As a follow-up to the first post on raw milk (Buying Raw Milk in Tennessee), I thought it would be useful to provide a list of questions that we feel are prudent for consumers to ask prior to buying raw milk or participating in a herd share. These are questions that, in our opinion, customers should be asking their raw milk dairy farmers. (If additional quesitons come to mnind, I'd love it if you left them in the comments.)
Before we get into the list of questions, it's important to make sure the farmer will give you the time to ask questions in the first place. If a farmer is going to sell you raw milk, a share of their herd, or a raw milk product, he/she should give you ample time to ask questions. If they don't, then don't buy their milk. That's the first warning sign.
Also, if you get a bad vibe from the farm, or you sense the farmer is lying to you or avoiding answering your questions, move on. Don't hesitate. Trust your gut, or your gut may pay for it later. Raw milk is great and it's wonderful to have, but don't risk buying contaminated raw milk. It could make you very ill, and in extreme cases it could be lethal. We've been to a number of raw milk farms where we wouldn't dare drink the milk. We've also been to plenty where we would drink the milk. Knowing the difference is critical and I hope these questions help you identify a high-quality raw milk farmer in your area.
Ok, on with it. This is written from the perspective of someone buying raw cow's milk, since that is by far the most common raw milk available. We have dairy goats and so do lots of other dairy farmers. Raw sheep's milk is also an option. These questions can be substituted for raw milk from any type of dairy animal, it's not cow-specific.
Questions To Ask Your Raw Milk Farmer
#1 Can I Tour Your Farm?
If you're going to be buying raw milk directly from the farmer you should be allowed to tour his farm and milking facilities. You may have to pay for a tour, you may not. Most small farmers will not impose a fee on their customers for the initial tour, but some will. If you don't want to pay the fee then don't buy their milk, that's my advice. Go on a tour before you buy milk. Pay close attention to cleanliness.
#2 Can You Walk Me Through Your Sanitation Procedures?
Here you want to understand everything from the moment the cow steps onto the milking platform until the bottle of milk reaches your hand.
When the cow is in the parlor you want to know if the farmer is using a pre- and post-dip sanitizing solution on the cow's teats. He or she should be. You also want to know what type of cloth the farmer uses to wipe the teats. If he uses paper towels you want to make sure that they are thrown away after each use. A "pre" dip towel should not then be used as a "post" dip towel. If the farmer is using washable rags you want to make sure he is sanitizing them properly after each use and that individual rags are not used on multiple cows.
After milking, ask how the milk is transported from the cow's teats to the "bulk tank" (where the milk is cooled)? If it's through a pipeline system, ask how frequently the pipelines are cleaned. They should be cleaned after each milking with very hot water and a sanitizing solution. If the milk goes into buckets (known as bucket-milking), ask how and when the buckets and hoses are cleaned. They should be cleaned after each milking with very hot water, cleaning/sanitizing solutions, and rigid brushes to clean the hoses/tubes.
After the milk comes out of the teat and is transported to the "bulk tank" ask what temperature the milk is cooled to and how quickly. It should be cooled within an hour of exiting the teat and it should get close to freezing and stay there until it goes into your bottle.
The "bulk tank" where the milk is stored should be completely drained and rinsed/sanitized on a regular basis (at least every couple days, if not every day). Hoses and pipelines attached to the bulk tank should undergo a similar treatment.
Next, focus on the bottling procedures and milk storage. If the farmer's fridge isn't clean or the bottles look dirty there's your first clue. Most of the time consumers will be responsible for cleaning their own bottles, be sure to ask what procedure the farmer recommends (a luke warm rinse, followed by soap, and a final hot water and bleach solution rinse, is good).
#3 What and Where Do Your Cows Eat?
If you are interested in milk from primarily grassfed animals, ask how much feed is given on the stand. If it's more than a few pounds, or the answer is "as much as the cow can eat", then you know the milk you're getting is primarily produced from grain consumption and not grass consumption. Another question would be to ask how much milk each cow is giving per day. If it's above 5-7 gallons per day (depending on the breed) you can be pretty sure that the cows are eating a lot of grain. For sheep and goats that number would be above a gallon or so per day, depending on the breed. If you're concerned about corn and soy-based feeds, be sure to ask what's in the grain ration. Is it organic? Local? Does the farmer mix his own rations or buy them pre-mixed?
Not everyone will be interested in that level of detail, but different types and quantities of feed lead to different health profiles of milk. We prefer milk from animals that are primarily grassfed. We are not believers in feeding grain to increase milk production, only to keep the animals healthy and happy. For more information on our grain feeding practices see the post The Herd Goes Organic - Sprouting Grains for Feed.
#4 How Often Do You "Worm" Your Cows? What Do You Do When a Cow Gets Sick?
Excessive worming and treating with antibiotics of dairy animals is a sign of improper animal management, in my opinion. Not all cows should automatically need to be wormed throughout the year. If a farmer is practicing rotational grazing, supplementing where necessary with minerals and vitamins, and generally making sure his animals are well-fed and healthy, worming shouldn't be a pre-requisite. A farmer can monitor their animals' parasite load by fecal examination and then know when treatment is actually necessary instead of deworming on a schedule regardless of the animal's condition, as many farmers do.
We haven't had any issues with parasites, probably because of our intensive rotational grazing schedule and constant monitoring of the animals' health, but if we did face that issue we would use natural and herbal remedies and if we didn't see any results, we would use a chemical dewormer specific to the parasite that was overloading the animal in question.
Ask what they do when a cow gets sick. At this point it comes down to your morals. Would your rather have a farmer that immediately treats with antibiotics, or one that lets them either recover on their own, or perish. Some farmers, like us, will try herbal and natural remedies first. In the case that these don't result in improvement in the cow's health, they would then consider antibiotics.
#5 Do You Use Antibiotics, Growth Hormones, Vaccinations, or Other Treatments?
Again, this is a personal question. You may be totally fine with the use of antibiotics and growth hormones. Or you may be against it. Ask the question and find out the answers, then decide for yourself. By now it's pretty obvious where we fall on this question.
In terms of vaccinations, we vaccinate and buy vaccinated animals. With the use of any drug, just be sure the farmer is excluding the milk for the recommended periods of time. If they give antibiotics you want to make sure they don't put that milk into bottles for human consumption.
#6 What Do You Do In the Winter? What Do the Cows Eat, Where Do They Sleep, etc?
I always like to know how farmers manage their animals in the winter. Are they all in a barn? If so, how is manure managed? During wintertime, ask to take a look at the barn where the cows are kept. How frequently are the stalls cleaned out. Is deep-bedding practiced?
Cows living and sleeping in their own manure are much more likely to infect a batch of milk with unwanted bacteria than those with access to open pasture and clean sleeping areas.
#7 What Do You Do If A Cow Gets Mastitis (or Other Illness)?
A common problem with dairy animals is an infection called Mastitis. Mastitis is an infection of the udder and the milk from that animal should be discarded. Be sure that milk doesn't end up in your bottle. Oftentimes an antibiotic will be used to treat the infection. Milk should be discarded for the recommended period of time after antibiotic use. This is another check-the-box type of question. Ask it to make sure you get the right answer.
#8 Do You Practice Rotational Grazing? If So, How Frequently are the Cows Rotated?
We are firm believers in rotational grazing. It's better for the land, the animals and the farmer. It's a question we would always ask, and if the answer was 'no', we wouldn't buy the milk. Cows kept in a dry-lot, continuous grazing, or in perpetual confinement in a concrete dairy barn are not cows that we want to drink milk from. Doesn't matter if it's raw or not, it's not the type of animal husbandry we want to support.
What breeds of cows do you raise? Why that breed?
How do you control pests in your milking facility? (Want to know harmful pesticides are not being sprayed in areas where milk could come in contact)
How do you control pests on the cows (i.e. flies)? (Want to know that cows are not ingesting harmful pesticides. Topical, herbal sprays are preferred to chemical sprays or insecticides).
How do you control unwanted "weeds" or other noxious plants in your pastures? (Want to know that cows are not ingesting harmful herbicides. Also important from a land management perspective, if you're interested in that).
What other questions would you ask?