Tips on choosing a raw milk cooperative

Here’s some advice for prospective raw milk coop members from Gary Wilson, who is one of Michael Schmidt’s cowshare members.

One of Michael Schmidt's Canadienne cows -- a heritage breed with a long history in Canada.

Gary’s introduction: “With the recent verdict in the raw milk case, other diary farmers may wish to start their own raw milk co-operative and, of course, other people may wish to join a raw milk co-operative similar to ARC. The danger for consumers wishing to join a raw milk co-operative is that they have little basis to discriminate in making such a choice. With this in mind, I wrote the following article.

For the consumer interested in joining such a co-op, his or her understanding of the actual agricultural practices involved in Michael Schmidt’s co-op farm will be non-existent. For the farmer wishing to start a raw milk co-op, his or her understanding of the actual agricultural practices involved in Michael Schmidt’s co-op farm will be limited or non-existent, with conventional dairy farmers using agricultural practices recommended by the Ontario Ministry of Agricultural, Food and Rural Affairs being at the non-existent end of the scale. This article attempts to document the different agricultural practices used on the Schmidt farm to produce raw milk intended for human consumption.

First, it is necessary to point out that the Schmidt farm was a modern high production Holstein farm when purchased in 1983 by the Schmidt family. When Michael attempted to use the methods he had used with his low production Brown Swiss cows in Germany, he found he did not have the same success he had in Germany. He came to the conclusion that it would be difficult to ever have success with the Holstein cow that has been bred for high production. Among the problems the herd suffered were  typical dairy cow diseases like mastitis, pink eye and warble fly.

After buying and using a  Tarentaise bull for the herd, after a time Michael was introduced to a dual purpose breed, the Canadienne, developed in early French Canada from known European stock. Since it was a dual purpose breed for both meat and milk, it had not been  altered by breeding for either high volume meat or dairy production. He ventured down to rural Quebec and was able to find and purchase twelve pregnant female Canadienne cows.

One of the male calves from one of these cows became the bull for the herd when it matured. Until it did, the Tarentaise bull remained the bull for the heard As a result, the milk producing cows in the herd became a mixture of Holstein, Tarentaise and Canadienne genetics. After the Canadienne bull matured, the herd genetics moved more and more towards the Canadienne genetics as the dominant genetics in the herd.

During this process of the changing herd genetics, the average milk production fell from the original 6,900 litres per lactation per cow to about 4,200 litres per lactation per cow. As Michael puts it so simply, as the average milk production per cow was falling, the health of the herd was improving so that the typical diseases of a modern high production Holstein that once existed on the Schmidt farm are no longer seen.

Calf mortality, a problem with modern high production herds, is not a problem. Unlike modern high production dairy herds, the cows have horns as there is no need to remove the horns from the cows. Before you jump to the conclusion that the changing herd genetics was responsible for the increasing health of the herd, you must realize what else Michael was doing differently than the modern high production dairy farmer.

During the season, the milk producing cows are on pasture 24/7, only coming to the barn to be milked twice a day. Michael’s uses Andre Voisin’s pasture management system described in Voisin’s book, “Grass Productivity”. This pasture management system is so critical to Michael’s success that it would be hard to imagine realizing the same success as Michael has without using the same pasture management system unless there was unlimited land available.

When pasture is not available, the cows are in the barn and are fed hay grown on the Schmidt farm. A handful of oats per day is the only grain the cows receive when they are not able to be on pasture.

High production dairy herds are fed a diet that promotes this high milk production. According to an Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs website “Mastitis Prevention for Dairy Cattle: Environmental Control”, quote “Feeding high producing cows for maximum production does increase stress on the udder and may cause infected cows to flare-up, however, restricting production to reduce clinical mastitis is not realistic or economical “.

Clearly maximum milk production, even if it is at the expense of the cow’s health, is the priority. On Michael’s farm however, maximum health for the cows, at the expense of maximum production,  is the priority. Corn is a component of the high production diet. Michael never feeds his cows corn. Concerning corn, a high starch food, a Cornell University website explains the danger of feeding a high starch diet to cattle.

Starch is not well digested by cattle, so that some undigested grain can make it to the colon where it ferments allowing the development of acid resistant varieties of E.coli, of which E. coli O157:H7 is one example. Acid resistant E. coli make it through our stomach acid into our colon where they can do severe damage. Acid sensitive E. coli, on the other hand, are destroyed by our stomach acid. In their experiment, the Cornell scientists found that feeding cattle hay for five days eliminated any acid resistant E. coli in the feces of the cattle which had previously been on the hgh production diet with the starch component.

Only acid sensitive E. coli were found in the feces after feeding hay for five days. Clearly there would be no need to eliminate acid resistant E. coli from cattle feces if they were not fed the starchy diet in the first place. To say E. coli is normally found in cattle feces is correct. To say acid resistant E. coli, such as E. coli O157:H7 is normally found in cow feces is only true if the cattle are fed a diet containing high starch, such as the high production diet recommended by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.

When government authorities warn that drinking raw milk can be dangerous to your health, they are correct, as long as the milk is produced according to the government ministry’s advice. Milk so produced should not be sold for human consumption unless pasteurized and consumers wishing to join a raw milk co-op should avoid it.

No grass of any kind is planted in the pastures on the Schmidt farm. Whatever grows naturally in the pastures is allowed to grow. While some grasses are planted in the hay fields, non are hybrid varieties. The soil fertility program for the entire farm is Bio-dynamic. Manure from the barn from the winter months is composted and returned to the soil. Farmers can certainly choose methods other than Bio-dynamic for increasing soil fertility, but whatever the method, it must demonstrate its success in the health of the herd.

For a modern high production dairy farmer, these changes to production methods will be difficult. Some such farmers will look at the money per litre required for room and board maintenance of the cattle with such methods and realize how much money they can make by charging the high amount per litre but not reducing production. This the consumer should be on guard against.

A farmer claiming to be doing “the same as Michael Schmidt” should be open with his feeding methods, his herd average production and he should honestly admit where he is in relation to conversion to the example provided by Michael Schmidt. If you want to follow an alternative route for your own nutrition, you need to be well informed as it is your only protection against not getting what you expected for your money..

While testing milk for the pathogens for which milk is pasteurized is good, it is clearly better to also test the cattle feces for the same pathogens. If they don’t exist in the cattle feces, they can’t get from the cattle feces into the milk. If you want to go to the Schmidt farm and take samples of  the cow feces for testing, I am sure Michael will allow you to come in and take random samples. If you are a farmer or government employee going there, you might take along a veterinarian to observe the herd and then explain to you why the herd is so healthy. You might also ask the veterinarian’s opinion on whether healthy cattle might produce healthier milk for calf or human consumption. — Gary Wilson


Filed under News

4 responses to “Tips on choosing a raw milk cooperative

  1. Deen

    This has to be one of the best articles written about raw milk.
    All farmers have to rember cows are not created to eat grains.Here in Canada it is normal for farmers to feed cows grain(gmo corn etc)
    “When government authorities warn that drinking raw milk can be dangerous to your health, they are correct, as long as the milk is produced according to the government ministry’s advice. Milk so produced should not be sold for human consumption unless pasteurized and consumers wishing to join a raw milk co-op should avoid it”.
    Thanks Gary!!Thanks Michael and Marcus Thanks Mark at Organic Pastures
    and all farmers who feed a grass diet to the cows

  2. Eric

    Excellent article Gary.

    You have given great information on what the first, and most important considerations should be for choosing a raw milk coop, that is, the methods that should be used for cows to be healthy, and thereby produce healthy raw milk for human consumption.

    What I would like to know is how a raw milk coop should be run from an organizational standpoint.

    Once you get past the proper way that raw milk should be produced for human consumption, then there is the question of how the group of people should run such a coop together, and politics comes into that.

    Please write an article on this, with your thoughts on how the members can most effectively run a coop from an organizational standpoint, and how they can best get along with each other when inevitable issues of conflict arise, and how to resolve them.

    Thanks Gary.

  3. Michael

    Gary is one of those cow share members who painstakingly investigated the connection between soil fertility, health of cows and safety of raw milk.
    He is one of the rare people who constantly researches the issue of health from the ground up. Too long we have been brainwashed to fix the symptom and ignore the cause. The destruction of soil fertility will be the end of our “intelligent”race. The loss of soil fertility is the root cause of most of our problems.

  4. increased my knowledge by reading this article, i enjoyed

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