Studying Up on Milk

This year, at Slow Food’s Cheese, I noticed a new development that for once I had time to take advantage of, workshops on milk production.

I’ve been going to Cheese every year since something frightening like 2003 as part of the Neal’s Yard Dairy contingent.  Consequently my time has been spent on retailing, resting, staying up late eating pizza at Da Ugo or in club Macabre (when it still existed) and then necking strong but delicious coffees the following morning.
This time, however, I was here with purely the aim of furthering my cheese education.  Where better to comparative taste Gorgonzolas and Taleggios?  Where better to explore the concept of what a traditional recipe or make actually tasted like in the interests of developing the recipes I’d been trialling at the School of Artisan Food? Where better to learn more about cheese?  To which end, I trawled Slow Food’s website for tastings and discovered the milk workshops.
I’d helped Randolph Hodgson prep some of his own talks at Slow Food workshops in the past which were purely cheese focussed and with an element of pairing wine / beer etc and cheese.  I’d found them interesting but not hugely technical (not a reflection, I should explain, on what Randolph talked about – he was easily the most technical person there, it’s the other speakers who were a bit more pedestrian).  The milk workshops held in the piazza XX Settembre were more technical sounding, geared towards cheesemakers and milk producers and while there were some things that I didn’t feel the need to attend (a talk on adulteration of food and labelling regulations didn’t thrill me), there were some that were most definitely relevant.
The topics I thought it was a good idea to get clued up on were: animal welfare, the importance of pasture, milk quality that goes beyond simply whether it is raw or pasteurised, sustainable agriculture and the role of fermentation.

A white board displayed around town with loads of technically useful cheese facts and recipes on.  Just there for you to copy and to spread the cheesey knowledge.  This sort of generosity of information in the interests of the bigger picture is typical of Cheese.
It lead to a hugely interesting few days and a lot of food for thought and luckily for me, the happier the cows, bees and environment it would appear the happier the cheesemaker.  Let me elaborate:
The talk on animal welfare with speakers from Compassion inWorld Farming started by stating that animal health and human health are linked and animals farmed in a higher welfare manner produce better milk.  There are obvious examples of this:  animals on pasture have less instances of mastitis and cleaner udders than animals that live indoors.  To put it bluntly, in the fields, if they need to defaecate, they just walk away from it and to a nice clean bit of pasture.  In the sheds they can’t do that and although their bedding will be replaced frequently during the day, there’s more than just a chance that they will end up lying down on dirty straw at some point.   However, it goes beyond cleanliness.  The milk from animals that are grazed on pasture has been found to be more healthy with better levels of Omega 3 fatty acids and betacarotene.

The talk on pasture discussed milk composition in more detail, citing EU funded research projects that have demonstrated the effects of each different herb or grass or wild flower variety that the animals graze on the composition of the fats and the number of flavour ethanols in the milk and also its vitamin content.  One speaker, Roberto Rubino from ANFOSC (the Associazione Nazionale di FormaggiSotto Il Cielo), had particularly interesting data to demonstrate the different fatty acid composition between animals eating oats, borage, hawthorn (really), wild geranium and plenty of other plants.  His point was not that there was any one plant that was the cow / goat or sheep superfood but that the bigger variety the better.  Just like humans, a varied diet is better for the animal but we are able to reap the benefits of that through the composition of the milk.  He went on to also explain that the animals’ diet also affects the cholesterol in their milk.
Contrary to the thinking on nutrition that I remember growing up which had us ditching butter in favour of margarine and believing all cholesterol to give us heart attacks, current thinking now considers cholesterol a necessary part of the diet, provided it is not oxidised.  A diet of pasture contains 4 or 5 times as many antioxidants as the diet of animals on a zero grazing indoor farming system.  In other words, they consider that you can drink milk and eat butter and cheese without worrying about heart disease, provided it’s farmed a certain way.
A speaker also from the European Forum on NatureConservation and Pastoralism explained that the value of mountain pasture is precisely that it hasn’t been planted or farmed.  As a result, the plants are far more diverse than they would be even if planted with the most complex herbal seed mix.  They quoted that an intensively farmed and planted field would contain 2 or 3 different species whereas you’d expect to find 50 to 100 species in natural grasslands. They even explained that animals left to graze and pick and choose will even eat shrubs and leaves off trees sometimes for a bit of variety (presumably hence the hawthorn research presented by Roberto Rubino).
During the talk on raw milk, a speaker called Tom Baas a biologist from the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture in Germany (FIBL)talked about how research into raw milk in the past 10 to 12 years has shown a change in attitudes to unpasteurised dairy.  Statistical research demonstrated that raw milk could actually assist in children developing a healthy immune system and lower incidences of asthma, allergies and even hayfever.  Some of these points were rather circumstantial evidence, farmers children seem to be healthier than others, however, Basel University has done over 10 studies into the possibilities of raw milk against atopic conditions and other health benefits including that of a fatty acid called CLA (conjugated linoleic acid).  Their studies showed that CLA which is produced by herbivores will be different depending on the animals diet.  When fed to rats, the grass fed CLA did not make the animals put on weight or develop fatty liver while the CLA from animals on a different diet did.  CLA is present in raw and pasteurised milk but the heating process will affect it and at least make it less effective if not actually contributing to weight gain actively.Further to this taste studies had been carried out also assessing the smell, taste, aftertaste, viscosity and visual aspect of 4 different milks, 2 of which were organic (1 actually biodynamic) and 2 intensively farmed.  While the differences were subtle, a distinct difference was found.
The message of all of this?  Raw milk, varied pasture that is left to grow as naturally as possible, grass fed as much as possible will be the healthiest dairy food for you and will also have the best flavour potential for the cheesemaker.  Of course they were speaking in fairly black and white terms and you’ll find conscientious extensive farmers who do feed concentrates and silage who also manage to give their animals a varied diet while not using natural and unplanted grasslands.
Finally we moved to the role of fermentation.  This was an idea I’d first heard proposed at courses that Ivan Larcher teaches.  You have this amazing milk, with wonderfully farmed animals and all those aromatic flavour ethanols waiting to be liberated.  How to make the most of it? Well using a naturally fermented starter.  Just as the natural grassland is more diverse, so is the naturally cultured soured milk from your raw milk.  Most commercial starters will contain possibly 1 or 2 different organisms.  The more complex ones perhaps 4 or 5.  Your own natural culture from your raw milk will have many more and also all the ripening cultures too (yeasts and moulds).  It also renders your product truly a local and unique one.  The speakers gave a brief method for producing your own soured milk starter, something they called ‘latte inesto’ and tasted a range of 4 cheeses chosen to demonstrate that the latte inesto starter produced the more complex flavour.  Again, I’ve done enough tastings to know you choose your cheeses to demonstrate the point you want them to make so while the tasting was dramatic, it was also staged to be so.  The difficulty of naturally occurring bacteria is that you can’t be sure of what will grow, but if you have followed certain guidelines you will maximise your chances of cultivating good starter cultures rather than a big bunch of spoilage bacteria instead.
Most interesting for me, as we research our milk at Nettlebed, was the discussion on where the natural lactic acid bacteria come from.  The research in this case has not been carried out on dairy animals but on humans but it is extrapolated that other mammals will have similar processes.  The baby’s gut is populated with the appropriate bacteria by the colostrum phase but after that is finished, the milk produced is sterile.  Any lactic acid bacteria and other flora that get into the milk from that stage onwards are transferred from the skin of the udders which will be picked up from dust particles on their food and in the pasture, dust particles from the soil (this would be bad news things like E.coli and Listeria) or illness which would be mastitis (Staphylococcus aureus).
Further to that, a cheesemaker asked a question.  He had been making cheese with latte inesto for 20 years but recently in response to demands from the milk dairies he had been trying to reduce his total bacterial counts.  Ever since the counts went down, his latte inesto stopped working.  It wouldn’t sour and when cultured, the only thing that grew was coliforms (gas producing bacteria from the gut – harmless but no help to the cheesemaker).  It appeared that in pre-dipping the animals’ teats before milking, they were removing a healthy population of lactic acid bacteria and although there were very few coliforms present, in the absence of any competition, these became dominant.  By trying to clean up what had been essentially clean milk before, they had created ‘dead milk’.  The advice was to stop pre-dipping and do all they could to ensure lactic acid bacteria got back onto the teats (this can include wiping with hay before milking, making sure the animals are getting hay or natural grass as pasture) to make the milk come alive again.
In summary, what did I learn?  Well to sum it up in one sentence: diversity, diversity, diversity and leave it to nature as much as possible.  Naturally managed grasslands and animals kept as close to their natural state as possible will produce happy animals giving milk that is better both nutritionally and in flavour profile and potential.  Then allow your naturally produced milk to sour with what nature in its bounty has given you and you’ll get cracking good cheese!  In theory anyway….

Response to a Vegan

My friend Louisa recently wrote this post following her conversation with a vegan friend.  Her conversation made her think about farming, particularly influenced, as she was at the time, by her pregnancy.  She asked me for my point of view as someone in the dairy profession.
This isn’t the first time I’ve been faced with vegetarian or vegan ideas telling me that dairy is bad, cruel and inhumane.  A vegan has chosen to eschew all animal products so as not to set themselves above another living animal or use it for food.  That is their choice.  I on the other hand believe in being an omnivore as evolution has developed me.  In that context, I should point out, I am not against eating vegetables. Nor am I against eating meals that solely consist of vegetables or grains on a regular basis.  I agree with it.  But I maintain the choice not to.  To convince others to follow the vegan way, dairy farming can be presented as cruel and inhumane.  This is not the reality I know.
The scale of dairy farming that I am connected with is not large scale.  The biggest herd I am aware of is about 450 cows.  In many cases it is considerably less.  To put this in context, there are super farms most commonly in the USA although they exist also in Europe, that contain thousands of cows.  Sometimes tens of thousands.  This is not a world I know. In the smaller scale industry, the herdsman or farmer recognises their cows by their face as you do with pets.  The relationship between people and animals is different of course, but there is affection there in bucket loads.  The farmer, the cows, the milkers, the cheesemakers are a team producing milk and cheese.  The cows work hard, no doubt about it.  They do have to have a calf each season in order to produce milk.  In return they are given the best care the farmer can give.  Are they kept in captivity and forcibly raped each year as Louisa’s friend suggested? No.
Partly this is because the majority of people are basically kind and care about other living animals (human or otherwise).  Farmers are not an exception to this rule.  In fact if you choose to make a living by working with animals, chances are you are a more caring or compassionate person because confronted face to face with another living being, you cannot help but respond with affection or some degree of emotion. At the very least, you feel a responsibility for them.  As a social species it’s in our genetic make-up.  Partly, this is also because contrary to most people’s expectations, it actually makes financial sense as well as emotional sense.  Animals are expensive to buy, rear and look after.  Profits in milk and even cheese production are not very big.  Know anyone who made their fortune from cheese?  Me neither.  You can’t afford for them to be ill, unhappy or badly treated.  It literally doesn’t add up.
However I think it’s worth taking each issue presented in Louisa’s account separately and giving each a response.
Keeping animals indoors is a more common practice in large scale farming.  I can see how this could be argued as keeping animals in captivity.  However every size of farm is subject to welfare standards and inspected by veterinary officers in the UK to ensure the cows aren’t distressed.   I am not here to answer for large scale farming because it’s not a world I know.  For the record, I am not sure that I agree with keeping animals indoors when nature actually intended them to live in the open.  This actually extends to humans too who in the main are too sedentary and live indoors now much more than is healthy.  However if there’s a decent regulatory system checking that the animals are healthy and looked after, as there is in the UK, I don’t rationally see why it can’t work.
The farms I know and have worked with over 16 years at Neal’s Yard Dairy and more recently as I work more directly as a cheesemaker, keep their animals out in the fields as long as the weather allows.  This means, in the UK, that they are kept outside eating fresh grass from the end of March to the end of October and longer if possible.  During the winter, they are moved into sheds and bedded down on straw that is changed and refreshed several times a day in order to keep them in clean and comfortable surroundings.  It’s in nobody’s interest for the cows either to be up to their udders in churned up mud outside, or for them to be standing in their own shit inside.  That way lies illness and very unhappy animals.
It’s not just an act of basic compassion either.  For the cows to produce milk and work as hard as they do, they need the best possible living conditions.  A distressed or sick animal can’t produce good milk and vets and medicines are very expensive.  Finally, cows cost thousands of pounds each.  If you have either bought in a herd or spent years breeding it up, the very last thing you want is for them to be ill-treated and sick.  The economics and the ethics both go hand in hand on this one.
Cow(or Bull) Rape
Louisa’s friend suggested that artificially inseminating a cow in order to get her pregnant is rape.  Furthermore, she stated that in order to collect semen, bulls are encouraged to penetrate another castrated bull all day until enough semen is collected.  It doesn’t quite work like that in my experience.
Cows aren’t always inseminated.  Some people do keep a bull for the job.  It is, however, done in the majority of cases.  It isn’t a dignified process as the semen has to be administered to the animal by the vet using a slim rod that delivers the semen past the cervix.  I have never heard anyone refer to the process as rape as was suggested or the equipment used as a rape pack.  The only term I’ve ever heard used is AI.  Which is what humans have too.
Cows are not inseminated before they are hormonally ready, which they indicate by mounting each other in the field.  They also are inseminated in familiar and stress free environments.  A stressed animal is less likely to conceive.  Given the cost of the semen and the vet’s time, it’s not in the farmers’ economic interest to upset their animals.  Again ethics and economics work to the same end point.
The suggestion that semen is collected by raping a castrated bull did make my eyes open wide and needed a little research.  I have now read many procedures on semen collection (never thought I’d be doing that on a train to London!) and I believe what Louisa’s friend alluded to is a misunderstanding or possibly misinformation of what’s called ‘the artificial vagina method’.  The bull ejaculates into a rubber sheath and cup structure with a hose attached to it.  This may be put on another cow or a dummy covered in cowskin.  The semen is collected from the end of the hose and this is then diluted. Each ejaculation therefore provides numerous samples.  The point being the bull can only keep going for so long.  If the semen is diluted, he doesn’t need to go at it all day.  The participating cow, if a cow is used, is not actually penetrated although I suspect if you watch the youtube videos on the subject (yes there are videos of it and no I didn’t research that far on the train) it won’t look all that pretty.  Animal sex is not human sex and shouldn’t be judged as if it was.  As to how often a live animal is used when a more easily manipulated dummy could be used, I can’t say.  I know what I’d be using if I were in the semen collection business.
The Fate of the Calves
After they have been born, the calves stay with their mother for an allotted period of time.  They need to suckle to get the colostrum which will provide them with valuable antibodies as well as rich nourishment.  After the colostrum is finished, they are bottle fed with a formula or with surplus milk.  It depends on the farmer themselves as to which they chose.  Each cow gives on average 20 litres milk a day so depending on how much is needed for processing there may also be milk for the calves.  In the Auvergne in France, particularly with herds whose milk supplies the manufacture of Salers, calves are left on their mothers until they no longer need to suckle.  The animals are milked out in the mountain pasture.  The calves have one teat, the herdsmen milk from the other 3.
Female calves are reared separately to the milking herd until they are old enough to have their first calf.  Comparing this to a child being ripped from its mother’s breast however is loading the emotional balance.  Animals are not humans.  They shouldn’t be treated like humans.  They should be treated well, don’t get me wrong, but they should be treated appropriately.  A cow is a cow, a dog is a dog etc.  Their mentality, emotions and sense of moral structure is not ours.  My dog sees nothing wrong with dry humping his bedding in front of large groups of people or trying to have sex with other dogs on a walk.  If I did that, I’d be locked up and quite rightly so.  Translated into the mother and offspring bond however, it seems generally proven in mammals that there is a basic bond between mother and young regardless of species.  The length and strength of this is commensurate with how much the young need their mother’s protection.  Humans babies can’t cope by themselves.  They are even unable to support the weight of their own heads at first and the maternal bond is a very strong one out of necessity.  Calves are able to stand up minutes after birth.  They grow to full size and sexual maturity considerably quicker than we do.  Consequently the maternal bond between cow and calf diminishes earlier.
The fate of male calves is another issue and not palatable for vegetarians or vegans.  Male calves are superfluous to dairy production.  AI can give a higher rate of heifers because it is possible to use sexed semen, which while not 100% accurate does give a higher probability of female calves being born.  However, the dilemma of the boy calves remains.  It is a source of distress to many dairy farmers that there isn’t more of a use for them in the UK.
In the 1980s, a campaign against veal crates has tarred all veal with the same brush in the eyes of the public be it white veal (milk fed, very young animals, potentially restrained to prevent movement and toughening of muscle tissue) or rose veal (6 month old animals, appropriately fed and allowed room to move about).   Most people in the UK react to the idea of eating veal with horror and the unfortunate knock on effect of this has been to make things worse for the male calves, not better.  If reared for veal, it is true they don’t have a long life.  They get 6 months or possibly a little more which is not a great deal less than lamb or pork.  If they can’t be reared for veal, they have to be killed at about a day old.  This is heart-breaking for the farmer who in many cases has been up all night with the cow to help her deliver the calf safely but farms are businesses and not charity.  One argument faced with this unpleasant fact, says, avoid all dairy.  As an omnivore, I say eat veal.
Cast out at 7 years old with their throats slit
On a small scale farm, this is very unlikely to happen to the dairy herd.  Cows are a huge investment.  Not only that, but, as the farmer, you are intensely aware that they are a living animal to which you have a responsibility.  Again the economics and the ethics go hand in hand.  You want the cow to have a long life.  This means good health and happy animals.  I know farms where the cows are into their 14thor 15th lactations which puts them at 16 or 17 years old at least.  I don’t know offhand of somewhere where the cows are still going at 21, apparently their natural lifespan in the wild, but whether that is down to breeding or the act of being milked & therefore the number of pregnancies, I do not know.  There is also a difference in the lifespan between pedigree dogs and mongrels.  Dairy cows are pedigree animals.  As to the ethics of breeding pedigree animals, that is most definitely another argument for another day.
There comes a point when cows are no longer productive and I’m afraid no farmer is wealthy enough to keep them all on as pets.  When the day comes however, they aren’t carted off packed into crates.  There are UK laws governing how many animals you can transport and how much space they need which mean that they actually travel better than most tube going London commuters.  When they are killed it is quickly and humanely done.
Do we have the right to farm?
I believe we are omnivores.  We were born with the ability to derive nutrition from plant and animal sources and have developed the mental capacity to farm animals and cultivate crops.  Does that give us a right to farm as such?  No.  We are privileged and it is down to each and every one of us to remember how lucky we are.
To my mind, farming is a service that is provided for those of us who buy and consume.  The animals and the farmers play an equally important part.  As a consumer, I, in turn, play my part.  I choose to buy from farms I know, where the systems are sustainable and the animals well-treated.  If in doubt or indeed in a large shop or supermarket, I look out for organic or RSPCA approved labelling as providing a certain standard.  If it’s a smaller shop then I ask the shopkeeper.
One area on which Louisa’s vegan friend and I might agree is that you should think long and hard about what you eat and where your food is coming from.  After that, we differ entirely.  I am evolutionarily adapted to be able to eat meat and dairy as well as plants.  I am lucky to be born into this position and I don’t see shopping as a casual act.  Where I spend my money reinforces this privilege, and my food choices have consequences.  Our position in the food chain should not be abused.
A Dairy Shorthorn Cow and new born calf on Holker Farm whose herd currently contains 8 cows.