The Argument for Herd Shares

Barn thoughts. I had written this to be posted in a Facebook group that connects Colorado Farmers with consumers. But I wanted to share it here as well.

Since a lot of people have been asking, I wanted to share some thoughts on raw milk sales outside of herd shares –

We just started selling grassfed raw A2 cows milk via herd shares from our microdairy. When I say micro, I mean minuscule, we have 2 cows and share with 5 families. It took us 3 years to get to this point. And you better believe it has been hard work, there were times I would be crying out of frustration at the milk machine not working right, or my first time fresheners accidentally kicking me, coming up from the barn with scrapes and bruises on my arms.

But we didn’t give up. It took us the better part of a month but as soon as we got our process nailed, we got our milk tested via CSU’s Vet lab. The results came back amazing. Our bacterial counts were extremely low, WAY below the regulatory standards for Grade “A” Raw Milk dairy. Our home dairy machinery looks meager in comparison to the amazing technology of huge dairies, but it was comforting to know that doesn’t mean we’re not doing it right.

What does all this have to do with herd shares? Look, I don’t agree with the government’s over-regulation of agricultural food sales. Honestly, we reluctantly abided by the state herd share rules. But as I was milking today, I had some thoughts. Hear me out –

A herd share is a *commitment* that shows me as the dairy farmer that you actually care about how much work we put into this. As you can tell from my excitement over our milk test results, we want to do it right.

When you ask a dairy like us to sell you milk outside of a herd share, not only are you asking us to do something illegal, you also show me that you’d rather not commit, even though we have shown you we are all in.

Yes, supermarket shopping doesn’t require a commitment. You don’t have to budget each month or get your milk at the same time each week. You can go to the store whenever, wherever, and grab a gallon out of the fridge. But where does that put the farmer? Marginalized.

If we offered our raw milk without herd shares, without a committed agreement, some weeks we may sell out of our milk, other weeks we may end up with bucketfuls we can’t get rid of. It also leads to things like chasing people all around, texts back and forth “Are you still going to buy that milk? When/where/how should we get it to you?” only to get “Oh I’m so sorry, I forgot to tell you we’re on vacation this week.” That is time and money and energy costly to the producer.

Hear this, I’ve been on the consuming end before, I get it. When we lived in town before we had our own farm, I tried raw milk from a local producer that did not use a herd share. I’m sorry to say the milk was not palatable and extremely inconsistent. Some days I would drive across town and show up to our pickup spot only to get a text “sorry we can’t make it today”. I am by no means saying that is how it always goes, but in a fair assessment, where was the commitment from either side? Although I actually was ready to commit to a herd share, they obviously didn’t want to commit to doing it the right way. What could I expect then, of their product? No one in our family wanted to drink it, but we kind of forced it down because we thought it was good for us. I’m just glad we decided to take on the task of milking our own cows and raising them the way we feel is best.

Our milk is wonderful. Please take this not as tooting our own horn, if anything I’m praising our cows, but I want you to know that raw milk does NOT have to taste BAD.

Every adult who has tried it has told us that they love how it tastes. Most kids also love it (all three of mine included), though to be completely honest there are some kids who didn’t (that’s kids for ya!). Our milk is NOT gamey. It doesn’t make us grimace when we drink a glass. It has a beautiful cream line (yay for Jerseys), which we don’t skim before we drop it off with our share families. It makes amazing butter and yogurt and farmers cheese (the only things I’ve tried so far).

I spend almost 2 hours every morning working on milking – from start (getting all the equipment ready) to finish (cleaning up everything). It took me a year to find my herd and bull, and another 9 months of feeding and caring for our bred heifers before I could even milk them. My husband hand built our milking stanchion over the course of 3-4 days. He drove 4 hours round trip, twice, to get our secondhand milking machine fixed. For a month leading up to calving, I trained the heifers every day to get used to the stanchion. Don’t be fooled by Instagram, there is SO MUCH that goes into milking for consumer use beyond just squeezing milk out of teats and putting it in a jar.

I have the blessing of being extremely close to the milking process, and so I now value the immense amount of work that goes into it. Our herd share families show us they value our work too, by signing that contract, and making that agreement to commit to us.

Maybe one day the law will change in Colorado and allow open raw milk shares. That would be great. But when that happens, educate yourself so you can choose the best milk for you! I highly recommend knowing the right questions to ask based on what’s important to you. Here are some that I would ask if I ever stop milking my own herd:

– If grass-fed is important to you – What do you feed your cows? Do you ever give them grain? I have been told “our milk is grass-fed, we just give them a little sweet feed during milking”. I’m sorry, that is NOT grass-fed! We abide by the American Grass Fed Association rules, even though we’re too small to join.
– If A2/A2 milk protein is important to you, ask whether the cows are A2? There is a test that herd owners can do to check, using tail hairs sent into a lab.
– If natural is important to you – Do you use antibiotics? How do you deworm? – Note this one is tricky! Look, if a cow is dying or extremely ill, antibiotics may be necessary. But is the farm open and transparent about it? Are antibiotics their solution even for lesser issues that aren’t life-threatening? Regarding dewormers, some farms choose to use natural preventative methods, rather than giving chemical dewormers. We use natural, and we get fecal tests done regularly to make sure our cows are parasite free. Again, if we ever find a parasite issue that is extreme, we would likely still use a pharma treatment, but we have not had to do that yet, and we would be completely transparent with our customers. There is more and more research showing parasite resistance to chemical dewormers if administered on a regular schedule without checking if necessary. More and more vets nowadays recommend getting a fecal done, and then addressing parasites on an as needed basis instead of simply by schedule.
– If cleanliness is important to you – What does your milking setup look like? Do you test your milk? What are the results? This Cornell University study is very helpful to learn more about what the results mean. 

And hey, if you’re a Colorado raw milk producer that doesn’t prefer to sell via Herd Shares, please know I’m not against you. I salute all the hard work you do, because I totally get it. I’d love to hear your perspective. We don’t all have to do it the same way, that’s the beauty of our society. These were simply my thoughts today as I was milking.