingly) and incubate for 48 hours.
  6. After 45-50 hours (48 is ideal) remove the plate from the incubator.
  7. Using a fine tipped Sharpie pen, count each red dot, no matter how small, using the pen to mark as you count (so that you don’t double count any cfu’s).
  8. If the plate has very few red dots, then count the entire plate. If there are quite a few, you can count one square and multiply the result by 20.  Do this with several squares so that you get an accurate average. (Each square represents 1 square centimeter and the plate area is 20 square centimeters, thus the multiplication by 20)


If an undiluted sample grows too many cfu’s it is impossible to get a good count, since the plate will be over crowded with overlapping colonies.  You can carefully dilute the sample with sterile water by 50% and then multiply the resulting count by two. (For example, say I diluted the ml of milk with half sterile water and then count between 200 and 250 cfu’s per square. I would then multiply that number by two for 400-500, and then multiply that by 20 for 4,000-5,000 cfu/ml.)

Another useful Petrifilm plate is called the coliform count plate. These have a growth medium that will only allow for coliforms (harmless and bad) to grow. So if you want to know how many of those cfu’s on your standard count are coliforms, this test is a great follow up. Coliforms are the most common problem bacteria in milk and in a cheese plant (and sometimes the deadliest). So low coliform counts from work surfaces and equipment, as well as in milk and brine, are a great confirmation of good processes. Coliform counts should be much lower than SPC’s, a reading of less than 10 cfu/ml is ideal.

Petrifilm plates should be stored in a cool, dry area. Be sure to tightly seal the individual film packets. They are so sensitive that they can simply be exposed (with the cover film pealed back) to the air and culture contaminants via that route. So you don’t want to expose them until ready to inoculate.

You should know that you may not run tests for anyone other than yourself. You can let people run their own using your incubator, but you may not run a test and provide a count result, that is only for certified professionals. It doesn’t mean you can’t have a “plating party” and show others how to count their own!

There are several other Petrifilm plates that I will probably try out on our farm, including staph aureus for udder health, and yeasts and molds, for cheese quality. I’ll be sure to share whatever I learn with all of you.  But for now, this is enough to work on. Oh, as a way of logging our results, I plan on take a photograph of each counted plate and keeping those on file.


Your Happy Lab Geek, Gianaclis

Doing your own Plate Counts

I finally plugged in the little petri-film incubator we purchased from Nelson Jameson and I am, at the moment, cooking our first anaerobic plate counts.  It took me a long time to get around to this, but I think it will go a long way toward making sure our milk is super clean, as well as our process.

The films must incubate for 48 hours, so I don’t have any exciting things to share with you guys, other than I am pleased that I finally tried it!  My friend at Rogue Creamery, Shawn Fells, showed me how to do these simple, on-site quality tests for milk and environment, but I was still intimidated, I have to admit! Turns out it is as easy as squirting 1ml of milk on a plate and sticking it in to cook (much simpler than making dinner, right?).

I’ll write a full description of how to do it (maybe a YouTube video for you all too?) once I figure it out and have a better idea on how to implement it as a part of our quality assurance program.

Oh, the little incubator was under 100.00 and the plates are about 7.00 each. Still cheaper than shipping samples out for testing (or having your inspector let you know your milk is not as clean as hoped).

So pictures and updates to come, unless I botched the entire process….

“What’s it Going to Cost?” A Look at the Cost of Building a Farmstead Creamery

If you are considering turning your goat hobby into a business, either a milk or cheese dairy, then you are probably trying to find the answer to one very important question,

Block walls Pholia Farm barn

what’s it going to cost to build?  You have probably already figured out that there are no easy, one-size-fits-all answers to this question, but hopefully I can give you some idea of just what you might have to face.

The first thing I would like to encourage you to do is to take the time to create a business plan, or at least a basic summary of estimated costs, expenses, and income.  It is a boring, sometimes mind numbing process (especially for those of us who would rather be out with our goats), but it is really worth the time.  Even a simple summary will give you a rough idea of the feasibility of your project- before you make a choice you might regret.

To help you develop a projection of costs, lets go over the major areas to consider when looking at start-up cost; review three real-life examples of recently built small cheese dairies; talk about some of the surprise cost areas; go over some of the most common finance related mistake; and finally look at some pointers on ways to reduce costs.

Seven Major Cost Considerations

As you can imagine, there is great variation in the cost of building an on farm cheese business.  Here are seven areas that can greatly affect the cost.  As you read these, you can start visualizing how your project fits into the spectrum.

  • Property
    • Owning (without debt) suitable property is of course the ideal situation.
    • Mortgage and purchase costs- don’t forget to include these in your start-up cost estimate.
  • Buildings
    • Are there existing buildings that can be remodeled to meet licensing requirements?  This will help reduce permit fees as well as building costs.
    • If there are no suitable buildings, you will have more cost, but can build to suit your goals.
    • Costs could range from $15,000 to well over $100,000 depending on many variables.
  • Septic
    • Will the existing septic system accommodate an added bathroom?
    • Will the local jurisdiction allow you to use a septic system for your dairy waste water?
    • If a new system is needed, get cost estimates and permitting fees. Septic systems and permits can run anywhere from about $10,000-30,000.
  • Power
    • Is there adequate power supply to the buildings? If not, get some estimates from an electrician and/or the power company on having lines run.
    • Remember that a dairy will add a large load to your power use, calculate increased power costs into your monthly budget projections. Estimate an increased cost of 200-500%
  • Water
    • If a well is present will it meet dairy inspection requirements?
    • Will any type of water treatment be needed?
    • Will the well provide enough water for the dairy’s needs?
    • Well drilling costs and water treatment costs vary greatly, from a few thousand to many, call a local well drilling company to get some estimates.
  • Insurance
    • Farm insurance for a dairy can be hard to come by and very costly.
    • Estimate about $500-$900.00 a month for full farm and liability insurance.
    • Health insurance costs should be included as well, unless provided by a off-farm employed spouse.
  • Operating Capital
    • If you will have product to sell immediately, and a market for it, you won’t need much operating capital.
    • If producing only aged and/or raw milk products (must be aged a minimum of 60 days) then you will need a budget for money to cover expenses until income matches costs.

Three Start-Up Stories

A dairy built from scratch, a old dairy brought back to life, and a backyard farm transformed into a micro-creamery; these three stories of real life farmstead creameries will help give you an idea of how wide the cost range can extend and the factors that influence the bottom line. Please note, these costs are rounded and approximate.

From Scratch- Pholia Farm Creamery,Oregon

Dairy Goal: Off-grid, raw milk cheese, 40 milking head Nigerian Dwarf Goats

Starting Assets: Full ownership of 25 acres of suitable land (no infrastructure).

Personal Assets: Military retirement income and health care, re-investment of profit from home sale of $280,000.

Personal Skills: Architectural drafting and design; building, plumbing, and electrical skills; and renewable energy installation experience.

Length of time from inception to licensing: Two years.

Creamery Description and Cost: 60×60 barn and creamery combined with finished loft space. Four doe (Nigerian Dwarf) sized parlor, small milk house, creamery, aging room, office, boiler and systems room, bathroom and laundry. Cost approx. $150,000.

Infrastructure Costs: Septic system $8,000. Well, pump and water storage tank $5,000. Off-Grid Power system, wood fired boiler, solar hot water panels, and propane on-demand water heater- installed by owner- $100,000.

Other Costs: Hay barn $7,000. Pens and shelters $2,000. Equipment $3,000. Epoxy wall coating $6,000. Used tractor $12,000. Gravel for roads and parking $3,000. Excavator and backhoe work $2,000. First years hay $7,000. First years insurance $5,000.

Owner Labor: Drew building plans, obtained permits, assisted with framing, did all electrical and plumbing, did all finish carpentry and drywall.

Production: 3000 lbs. aged raw milk cheese. Retail price $25-35.00/lb. High value goat herd helps offset other costs.

Summary: Total cost $295,000. We ended up having to take out a home equity loan to get our house started- we still are not done with it (four years later…).

Notes: Our costs were higher than most peoples due to our totally off-grid power system, but we have no power bills now and it is the way we want to live.  Also, we built a aesthetically pleasing barn and adequately sized facility- we shouldn’t have to add on in the future.  We continue to try to improve the animal housing, such as buck pens and dry yearling pens and we never seem to have enough gravel!

Dairy Redo- Former Cow Dairy Rejuvinated

Dairy Goal: Milk 10 Cows, 30 goats. Produce only raw milk cheeses for local market.

Starting Assets:  Personal investment from spouse working full time off the farm.

Personal Skills: Building, plumbing and electrical skills.

Length of time from inception to licensing: Two years.

Creamery Description and Cost: Former cow dairy parlor and milk house was in good repair and needed minimal investment to bring up to code.  Existing animal waste water system also operational.  Goat milking parlor was installed in part of the cow parlor.  Goat housing to be upgraded later.  Cow housing existing.  Creamery was built on existing slab, approx 40×30’. Minimal permit costs due to existing slab and electrical available. All work done by owners.  Used equipment, doors, windows.  Total initial cost $15,000.

Owner Labor: All work done by owners.

Notes:  While initial cost was very low, continual upgrades have been made by the owners, including adding new floor surface to old slab, extensive aging rooms, and new housing and milking parlor for goats.

Backyard Business- A Hobby Goes Pro

Dairy Goal: Milk 15 goats, make pasteurized fresh cheeses for local market.

Starting Assets: Own property, goat herd, animal housing. Obtained construction loan using business plan.

Personal Skills: Construction, plumbing and electrical skills.

Length of time from inception to licensing: Three years.

Creamery Description and Cost: 384 square feet, milking parlor, milk house, and processing room. Waste water system, but no bathroom. 30 gallon pasteurizer, refrigeration, milking machine. $85,000.

Owner Labor: Drew plans, obtained permits, plumbing, and electrical.

Summary: Simple, but high quality initial building allowed for licensing.  Room in plan provided for adding on additional rooms, such as office, dry storage for ingredients and packaging materials.

***Insert Photo: Laini Foundler at work in her creamery ***

Four Common Surprise Costs

  • Wall, ceiling and floor finishes-Dairies require very durable, waterproof finishes that are quite costly.
  • Sinks and other stainless equipment– used or new, these often cost more than you would expect and then sometimes don’t meet the inspectors requirements, meaning even more cost to have welds smoothed, grooves filled, and more.
  • Refrigeration equipment– finding equipment and a technician capable of adapting it (if needed) to meet your requirements can be a challenge.
  • Product loss– Plan on “losing” 10-15% of your product annually. Equipment failure (leading to product failure), animal health issues, failed batches of cheese, expired product, and samples and donations are some of the examples.

Common Finance Related Start-Up Mistakes

The first mistake is not doing a cost analysis before you start sinking money into the project!  You may think that you are building your dream, so why make it less enjoyable by doing all that math and paperwork, but trust me, the dream will rapidly progress into a reality that includes financial stress, physical exhaustion, financial stress, no leisure time, and, you guessed it, financial stress.  A bit of time invested now, will at the least prepare you somewhat for what you might be getting yourself into.

Another common mistake area is to build too small, not anticipate production level increases, and undersize equipment.  Many cheesemakers begin adding on within a year or so of construction, or at least planning on adding on.  Others realize very quickly that they want to grow their herd and production volume beyond what they had first planned, and often original equipment is outgrown very quickly.  Again, this is an area that perhaps a well thought out business plan might help you avoid or at least better anticipate.

A Story of Undersized Equipment: Jan and Larry Neilson own a lovely, farmstead goat creamery inSweet Home,Oregon.  Fraga Farm is the only certified organic goat dairy in the state and Jan is one of the pioneer farmstead cheesemakers inOregon.  She shared her tale of woe regarding under-sized equipment:

“I bought the 15 gallon pasteurizer because I had no other choice: there just wasn’t any other small equipment available and I wanted to get started.  It was too small from the beginning, but I made two batches a day until I a larger vat, then I made up to three batches a day almost seven days a week.  After only two months I needed even bigger equipment.  It was crazy since thre were only two other producers in Oregon doing goat cheese.  I started with 20 goats, so I was pasteurizing like crazy! I had to increase the size of my heard within six months.  There were a couple of times when I remembered making six batches in one day!”  Jan went on to share that she can’t believe going through that didn’t maker her quit, that she was tempted to many times.  Moral of the story: Look ahead and try to anticipate growth, even delaying licensing might be a better choice than burning out early.


The last of the most common money related mistake areas is to overestimate the amount of income that will be generated and to underestimate expenses.  Once again, this is what the business plan is supposed to help you avoid!  But it is always difficult to accurately anticipate just how much money you will make and how much it will cost you to do business.

A Story of Budget Woes and Wins: Jim and Gayle Tanner of Bonnie Blue Farm inTennessee did a very thorough business plan before building their lovely, well designed farmstead goat dairy.  Gayle shares some of their experiences:

“Building and equipment costs exceeded our business plan by 200 percent, insurance was 300 percent more, feed and hay 400 percent more, utilities only slightly more, and supplies for packaging were 200 percent more. But we had good news too, gross sales exceeded our expectations by 200 percent for our first year and have increased ever since.” Gayle said they used their business plan to help obtain financing, including some grant monies. Moral of the story: Even with a lot of planning, expect surprises, but don’t neglect the planning.

Tips for Reducing Costs

  • Start shopping for used equipment early in the process: Check restaurant suppliers, classified ads for restaurant auctions, dispersals, etc. Watch agricultural newspapers and internet auctions and classifieds.  Best of all haunt internet chat lists related to small dairies to both watch for sales and to post what you are looking for.
  • Prioritize projects: Can some improvements or additions be made after you are licensed and are producing income?  If you do this, try to accommodate future expansion in your construction- for example, supply wiring and plumbing for an addition, provide adequate space in the circuit box for additional circuits, plan where you could add on if needed, etc.
  • If you have construction experience (we got our first experience by volunteering for Habitat for Humanity and doing some home remodeling) ask if you can serve as one of the crew, or even consider being your own general contractor (sometimes referred to as owner-builder).
  • Look for cost-saving construction options (such salvaged fiberglass door instead of new commercial type doors), but don’t sacrifice quality and longevity to save money, it won’t pay off in the long run.


As you have already figured out, the cost to build a small, on-farm cheese dairy varies greatly.  Under some circumstances it can be done for as low as $15,000, these cases are rare and usually in need of upgrading very quickly.  Remember, you are going to be spending a lot of time, more than you ever imagined, working in the facility you build.  If it doesn’t function well, both ergonomically and in regards to product safety and quality, then you will not survive as a business (and often personal relationships suffer as well).  Most small businesses take several years to turn a profit, this one is no different. You may work “for free” for many years before you actually start making any money.  If, in the meantime, you can work relatively comfortably in a facility that you can be proud of, produce a product you are pleased with, and live a life that you find fulfilling then it will all be worth it!

Gianaclis, along with her husband Vern and their daughter Amelia, own and make cheese at Pholia Farm Creamery in Rogue River, Oregon from the milk of their herd of Nigerian Dwarf Goats.  Gianaclis’ book “The Farmstead Creamery Advisor: The complete Guide to Building and Running a Small, Farm-based Cheese Business”, Chelsea Green Publishing, is available at bookstores, including Dairy Goat Journal’s, and online.

Coming to Terms with Animal Cannibalism

One of Amelia's Cute Rabbits

It was my task, this last week, to care for our daughters rabbits while she was out of town. Amelia breeds Netherland Dwarf rabbits- cute little two pound balls of fluff with tiny ears and puss-in-boots eyes.  Amelia loves to make thorough lists, so she left me with detailed instructions, including nick- names (I guess in case the rabbits didn’t recognize when I called them by their regular names), of all of their needs. Two of the females, Ariadne and Kassandra (aka Kass), were due to kindle (that’s rabbit-speak for giving birth) while Amelia was away.

So you probably have all heard that rabbits will occasionally eat their babies, right? Well, knowing that and actually coming upon the act in progress are two very different matters I am here to tell you.  I am pretty tough. I can steel myself to the euthanasia of a suffering animal or the beheading of a meat chicken, but this left me horrified and feeling ill.  I won’t go into too many details, but let me sum it up by sharing that I didn’t imagine that the baby would be vocally protesting the act.

Amelia assured me, later on the phone, that there was nothing I could have done. The doe (that means girl rabbit, girl goat, and girl deer) went on to have three other kits, which are at this writing all still in one piece…  Mia explained that sometimes the first baby delivered will get stuck and in the process of the mom trying to help it out become injured. Nature then tells the mother to destroy the injured baby in order to protect the other kits from a predator being lured to the nest.  So that’s good, right?

I tried to think of a lesson behind this incident, some layer of meaning to help minimize the horror. I realized that this is probably similar to the repulsion that some might experience if they came upon a farmer skinning a chicken, dismembering a lamb carcass, or dispatching an unwanted bull calf. For some reason, we humans seem to want to totally separate ourselves from the death and destruction that is part of the animal kingdom. While you may not want to see yourself as an “animal” we are the top predator on the planet. (Which is really quite a lovely thing when you think about it- no T-Rex or other massive, long-fanged carnivore stalking us at night)

With no particular logic, we want to remain omnivores- eat our bucket of fried chicken or baby-back ribs and hold a backyard barbeque while also holding onto this inane ability to be repulsed by the realities of raising and harvesting animals. In some parts of Europe it is actually illegal for the farmer to remove the horns on their goats, a veterinarian must do it. Never mind that we remove horns to prevent future suffering of an entire horn being ripped off by fencing. There are other movements to disallow, or at least look upon with repulsion, practices that cause temporary pain but guide the animal population toward a better future, including a future on our table.

Don’t get me wrong. I ardently believe many animals suffer needlessly in the desire to provide inexpensive food for a population that, as a whole, doesn’t seem to really need much more cheap food. I believe that if we paid the cost of raising our meat, milk, and egg supply kindly, that both the prey and we, the top predators, would benefit. But no matter how you slice it (no pun intended) eating meat involves death and some suffering. Unless we do not intend to live in balance with this planet, we have to come to terms with the harshness of existence. Ha, I say live in balance with the planet as if that were really possible for our species. We seem to have a drive to live outside of any balance. Even being able to type on this computer and post to a blog site that is available for people all over the world is rather outside of nature, don’t you think?

So while I might have to conclude that our species is unable to be a completely accepting part of the much referenced “circle of life”, I will take the lesson of bunny infanticide as my own personal reminder that even here on the farm we are removed from nature and some of its harsher realities. I will also remind myself to be gentle with those souls even farther removed when sharing some of the farm/livestock activities that we consider commonplace.

You know, when I think about it, when I was watching the momma bunny-before I figured out just what was happening- I am pretty sure her already large brown eyes were opened wider than normal, perhaps beyond instinct she was experiencing her own bunny brand of dismay, horror, and mortification. Truly living in nature must be the harshest reality of all.