Chasing Coliform Counts

I was recently visiting England to attend “The Science of Artisan Cheesemaking” conference and had the great additional luck to visit an amazing farmstead creamery- Hill Dairy in Somerset. Not only was the facility quite possibly one of the most well thought out and constructed small creameries that I have ever visited, but owners Will and Caroline Atkinson, were as charming and lovely as their picturesque English farm. Since I got back to the US, we have been corresponding about a problem that Hill Dairy was experiencing both during my visit and on and off for a good part of this fall. A problem, unfortunately, that caused the loss of many batches of cheese milk and is a problem that plagues many farmstead cheesemakers (sometimes even without their knowing). High coliform counts.

3M coliform petri film with count at about 400cfu/ml (black dots from Sharpie marker on a few) look for a red dot surrounded by or up against an tiny air bubble. each dot with air bubble is one cfu.

First a bit about the large bacterial family called coliforms. These microbes live in the environment of the farm, especially bedding, feed, and soil. But some of them also live in the lower intestine (not only of cows and goats, but of people too) the most well-known being Escherichia coli, better known by its abbreviated name “E. coli”. The presence of E. coli in milk or cheese can be translated as the presence of feces, that’s right, poo. While E. coli and poo in milk are not desirable in any circles, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the milk is unsafe. It is the ne’re-do-well coliform cousin E. coli 0157:H7 that can wreak horrible damage when ingested. (There is another variant that surfaced recently in Germany that is just as nasty and there will no doubt be more variations in the future that will cause horrific food borne illnesses, sickness, and death). So while coliforms do not necessarily mean the presence of pathogens (illness causing microbes) their numbers are a good gauge of milk cleanliness. The higher the general coliform count, the higher your odds that some might be bad.

Currently most data say that high quality raw milk should have fewer than 10 cfu’s (that’s colony forming units) per milliliter of milk.  Some states allow for higher counts and the “fewer than 10”number is somewhat arbitrary, but let’s pretend for now that it’s a great standard. Here at our farm our petri-film plate counts (done on every cheese batch – see my previous posts if you want to know how to do these) show our total coliforms at usually 3-5 cfu’s per ml. Awesome, right? Well, when I got back from England our counts shot up to over 400cfu/ml.  Fortunately for both us and Hill Dairy, tests showed that none of the coliforms were from fecal sources, no E. coliforms. (You can buy petri film plates that will grow E. coli’s in a different color than regular coliforms). Interestingly, but not surprisingly, our APC (which counts total bacteria numbers) didn’t look that bad – until you looked closely and could see that there were tiny air bubbles all over the plate (from the gas produced by the coliforms) and these bubbles had lifted the film from the plate – making it look as though there were not that many colonies growing.

Aerobic plate count showing red dots of bacteria colonies (cfu’s) and lots and lots of tiny air bubbles from coliforms making the plate “uncountable”.

So what do high numbers of “harmless” coliforms do to milk and cheese? Well, these guys eat lactose – that’s milk sugar, (as do starter cultures) and produce both lactic acid and carbon dioxide – that’s gas. The problem with them is that they grow very fast and can often out-compete the added starter culture during a slow fermentation, just like what is done to make most fresh cheeses and lactic set bloomy rinds (like the Atkinson’s were making – and yes it is legal to make them with raw milk in the UK). At Pholia Farm, we make long-aged, low moisture cheese that use a faster acid development and rennet, so we would not have known about our high coliform counts if we were not doing routine lab tests on every batch. While these coliform types are unlikely to make our cheese unsafe, it tells us that something is far from ideal with our process – something that could lead to unsafe food. We don’t only make cheese, we drink our raw milk – we care that it is of the best quality possible for many reasons.

Okay, so both our farm and Hill Dairy had much higher than normal counts, what did it mean and what did we do about it to resolve the problem? The most common causes of high coliforms are dirty teats, poor milking technique, and dirty equipment. While this may seem like an easy fix, when your counts suddenly go from great to horrendous, it can be very confusing.  So let’s go over a step by step procedure for trouble shooting coliform counts – with as little financial investment as possible!

  1. Observe that animals are coming into the parlor relatively free of manure and debris – dairy clipping udders can help.
  2. Verify that established teat and udder cleaning methods are being performed properly and that udder cleaning solutions and sanitizers are effective.
  3. Verify that milking equipment with parts that need replacing, especially rubber parts, are up to date for recommended replacement times.
  4. Verify that cleaning steps for equipment are effective – this includes chemical strength and effectiveness for your water type, temperatures, time, air slug velocity, etc. Swabs can be taken at various points in system and cultured for total bacteria counts to verify effectiveness.
  5. Perform “hyper-cleaning” following guidelines from chemical manufacturer or other dairy representative. This often includes a double strength, double time cleaning and manual cleaning to verify the removal of bio-films and residue that might have occurred from less than ideal parlor practices.
  6. Verify milk chilling process, if used (even with proper chilling, high enough coliform counts will be a problem in lactic technology cheeses)

Don’t be surprised if trouble shooting takes place over many days before you completely conquer the problem. All it takes is one step to be missed, and the problem reasserts itself. For example, our problem seems to have come from our neglect (later in the season) of dairy clipping our ladies udders, combined with wet weather, combined with me forgetting to replace a couple of rubber parts inside of the milking claws , combined with a bit too casual milking and udder cleaning techniques. I would fix one problem, but not all problems at one time. Everything needed to be zeroed out, you might say, before our counts went completely back to our normal low.  It took several weeks of implementing new techniques and replacing parts and hyper-cleaning to shape things back up. During that time the count dropped from the 400, to 100 plus, then to the high 30’s, and finally to under 10.

Coliform petri film showing 3 cfu’s (circled with black ink). This is great!

If you experience a similar extended issue, here are some things you can do so that you don’t lose product, and future income, while you whip things back into shape:

  1. Pasteurize the milk.
  2. Thermize, aka heat shock, the milk (lower temperature than pasteurization, not recognized in the US, so cheeses made from thermized milk are not considered pasteurized)
  3. Switch from lactic cheeses (such as surface ripened and fresh soft) to an aged, quickly cultured and rennet style cheese. (Verify that no E. coli is present)
  4. Switch from freeze-dried direct set culture to bulk starter or mother culture that will provide a faster growing starter bacteria population. (if coliform counts are too high, though, this may not be enough)

Remember that if you are not testing each batch of cheese milk and are making a rennet coagulated, quickly acidified cheese, you may never know that your milk is less clean than it could be! If you do experience a problem, don’t feel alone and remember that keeping sanitation standards high on the small farm, or any farm for that matter, is an ongoing, major challenge. It is a great reminder of how quickly things can change – for the worst.

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The Importance of Monitoring Somatic Cell Counts

Awhile back the FDA raised the maximum number of somatic cells that Grade A goat milk can contain from the former limit of 1,000,000 to 1,500,000.  Our state (Oregon) followed suit just this year and adopted the new limit for goat milk and also lowered the cow level from the FDA level of 750,000 to 500,000. While I applaud the cow levels, I am concerned about the goat levels.

California Mastitis Test

Just what are somatic cells and why do they matter?

I have read and heard somatic cells in milk referred to as “pus”. This is not correct! Somatic cells (SC), by simple definition, are “body” cells.  In milk, these can be normal skin cells (epithelial) shed by the milk ducts (more on that in a bit), portions of the cells (cytoplasmic particles),  or white blood cells (leukocytes) that are present in order to fight off an udder infection (white blood cells are also present in “pus”). So let’s talk about why a healthy udder matters and the difference between the epithelial and white blood cells.

First, udder health correlates with the animal’s health and wellbeing. If you believe in the humane treatment of animals, then this should be important! Second, milk produced by a less than vibrantly functioning udder will not be of superior quality – either for drinking or making cheese.  A healthy udder is created and maintained by a nutritionally, physically, and emotionally balanced animal. (Yes, they do have emotional needs!). While I won’t be covering all of these needs here, it is important that you remember that they are the foundation for the production of superior milk).

White blood cells migrate into the udder in order to fight off microorganisms that could cause, or are causing, an udder infection – the same job they do throughout our own bodies. When they are called to the battle front within the udder their presence is indicative of a problem. The problem could be unseen, meaning you can’t see any difference in the milk or the udder – no swelling, heat, clumps in the milk, etc. This is called “sub-clinical” mastitis and is the most common form of mastitis (udder infection). When a severe udder infection is present, it is called “acute”. Animals can suffer greatly from an acute case of mastitis – including loss of the affected part of the udder to gangrene or even death.

How Cow’s and Goat’s Differ

Now, let’s go over one of the unseen differences between goat and cow milk. Understanding starts with remembering that the udder is a gland. The mammary gland, to be exact. All glands (we have lots of them – from our armpits to our stomach) secrete their products in one of three ways. Two of these are pertinent to milk secretion – apocrine and merocrine. I am not telling you this to add more words to your Scrabble game, but instead to explain some very important differences between cow and goat milk. Glands that secrete via the apocrine system also shed parts of the cell wall lining. Goats and humans secrete milk via the apocrine approach, while cows milk is shed via the merocrine system which keeps the secretory cell intact. Kind of cool, kind of gross, don’t you think? From this you can rightly conclude that goat milk will have a “naturally” higher somatic cell count (SCC) than cow milk (when cells are counted using the same method traditionally used on cow milk).

What is a Normal, Healthy Somatic Cell Level in Goat Milk?

So if goats naturally have a higher SCC, why am I concerned about the legal limit being raised?  In my experience, which is not all encompassing of course, a SCC over 300,000 in our goats, means there is a very low-grade problem. How do I know this? Every month a person comes to our farm and collects a milk sample from each individual milking doe. This sample is then tested at a certified laboratory for many things, including SCC. If the count comes back over 300,00 then we march out to the parlor (as we already do twice daily) and do a California Mastitis Test (CMT) on that doe. The CMT will show the difference in SCC between each half of the udder (or each quarter if you are testing a cow). If they are different, then It is not normal, one side has a problem. By following this policy we have (knock-on-wood) never had an acute case of mastitis and or current herd average (from tests covering about 10 years) SCC is 104,000.

Note: SCC are usually read MINUS three zeros. So 162,000 will appear on test results as 162.  Anything below 1,000 is usually not counted and will appear as zero.

I have always wondered if perhaps Nigerian Dwarf goats, our breed, have a lower average than the big girls. We have two full sized goats, LaMancha’s. Their average SCC are 109-125,000 (higher than our total herd average). The current average of all dairy goats in the states covered by our testing association is 625,000. When looking at the 2011 summary, where the data is analyzed from several standpoints, Nigerian herds average 121,000 while standard goats average 783,000. If looked at by milk production volume, does producing about 3,000 pounds of milk or more are the highest at 939,000.  Herd size (meaning if you have only a couple of goats versus 31 or more) seems to matter as well, but not as much as milk production volume. So many factors may come into play, but I still have to wonder if this higher limit won’t have the unhelpful effect of causing some producers to ignore even more subclinical mastitis cases instead of jumping on top of the situation before it gets out of hand. Having known commercial producers who have gone from high counts to low by improving techniques and removing animals with chronic subclinical cases does make me feel that the higher limit is a mistake.

What can You Do to Monitor Your Animals and Treat High SCC’s ?

If you have goats or cows and are not on a program where their milk is regularly tested, I highly advise performing a CMT (or other SCC’ing test) EVERY MONTH. By doing this you will find little problems and be able to address them before antibiotics are needed)

So what do we do when one side of the udder has an obvious (decide through CMT) problem? First you must rule out problems with milking equipment and general health of the animal. Of course, when it is just on one side, then you have to assume an udder infection of some sort. Before you resort to antibiotic usage, you can try some organic and old fashioned remedies.  I used to do peppermint oil rubs to the udder and give the doe an oral dose (about 60 ml) of her own milk – to hopefully stimulate an antibody response. I

Garlic cloves in water to make a “tea”

have recently added a common certified organic producer’s technique of orally dosing the animal with garlic “tea”. What a miracle it has been! We soaked peeled garlic cloves in water (be sure to keep refrigerated as botulism is a risk if not) then dosed the doe with 40-60ml 3x a day and her SCC went from 722,000 and 652,000 on the next test (the CMT showed a problem on one side) to, are you ready?  One thousand. Yup. Garlic. Thank you!

Some animals have chronic infections that even garlic cannot clear up. A milk sample should be sent to a certified lab for culture and if appropriate antibiotic therapy can be used. There are some dairy animals now, though, carrying the antibiotic resistant form of Staph aureus (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) these animals should, unfortunately, be culled – removed permanently (not simply passed to another herd!)

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So no matter how you feel about the new SCC limit, I hope you will take your animal’s welfare and the quality of your milk so seriously that you will set your own standards. Try to not accept less than the best – no matter what the regulations say!

Fresh Ricotta Balls with Roasted Grapes

I thought I would never get into posting recipes, but I had a lot of fun customizing this recipe for an upcoming class, so hey, why not share with you all? I got the inspiration for this recipe online, but it was pretty bland, so I took it up a notch. I also didn’t have some of the original ingredients, so made some changes. (this all fits in with my cooking style which I call “The Reckless Chef”) Here you go:

First, make the Ricotta

  • 1 gallon milk, any kind, store, farm whatever!
  • Acid- 2/3 lemon juice OR a few tablespoons vinegar (don’t be too crazy and use balsamic) OR two tsp citric acid dissolved in 1/2 cup water.

Pour the milk in a stainless pot and put on the burner. Stir constantly and heat to 180-185. Turn off the heat and drizzle in the acid, stir gently while adding and watch the curd form. Keep adding acid until the watery portion (the whey) is clearish- yellowy-green. Stop stirring and let sit for 10 minutes or so (emphasis on “or so”).  Line a colander with cheesecloth or a thin tea towel. (What the heck is a tea towel, you might ask. A thin, loosely woven towel designed to dry fine china dishes and cover the teapot while it steeps). The curd should be floating on top of the whey now, so take a ladle (perforated is best) and scoop the curds into the cloth. Let them drain and cool until the texture is kind of dry, but moist- try forming balls and if you can still squeeze out a bit of liquid, it is ready. Usually this takes about 20-30 minutes. Mix in about 1/4 tsp salt. Then roll the cheese into balls about 1 inch in diameter. Put in a dish and chill in the fridge for about an hour.

Next Roast the Grapes

  • Red (or whatever) seedless grapes
  • A sprinkle of raw sugar

Heat your oven to 450F. Pull grapes from stems and put in a shallow pan.  Sprinkle with sugar and pop in the oven. Let them roast for about 8 minutes and stir. Then continue roasting until they just start to pop. Stir one more time. When done, take the pan out and let them  cool a bit.

The Rest of the Stuff

  • Nuts- almonds, filberts, or whatever
  • Cookie or something like graham crackers, vanilla wafers, gluten free gingersnaps, whatever
  • finely ground cayenne pepper
  • cinnamon and/or nutmeg

Toast your nuts (I know) then combine all of these ingredients in a food processor (or a ziplock bag and then whack it with your rolling pin) and process until fine.

Serve the Yummy Balls!

Take the chilled balls and roll them in the pulverized nut mixture. Place a couple on a plate (watch your presentation…) then put a large spoonful of grapes around the balls. Then drizzle the whole thing with maple syrup- not maple FLAVORED syrup. And serve. If you are one of those people who are into garnishes, put something green on the plate, like a mint sprig or, you guessed it, whatever.

 

Using 3M Quick Swabs to Build a Food Safety Program for the Farmstead Creamery

Environmental testing of food contact surfaces and other surfaces that workers might easily touch and then cross contaminate a product can help you quickly find gaps in your food safety program. If you read an earlier post I did on the subject, then you may remember that here at our tiny farmstead creamery, we do an APC on the milk used for each batch of cheese. This spring we made some changes in our general procedures that lead to increased bacteria counts in our milk. By using swab testing, we were able to pinpoint where the problem was originating- before the bacteria levels became too high.

We had made several changes on the dairy farm side of processing. First, we greatly shortened the time in which the milk goes from the body temperature of the animal to refrigeration temperatures. Second, we changed some of the cleaning products to more environmentally friendly variations. When I say “environmentally friendly” in this case I mean products that break down quickly into less harsh compound or elements and are therefore easier on a septic system- ours is an oversized domestic system that handles the waste water from our home, dairy, and creamery. Due to the heavy use of cleaning and sanitizing products, our septic tank was functioning at less than optimum and costing us quite a bit in maintenance.

Since rapid chilling of milk is one of the best ways to limit bacterial growth, our problem of rising bacteria counts meant that either the equipment was not being cleaned adequately, or that bacteria was being introduced- in large numbers- at another step in the process. I mentioned we are a very small farm, so it was quite easy to gather the entire team (myself, our daughter, and one intern) and go over the possibilities. After I completed a milking and what I felt was a thorough cleaning and sanitization of the equipment, I swabbed the inside of one of the sections that collects milk from the animal (called a “claw”).  After plating and incubating the results showed many cfu’s, there should have been almost zero. (See the photo later)

Swab Testing: What You’ll Need

  1. Incubator- We use the small, inexpensive version sold by Nelson Jameson (about 90.00)
  2. 3M Petrifilm plates- Aerobic Plate Count and Coliform Count (70-80 cents each)
  3. Plate spreader (comes with Petrifilm plates)
  4. 3M Quick Swabs (about 1.40 each)
  5. Sharpie or other marker

Once you have gathered your supplies, you can begin taking samples. It is a good idea to test far more surfaces in the beginning of a testing program than you may need to do on follow up tests – this will help establish a baseline of awareness. Once enough tests confirm that cleaning protocols (SSOP’s – sanitization standard operating procedures) are effective, you may be able to decrease the number of surfaces tested as well as the frequency.

Steps for Successful Swab Testing

  1. Using a sharpie or marker, write the source of the sample and date taken on the Quick Swab container.
  2. When you are ready to swab the surface, bend the neck of the liquid filled end of the Quick Swab so that the nutrient broth contained in the bulb flows into the end that contains the swab. Squeeze the bulb so that all of the solution is drained.
  3. Twist apart and remove the swab from the tube. Hold the tube so that the broth solution remains inside once the swab is removed.
  4. Rub the end of the swab, holding it at a slight angle so that the sides make some contact with the surface, on the desired area to be sampled. Rub the swab three times over an area of roughly 3-4 square inches.
  5. Return the swab to the broth and close the tube.
  6. Shake the tube for about 10 seconds to mix the sample into the broth.
  7. Remove the swab from the tube, squeezing it inside the neck of the tube to remove as much of the solution from the absorbent material as possible.
  8. Peel back the film on the sample plate (APC or other) and carefully pour the solution onto the center of the plate. It tends to run out very quickly and is tricky to do properly (as you might notice from the photo of the “claw” sample later in this article).
  9. Use the plate spreader to gently press the sample into the plate. Use the flat side for coliform plates and the recessed side for APC plates.
  10. Allow the plate to sit for about 1 minute so that the liquid sample will gel with the plate.
  11. Incubate as directed for the type of sample being run. (For APC it is 90F for 48 hours, for coliform plates incubate at 90F for 12 hours).

Coliform Plates- How are they Different, When and How to Use

When you open a pack of coliform count Petrifilm plates you will immediately notice two things that are different from the APC plates. First, they are red instead of white. Next, the plate is thicker and has a circular “well” that helps contain the sample of fluid, while the APC plates are flat. When you use the plastic plate spreader on a fluid sample on the APC plates, you use the side of the spreader that has a recessed area. When spreading a sample on a coliform plate, use the flat side of the spreader. Coliform plates are a little bit more expensive then the APC plates, at about 75-80 cents each. Coliform plates that differentiate between total coliforms and e. coli are even more costly at about 1.50 each. You can also purchase “rapid” count plates that will give you results in just a few hours.

So why should you choose to run a coliform sample over an APC sample? In general it is best to focus on coliforms when testing surfaces, especially those that might come in contact with raw or finished product. While other bacteria will always be present in a cheesemaking facility, coliforms are from fecal sources and should not be expected or tolerated on surfaces inside the processing area. If a total coliform count reveals no coliforms, then purchasing and using the more expensive e.coli specific plates is not strictly needed. (These policies should be determined by each facility in consultation with a food safety specialist, however. This article is based solely on our experiences here at our own farm)

A coliform plate is read differently than an APC plate. When you look at the incubated Petrifilm coliform plate, you may see multiple small, red dots, just like you do on the APC plate (although they are more difficult to see thanks to the red background color of the plate – which is intentional). Coliform cfu’s will also have a red dot, but it will be surrounded by a little ring of air – a gas pocket produced by the bacteria. Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on how you look at it) the samples I took for this article did not grow any coliforms. Perhaps I should have swabbed the milking parlor floor drain, which would no doubt have created quite a high count plate for you to see!

Lessons in Swabbing

Here at Pholia Farm, swab testing has helped us determine the frequency of cleaning door handles, light switches, and other hand contact surfaces as well as the efficiency of our cleaning protocols for the cheese vat, milk cans, and milking equipment. Thanks to this quick and easy test we were able to pinpoint the gap in our process – in this case inadequate cleaning products – and make immediate changes. In our case, we returned to our former CIP detergent and will be attempting to offset the damage to our septic system flora by regularly treating the system with beneficial bacteria treatments. Of course, the long term lesson is that there will always be something to try to improve and compromises made – whether that is in the use of chemicals that are not as “green” as we would like or in costs and time spent trouble shooting problems. Being a small cheesemaker also means being alert and adaptable, there is nothing boring about this career!

Notes:

It is important to remind you that you may not provide testing or plate counts to others unless you are a certified professional working in a certified facility. When first developing a testing frequency protocol, it is advisable to include certified lab testing and consultation with a food safety professional.

Resources:

Supplies: www.nelsonjameson.com

Instructions: www.msu.edu/course/fsc/441/3mapc.html https://www.msu.edu/course/fsc/441/3mc&ec.html,  and http://solutions.3m.com/wps/portal/3M/en_US/Microbiology/FoodSafety/industries/one/

Pressing Cheese without a Form

The “Belly Button” of the cheese

If you’ve ever seen a whole wheel of the iconic US cheese, Vella Dry Jack you might have noticed that the cheese is irregularly shaped and has an indentation on the top that the Vella family fondly dubbed “the belly button”. This cheese, along with several other aged cheeses, are pressed while wrapped in cheese cloth- instead of rigid forms and molds. When I first started making cheese, about 10 years ago, I tried pressing a few small wheels of jack type cheese in this fashion. But I couldn’t figure out how to tie a knot that didn’t make a huge divet (instead of a small belly button) in the wheel.

While doing research and making many different cheese types for my most recent book “Mastering Artisan Cheesemaking” I learned to tie a “Stilton knot”- which is traditionally used to hold Stilton blue cheese curd during draining. The knot enables the cheesemaker to gather and tighten the curd evenly, without tying a bulky knot.  When making a Stilton style cheese, the bundles are formed while the curd is still soft, and sit in the vat while whey drains around them. When making a jack type cheese, however, the bundle is formed after the curd is fully drained and salted. You can use this technique for other types of cheeses as well, even those that are to be brine salted.

To form a Stilton knot, place the curd into the center of a finely woven cheesecloth. Then

After gathering three corners, wrap the 4th around the others, spirally lower, until the knot is tight against the ball of curd

lift and gather three of the corners of the cloth and hold them in one hand. With your other hand take the fourth corner and wrap it around the other three- low and snug to the curd.Make each wrap progressively closer to the curd, this not only tightens the bundle, but also keeps the knot from coming loose. Voila!

I tried it out on one of our “regular” cheeses that we call “Takelma”, a washed curd variety that we usually make in 8 pound wheels. This singular wheel is 24 pounds. After forming the drained curd into a Stilton bundle, I placed a cutting board on top (using short forms at each corner to keep the board from tipping) and then added weight as needed to close the rind and paste.

24 pound wheel after pressing with a food grade board

The wheel reached the correct pH for pressing (in this case 5.2) within a few hours. It was nice to not have to turn the wheel for this type of pressing, and I could easily see that the curd was knitting by looking at it through the cloth (without untying the knot).  After the correct pH was reached, I had a bit of a problem- the wheel was far to large to fit into our usual brine tanks!  Hmm, I thought, and looked around the creamery. There was the vat sitting unused. So I poured in about 3 gallons of fully saturated brine and placed the big cheese down into the solution.  I left the wheel inside it’s bundle and then lifted it into the brine and then unwrapped it- I was concerned that it would crack or break if lifted after unwrapping.

We’ll see how this bigger version ages- as it will be different than it’s smaller derivation. I will core sample it at about 3-4 months and let you all know.

 

Making Yogurt to Feed Kids and Calves

Yogurt  not only provides valuable probiotic bacteria to the young ruminant, but it is easy to digest and can remain at room temperature in free choice bucket feeders without fear of growing unwanted pathogens. Making yogurt for kids and calves is a simple and inexpensive process. At Pholia Farm, we feed pasteurized goat milk and goat milk yogurt blended to a feedable consistency and served in free choice bucket feeders. We make the yogurt in the same manner as one would for personal consumption, but with a little less attention to details such as stray goat hairs and incubation temperature.  Here is how we do it:

  1. Heat milk to 180F
  2. Cool to 130F
  3. Stir in about 1-3 TB per gallon of yogurt from the previous batch or store purchased plain yogurt or use 1/2 tsp of powdered yogurt culture (purchased from a culture supply company such as Dairy Connection)
  4. Place pot in an ice chest to hold temperature- add 125 F water for better temperature control. Even easier, you can simply leave the pot to sit on the counter if the room is fairly warm. The resulting yogurt won’t be quite as thick, but it will work for kids.
  5. After 12 hours the yogurt should be set.
  6. Store in refrigerator.
  7. Don’t forget to retain a bit to start your next batch!

There you have it, bon appetit to your young animals!

Feeding Kids with the Free-Choice, Cool Milk Method- Peace in the Barn!

A few years ago we attempted to raise our Nigerian Dwarf kids on the “cool milk, free-choice” method. This way of feeding kids involves providing full time access to a bucket feeder, or other mechanical nursing unit, stocked with cold or cool milk. The idea behind the method is twofold. First-that kids will not overeat when the milk is cool, and second 24 hour access means they will eat frequent small meals, instead of three or four larger bottle fed meals spaced throughout the day. The end result being an unstressed kid who is also less likely to suffer some of the digestive issues associated with  bottle raising.

Unfortunately, our kids became quite chubby and also had trouble making the switch to solids. By weaning time, we had them back on scheduled feedings in an attempt to increase their intake of roughage. I even tried diluting the milk with an electrolyte solution to keep their weight down. That worked, but the resulting volume of urine meant a lot more pen cleaning and ammonia fumes. So we gave up.

I decided to take another look at what could be done to make this method work for us.  I had loved how quiet the kids were when not hungry between bottle feedings. Not only quiet, but they didn’t mob and molest you every time you entered the pen. You could hold and cuddle a kid without risking a fat lip from their flailing heads and hooves down your shirt as their little legs frantically tried to get them closer to that bottle they just knew you had hidden somewhere. I also wanted to decrease the stress a kid experiences during it’s first two months.

Part of our problem had been coming up with a feeder bucket with nipples that the small mouths of Nigerian Dwarf kids could both start on and continue. Red, Pritchard type nipples are just the right size to start these kids on, but our attempts to make them work on a bucket feeder (as directed by companies selling them as usable on a ball valve, square pale type feeder) failed. No matter what we did, the milk leaked out.  In our first attempt we started them on the Pritchard type nipples mounted on a bucket with a small amount of milk (not enough to cover the top the tube on the inside) and then switched them over to the latex nipples designed to go on these bucket types. (See photo). The latex nipples, however, were often the victim of over eager babies trying to figure them out and would “blow out” at the tips, spilling milk everywhere.  The red, rubber versions were much sturdier, but too stiff for the young goats to figure out. “Caprine” type nipples (the long gray or black kind that fit over a soda pop bottle- or beer bottle as I discovered) were too long for all but the older kids. Too bad, as this type is great for a bucket feeder with a long tube that goes down into the milk.  

Last fall I took a new look at the valve set up for the bottom feeding style of bucket feeders. I wondered if I could add a straw type tube to the inside and drill the holes higher in the bucket. I tried it. It was tough to find a small hose that would fit over the tips, but I finally found latex tubing that I could just barely stretch over the tube. I drilled holes in a new square bucket about one third of the way up and fitted the valves with Pritchard nipples. I put water in the bucket and then, guess what, I tested it and got a nice mouthfull of water!  Pritchard nipples have a little metal valve that provides an air vent, so I sealed these with silicone so that milk would stay in the straw- making it easier for the kids to nurse. Armed with this new type of bucket feeder I  was ready for spring.

We start the kids out on their mom’s for 3 days. Then we switch them to bottles using Pritchard nipples. When they are taking these well, they are placed in a pen with a bucket feeder stocked with warm milk. After they are comfortable with this setting, we let the milk cool and simply let them work through the adjustment. At about four weeks of age, they move to a pen with two larger nipples, a caprine style and a latex lamb bar (see photo above) type nipple. It usually takes a couple times showing them how to use these (I don’t actually demonstrate this myself…) and then they figure it out just fine.  At weaning time, they are moved to a new pen without a bucket feeder, but with a once a day pail of warm water with probiotic powder and  a pinch of electrolytes.

In addition to milk, we feed our kids homemade goat milk yogurt. (I learned this feeding style from the wonderful Jennifer Bice of Redwood Hill Farm). The yogurt is not only great for their health, but when using the cool milk method, it also provides protection from unwanted bacterial growth by acidifying the milk. Not only that, but it makes it thicker and  slows the hungry little buggers down even more!

Between the new buckets and the yogurt mixture, this years kids are quieter, calmer, look great and best of all, not little fatties!

There are some downsides to free choice feeding: You cannot accurately feed a coccidiostat in the milk and must instead medicate them separately; you will waste some milk when the bucket feeder is emptied daily for cleaning (be sure this is done thoroughly to prevent sickness in the kids); and you will end up with a lot of unused baby bottles.

 

 

The Most Important Room in the Dairy

When I designed our small, farmstead dairy and creamery in 2005, I unknowingly left out what is perhaps the most important and useful room – the Baby Milk Kitchen.  After working through a handful of chaotic kidding seasons, struggling to maneuver around whoever was milking, cluttering up the milk house with bucket feeders, etc.,  I realized that a space to fill and wash bottles; pasteurize and store milk for babies; and keep medications and records should be present in every efficient dairy.

Pholia Farm's Kid Milk Kitchen

When providing floor plan reviews and consultations since this realization, I recommend adding a space with refrigeration, sink, shelving, and even a range or heat source for warming milk.  It should be located near the baby rearing area and not share any facilities with rooms where milk for human consumption (or cheesemaking) is being processed. It doesn’t have to be fancy or large, but should be efficient.

For some time I thought a baby milk kitchen was out of reach for our facility, after all, we had no room to expand or convert a space, or so I thought. Last fall while making cheese I was looking out the window to the two sided, covered back porch where we had two chest freezers, one for frozen, pasteurized milk for kids and one for personal food; a refrigerator for yogurt and milk for kids; a barbecue gas grill; and a lot of stuff that comprised a general look of clutter. Suddenly, this multi-use porch started looking a lot like our future open-air kid milk kitchen.

Over the winter we framed in one of the walls, leaving a large glassless window that looks out to our cabin and the mountains. Along this wall I built a 11 foot painted plywood counter into which we set a deep sink (purchased at a Habitat for Humanity store for 15.00) that runs to a trench. Under the sink I added a draining shelf using a scrap piece of metal fence panel.  Vern ran the plumbing out the wall from the adjoining boiler room and the porch already had an outlet for power and an overhead light.  We moved the two chest freezers to one wall, the grill to the unframed, screened wall, and the refrigerator to the back wall of the boiler room.  We pasteurize our kid milk by using an inexpensive turkey fryer as a hot water bath, so we made a place for it as well.  We had a little trouble with the liquid, natural dishsoap freezing solid during the first month of kidding, but other than that, this room- we now call the KMK for kid milk kitchen- has made our spring birthing season almost, and I emphasis almost, heavenly.

Foot traffic in the milk house is now limited to whoever is milking, so it stays much cleaner. The clutter of milk buckets and lamb bars and baby bottles is gone. There is no concern about medications being near the milk. And no one has to struggle to carry filled bucket feeders out through the milk house door, dripping milk as they slosh their way through the milking parlor.

Our KMK is rudimentary and rustic, but it does the job. We’ll plan on improving it during the down season, but it will get us through this spring.  The only problem with the room is that it is a distance from the baby pens. Now, as I stand at the sink washing buckets and bottles, I find mysekf  gazing out to the open space behind the barn (well it is not that open, but

crammed with Amelia’s rabbit house, recycling bins, and stacks of buckets, barrels, and fencing that we just might need someday) and wondering about a new kid barn…

Preliminary Assessment FlowChart for Future Farmstead Creameries

Here is another flow chart I created that will walk you through the many considerations you should face before deciding to build a farmstead or artisan cheesemaking business. The red boxes signify a step at which you should stop and assess several factors for suitability, costs, and possible income. If you follow this path, you should collect enough data and information to create a business plan.  From there you can decide for yourself if your plan has merit.

Flow chart for Assessing suitability for building a cheese business

FlowChart- Steps to Licensing a Creamery

Here is a flow chart that may be helpful in seeing the many steps of licensing and permits involved with building a cheesemaking facility. I have focused this chart on California, as it is one of the more “permit heavy” states, but most of the steps will apply in other states as well. 

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