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. 

The De-Horning Dilemma

The De-Horning Dilemma

A few weeks ago I was bumming around on Amazon.com, reading a few of the reviews that readers can post after reading (hopefully thoroughly) someone’s book.  The particular author in whose reviews I was snooping around is a favorite of mine. His book on life with goats is particularly poetic and at the same time realistic and accurate. It is a classic. One of the reviewers wrote of the author’s “barbaric and cruel” treatment of his goats, as he had dis-budded (removed the horn buds of the young kids before actual horns could grow) and fed the babies on a bottle instead of letting the mother raise them. She, as a way of presenting her credentials, cited her own experience with goats.

Do Goats and Cows Really Need to be Disbudded?

For many non-farmers or hobbyists with a strong urban background, the de-horning (or more likely “dis-budding”) of goats and cows that would otherwise grow horns (some animals are born without horns – “polled”) might seem inhumane and even, as the reviewer above said, barbaric. At some level they have a point, but for most domestic livestock, horns are more liability than asset. Now, of course there are some folks out there who would argue that animals should never be kept in captivity and therefore there is no situation when dehorning or disbudding should be performed. If these folks are living on this planet without having any impact to the land, its animals, and the other humans, then I applaud them and admit their superiority. Of course they can’t be doing that and ever read this, so I guess they’ll never know of my admiration.

For goats in the wild, or more primitive domestic settings, horns serve several purposes: First as a means of defense against predators, second as a way to radiate excess body heat when temperatures are high, and lastly as a way to reach that really-itchy-spot between their shoulder blades. For most domesticated goats, though, horns present several life threatening and quality of life issues: The most concerning issue is that horns lead to becoming entrapped in fencing- it is easy to stick one’s head through the fence when horns are present, but all but impossible to extract. When trapped in a fence several horrible things can happen to the animal including becoming a meal for a large predator or having the horn broken off at the base and bleeding, even to death. In the best outcome, the animal must simply be rescued from the fence. But while trapped, they are stressed from being vulnerable and easy targets for other, more dominant herdmates to torment and physically abuse. Then next, only slightly less important issue that horned animals pose is accidental and intentional injury to other goats and to their human handlers. While this can be avoided to a great degree, all of us, who have had goats for any length of time, have a story of being nearly blinded by a goat accidentally hitting our faces with a horn. Some more obstinate goats (What? Goats can be stubborn?) even learn to use their horns as a way to avoid being worked with. Bucks (intact male goats) are especially notorious for this type of behavior.

For the breeder of registered dairy goats, horns limit the animal’s future in another  fashion. In order to enter the ring of a goat show (where prizes can be won that will help the breeder find superior homes for other members of the goat herd and where the breeder can learn more about improving their animals through choosing better genetic traits) dairy goats may not have horns. If animals are not disbudded within a few weeks of birth, then removing horns can be a risky prospect. While many people have no intention of showing their goats, the next owner (and every animal, no matter how loved, is a heartbeat away from a new owner) may not only want to show the goat, but may also have fencing and housing where goats can be harmed.

All that being said, I know several people who quite successfully keep their goats horned. They use electric fencing or large, open range and manage smaller herds. They often use the goats as pack animals, and then the asset of having horns to help lose body heat outweighs the hazards. They also discriminately choose animals with gentle dispositions. So it is possible!

Disbudding in the Most Humane Manner

For those of us who believe that a hornless animal has the best hope for a humane and happy future, the dilemma becomes how to remove the horn growth in the kindest fashion possible. In order to choose the least traumatic method, the goat’s psyche and natural instincts need to be considered. You cannot view it from the standpoint of a predator- any species that naturally eats other animals (that’s us) .Predator and prey animals deal with pain and fear in different fashions.  If you happen to be aware of the writing and teaching of Temple Grandin (whose groundbreaking work studying animal responses as compared to her own autism has led to great changes in how meat animals are managed, especially during slaughter), then you might have already contemplated the fact that for a prey animal fear can be more traumatic than pain. (When compared to predators such as humans, dogs, and cats). Remember all animals feel pain, but the response to pain- in actions, heart rate, blood pressure, etc. is less than a similar pain situation for a human. The opposite is true for fear. When a prey animal is put in a situation of danger- being threatened by a dog, a human yelling and striking at the animal, or being chased, their response- heat rate, blood pressure, etc.- is greater than you would typically see for a human or other predator animal in the same situation.

So how can you use this knowledge to ease the suffering of goats and calves during the procedure of disbudding?

First, let’s review the most common method of disbudding. The quickest, most effective way to disbude involves the use of a hot iron with a circular shaped tip. The iron is heated to approximately 700° F or hotter. If the iron is not hot enough, then it might be held to the head too long and over-heat the skull,  causing damage to the young animal’s brain. It will also not effectively kill the cells that will produce horn growth. So burning-hot-iron-applied-to-animal’s-head. Doesn’t sound too nice, does it? In addition to recalling the knowledge of how an animal handles pain, you must remind yourself that the goat and cow’s skull is designed to take quite a beating (literally) when the animals play and fight by butting each other (goats do this more than cows). When the iron is applied at the right temperature, the procedure is over in a matter of seconds. Recovery time (as measured by vital signs- heart rate and blood pressure) is extremely rapid.

A common electric disbudding iron, the Rhinehart X50 with calf size tip.

The procedure can be made even less traumatic through a few simple choices that address the fear factor of being held down as well as any residual pain that the animal will feel (even if they don’t show the effects of pain the same as you and I would).  To help reduce anxiety and fear, the following things should be addressed:

  1. Is the animal afraid of you and fearful of being handled?
  2. Can you provide a low stress environment where the procedure is to be done? For example, the area should be near their usual housing, free of other fears such as dogs, loud noises, etc.
  3. Are you competent in performing the procedure? Quick, confident action will provide the shortest exposure to pain and fear.
  4. Can the animal be restrained in the least traumatic, most comfortable fashion?
  5. Can the animal be returned to a low stress, comforting situation? For example, if the kid or calf can return to a pen with its litter or pen mates or mother or be given a bottle of milk, then anxiety will be reduced. Be aware that it is not uncommon for mothers to temporarily or permanently reject a recently disbudded baby due to the scent change. If the mother rejects the baby, then stress will be increased.

Using Pain Medication, Sedation, and other Pain Reduction Methods

Here at Pholia Farm we sedate (put to sleep) the kids during the procedure. We use a medication that is legal for the veterinarian to prescribe to the producers they feel are accomplished in accurately dosing strong medications as well as monitoring the vital signs of the animal. If I was only disbudding, I might not choose to do this, but we also tattoo the kids at the same time. Tattooing seems to be equally or more painful to the young kid, so for us it makes sense to provide the least fear and pain possible.   Many breeders choose not to sedate as when the kid awakes, they are disoriented and seem quite anxious. In that case, it makes sense, given what I talked about earlier, that it is likely that the groggy state caused by the medication might be more traumatic for the animal than the brief moment of strong pain. Fortunately, we figured out a simple remedy for this. After the procedure is finished we place the kid in a small pen with other “sleeping” kids and cover it to keep the space dark. The kids wake feeling safe and quiet- making almost no sounds and recovering fully without any apparent signs of stress. If you are interested in using sedation, you will need to first become competent in other areas of herd management and then develop a plan with your veterinarian.

Analgesics (pain killers) can be given to young animals about 30 minutes before the procedure to help minimize the after effects of the burning. Again, you should consult your veterinarian to decide upon the medication and dosage.

A cool, antiseptic (kills bacteria) spray should be applied immediately after the procedure is completed (as each bud is finished burning, spray that area). This will help cool the animals head.  Some people also use an icepack to apply to the head of the animal.

Again, distracting the baby with a bottle of milk or nursing on their mother, will help shift them away from any fear or anxiety that had been being experienced.

Public Perceptions

However you decide to approach the horn issue, you owe it to your animals and the survivability of small farms to both educate the public and deal with the issue in the most civilized, humane approach possible. Beware of treating the concerns of others with a cavalier attitude- nothing good will come of such an approach. Even with the right attitude, keep in mind that many people are greatly distanced from any of the less savory realities that most farmers deal with without a second thought. People cannot be exposed too suddenly to things that they might not understand or be able to put into context. Even watching a live birth, without any complications, can be too traumatic for some people. So be alert, be aware, be knowledgeable, and be kind!

Must-Have Booklet for Consumers and Sellers of Raw Milk

Safe Handling - Consumers' GuideThanks to Suzanne Willow of Willow-Witt Ranch in Ashalnd, Oregon, I found out about this awesome little booklet by Peggy Beals called “Safe Handling- Consumers’ Guide- Preserving the Quality of Fresh, Unprocessed Whole Milk”. The booklet is meant to be distributed to members of cow and goat shares, buying clubs, and on farm milk customers. It isn’t free, but the low cost of 5.00 (or less in bulk) can be readily included in the price of the herdshare, subscription, or however it is that compensation for milk is obtained.

If you are selling, bartering, or processing raw milk for consumption I urge you to order a few copies of this great publication. In fact, I wouldn’t even consider selling milk to anyone who hasn’t read it! The information contained within puts the knowledge of the beauty and fragility of unprocessed milk into the hands of the consumer-making them your partner in providing wholesome food. This knowledge and it’s application will help us all keep the right to drink raw milk.

I have always had trouble with folks who want to blindly believe that raw milk is ALWAYS superior to processed. Peggy’s booklet starts with “Three Principles of Milk Quality”- Provide a healthy life for the cows, Prevent contamination, and Preserve Taste and Nutrition.  It then goes on to share how all of these principles can be achieved through choices and actions by the producer and the consumer. I’m telling you, this booklet is a gem!

The 32 page booklet (now in its 4th edition with sales in the thousands) is available online through the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense fund at:  https://www.farmtoconsumer.net/EducationalProducts.asp Purchases are made directly from Peggy, but this link with form is useful. You can also email her directly and order at pegbeals@msn.com. Prices start at 5.00 per copy and drop to 2.50 each when you order over 100. Perfect opportunity for clubs, CSA’s, and coops to save some bucks.

Whoever you are, if you believe in the right to purchase, sell, and consume unprocessed, intact milk, then you owe it to the cause to provide education to all parties concerned. This booklet will be your ally in that mission.

gianaclis

 

All ‘Bout Bloomies- Secrets of Making White Mold Ripened Beauties

Ash, Plain, Drained Curd, rennet curd Cheeses by Gianaclis

When you talk about French cheeses most of us immediately think of Brie and Camembert. These two surface ripened cheeses are easy to love and are, arguably, the most imitated cheeses in the world. They seem to represent sophistication of palate and are therefore the gateway cheese to a whole new world of taste.  Camembert and Brie, however, are just the edge-of-the-wedge (that’s my cheesy metaphor for tip of the iceberg). There are an almost uncountable number of surface ripened cheeses- and yes, most of them are French!

            In order to make delectable bloomy rind cheeses you must either get lucky or you need to understand the special needs of a cheese that has the most complex ripening pattern of any made. To begin gaining this understanding, lets take a simplified look at the lifecycle of your typical, everyday bloomy rinded cheese and then I’ll talk about just what is going on that ensures the results you want. And then, the always pertinent, common problems.

 The Bloomy Lifecycle- Simplified

  1. Curd is produced either through a lactic (acid) production over a day or two, or through a quick-set, rennet coagulation.  This curd is not cooked or heated. Usually it is made with aroma producing and acidifying mesophillic cultures and the addition of white molds- penicillium camemberti (same thing as p. candidium) and often geotrichum candidium. Sometimes yeasts are added too.
  2. Molding is done when the correct pH is attained and is either by pre-draining of the curd in a bag for a couple of hours and then ladling (this is really helpful when making pyramid shaped cheeses and logs such as Pouligny Saint Pierre and Saint Maure), ladling thin slices of curd into the forms, or ladling rennet curds into large forms (such as the big guys they use to make Brie).
  3. Draining occurs without pressing and over 12-24 hours. Pyramids are not turned, but most other shapes are.
  4. Salting occurs after the forms are unmolded.
  5. Drying occurs over a 1-2 day period. Room temperature is usually about 62F and the humidity 80-85%. Turning takes place a couple of times during drying.
  6. Ripening is done at 50-55 F and 95 % humidity until a good coverage of white molds exist. Turning takes place daily during this time.
  7. Holding occurs if the cheese needs more ripening. The desired temperature is lower, about 38 F, to slow mold growth and allow for softening of the paste. Often the cheeses are wrapped to prevent drying out and to keep the mold from growing more. But if the humidity can be maintained at 95 F, then the mold can be patted down instead. If not wrapped, the cheeses should be turned.
  8. Eating occurs when you want it too! Some bloomies are best firm, others soft. Start trying them young and decide for yourself.

 Understanding the Special Needs of Bloomy Rinds

1.  When the curd is put in the molds the pH of lactic curd is quite low, about 4.5.  Because rennet curd has a lot of whey at molding, it goes into the forms at about 6.4 and will continue to drop in pH during draining to reach the goal of about 4.7.

 Digging Deeper:  Low pH means that the cheese has a low buffering capacity due to the loss of calcium in the whey. (Low buffering means the pH is easy to change which is critical to the development of texture later). Low pH (high acid) also means that plenty of lactate will be present (you’ll see why that matters in a sec!)

2.  The right amount of salt (usually 1-2% of the weight of the drained curd) is critical to limit undesired molds and encourage the more salt tolerant white molds. It is also important for flavor.

3. The surface of the cheeses must be dried after salting. Most molds don’t like a really wet environment (they like humidity, which is different than actual moisture you can see), but undesirable molds like mucor (aka cats fur) does like it wetter.

4. The white molds and yeasts eat the lactic acid and lactate, and start to grow on the surface (the molds need oxygen, so a good air exchange in the ripening area is critical).

Digging Deeper: The rate at which lactate is moved from the core to the surface depends on the permeability of the curd. Some things that effect permeability are:      Humidity- If the right amount of moisture must be presents. Fat content- High fat will impede permeability.

5. The surface microflora produce ammonia which is high in pH (basic) and it starts to increase the pH of the cheese.

Digging Deeper: Ammonia diffuses toward the core of the cheese over it’s ripening if the curd is permeable.

6. As the pH rises, the milk proteins attract more water and soften. (another reason for the high humidity!)

Digging Deeper: The farther proteins move from their isoelectric point (at which they have no charge) the more they attract water (become hydrophilic). As they bind water, they soften and become more creamy (at above 6.0 pH).  This softening of the milk proteins is called resolubilisation.

7. The breakdown of proteins and fats by molds and yeasts will help with the softening of the texture, but it is no longer believed to be the main reason for the texture change.

There, piece of cake, right? You totally get it? No, just keep making cheeses and return to this information, it will fall into place one day, I promise! (Hey, it did for me)Here are some common problems encountered when making bloomies. Most of the solutions are simply the opposite of the problem, but that’s true with most things in life…

Common Problems and Solutions

Not enough white mold growth: Surface of cheese is too moist, not enough oxygen (or too much carbon dioxide in air, too much geotrichum growth.

Solutions: Next time, dry the cheeses better; ensure airflow: spray on additional p. candidium (camemberti).

Too Firm Texture: pH not low enough at draining. Fat content too high. Too low of humidity. Too low oxygen.

Solutions: Track pH during make, lower fat content, monitor humidity, increase air exchange.

Too Runny: Presence of too much geotrichum or other highly proteolytic microorganism (especially when runniness is at the surface only), too low pH (less than 4.5) during draining, too high ripening temperature.

Solutions: Don’t add geotrichum, heat treat or pasteurize milk to remove wild strains, monitor pH better, lower ripening temperature once mold growth is established.

Toad Skin:  Too much geotricum, too high ripening temperature.

Solutions: Be sure to add about 100x less geotrichum than penicillium, lower ripening temperature and make sure salt levels are exact (g. candidium doesn’t like salt).

Mucor (Cat-Hair) growth: Too much moisture, too high pH.

Solutions: Choose mucor resistant penicillium strain, monitor pH at draining, ensure that drying phase is at 60-64 F and 80-85 % relative humidity.

Bitterness: Breakdown of proteins to bitter peptides by p. camemberti or other enzymes such as from rennet.

Solutions: Encourage things that promote even ripening so that the white mold doesn’t breakdown the outer portion of the cheese too quickly. Use geotrichum to balance the proteolysis of penicillium. Use the right amount of culture and the right variety (with less proteolytic activity.

Even though these cheeses might seem too persnickety to be able to work with, there is still room for error in the process with a happy outcome. (Much like many relationships…) Just give it a try, document your process, and if you like the resulting cheese, there you go!  Do remember, that because the pH goes up in these cheeses (from the safe, pathogen-unfriendly level of 4.7) that they can easily grow some nasty bacteria. This is why our ever-concerned FDA worries about soft-ripened cheeses. And you should too! Become educated about food safety and know if the milk you are working with is bacteriologically safe. Or pasteurize it.

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.

gianaclis

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 (www.nelsonjameson.com). 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.