A Farm is Not a Peaceful Place

One of those rare peaceful moments, seeing the moon setting behind the mountains to the west of our farm

A Farm is Not a Peaceful Place

There are times when our life is peaceful. But they are rare. Everyone wants something, or has something to share. The goats want to go for their walk or a hen has just laid an egg. The guardian dog sees a deer or the wild turkey has heard an echo. Our daughter has a question, our intern has a question, someone on the phone has a question, or a stack of emails are yelling in my head with their unanswered questions.

If you get up early enough in the morning, it might be peaceful. You can listen to the sounds of the night and see the silhouette of the mountains in the east. But as soon as you open the barn doors, the animals are aware of your presence and their expectations become your priority.

There are moments when everyone is satisfied, and you can hear yourself think. But it doesn’t last. Even at night, the noise, the fears, the possible suffering- that you are responsible for preventing- creeps in and startles you awake. It might be a dream now, but it could be a reality at any moment.

So many things, so many people, need you. You can’t complain about your boss, you are them. You feel responsible for the life that you have- by association- dragged your loved ones down into.

Everyone thinks you are living “the life”. They philosophize and compare. They don’t understand. They have jobs they can walk away from. They have weekends. They might even have health care and retirement plans. Our retirement plan is to be able to stop before regret dominates.

The farm is noisy, the farm is demanding, the farm is our life, our life is not our own. We love the farm, we hate the farm. We are the farm.

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I Don’t Wanna Be a Rock Star!

No “Rock Stars”, Please!

Gianaclis Caldwell

I have an issue with the current reverence that the term “rock star” is supposed to infer. I know, people are just trying to show their admiration, respect, whatever, but really, “rock star”?

Our cheese has been called a rock star. We, as cheesemakers, here at Pholia Farm have been called rock stars. (And this has all been in recently published books, by the way) And I have been called that by some lovely, well-meaning people as a way of introduction to others.

Let me confess that my own ego is not immune to the attention that such a term brings, but then isn’t that part of the problem?  Ego is great, when kept in a proper captivity, but let it loose on the stage of life, with adoring fans feeding the beast with accolades and applause, and it quickly becomes a monster. A monster that for some reason our culture insists upon worshipping.

And I am nothing! Imagine the difficulty of fighting off this beast when you actually really accomplish something- or are truly gifted.  Thank goodness that hasn’t happened!

I don’t believe our species, our culture, or our world needs any more rock stars, real or perceived. If we could only learn to idolize the true leaders, heroes, and quiet pillars of life, wouldn’t that be something?

Oh, anyone seen Steven Tyler’s new music video…?

The Legend of Goat Milk as “The Most Complete Food Known”

The Urban (Rural?) Legend of Goat Milk “The Most Complete Food Known”

Gianaclis Caldwell

Okay, just Google it. “Goat milk complete food”. You will find the venerable Journal of American Medicine (JAMA) quoted repeatedly (I counted 14 different citations on the first two pages of searching) in such turns of phrase as “as the Journal of American Medicine states, goat milk is the most complete food known” or “according to the Journal of American Medicine, goat milk is the most complete food known”. Hey, maybe you even have this quote on your website or in your brochures, if you are a goat milk producer and fan like I am.

Even a recent issue of a beloved dairy goat magazine devoted an entire article to the topic (reprinted from a natural news type website) and citing the JAMA with the same quote.  While I am all for promoting goat milk as a fabulous food, I instantly become skeptical when hearing a prestigious source quoted without also being properly attributed.

So I went to the JAMA website and did a search of their article archive. The only reference I found was a letter to the editor in Volume 120, # 4 published in September of 1942 that asked if the following quote (which the reader read in another publication) were true: “The Journal of American Medical Society states that goat milk is the purest, most healthful, and most complete food known.” The editor responds that no such statement could be found in the JAMA. That was over 50 years ago, people.  If anyone has found an attributable JAMA source for this quote, then please share it and set me straight!

Is there really such a thing as a “complete food”? If you Google that term, you will come up with a lot of claims that bee pollen and hemp seed are the most complete foods known. (Not surprisingly, the JAMA is quiet on the subject)  Even if true, just think how many bees would have to work overtime to provide enough pollen to sustain one 150 pound person or the number of hemp plants you would have to grow (although some people might think that would be just groovy)  What I am trying to say is that this obsession with the “perfect, most complete food” is kind of silly.  We are meant to eat a variety of foods- the fresher and less processed the better. The focus should be on “the most complete diet known to man”.

If you are interested in comparing (a bit more objectively, perhaps) cow, goat and human milk, then I recommend going to http://drinc.ucdavis.edu/goat1.htm  and reading “Dairy Goat Milk Composition”.  After reading it, you will likely conclude that most milk types offer a lot of nutrition, but none are perfect. And don’t forget that HOW milk is processed and treated after it is removed from the mother (be she cow, doe, ewe, or woman) has a huge effect on the retention of vitamins and minerals, the loss of enzymes, and the alteration of proteins and fats. There is a saying that I love to repeat (but I don’t know the source) that “milk was never meant to see the light of day”. In other words, milk is at its best when going straight from teat to tummy. (That is my quote and you can use it if you like)

So get out to the barn; milk your goats (who I think are the most completely wonderful animals known); drink their delicious milk; appreciate the gift that they, as beasts, and their milk are; and then double check your quotes and what you repeat.  And after all, since when do we really need the American Medical Association and their Journal to validate our own good taste?

July 10, 2011

Keeping your Home Milk Supply Clean

Here is another article I wrote about a year ago.  I did a little study using several local volunteer farms who promised to not change anything about their milking techniques and allowed me to take samples of their milk, which I then sent to a certified laboratory for testing.

How Clean is Your Home Milk Supply-Really?

By Gianaclis Caldwell

First Printed in United Caprine News, September 2010

Like most people who have a few dairy goats you probably believe the milk you drink and feed to your family (and maybe even sell) is clean and safe.  But you might want to think again.

We run a small, licensed cheese dairy inOregon.  We too thought our Grade A milk produced in our inspected, licensed facility was as pure as it could be.  After all, the state conducts routine tests on our milk to verify its safety, but when we first got started I didn’t know how to correctly read the results from these tests. I assumed that if the numbers were less than stellar, that someone would tell me, but in reality, only when the bacteria counts reach the official violation level is the dairy owner usually informed.

Without our noticing, the bacteria counts began a slow and steady climb that suddenly shot sky high.  While the milk was still technically safe to use for cheese, it was far below the standards that are ideal.  This was a pivotal moment for us.  It did three things: It caused me to study and learn how to read and interpret milk lab tests, inspired me to pay close attention to the lab results when they arrived, and completely changed our approach to sanitation in our milk processing areas.

After experiencing this from the standpoint of a licensed producer that believes in the right to drink raw milk, I started thinking about the home producer and their milk quality.  If a licensed dairy performing rigorous cleaning rituals could find their milk not clean, what about the home producer?  Here inOregon, raw milk can be sold legally direct from the farm, as long as only a specific herd size is not exceeded and other criteria are met.  So not only could the home producer be serving tainted milk to their families, but they could be selling it to any number of people for whom bacterial contamination might cause health concerns.  Even beyond the health issues, there is the flavor concern.  A common cause of poor flavor in milk (especially goat milk) is the breakdown of fats by bacterial enzymes. So, for quality milk from all standpoints, cleanliness is paramount.

 

The Study

 

I decided to recruit some volunteer farms that would allow me to collect samples of their milk to send to a lab for testing, as well as fill out a questionnaire about their milk sanitation practices. Each producer promised to keep their cleaning and collecting routine the same.  The results of the lab tests were amazing; from milk that was extremely clean, to one that was over the usual violation level. The good news was that even the “dirtiest milk” did not have high levels of the most common pathogenic (illness causing) bacteria e.coli. (The samples were not tested for another bad bug, listeria)

I collected two milk samples from five farms.  One sample was fresh, one just a few days old. Two of the farms hand milked and three used milking machines.  The samples were packed on ice and overnight shipped to Agrimark Central Laboratory inMassachusetts. (I chose Agrimark for their easy to read and order “raw milk profile”)  Before we go into the results, lets go over a little background on just what kind of tests can be done on milk and what these tests can tell you.

 

Milk Quality Tests

 

Everyone who milks their goats, cows, or sheep should know a little bit about milk quality tests.  The first thing you should know is that anyone can have their milk tested.  It is not expensive (the tests run in this study cost about 20.00 for each sample) and can be very helpful in you quest for producing good, safe food for your family and neighbors.

The first, and most common, test done on milk is the raw standard plate count (SPC) (some times called simply “raw count”). The SPC counts the TOTAL amount (measured in colony forming units) of bacteria in the milk.  Both good and bad.  It is a starting point for looking at the milk quality.  For example, if the SPC is extremely low, you can bet that the bad bacteria count is also low.  But if the SPC is high, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the milk is “bad”.  If you are a cheesemaker, then you know that by adding culture, you are adding bacteria to your milk.  Sometimes the home milk supply is “pre-cultured” with some pretty good bacteria from your animals.

The next test is the pasteurized count.  For this test, the milk is pasteurized and then the bacteria units are counted.  Remember, normally pasteurized milk (in other words NOT ultra-pasteurized) is not sterile, a certain number of bacteria do survive.  These are the heat loving bacteria (thermophiles).  For most of us who are drinking and using our milk raw, the pasteurized count is of little significance.

The test that I find most interesting is the preliminary incubation count (PI or PIC).  For the PI, milk is held at 50 degrees F for a period of time and then the bacteria colonies are counted.  Bacteria that like the cold (psychrohiles) will grow well under these conditions.  They are of great importance for issues regarding milk flavor when the milk is stored for periods of time.  Once the milk is chilled, the cold loving bacteria will continue to grow (very slowly if the milk is about 38 degrees F).  Some bad bacteria are psychrophiles too, such as listeria (a potentially deadly pathogen).  So knowing what your milk’s PI is after it has been stored for a while, can be very useful information.

Then there are specific tests for certain bad bacteria such as e. coli, staph aureus, and listeria.  First a count is done for the total number of coliforms (of which e. coli is the worst).  If that number is low, then the e.coli number will be of little value, but if it is high, then it is important to know just how much of those coliform colonies are e. coli.

Staph. aureus is a very common cause of clinical and subclinical mastitits in lactation animals.  It is also of increasing concern for human health.

 

The Study Results

First lets take a look at the lab results as a chart as well as the acceptable ranges, then I’ll break it down to analyze each farm and their procedures, test results, and some possible remedies where needed. Remember, I took a sample of milk that was 5 days old when tested (numbered “1”) and a sample that was 2 days old when tested (numbered “2”).  Then I will go over the suggested cleaning regimen for milking equipment.  But, as you will see from the volunteer farms, many of them perform cleaning procedures that vary greatly from those suggested and are evidently working quite well! ( If you are unsure of how to determine measurements of products and proper use, contact the supplier, they should be able to help you.)

 

Bacterial Testing Results

 

Farm Sample

SPC Raw

Past. Count

PI

Total Coli

E. coli

Staph

A1

2,000

20

83,000

<1

<1

<10

A2

5,000

20

2,000

<1

<1

900

B1

780,000

<10

>600,000

<1

<1

<10

B2

13,000

<10

98,000

112

<1

<10

C1

<1000

10

6000

<1

<1

<10

C2

7,000

10

1000

<1

<1

1200

D2

1000

10

1000

<1

<1

<10

E1

30,000

<10

>600,000

200

<1

<10

E2

9,000

<10

150,000

1

<1

<10

 

Milk Test Result Ranges (From Dairy Practices Council)

 

Test

Ideal

Acceptable

Common Industry*

Regulatory Limit

Raw Count

<1,000/ml

<5,000/ml

<10,000/ml

100,000/producer

300,000/commingled tanker

Pasteurized

Count

<250-300/ml

20,000/ml (pasteurized milk)

PIC (should be <3-4x SPC)

<25,000/ml

25,000-50,000

No legal limit

Coliform

<10/ml

<50-100/ml

<10/ml (pasteurized milk)

 

*Related to premium payments within industry

 Farm A

This farm’s milk was pretty clean. They hand milk into a hooded pail in a fairly typical setting- milk stand is in the barn with the animals. Teats are not dipped after milking (note, the farm with the cleanest milk in the study did not post dip either). The milk is chilled by placing in a refrigerator next to the vent from the freezer compartment.  They were unsure of how long it took for the milk to cool completely.

If you will notice, their raw counts are not too bad, but the PI is quite high on the older milk sample.  This indicates that there has been a significant growth of cold loving bacteria while the milk was stored, usually indicating that the milk did not reach ideal storage temperatures rapidly enough, or that it warmed up a bit during storage.  Interestingly, the fresher sample had a higher bacteria count and the staph count was elevated, but the PI was low.  The fresh sample was warm when I collected it from the farm.  I cooled it rapidly in my collection ice, this probably led to the much reduced PI count.

Suggestions: Cool the milk more rapidly and check the milking does for subclinical mastitis with an on-farm somatic cell (SCC) test such as the California Mastitis Test (CMT).

 

Farm B

This farm’s milking procedure, according to their questionnaire, sounds pretty thorough- so it was initially baffling to see the very high bacteria counts.  Farm B uses a milking machine, washes the udders with hot water and a wash cloth, pre-strips, post dips, cools the milk in a refrigerator, and cleans the milking equipment with chemicals and cleaners designed for the job.

The older milk sample has a raw count far beyond the violation level and an extremely high PI. The fresher sample has a much lower raw count, but still has an out of proportionally high PI.  It also has a coliform count 10 times the ideal.  So what could the problem be?

Suggestions: The first place troubleshooting should be checking the milking equipment for cleanliness. Using a magnifying glass and strong flashlight, each component should be disassembled and inspected. A common area for buildup is in the typical goat claw used on many milking machines. In addition rubber gaskets and hoses might need replacing.  Remember, microscopic nicks and grooves can easily harbor colonies of bacteria that your fresh milk will wash over during each milking- providing food for these colonies and contamination for your milk. After addressing these issues, a ramped up cleaning should be preformed using double the amount of detergent, utilizing 140 degree water (140 degrees at the start of cleaning will ensure it is still hot enough at the end of the cycle), and performed for 10-15 minutes (or until the water drops below 120 degrees).  This should be followed with a 5 minute acid wash. After this “super cleaning”, they will want to ensure that their water is the right temperature (usually 120-140 degrees) during daily cleaning.  When wash water drops below the ideal, it re-deposits proteins and fats on the equipment. The other factor that can limit the effectiveness of cleaning is the pH and hardness of the water source.  Farm B also does not pre-sanitize their milking hoses, this step should be considered as well.  The last thing that Farm B should do is chill the milk more rapidly, this will help prevent that elevated PI.

 

Farm C

This farm hand milks into open pails, does not post dip teats, cleans the milking equipment in an automatic dishwasher and routinely uses an acid wash.  They milk two goats and then filter that milk and begin its cooling before proceeding with the next goats, this is probably contributing to their lower PI counts.

The older sample has a remarkable low raw count and an acceptable PI, the newer sample has a bit higher raw count and an elevated staph count (probably leading to the higher raw count).

About the only suggestion I have for this farm is routinely checking does with a somatic cell detecting test such as the California Mastitis Test (CMT), as staph is often present in mastitic milk, even in subclinical cases (where no clumping, stringing, or udder heat is present).  Good job!

 

Farm D

This farm uses a milking machine, uses single use wash clothes for cleaning udders, and does not post dip teats.  The milk is chilled within 10 minutes of milking by filtering into a container which is then set into an ice water filled pail. They use antibacterial dish soap to manually clean their milking hoses and equipment.

While I spilled the fresher of the two milk samples when preparing them for shipping, Farm D’s older milk sample is amazingly clean.  This farm claimed that their milk would maintain its flavor for up to two weeks, and I believe it!

Suggestions: Keep doing what you are doing!  Bravo!

 

Farm E

This farm uses a milking machine, cleans udders with a quaternary udder wash, and post dips teats. The milk is filtered into a clean container within 30 minutes of beginning to milk and placed in a refrigerator. The milking equipment is cleaned by pumping rinse, wash, and acid rinse solutions through the hoses.  155-180 degree water (although water temperature does not need to be higher than 140, especially when low temp detergent is used) is used with lo-temp automatic dishwashing detergent with chlorine added.

Both samples have raw counts above the acceptable level and PI counts out of proportion to the raw count (remember, the PI is typically 3-4x as high as the raw count). Total coliforms on the older sample are quite high as well.

Suggestions: The cleaning procedure sounds good on first examination, but obviously something is missing. One thing to remember is that each cleaning step has an ideal amount of chemical, temperature of water, and length of time. Any gap in these steps can lead to problems. It is possible that the length of cleaning time is inadequate, the amount of detergent is not sufficient, or even the water type is negatively effecting the performance of the chemicals.  As with Farm B, the equipment should be disassembled and thoroughly inspected and a super cleaning should be performed.  The milk chilling time and temperature goals should also be improved, rarely is chilling by setting the container in a refrigerator sufficient.

 

Proper Daily Cleaning of Milking Equipment

 

Step

Do

Common Errors

Pre-Rinse

Rinse all equipment with 100-110 degree water. Too hot of water causing proteins to bind to surfaces or too cold causing fats to form a greasy film.

Wash

Use a chlorinated alkaline detergent mixed in the right amount for your water type (hard or soft and pH) in water that is 120-140 degrees F.

For hand washing, soak all parts in this solution for five minutes and then clean with brushes.

If pumping through the lines, clean for 5-10 minutes, making sure water does not cool below 120 degrees.

Drain wash water.

Water too cold or cooled to below 120 by end of cleaning, causing the re-depositing of fats and proteins.

Not cleaning for long enough.

Not disassembling and manually cleaning parts not cleaned well by pumping or brushes.

Acid Rinse

Mix acid rinse in lukewarm or cool water in amount directed. Soak or circulate solution for 2-3 minutes.

Drain and hang equipment to air dry.

Not using an acid rinse at the proper pH can leave a residue of the alkaline detergent, allow buildup of minerals, and leave the equipment more vulnerable to bacterial contamination between uses.

Pre-sanitize

Just before use, sanitize all equipment with a chlorine or other type sanitizer mixed as directed in cool water for 30 sec min.

Drain well.

Too strong of a solution will pit and erode stainless steel and leave a residue on hoses. Too weak will be ineffective.

Putting it all Together

As they say, milk was never meant to see the light of day- it was meant to go directly from the mother into the mouth of her offspring.  Once we interrupt that cycle and attempt to collect and keep a product that was never intended to be handled in that fashion, we increase the odds of reducing its quality and safety.

While using a milking machine is often thought of as the cleanest method available for collecting milk, this only holds true when a very strict regimen of cleaning is adhered to.  Milking hoses and paraphernalia have many nooks and crannies which make thorough cleaning a challenge. Other than cleaning of equipment, proper chilling of the milk seems to be the most common area that needs improving.  I think once the milk is in our refrigerators, we kind of let our guards down, it seems safe in there! But if you try to picture the milk as a growth medium, for not only your family, but for the hoards of bacteria, both good and bad, that are on the animals, in the air, and possibly on our equipment, then you more likely establish procedures for ensuring the safest and tastiest home milk supply possible.

GC’s Ten Tips for Collecting Clean Milk and Keeping it Clean

  1. Give your doe a dairy clip- clip hair from udder, belly, legs and around her tail for the latest in trendy, dairy fashion!
  2. Milk with dry, clean hands- never wet!- or even better, use a pair of disposable gloves while milking. They say that dirty gloves are probably cleaner than clean hands!
  3. Milk in to a hooded pail or place your stainless strainer (with a fresh, clean, single use filter in it) on top of the pail during milking!
  4. Make sure your milk jars are clean and sanitized before adding warm milk. Remember, any bacterial residue in the container will love the warm milk!
  5. Keep it on ice- right after milking, set the filtered milk into a pail of ice water and stir.  If you can get the temperature to 40 degrees within 2 hours of milking, you are chilling perfectly.
  6. Clean up immediately! Never put off cleaning your milking equipment.
  7. Use cleaning detergents and sanitizing chemical in exacting amounts and with the right temperature water.
  8. Let equipment dry between use- bacteria need moisture to surviv- a wet surface is likely a contaminated surface!
  9. Don’t forget to replace any rubber, plastic, or silicone parts of your set-up as recommended!
  10. And last, use your milk within a week, it might still taste good, but any cold loving bacteria will be developing a population by then.

 

Cheese Mites- A Creepy Little Secret

Here is an article I wrote awhile back on the fun little problem that comes with aging naturally rinded cheeses:

How the “Mitey” Have Fallen- Adventures with Cheese Mites

By Gianaclis Caldwell

May 2010

Cheese lovers beware, there is another very determined turophile (cheese devotee) on a mission to devour the same fine, long aged cheeses that you too love to eat. These little pests can consume a significant portion of aged, naturally rinded cheeses and in the process take a bite out of the slim profit margin of the artisan cheesemaker.  While cheese mites are a desired part of the aging of a handful of European cheeses, for most cheesemakers they can be a costly nuisance.

I remember when cheese mites first arrived in our aging room.  For many months I innocently thought the brownish powder accumulating on the aging room floor between cleanings, of course, was “cheese dust”- some sort of naturally occurring shedding of the paprika and oil rubbed rinds of our cheeses.  This naiveté served me well until I visited a fellow cheesemaker who was brushing the same dust off of her cheeses and complaining about mites.  Did I have cheese mites? She asked.  No, I didn’t think so, I replied while at the same time the realization started dawning that I did indeed have my own little infestation going on back home in the cellar.  Upon returning to our farm and creamery I put a bit of said dust on a microscope slide, placed it under the lens, took a look and was disgusted to see the little creeps waving back at me.

It seems that there are mites for every occasion and morsel- cheese mites, flour mites, mold mites, dust mites, and so on, and many of them are not too picky to also eat out of their specialty. It is through this versatility that mites find their way to the aging cellar. Since most of us do a little baking or know someone who does, we become the unknowing host to some little hitchhikers.  Mites are known to attach themselves to hair, clothing, and even flies in their quest for the good life.   I talked to one cheesemonger who said she and her staff would hold “cheese mite races” if they were bored.  Now, remember these are not speedy creatures, so I am not sure exactly how much excitement a mite race could generate, but it does sound creative and somewhat job related…

Let’s talk about that “cheese dust” a bit more.  What the heck is it?  Well, for those of you who have seen electron microscope images of dust mites that live in all of our beds (yes, everyone’s) and the little creatures that live at the base of our eyelashes, you can picture what this cheese dust looks like up close- eight legged mites, living and dead, and their excrement (it’s true, “Everyone Poops”).   The good news is that cheese/mite dust doesn’t pose a health risk to us full sized cheese lovers and makers.  There are cases where dermatitis (itchy skin) is a problem for some people exposed to cheese, flour, and mold mites, but usually there are no ill effects (unless you have a weak stomach and make the mistake of looking at them under a microscope right before dinner…)

So what does the cheese mite do to its prey? They dig in and start eating the rind of unwaxed and otherwise unprotected aging cheeses, including bandage wrapped cheddars.  Generally they don’t start to work on cheese under a couple of months of age, (they seem to have a connoisseur’s taste, but actually the longer aged cheese has a greater degree of protein breakdown- proteolysis- making it a better source of nutrition for the mite),  but it varies depending upon the rind treatment.  For example, cheeses that are being brine washed or rubbed with oil usually don’t see any mite presence until much later in their aging or, if rind treatment continues throughout aging, their activity is limited (the small size of the mite makes it difficult for them to maneuver through sticky, oily, or wet surfaces).  As the mites dine, they create little pinholes (see photo) that later turn into growing craters.  They eat their way under the rind and eventually cause large pits, and what I think of as cheese sink holes.  Initially the damage they do has no effect upon the taste of the cheese, but given time they impart a floral, sweet, rather sickly (to my taste buds) flavor.

So why would anyone want mites on their cheese?  Two fairly well known European cheeses, the German MIlbenkäse (literally mite cheese) and the French Mimolette are probably the two best known examples of cheeses using, what I like to call, mite-assisted-affinage. MIlbenkäse manufacture utilizes mites in an interesting fashion; when the wheels, logs, or other shaped cheeses are ready, they are placed in a box (mites prefer the dark) with mite dust and rye flour.  Evidently the flour provides an additional food source for the mites so that they will still have an effect on the flavor of the cheese, but consume less of the finished product.  Mimolette wheels (whose shape and make is similar to Dutch Edam) are also inoculated with mite dust and then brushed throughout the rest of their aging, to somewhat slow the destruction of the rind while the flavor can be changed by the mite’s activity.

If you are an artisan cheesemaker with a mite “problem” it can be utilized to produce a unique product, but it is important to remember that most retailers will not appreciate a heavily infested cheese being introduced to their cheese case or aging rooms.  In addition, health departments may not recognize mites as an acceptable “ingredient” in cheese.  So what can you do?  There are several options for limiting the damage and level of involvement of these little guys in your aging room.

One of the key factors in limiting mite damage is early intervention.  Once the mites work their way under the surface of the cheese they gain a measure of protection from any attempts to disrupt them. If your cheese isn’t intended to age for more than a few months, this may not be an issue.  Mechanical means of limiting mites included brushing and vacuuming (yup, now your housework extends to the aging cellar).  If brushing, it is best to remove the cheeses from the aging room and brush then onto a damp floor or into a sink, so that the dust is better contained.  Vacuuming can be done with a small vacuum that you keep just for this purpose.  Remember, the running motor will generate heat, which could be a factor for your cooling system.  Both vacuuming and brushing will need to be done very regularly to have much effect, and again, remember that if the mites have already gone “underground” on your rind, these methods will do little good.

Mites also seem to prefer a flat surface and dark, so you will see more activity on the underneath side of a wheel that is aged on its flat surfaces.  Wheels that are aged on their curved sides seem to suffer a bit less damage, as do those not aged on wood.  (It isn’t the wood that is the problem, it is just that the wood helps keep the mites dark and protected- they can’t fall off the wheel as easily!)  When we had some large losses due to mites, we were aging on wood.  Until that time the damage was always minimal.  I tried vacuuming while aging on the wood, but it was difficult to effectively get all of the mite dust off of the wood without moving every cheese on the shelves, and, as I mentioned before, the vacuum generated quite a bit of heat in our small aging room.  We are powered solely by solar power and any additional energy loads can be a concern.

Some data say that mites will not live at refrigeration temperature, so I tried chilling cheeses for a period of days before shipping.  About all that did was slow the mites down.  Some research says that mites can be controlled with temperatures less than 37.4 F (3 C), but that wasn’t my experience with cheese already infested.  And of course, most artisan cheeses would not be aged at refrigeration temperatures, other than perhaps blue cheese.

Waxing, clear coating (sometimes called cream wax but really a polymer based coating), and vacuum sealing will of course prevent infestation, but bandaging will not.  In fact, it is bandage wrapped cheddars that seem to have the biggest problem.  In the past, aging rooms were fumigated to kill mites, but this, thankfully for the environment, is no longer acceptable or allowed.

Some cheesemakers have noted that mites seem to be more attracted to moldy cheeses.  Evidently molds produce pheromones that attract the mites.  The mites serve the mold’s purpose by helping move spores deeper into the cheese as they burrow their way into the rind.  They also open the rind up for natural spore invasion.  So steps that reduce mold growth , such as brushing and brine washing, will also help deter mite activity.

Many cheesemakers find the best remedy to be the use of food grade diatomaceous earth (DE).  When dusted (use a fine meshed sieve) on the surface of the cheese the DE dehydrates the mites. Again, this technique must be employed early in the aging process before the mites have gone below the rind’s surface.  Be sure to wear a mask when using DE, while not toxic, breathing the fine, abrasive powder is not a good thing for your lungs.

Hydrogen peroxide can be utilized when mixed to 10% as a wash either following vacuuming or before infestation occurs.  I have not tried this method, but somehow it sounds effective yet unappetizing if your rinds are typically consumed by customers.

Ozone machines are being used to limit mite damage in larger aging facilities- and some small ones.  What is an ozone machine?  Well, in a nutshell these machines take oxygen (O₂) from the room, utilize an ultra violet light, and change it to tri-atomic oxygen (O₃). Ozone attacks organic compounds, such as mold, yeast, phage, and bacteria.  It has been used for some time in hospitals and other institutions to purify air and has been shown to sanitize surfaces as well.  So how can this help with a cheese mite problem?  The research is unclear on the exact mechanics, but it seems that the mites don’t appreciate the O₃ environment and as mold growth is also limited by ozone, the cheese surface becomes less appealing.  At Pholia Farm we have a small ozone machine (the EQ Ecobox- about 349.00 on Amazon.com) that we utilize for mildew prevention, air freshening, and general sanitation in the cheese make room, but I would never consider using it in our aging room where I want mold growth and bacterial activity.

So to sum it up, anything you can do to make the surface of your cheese less hospitable for mites will help; brine washing, oiling, brushing to limit mold growth, dusting with diatomaceous earth, vacuuming, and turning frequently.  If all else fails, perhaps there is room in theUSmarket for an new American original, perhaps a cheese called, say“Mitolette”?

“The Use of Ozone as a Disinfectant in Dairy Industry”, Technical bulletin No. 27, January 2003. www.ozone-industries.co.uk  May 5, 2010

“Cheese Mites: They’re Back”, Melnyk, Boinder, Marcone, Scott-Dupree, and Hill, Department of Food Science and Environmental Biology, University of Guelph.   May 1, 2010 (Note, this article is no longer available at the link by which I accessed it)

Identification of Cheese Mite Species Innoculated on MImolette and… http://www.journalofdairyscience.org/article/S0022-0302(10)00364-4/fulltext

“The Art of Farmstead Cheesemaking in the British Isles”, McKnight, Qui’tas,

The Babcock Institute for International Dairy Research and Development, Universityof Wisconsin-Madison, www.dbicusa.org/documents   May 3, 2010

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