Monday, March 5, 2012

The Novice Milkmaid and the Family Cow: My First Five Months (Part 2, The Rewards)

After reading Part 1 of this post detailing the many challenges I faced during my first 5 months of owning my cow, you may be wondering why anyone would go to all that trouble.  What can possibly make it worth it?

Keeping a cow isn't all trials and tribulations.  There are wonderful rewards as well.  Some of them are emotional or spiritual.  Others are as practical as can be.  To me, they make it all worthwhile.

Reward #1:  The Cow

First of all, I got to know and build a relationship with a very interesting 4-legged "person" in the guise of my girl Thistle.  I never knew a cow before, and Thistle has far more intelligence, personality, and individuality than I ever expected.  She has certainly tested, frustrated, and challenged me, but she has also helped me hone my courage, persistence, empathy, and leadership skills, as well as my physical fitness.  She holds me accountable for my own actions and makes me own up to my mistakes.

She has, in short, become the sort of friend that challenges me to become a better, stronger, more self-reliant person.  I can't say as much for every human relationship I've ever had!

Reward #2:  The Replacement Heifer

After the enormous amount of time and effort it took to find and buy Thistle, it seemed like nothing short of a miracle to have Ivy be born just a few weeks later, and have her turn out to be a heifer.  It could just as easily have turned out that Thistle gave birth to nothing but bull calf after bull calf for years in a row.

Thistle is not an old cow, but she is middle aged, and I was always aware that she might not continue to be with us for a great many years.  But here, miraculously, is Ivy, who can be Thistle's companion while she is with us and her replacement after she is gone.  I don't have to hope and pray every time calving time comes around that I'll finally get my replacement heifer, because she is already here.

Essentially, by giving me this lovely heifer who is equal in value to her mother, Thistle has already paid for herself. 

I know for a fact that Ivy will offer her own array of challenges to me in the future.  She is already an opinionated, strong-willed little diva who wants what she wants, and she wants it NOW.  But she's also sweet, affectionate, playful, well-grown, and healthy, and beautiful.  I couldn't ask for anything more!

Reward #3:  The Meat Calf 

We already raise our own pork, lamb, chicken, and eggs, but even with all that variety we still crave beef.  By using Thistle's extra milk to raise a foster calf for meat, we will be able to be completely self sufficient for all of our meat needs.  We'll know that all of our meat came from happy, well-loved animals that got to live healthy lives full of grass and sunshine and never had to set foot in a feed lot.

Because Misha will be raised primarily on surplus milk and pasture, he will cost us very little to feed.  We will be able to put a year's worth of beef in the freezer for us and still sell a side of beef to another family.  Not only will this pay for the butchering fees and provide a small amount of profit, it will also offer another family the chance for humanely grown, healthy meat to feed them through the year.

For that great service and sacrifice, we love and honor our boy Misha and are grateful to Thistle whose milk makes this all possible.

Reward #4:  The Smiles

It is a joy and privilege to be able to share my time with Ivy and Misha---two vibrant, adorable little beings who are the epitome of youth and cuteness.  Who can NOT smile when seeing happy calves at play?  Who can stay sad when being lavished with rough, sticky calf kisses?  I'm lucky enough to get to do it every day.

Reward #5:  The Milk

Then of course, there is the lovely, lovely milk.  That's the whole reason I wanted a cow in the first place.  

I grew up drinking fresh raw milk straight from a local farm. When as a young adult I finally moved out on my own into a city apartment, I went shopping at the grocery store and bought pasteurized, homogenized milk for the first time.  When I took my first sip, I literally almost spit it out on the floor.  It tasted NOTHING like the milk I was used to.  I honestly thought that it had gone rotten.  My roommate tasted it and informed me that it tasted perfectly normal to her.

I couldn't believe that people drank that stuff willingly.  It had a horrible, artificial aftertaste.  It didn't taste anything like milk, it tasted like the container it was in.  I couldn't choke it down.  This, I declared, was not COW milk.  This was STORE milk.

After that, I gave up drinking milk entirely for 25 years.  I just couldn't stand the vile stuff from the grocery store.  Yet my body craved the dairy I was missing.  I became addicted to cheese, ice cream, yoghurt... anything that gave me some dairy but had flavor enough to disguise the yucky taste of the store milk.

As I reached middle age, the dairy cravings became stronger and constant.  Cheese was not enough anymore.  My body wanted that milk and it wanted it now!

Raw milk is not legal to sell in Virginia.  But because I am lucky enough to have this farm, I was able to do what was necessary to get the milk I so desperately craved:  I bought a cow (Thus proving that old saying about "Why buy the cow...").  Yes, it has been a LOT of effort, but the taste and healthiness of fresh raw milk is incomparable.

Here is a gallon and a half of Thistle's wonderful, clean-tasting milk, with the luscious rich cream on top:

Photos can't portray how much better the fresh raw milk tastes, but you can SEE the difference.  On the left is a glass of Thistle's golden milk, rich with beta-carotene from her grazing on fresh grass.  On the right is a glass of Store Milk, which tastes thin, industrial, and dead:

Reward #6:  The Weight Loss

During my non-milk-drinking years, I developed constant food cravings which led to poor eating habits.  Since my body wasn't getting what it really craved, nothing truly satiated.  I ended up feeling hungry no matter how much I ate.  I gained weight and my energy levels plummeted.

But now that I can have all the fresh raw milk I want, my insatiable cravings have vanished.  One glass of Thistle's milk per day, and my body is satisfied.  I don't feel the incessant urge to snack all the time like I used to, and I have much more sustained energy to get me through my active days.  Sometimes I even end up skipping meals because I still feel satisfied when meal time comes along.

In the first 3 weeks of milking Thistle and drinking her milk, I lost 10 lbs. without dieting.  Granted, part of that was because of the calories I burned doing the milking, but it was also because I was not snacking all the time.  Even more important to me than what it says on my bathroom scale:  I have enough strength and energy to do my farm work without feeling as if I'm 100 years old.

Reward #7:  Better Health

I don't have any proof of this, but I suspect that my regular daily intake of fresh raw milk during my childhood was one reason I was always so healthy.  I was almost never sick---I never missed a single day of school because of sickness during my entire teen years.  

It may have also helped me form very strong healthy teeth.  I never had any cavities as a child, even though I literally NEVER flossed.  In my young adult life, before I got a job that offered dental insurance, I went 10 years without any dental care whatsoever, and only got one very tiny cavity during that time.  To this day, my dentist always remarks on how strong my teeth are.

After such a healthy childhood, my middle aged years have been not quite so robust.  I have become prone to bronchitis, to the point where I dread every cold and flu that comes my way because it always progresses into my lungs and leaves me sick for a month or more.

This winter, since I've added raw milk back into my diet again, has been the first year in recent memory that I have NOT suffered any bronchitis symptoms whatsoever.

Whatever it is that milk offers that my body has been missing all these years, I'm delighted to have it back!

Reward #8:  The Dairy Delights

Of course, some of the delights of a plentiful supply of good wholesome milk are purely culinary.  With Thistle's milk I have been able to make homemade butter, cream, cheese, kheer, caramel, ice cream, and more.  As time goes on, I am excited to continue expanding my repertoire of delicious homemade goodies!

The sad, pale butter on the left is from the grocery store.  The amazing golden butter on the right is the first batch I ever made.  It took just a few minutes in my blender. 


The scrumptious treat below is our own homemade vanilla ice cream served with homemade hot caramel sauce (made from our own butter and cream).

Below:  Raspberry and cheese pastries made with our homemade cheese.

Below:  Maple hazelnut cheese pastry, made with our own cheese and served with homemade caramel sauce.

Reward #9:  The Compost

Cleaning Thistle's stall every day is a minor chore.  It doesn't take all that long, and it helps me make sure she has a dry comfortable bed to sleep in every night.  But that's not all.  It also provides us with an unending source of compostable material to improve our soil and help us build our garden area.  

Because of the cow, we will be able to turn our farm's hard, heavy clay into rich black soil that, once our garden is established, will provide us with all the fruits and vegetable we can eat.  Our farm's soil was very thin, neglected, and depleted when we moved here, so it will take us a while to improve it all.  But no worries---With Thistle, we have an endless supply of good wholesome fertilizer!

Here is the series of bins we use to compost Thistle's bedding and manure:

 And here are the beginnings of the garden beds we are building and filling with compost:

Reward #10:  Other Products

Other products also become possible with cows on the farm.  I've already made a luscious cream soap using home rendered lard from my pig,  milk from my sheep, and cream from Thistle.  It's wonderfully rich and creamy, and the first few people who have used it report that it has been great for their skin.  I like it better than the sheep's milk soap I had been making before.

We don't raise huge numbers of animals for slaughter each year, but when one does go to the butcher, I try to honor their sacrifice by using as much of their body as possible rather than letting it go to waste.  Therefore, when it's time to send Misha to the butcher, I'll save his hide, horns, skull, and bones.  The hide will be tanned either as a beautifully spotted rug, or else into leather with which I can make other salable products.  The horns and bones I'll use to make jewelry, buttons, and other salable items.  And the skull I'll sell for an "Old West" type of decoration.

Each of these items will add a little to the farm's income and help support the other creatures on the farm.

Reward #11:  Closer to Self Sufficiency

Adding Thistle to our farm has moved us much closer to self sufficiency as far as our food production goes.  Because of her we have milk, cream, butter, and cheese.  Because of her surplus milk we are able to raise Misha, so we will have beef.  Any extra milk or whey from cheese making goes to help feed our pigs and chickens.  And Thistle's manure goes to help get our gardens and orchards started.

Once all of these aspects of the farm come together, it is a very real possibility that we could, before too many more years go by, be producing ALL the food we eat, as well as having some surplus to sell for extra income.  Not only will we be eating healthier, more humanely raised food, but we'll be able to share that bounty with our community.

Reward #12:  The Bucket List

My whole life, I have wanted to learn the skills of self sufficiency.  Being able to take raw materials and transform them into useful items for survival fascinates me.  Preserving the old skills and being able to understand firsthand the ways our forefathers lived and worked is a deep and fulfilling experience.

Because of Thistle, I've been able to finally do several of the things on my "bucket list":  milk a cow, make butter, and make cheese.  Even if by some horrible chance I had to leave the farm tomorrow and never come back, it still gives me a huge sense of accomplishment that I have done these things.

Reward #13:  Income Potential

Thistle may not be earning any income right now, but as we settle into a routine together, the income potential is there.  I still plan to sell cow shares with her eventually.  When Misha goes to the butcher, I'll sell a side of beef.  In future years, there will be more calves to sell, either for beef or breeding.  I'll sell my handmade cream soap and other cow-related products such as hides, horns, etc.  And eventually, I'll have surplus fruits and veggies to sell from our cow-manure-fertilized gardens.

Keeping a cow is definitely not a road to fast or easy riches, but for a farmer with patience and determination, there's no doubt in my mind that it is an experience that can vastly enrich your life.


T. Cupp said...

Another great post! I am so glad that you are able to experience the joy along with the heartaches!

T. Cupp said...

Another great post! I am so glad that you are able to experience the joy along with the heartaches!

Jenn @leftoverqueen said...

This is so lovely! Nothing like raising your own food !

Lori Skoog said...

This is my first visit and I am very impressed! You have a beautiful farm and great philosophy. Love the pictures too...and the food....and...

Black Star Ranch said...

What a pleasure to read. In our case, what started as a single milk cow for a family of five has changed to a family of three for a herd of seven! We love it. Keep the spirit and sense of humor - it's a blessing.

Suporna Sarkar said...

Nice Blog ! Thank you for your very nice articles. I look forward to visiting your site in the future! I like this very much.
Methods of Modern Farming

The Country Mouse said...

This was such good reading. I convinced myself and the whole family to get cow(s) in January. Our adjustment was a little easier, and the calf from the older cow is due in a few weeks (6 months after we brought the cows home). But we'd only had chickens before that. And the cows had been organic dairy Dutch Belt breed, not used to hand milking. I have my own blog to chronicle the daily frustrations, and it's so much better to type it all out with a humorous spin (helps me to process the "cow attitude" moments into something that my sensitive nature can handle) ;)
Keep up the good work! I loved reading about Thistle and Ivy.

Elaine said...

I love this post. [I hopped over to your blog through a search for washing a wool fleece.] Last year I added dairy goats and I am forever in love. I do, however, drool over the picture of your milk with that thick luscious cream sitting on top...something I'll never get with my goat milk. [although, I need to research a cream separator]

It looks like you have a lot of great things going on and we share a bit of like-mindedness!

Enjoy life!