There's a reason that the Arkansas milk law requires the consumer to personally visit the farm to purchase milk. Small dairy operations here in Arkansas are not regulated in any official way. YOU are the one who has to decide whether you are comfortable with the way a dairy operates. Because I operate a small dairy myself, I know that there are certain things that consumers ought to be looking at and questions that they ought to be asking. If you are courting a raw milk farm, consider these things before taking the plunge.
(While most of these things would apply to cow farms as well as goat, I am approaching this from my own perspective as a goatherd.)
The most important thing you can do at the farm is just OBSERVE. Ask the farmer for a tour of the farm, barn, milking facility, and milk storage area. Trust your gut here. If something doesn't feel right, though, remember that (likely) you are not a farmer. Something that you think seems off may sound completely right once you question the farmer and hear his or her explanation But, if a farmer doesn't know how to answer your question or seems to be sidestepping the issue, do your own homework and by wary.
So, what should you be looking for on your tour?
In the pasture . . .
Do the animals look healthy? Do they seem to have plenty of space in their field? Does the pasture have ample grass for them or does it seem trampled down or eaten down to ground level throughout?
In the milking facility . . .
Do things seem generally clean? Is the milking area set up so that spills can be easily cleaned up? Is it free of other animals? Is it covered up in flies?
Does the milking equipment look clean? Is there a sink with running hot water in the area where milking equipment is cleaned? Where/how is the milking equipment stored when it's not in use?
In the milk storage area . . .
How is the milk stored? How are the containers used to hold the milk cleaned?
As you are on your tour, feel free to ask questions as they come to you. Here are some things I would be sure to ask . . .
1. Do you and your family drink the milk from your farm? Because, ummm, if they don't, I'd sure want to know why not.
2. What breeds do you have on your farm? Why did you select those breeds? If they don't know what breed they have, I'd be leery. But, don't discount a farm just because they have a few different breeds or even crosses. They could be experimenting with some type of breeding plan to maximize milk production or quality.
3. How often are your animals on pasture? This is important. Animals are animals. They need fresh air and sunshine. Time spent cooped up in the barn is time not outdoors munching on the grass that delivers the best milk. Also, realize that the answer to this question may vary by season, so ask how summer pasture time may vary from winter.
4. Do you use antibiotics on a regular schedule? If yes, hightail it out of there. Do you use antibiotics in current milkers? If farmers are following the regulations for milk withdrawal times following a round of antibiotics and are only using them on a rare, as-needed basis, this is probably okay. Though, you may want to ask for more information, such as what their go-to antibiotic is and how long after completing a dose they wait to drink milk. Then, go home and research for yourself whether that seems to square with regulations on the drug.
5. Do you use wormers for your animals? Which one/s? How often? What milk withdrawal time do you follow? This is a hotly debated topic among goatherds. Goats get intestinal worms. It just happens in ruminants. Healthy goats kept on good pasture can often manage a minimal amount of parasitism without it affecting their health. However, during certain seasons and weather conditions, worm loads may get to a point where an animal needs help from a wormer. If a farmer tells you that he worms on a regular schedule, be wary. This may be working well for him now, but worms will eventually build up an immunity to his wormer of choice and the wormer will lose its effectiveness. Farmers should instead be worming on an as-needed basis only. To further complicate matters, there are several wormers that are approved for use in cows or horses that goat farmers regularly use on their goats. Find out what wormer your farmer uses and what milk withdrawal time they abide by after treatment. Then, go home and do some research. If they are using a wormer "off label," meaning that they are using for goats a wormer that is only approved for other animals, be wary. If they are using a wormer that has a recommended milk withdrawal time that is longer than what the farmer observes, be wary.
6. Are animals frequently coming/ going from the farm? If the farmer is frequently buying and selling, there is a greater risk of bringing sickness to his farm. Ideally, a farmer would be growing his herd through breeding rather than purchase. And, if he is purchasing lots of animals, ask where he is getting them. I'd be a lot less concerned about a farm that is slowly building their herd by carefully selecting animals from well known breeders of registered animals and much more concerned about a milker that was picked up at the sale barn two months ago.
7. How do you keep the milking hygienic? Ideally, you would be there to witness a milking. If not, just ask lots of questions about exactly how it all happens then ask whether you might be able to "help out" at a milking session some other time so that you can see for yourself whether you're comfortable with the way things are handled. Things to be on the look out for are general cleanliness and products used to clean the animal. Not all products are created equal. We once used a teat spray that was designed to keep teat openings clear of debris and prevent mastitis in the milker. The product, though, when ingested by her young doeling, caused diarrhea. Even though the product was designed for use on milkers, I just couldn't get over thinking that it couldn't be good for traces of that to make its way to our milk. We discontinued use. Ideally, all products that touch the teats are 100% natural.
8. What containers are used for storage, and how are they cleaned? Glass is best. Openings large enough to accommodate a hand holding a soapy cloth are great.
9. After milking, how quickly is the milk cooled? Milk that sits out too long or isn't cooled quickly enough is more likely to spoil faster. If a farmer is milking 8 animals and then has to clean up in the barn before eventually storing the milk in a fridge up at the farmhouse, be cautious. The size of storage containers can help with cooling, too. Smaller containers cool faster in the refrigerator.
10. How fresh is the milk? In some farms, milk from several days may be all poured in together. If that's the case, you need to consider the milk to be as old as the oldest day collected. Obviously, the fresher the better.
In asking your laundry list of questions, please try not to make this sound like a interrogation. Be sure to be courteous and thank them for their time. Believe me, the farmer has a bazillion other things he could have been doing rather than giving you a tour and answering all your questions. But, a good farmer will be happy to do it. One of the scariest things about large scale food production is the veil behind which it all takes place. One of the missions of the small farm is to pull back that veil and better acquaint the consumer with his food. It's for that reason that I love giving farm tours. That, and, my goats usually get an extra ear scratch or two, and they love all the attention. ;)
Interested in how Brood Farm would answer these 10 questions? See our next blog post later this week. :)