Arguing About Raw Milk


Forgive me if this turns into a maudlin memory of barnyard days gone by. I do it not out of sentimentality but hopefully to shed a little light on the pros and cons of pasteurizing milk.

I loved it when, two weeks ago, a number of readers recalled some of the same fond memories I have of milking cows by hand. Yes, Chris N, squirting milk into the mouths of a row of cats waiting nearby in the alleyway. Yes, moving swiftly to pull the bucket out of the way of kicking cows and splattering urine. Yes, the quiet calm of the barn at dawn or dusk or especially when the moon was peering through the stable door. Yes, the irritation involved in milking cows with small teats. Yes, the flitting barn swallows and cooing pigeons and hooting owls. Yes, that particularly unique smell of milk, hay and aged manure bedding combined. Yes, a glass of milk warm and foamy directly from the cow. Yes, the separator and cream so thick you had to spoon it out of the jar.

There are only two things in life I know a lot about: stealing bases in baseball and milking cows. Stealing bases is a whole lot more fun. Dairy farming is hard and trying work and the best you can say about it is that it teaches patience and fortitude that come in handy in other trying moments in life—like dealing with rejection slips as a beginning writer. If you can endure kicking cows, rejection slips are a snap. I never worried about the milk; it’s the cow that can kill you.

Almost all cows kick occasionally, but a few of them are total outlaws and need to be turned into hamburger as soon as possible. My Outlaw knew how to pull her back leg slowly forward under her belly and then lash out lightning fast and backward to nail the poor milkmaid or milk-lad. I put kicker chains on Outlaw which theoretically immobilizes the back legs so she can’t kick. Outlaw retaliated by jumping up and down on both legs like a pile driver, which action can turn a milk bucket into a crumpled tin can in no time at all. Mind over matter, I thought smugly. I put a rope around one of her legs, pulled the leg out off the ground behind her and tied the rope tightly to a stud in the wall. By God, now we’d see who was boss. With all her weight on the other leg it was impossible for her to kick. So? She swayed over and fell on me.

In olden times, we poured the milk from the bucket through a strainer into metal cans (that are now found in antique shops). The cloth strainer pads caught flies, hay dust and loose hairs from the cows’ flanks that might fall inadvertently into the open bucket. The most trying event was when a cow put her foot in the bucket. Then any milk in it had to be dumped or fed to the hogs and the bucket washed again. My grandfather could not stand for a cow to poop during milking and when he saw a tail start to raise he grabbed a five gallon bucket kept handy just for that purpose, and caught the waste in it.

I still wonder why none of us ever got sick from the milk. We sold ours to a cheese plant so we did not have to maintain the stricter rules and regulations of Grade A dairies selling milk directly for human consumption. But we did our best anyway because we were drinking the milk. The stable was cleaned regularly. The cow shed was regularly bedded with clean straw. The cows spent the night out on pasture in spring, summer and fall. (The cleanest way to milk is out in the field with a cow that will stand still and I have done that too.) With only a half dozen cows in the barn, cleanliness was not difficult. The cow flanks could be curried and usually were during winter. Teats and udders were washed before milking at least by the more conscientious farmers. In more recent years when I kept only one cow, for extra cleanliness, I milked with one hand into a small-mouthed jar held in the other hand to avoid possible dust or cow dandruff in the air from getting in the milk. Then Carol strained it carefully and cooled it quickly with a very clean milk carton full of ice put right in the milk. We were handling only a half gallon or so every morning so this kind of handwork was doable. The cow’s calf suckled the milk we didn’t need.

In olden times, we had special wheeled carts to move the cans of milk from the barn to tubs of water near the windmill to cool it in warm weather until the milk truck came to pick up every other day. We had to worry about milk souring if cold water was not flowing constantly from the well into the tubs. But what we saved for ourselves went directly into the house to be strained again and cooled quickly in the ice box and later the refrigerator.

Cows could contract tuberculosis and brucellosis transmissible to humans (disputed—everything is disputed by someone) the latter as undulant fever. As this became a known danger Mom bought a little kitchen pasteurizer for the milk we drank. (The pasteurizer makers no doubt over-emphasized the danger.) But then the milk tasted scalded. Eventually, as science and the dairy industry learned how to test cows for these two diseases and others, rigid programs were put into effect to eradicate them from cow herds. So Mom quit using the pasteurizer and we went back joyfully to raw milk.

The modern mechanization of the milking process vastly improved the cleanliness. The milk flows directly from the cow through the machine milker’s suction teat cups into a pipeline and into a stainless steel cooling tank. Rarely a teat cup might fall off the udder and could possibly suck up a little dirt on the floor although the floors are concrete now and constantly sprayed clean with water during the milking process. There are strainers in the line too. The cow’s udder is washed before every milking and the teats dipped in medical cleansers to keep everything ultra antiseptic. Milk goes from warm to 38 degrees or thereabouts in a few minutes in the tank. That quick cooling made it taste better to me. I had always enjoyed milk but now Dad said I was drinking away all the profit. The point is that with all the improvements in the milking regimen, my own opinion is that pasteurization is no longer necessary if you are dealing with a conscientious dairy farm. You can’t make anything in life totally and completely safe.

Unfortunately, health departments have been very slow to come around to that way of thinking, so the controversy rages. I sympathize with them even though I think they are being overzealous. You can hardly blame them when, as happens, people who think they have been sickened by milk want to sue everyone in sight. But I think society will slowly come around to allowing raw milk sales everywhere. The biggest problem standing in the way is that the commercial dairy industry has invested huge amounts of money in modern pasteurization plants and it fears that it could not compete with raw milk if the latter became universally adopted. Many jobs are at stake. Time will tell.


Claravale is more like $4.75 a quart if you bring that glass bottle back for the deposit. And if you come out to the dairy it’s $2.50. Of course it’s about 1 hour from anywhere, but the Panoche Valley is beautiful!

Retail raw milk in CA prices run from $15 per gallon ( OPDC in #2 plastic one gallon containers at the food coops ) to about $28 per gallon for 4 quarts of Claravale jursey raw milk in glass ( $6.99 per quart ).

But…we have raw milk in nearly 700 stores throughout the entire state of CA!!

The product sells out every week!

Mark McAfee
Founder OPDC

Yes, the true cost of mass produced pasteurized commodity milk is in the 7 to 9$/gal range. Organic more than that. Raw even more.

I’m told raw milk in California sells for 18-24/gal, maybe someone can verify that. I know historic milk prices (for mass produced junk milk) adjusted for inflation would put us at 7 to 13$/gal today.

How about those cats eating the strainer pads when the pads were thrown out after use. And that distict result on what came out the other end of the cat.

I’m awaiting Spring not just for the absence of near or below zero temperatures but for some young doe goats to freshen for the second time when they should have enough milk production to supply kids and some milk for the table. Yes it’s work to lock the kids up at night so the does have some milk for me to use, but that socializes them (the kids that is) for human contact too; so it’s all part of being a goatherd(er).

I’m pretty sure that milk-fed Mongol or Hungarian horsemen of the Asian steppes didn’t just eat fermented or cooked dairy products but probably guzzled a fair amount straight from the milking container. Milk and meat didn’t seem to hurt their health and in fact when their ancient grazing lands were or are converted to growing grain and other crops a lot of bad things happen to the land, animals and people. Isn’t there a lesson here we could learn? I just finished the book: “On the Trail of Genghis Khan ” by Tim Cope, which is a story of his horseback travels across these same steppes. The sad tales he relates of cultural genocide and converting grazing lands that produced: milk, (raw, cooked and fermented and variants thereof) meat, manure and wool and many other useful products to tillage cropping in such a harsh environment are indeed sobering and thought provoking. I suggest it as good reading for this blog group.

Speaking from personal experience, there is nothing quite like tipping the bucket of freshly squeezed liquid gold back to one’s eager lips and slurping to one’s heart’s content, while just using the space between the front teeth as a filter. It hasn’t killed me or sickened me yet, as near as I can tell. Now that is true local food.

Gene, I appreciate the gently falling snow on your blog. Must be from the latest storm. Still waiting for the first real accumulation of the season here (Lake Champlain valley).

As a kid we hand milked goats. I was the lucky one to get to milk Jessica. She loved people, but hated being milked. I too tried tying up a back leg. At least a toggenberg is small enough you can finish milking while she’s lying across your forearms.

I was at a local food event and one speaker explained the problem thus. “I can walk out of here right now and buy a cartoon of hump straights, a fifth of Jack, and an assault rifle. What I can’t do is go to my neighbors farm and buy a quart of raw milk”

Gene, I’ve been waiting for you to weigh in on this subject! In Wisconsin, this has been a very controversial subject. A farmer named Vernon Hershberger made lots of waves here with his raw milk buying club set-up. The state tried to prosecute him for selling raw milk (without a dairy license) but there is no license for selling “raw” milk. A jury found him innocent. The case took 3 years to come to trial and wasted a lot of money, and time.

I think you can make a “safe” product, but you have to know your farmer. That said, nothing is completely safe.

I think the biggest issue here is just the freedom to choose your food and your food’s source. The federal government has put small farmers out of business with their “get big or get out.” belief system. New legislation is being constructed all the time that makes the little farmers throw up their hands and get out because their profit margins keep being eroded by “new” standards and licensing that makes infrastructure costs too high.

I think the government should be the watch dog for big farm industry, but one size does not fit all.

The local food movement is the only one that will make our food supply safer.

The federal government has just recently ok’ed raw U.S. chicken to be shipped to China and processed then shipped back raw for retail sale. If the federal government wants to irradiate our meat and spray it with ammonia to kill the pathogens rather than fix what happens in processing then let them.

I think we should stop being so removed from our farmers and our food that we have to buy this “food” they call “safe,” and start buying only from someone, a farmer, not a company. I’m probably preaching to the choir.

I grew up on good old Brown Swiss raw milk, and had difficulty getting used to drinking “store bought”. It just didn’t have any flavor. Later on I milked goats, which was pretty good, too.

I have a question on this farm bill that’s in Congress now. They are saying that if it doesn’t get passed, we may be facing $8.00/gallon milk. Is that the true cost of a gallon of milk, then? If the price gets lowered in the grocery store because of subsidies, aren’t we already paying the $8.00, because we make up the difference in taxes? If selling raw milk was to become legal, it would be very competitive price wise with “store” milk if we didn’t subsidize the “store” milk. I am not very good at math, or believing the news.

    Roof, I can’t speak for the commercial folks, but my little Jersey produces a calf and an average of 2 gallons of milk a day for 10 months out of the year. We feed grain hay in the winter and she’s on grass in the summer, plus about six pounds a day of corn screenings or middlings — what’s leftover after the grain is ground, In addition she gets kelp supplements and salt. My milk costs about $2 a gallon, and I also get butter, cream, sour cream, cream cheese and cottage cheese for that $2. even with 7 in the family, we can’t drink that much milk, so the excess makes pork chops and scrambled eggs, which lowers the feed costs for those as well. Seems like a pretty good deal to me.

    My understanding, from a story on NPR a couple days ago, is that the failure to pass this Farm Bill will result in a program that requires the federal government to pay double the going rate for fluid milk from farmers. So farmers have the choice to sell to their co-op at say $18/cwt, or to the federal government at $36/cwt. So not necessarily intended to reflect any kind of actual cost. Apparently the program was intended to be so ridiculous as to ensure the passage of any given Farm Bill…

The raw milk laws are the product of the dairy lobby to limit the number of folks that can sell milk no other real reason.For instance here in Virginia the state will raid and arrest a person for selling raw milk with no evidence thats its hurt anyone but the state sells alcohol now as a proven agent of destruction I’d imagine any reasonable person would say alcohol causes far more health and other problems than raw milk.Of course I think the state shouldn’t be concerning themselves with either let people make up their own minds whats good and whats not good. for themselves.
Cows can be pretty funny at times when we hand milked we had 5 stancations for the cows to be be milked and each cow had their spot but we sometimes had up to 15 cows we were milking.Well try and make a cow go to some other place rather than ‘their’ spot and it will turn the oldest most easy going Gurnsey cow into a maniac that wants to kill the cow in her spot and tear up everything in the barn.Milk cows are pretty much like setting hens its alot more to handling them than meets the eye.

“You can’t make anything in life totally and completely safe.” Amen

We’ve been drinking raw milk from our cows for about 12 years now and haven’t had any problems. Course I also never get infections from sticking my hands into the manure gutter to fix the chain or from using my pocketknife to slice an apple from the orchard, the knife blade having been wiped off first on my manure sploched pant leg. My point is that living on a farm has gave us immunities to a lot of the germs around here including those in our milk. I watch folks in town constantly disinfecting their hands and wonder what has happened to their natural immune systems. Raw milk is a great thing but I fear that our antiseptic age causes many to be sickened by it, for that reason I would never sell raw milk to others.

Fun to read. My husband is currently a milker at the second largest raw milk producing dairy in the country (well, I guess all dairies produce raw milk–we just sell ours raw too). He milks 150-ish goats and then 63 cows, and getting all those udders clean is back breaking work. They only milk 4 at a time in order to maintain extreme quality control. The Jerseys are “professionals” as the owner likes to say, and well behaved, but the goats are trouble and always getting into things or trying to sneak back into the parlor or eat paper towels. Nothing like good raw milk though–between the two of us and our little girls we go through at least half a gallon a day.

This is so familiar as I spent most of my youth hand milking cows intermittently on my parents farm. Drank lots of “raw” milk too and I don’t think it hurt me or anyone else that we supplied back in the days when nobody worried about those things. The milk was strained, and put through the cream separator. Hand powered , later electric. Cream stored in those metal cans in a cool basement and then hauled to the pickup point and eventually to the creamery for processing. I don’t miss that work but have good memories of it. Still have a few cows but I let the calves do the milking.

We’re out there with ya in the pasture milking, Gene. Don’t know when we’ll find money to build a roof for doing it. Anyway, nobody mentioned, far as I could see, that bit about the cow falling on you. Good stuff. Had me laughing. Be safe out there tomorrow and the next day. Hear we’re getting some nastiness.

“That quick cooling made it taste better to me. I had always enjoyed milk but now Dad said I was drinking away all the profit.” My goodness, that is hysterical !

FYI, I have to travel into PA to buy my raw milk because NJ considers it illegal. Imagine that, cigarettes are easier to buy than milk! We just returned from our Thanksgiving holiday and spent the weekend with the Amish and had dinner with a dairy farmer who gave me 1 gallon as a gift. It was so fresh that steam was still billowing out of the jar (he literally just finished his evening milking chores) My daughter and I could not wait until next morning to drink what we call “liquid gold” -there’s simply no comparison and if we run out of it in our house, we wait until our next raw milk purchase. We call the stuff on the supermarket shelves swill.

Oh, and my two nieces, aged 5 & 3 have been raw milk babies since 9 mos old and they have less allergies and suffer less sicknesses (colds) compared to their friends, not to mention pearly sets of beautiful white teeth. Now I may be sugarcoating the benefits of raw milk in my last comment but I dare challenge anyone to prove me wrong. Two hours drive just to purchase raw milk and we make the trip 2x month -and the effort and benefits are worth their weight in “liquid gold”.

Hope you’re in good health Gene and remember -drink that raw milk !

I drank a lot of raw milk when we had dairy cows and it was hard to get used to the cooked taste of store milk after they were gone. It was delicious, but I’m not sure I’d trust anyone else to supply me with raw milk knowing how easy it can get dirty.

    This amuses me somewhat, as I have had the opposite leaning. Before we started milking our own cows, we purchased raw milk from a local farm. I initially felt uncertain drinking the milk from our own cows, because I felt like I had no idea what I was doing, but the people we were buying milk from certainly did. But I’m over that now.

The worst is some brands just don’t sell pasteurized milk, the gallon jugs in the refrigerated section sometimes contain UHT milk. That’s the kind of milk that’s sold in Europe by packs of six 1-liter cartons in the non-refrigerated sections, because UHT milk can keep for 6 months on the shelf. So I learned to read the labels and trust only certain brands.

UHT milk can actually taste great if not overdone, it would be handy to have such cartons in the U.S. for people who don’t use much milk, or can’t shop every week for it, or need more than they have on hand for a specific recipe. The refrigerated UHT milk is of course not sealed as it should be to keep for months unrefrigerated, it’s not suitable for this purpose.

For those of you hand milking, I use a hand milker (various brand names out there). Basically a plastic bottle with a hand pump that you stick on a teat and then squeeze the pump. Works very well on my goats, especially first fresheners who tend to be a bit jumpy and/or have small teats. Keeps the milk cleaner (I have a covered bucket with a filter nearby to dump the bottle when it fills). Might be to big a chore to use on cattle, but my goats milk about a gallon a sitting and it goes fast enough for me and them. Less rodeo too, as they seem to not mind the feel to it.

I agree with Gene in the fact that modern milking systems and the testing for tuberculosis and burcellosis is what makes milk safe to consume raw.

From my understanding the bugs in milk keep the bad bugs at bay. It also seems to explain why pasteurised milk that’s gone off, tastes awful because the bad bugs have got in, but milk going off from the raw milk isn’t so unpleasant and certainly does not smell as bad. I love my raw milk and get mine twice a week delivered to our housing complex. Pasteurised doesn’t taste quite right now.

I do understand the need to pasteurise as it means it is more transportable, not everyone can live near to a clean dairy herd.

My how I love your blog, Gene.

I’m new to the world of milking, but how I love it, too. When one of our Dexter momma cows unexpectedly dropped a calf a couple of months ago we decided to start milking her, as she’s the one cow of our four-cow herd that has been milked in the past. And at 15 years of age I guess she’s an old pro. Gave us a good excuse to start using the old wooden stanchions in our barn, to boot. The downside of milking a Dexter is the relative lack of milk. The calves are on the mommas by day, at night I put the cows (even the ones not currently in milk) in the stanchions and pen the calves up, and milk in the morning. She gives us about a half gallon, give or take.

Then about two weeks ago we had another cow unexpectedly drop a calf (at least the bull knows what he’s doing), and as she’s a nice calm momma I thought I’d give her a shot too. The first morning she kicked in a mild “shooing” sort of way, and I milked one side before letting her calf out. The next morning she kept kicking in that “shooing” way, and each time I’d give her a good smack on the flank to show her who’s boss. Then she thrust her foot forward–hard–spilling the bucket (with cow number one’s morning contribution) all over me, then stomped down–hard–onto my left foot. I cussed her, smacked her, smacked her again, cussed her again. Not one of my finer moments. I limped for the rest of the day (me, not her).

Next time she was in the stanchion I tied her feed together with a bit of rope, and that seems to have solved the problem, though I don’t think I’ll continue milking her. Her teats are oddly shaped–sort of like the nipple of a baby bottle, quite bulbous at the base–and it takes a few ties to even get the first squirt out. A half gallon a day’s not so bad, after all.

And maybe I’m lazy, or maybe we’re lucky, or maybe we’re just generally young and healthy enough that it doesn’t matter much, but I don’t take what seem to be exorbitant steps to ensure absolute cleanliness. When I get the cows in the stanchions at night I throw a few handfuls of old stemmy hay underneath them and into the manure gutter, and in morning I just rub down their udders with a dry washcloth, no special cleaners or anything. We strain the milk into half-gallon mason jars using disposable gauze filters, about $7.00 per hundred at the local farm co-op. I’d just as soon use a couple of layers of muslin, but haven’t. Then sometimes the milk goes into an ice bath, sometimes into the freezer, or sometimes just straight to the fridge. No problems yet, but again maybe we’re just lucky.

“Dealing with a conscientious dairy farm.” Exactly! Pasteurization allows people to get sloppy in their milking processes. If you keep it clean and cold, the risk of getting sick from raw milk is much less than the risk of getting flattened by a car in your home town. I don’t notice that we’re outlawing cars…

Great post Gene! By God you are a voice of reason in this crazy world. If only all the current “experts” would listen to such real world practical knowledge and sage advice. I have two young sons that were born and raised from day one on non-pasteurized milk. They were initially breast fed and the extra mild was cooled, frozen, re-heated, then consumed; all with no pasteurization (oh crap I just gave the food police an idea that breast milk should be pasteurized prior to consumption!). Thankfully they survived breast feeding and now are still living! Do I dare say/imply that they still drink unpasteurized milk from our dairy goats? Heaven forbid……Thank you again Gene.

Please leave your comments...

Name and email address are required. Your email address will not be published.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

You may use these HTML tags and attributes:

<a href="" title="" rel=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <pre> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>