This article is an amalgamation of interviews with current dairy managers Liuda and Ish as well as the author’s own experience milking cows three times a week for the past year at East Wind.
In the past ten years the ever changing cultural landscape of East Wind has been shifting in many ways towards a focus on self-sufficiency. The obvious starting point in the path to self-sufficiency is food production. Large gardens, an orchard, beef herd, pigs, chickens, and deer hunting are all important ways the community gets nutrient dense calories. One of the most successful food production ventures has been the current dairy cow program which started five years ago with the construction of the dairy barn.
The dairy barn, small by any commercial standard, has a stanchion that can hold three cows at a time. Marmalade and Josephine were the only two dairy cows on the farm upon completion of the barn. Currently, there are five milking cows and two heifers (both currently pregnant). A great number of people have shaped and influenced how the dairy program developed and made it what it is today.
Ish (‘Ishmael’) and Liuda have been involved in the dairy program for years and have been the elected dairy managers for the past year. Liuda graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2012 with a bachelor’s of science in Animal Sciences. As she was weighing her options between going to grad school and looking for a job a friend invited her to visit East Wind. Liuda took her friend up on the offer and did a visitor period. She was impressed with how things had changed since she lived at East Wind in the early 2000s. Seeing an opportunity to pursue her passion for working with animals she decided to stay. Ish came to East Wind around the same time as Liuda and desired to get away from the city of St Louis to learn about producing food. He initially spent most of his time working in the gardens before taking a more focused interest on the dairy program. Both Liuda and Ish continue to learn an immense amount about cow health and pasture management through their first hand experience, reading, and consulting vets, farmers, and the local university extension office.
Ish and Liuda’s biggest goals are to establish a line of hardier milkers (Red Poll and Jersey mixes) and move away from grain to a near 100% grass fed diet for all the cows. Of course, there are the day to day challenges of managing both the cows and the people on each milking shift. Liuda recalls how early on the turnover in milking shifts could make things difficult with so many new people needing to be trained. Currently the milking crew is well established and milking shifts are sought after by many in community, especially newcomers. There are two milking shifts a day and each has two workers usually called ‘milkers.’ Shifts can take from about an hour up to about two and a half hours at the longest, depending on how many cows are in the milking rotation. The raw, unpasteurized milk from each shift is brought up the hill and refrigerated. Milk is commonly used for cheese and yogurt production as well as being available to refill the milk dispenser in the kitchen (of course, the rich cream is available for coffee drinkers and cooks).
The diet of a dairy cow is the key component in determining the quality of the milk she will produce. Cow’s milk is going to directly reflect whatever is fed to the cow. The East Wind dairy has moved away from store bought dairy ration and now produces its own fermented ration from oats (and any used beer grains if available), sunflowers, molasses, water, and yeast. The fermented grain is a cost effective solution for non-GMO food that is more digestible, has a higher protein content, and food based fats and minerals (as opposed to the common practice in industrial operations of synthetically adding animal fats to dairy ration). Since undertaking this transition it has been observed that the cows put on weight better and their milk is richer due to an increase in the butterfat content. The milk also tastes a bit sweeter due to the new fermented diet. Organic peanuts and peanut skin ‘waste’ resulting from peanut butter production in East Wind’s factory are also used as feed supplements.
The ultimate goal concerning the cows’ diets is to move away even from the fermented grain whenever possible and have the cows be primarily grass fed. Ish is the most involved in rotating the cows. He wants to lower the stocking rate (the number of animals per acre) and allow paddocks to grow taller. With taller grasses the cows will trample more grass, but this process builds humus and allows cool season grasses to extend their season because the soil doesn’t heat up as quickly as bare ground. Pasture maintenance is a huge responsibility that is shared by both the dairy and ranch programs. In the past five years a plethora of plant varieties have been introduced. Several different types of clover, three different orchard grasses, and most importantly an ‘endophyte friendly’ fescue that was specifically bred to promote cow health have established well. There are seven warm season grasses and five cool season grasses in total. Shade is also of vital importance for the health of the cows and therefore milk production. A big effort has been made to plant hundreds of trees to establish tree lines and ample shade in all the pastures. Through this experience a deeper understanding and appreciation of the whole system has developed: from the microscopic flora and fauna of the soil to the element of human interaction. Ish is mindful of being efficient with labor inputs and seeks to foster the beneficial organisms which aid cow health.
All the current milking cows are Jersey mixes. Jersey lines were bred for high milk production, but these lines can encounter serious health problems such as ketosis and milk fever. Ish and Liuda are running a breeding program, started by previous managers, to mix the hardier Red Poll cow breed with Jersey. Bullet, East Wind’s registered Red Poll bull, has been bred into both Marmalade and Jackie Brown. Marmalade is thought to be a Jersey-Swiss mix and Jackie Brown is her daughter, being conceived by a pure Jersey line artificial insemination (AI). Their daughters, Mary Jane and Loretta, both received Jersey AIs and are expected to calve this coming Spring. The idea is to create a line that has decent milk production from low maintenance cows. Also playing into this system is that East Wind has a beef herd. By timing the calving of both the beef and the dairy cows at the same time a milker calf can go onto a nurse cow. This avoids the need for bottle feeding which has shown to be not in the best interest of the cow’s health (even when bottle fed with their mother’s milk).
All the people involved in the dairy program appreciate that the size of the program allows for compassionate and individualized care. For example, an animal that might be labeled as a cull cow by a veterinarian is given the extra attention they need. Liuda feels good about making decisions that are in the best interest of the cow’s health without the need to consider profit (as any commercial dairy operation is constrained by). Both Ish and Liuda can recall staying up all night in the dairy barn to help newborn calves recover from an ice storm. The cows in both the dairy and beef herds are socialized and friendly. Working with small numbers of cows and knowing their names allows each milker to establish bonds with ‘the girls.’ It is a great feeling to personally know the cows that your milk, cream, yogurt, and cheese comes from.
Having met at East Wind about five years ago, Ish and Liuda have recently started their own family here. They live with their daughter Narayana and their dog Harvey at their house, Gitchigumi. The author of this post, being a milker of three shifts a week for over a year, is excited to watch the dairy program continue to evolve and continue to learn about one of humankind’s greatest friends, the cow. The dairy program is what it is today because of the involvement of many East Winders, both past and present. Thank you to everyone who is and has contributed to the success of the East Wind Dairy!
Post written by Sumner
Pictures by Sumner, Ish, Liuda, Jude, and Virgil