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A View of our Western Pennsylvania dairy from across the valley

      I have been lurking for a decade on Kos and I sometimes comment, especially when the subject is dairy.  I was a dairy farmer for 32 years, having returned to the farm after my education, military service, and a stint as a dairy specialist for the New Hampshire Cooperative Extension service.  The Kos community has now succeeded in convincing me to write my first diary.

      A recent diary on raw milk sales made it very clear to me that there is rampant ignorance about what goes on in the dairy business from the cow to the market.  I plan to explain the process of dairying as I have learned it and practiced it.
    I think the best place to start is to define 'milk'.  In the regulatory sense and all the rules surrounding my industry, milk is defined as the complete lacteal secretion of an adult bovine.  Two words are important.  'Complete' because once a cow is stimulated to 'let down' her milk, the first milk contains less fat and protein than the last to flow; and adult because  milk is a consequence of calving(parturition).
    To sell milk I had a permit issued by the state of Pennsylvania.  To get the permit I had to pass a state and federal inspection of my operation which included the buildings, equipment, cows and water supply.  I was then subjected to twice yearly inspections by the state and periodic federal surveys.  I had to test my cows annually for TB and brucellosis and I further chose to test annually for Johne's Disease and bovine leucosis.  There was/is no permit fee.
    I had to submit and follow a manure management plan as well as a conservation plan since I grew most of the feed for my herd on my cropland.  These requirements are not exclusive to dairy farms.  
    I had to choose a market for my milk.  While Pennsylvania will issue a raw milk permit and, in my youth, we did sell raw milk, I chose to sell to a processor through a milk marketing cooperative.  Another choice could have been a producer-processor.  I wanted to concentrate on milk production.  This was an economic decision.  Finally, I had to sign a marketing contract with the cooperative which included an agreement that I would not use rBGH.  Had I chose to market directly to a processor I would have had to sign the rBGH agreement.  A cooperative gives me a say in my milk market and is owned by dairymen.
    A dairy farm has mature cows, immature bovines called heifers, and, of course, baby cows called calves.  Cows do not produce milk year round.  They must have a calf every year to continue as a productive animal.  So she calves, starts producing milk, and produces for 300 days, during which time  she is re-bred.  After 300 days, assuming she is confirmed pregnant, we stop milking her and give her a 60 day rest before the next calving.  This is called a dry cow.  We try to maintain a 12 month calving interval but often fall short, actually long, on this target.  Our calving interval was closer to 13 months.  Thus any well managed  dairy farm has about 5/6 of its total number of mature cows milking at any one time.  Since these cows have a calf a year and half are males (bulls) and a heifer is bred to calve at age 2, a well managed dairy farm has an equal number of young stock (calves and heifers) being raised as replacements.
    I milked my cows twice daily in a modern 'milking parlor' where the cows come to the milking machine rather than taking the machine to the cows.  My cows were housed in a loose housing setting; that is they were not tied into stalls and were free to roam the barn.  There were 'free stalls', bedded 4ft by 8ft stalls filled with shredded paper or sawdust in which the cows could lay down.  Cows dropped their manure in the alleyways and these were cleaned daily; the manure was pushed into a storage lagoon.  The semi-liquid manure was stored until it could be spread onto the fields in the spring and fall.
      On most farms the milk is pumped onto a tanker truck and transported to a processing plant every 48 hours.  Before it is pumped the driver takes a sample of the milk from each farm.  Before the milk enters the plant a sample is tested for antibiotics and bacteria.  If any antibiotics are detected the load must be discarded but the dairyman whose milk contained the substance can be identified and pay for the discarded milk.  A 4000 gallon truck full of milk costs nearly $6000 and serves as a strong  deterrent to any actions that would adulterate the milk.
    Next diary I'll discuss dairy cow breeds, feeding, grazing and management.

Originally posted to vmdairy on Wed Nov 13, 2013 at 01:37 PM PST.

Also republished by Kitchen Table Kibitzing, SciTech, and Community Spotlight.

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