People new to buying grass-fed dairy typically have no idea how to evaluate whether a farm is a good place to spend their local food dollars. Beware – not all grass-based farms are created equal! There are definite signs to look for that will tell you whether or not the farm is well maintained and the animals healthy and capable of producing nutrient dense dairy for your family.
The following list is based on a talk that Tim Wightman, President of the Farm to Consumer Foundation, Grassfed Dairy Consultant and author of the Raw Milk Production Handbook, gave during the Chapter Leader meeting at the 2010 Wise Traditions Conference. Tim has been a farmer for several decades and a dairyman for 12 years. The information he provided during this talk is simply invaluable to those who wish to understand how to best evaluate their local dairy choices.
Cows and Pasture
Cows should have a comfortable place to lay down. Cows that are comfortable when laying down look half-asleep, possibly with their head tucked to the side or are chewing their cud contentedly. Cows that are forced to lay down in mud or on concrete indicates a poor quality dairy situation.
The pasture where the cows are grazing should have grass that goes over their hooves. Pasture that does not reach that high indicates an overgrazed situation.
The grass in the pasture should be lush. Bales of hay in a lush pasture is a good sign as too much lush grass can give a cow too much protein so some hay is needed to reduce the protein in the cow’s diet.
Cows should be busy (grazing) but content.
Cows should have good color definition. Brown is brown and white is white. The color stays in the lines and different colors on the cow should not blend together.
Cows that have hair standing up at the back and around the backbone is an indication that the milk you are getting is not particularly nutrient-dense.
Cows should be shiny! In winter, the thicker coat reduces this shine somewhat, but cows that don’t shine are not healthy.
Calves should look like adult cows, only smaller. Their backs should be flat.
Look for cats around the property. Cats are a very good indicator of how well the farm is managed. Cats should be content, healthy-looking and easy to pet. Sneezing cats with gunky eyes or a bad coat is a bad sign for the farm in general.
Cows look at your with their ears. When a cow looks in your direction, the ears should stand up and move in your direction.
Meat Chickens, Laying Chickens and Other Birds
Diversity in chicken species is not a good sign unless there is plenty of space to roam.
If there is mixing of chicken species, look for missing tail feathers – this indicates too little space for laying hens to roam.
Do not be concerned if meat birds lay down. This is what they do. Laying hens run around but meat birds do not.
Chickens running around where cow feed or hay is located is not a good sign. Chickens in the pasture is ok, but NOT in the feeding area as cows that eat chicken droppings can harbor salmonella.
Lots of starlings or pigeons in a barn or on wires near a silo is a bad sign. Birds near any sort of feed is a risk of contamination from their droppings.
Look for how many birds are nesting around the cows. It should not be many.
Cats keep scavenger birds down to a minimum on a farm, so fat and sassy cats living at the farm is a good sign.
Bird nests over where the cows eat is a problem due to bird dropping contamination.
Barn and Milk House
The barn should smell like beechnut chewing tobacco.
The barn should NOT smell like ammonia, vinegar, or salami.
The milk house should have clear or black hoses. Orange stained hoses or cracked black hoses is not a good sign. Hoses should be replaced once a year.
The glass in the milking house should be crystal clear.
The window sills should be clean with no dust.
No pitting should be visible on the floor.
Off colored PVC vacuum lines or stainless steel milk lines (with dust) is not a good sign of cleanliness and attention to detail.
Ask what testing the farmer does on his milk. No farm is perfect, but the following tests done once per month are cheap and very telling. They are a very good tool for the farmer to judge the quality of his cows’ milk even though they are not required tests:
- Bulk tank cultures – identifies mastitis in the herd and its prevalence
- Pathogen test results (should be zero)
- MUN Test (Milk Urea Nitrogen) – should be 12-13
If the farmer says he doesn’t test because he doesn’t feed any grain and because he never had a problem, this is not a good enough answer as no farm and no farmer is perfect.
Clearly, there is more to grass-based farming than simply cows grazing on grass. Cows are sensitive creatures and biology is not a switch that can be turned on and off. Farmers transitioning to grass-based farming should be given time to do so and not be asked to quickly flip a biological switch (grain to grass) that is not possible and ultimately unsustainable.
An educated customer is the best consumer!