Wednesday, June 15, 2016

"Managing a Dairy Share: (an exerpt from The Milk Pail Companion by Agatha Grimsley)"

Managing a Dairy Share
(an exerpt from The Milk Pail Companion by Agatha Grimsley)

Downloadable from:

The consumption of farm-fresh milk is legal in all 50 states, but the challenge for a consumer to obtain raw milk varies from state to state.

Most consumers are looking for a source for raw milk for the numerous health benefits, while others are simply interested in extending their commitment to local food and farm animal welfare.

Definition of Raw Milk
Unprocessed milk ready for consumption, from small local farms
Raw commodity milk intended for pasteurization, from conventional dairies

Farm-fresh raw milk that comes from clean and healthy cows on green pasture, and that is handled properly by the farmer, is safe for human consumption. In fact, it is the opinion of raw milk advocates that such milk is much safer and healthier than pasteurized milk from commodity farms. Pasteurization has come to serve as an excuse for poor farming practices and bad hygiene on many commodity dairy farms.

Raw Milk’s Legal Status, by State (for most up-to-date info, visit:
Retail Sales Legal (farm must be licensed dairy):  Arizona, California, Connecticut, Idaho, Maine, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Washington
On-Farm Sales Legal (licensed or meet legal requirements):  Arkansas, Kansas, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Mississippi, Nebraska, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Vermont
Herd Shares Legal (farm does not need to be licensed):  Alaska, Colorado, Ohio, Tennessee
No Law on Herd Shares, but retail sale illegal:  Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Virginia, Wyoming
Legal Sales as Pet Food Only (no dairy shares):  Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, North Dakota
Fully Illegal (though it is legal to own your cow and drink her milk, it is not legal to own a portion of a cow or to board your cow on another farm):  Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa, Louisiana, Maryland, Montana, New Jersey, Nevada, Rhode Island, Washington D.C., West Virginia, Wisconsin

Definition of a Dairy Share
(aka Milk Share aka Cow or Herd Share)

This is quite literally a CSA at its best, in that members from the community join in purchasing a dairy cow so that they may reap the benefits of her milk.

How it works
A dairy share works on the legal principle that you may drink the milk from your personal cow or goat.  Most people these days have neither the land nor skill (let alone the lifestyle) to keep their own dairy cow. Thus the consumer purchases a share in a dairy animal. 

The farmer and the consumer enter into a legally binding contract. In accordance with the contract, the share member pays a boarding fee to the farmer, who in turn feeds and pastures the cow, provides the labor to milk the cow, and stores the milk for a set amount of time. The ownership of a portion of the cow provides the consumer with an equal percentage of the cow’s milk each week. In most cases, one share equals one gallon of milk per week. 

With this shared ownership of the live animal, the consumer does not need to buy milk from the farmer.  Rather, she pays the farmer for service and labor, which may include processing the milk into value added products (butter, cream, cheese, etc).  In most states, this arrangement provides the consumer with access to raw milk.

Unless otherwise stated, these contracts are for the life of the cow, be it one year or ten.  Therefore, the purchase of a share is a one-time cost (though the boarding fee is continuous).  If a member wants to leave the dairy share, the farmer will buy back the share, but he may reserve the right to find a new member before doing so.  If the farmer decides to end the program, he must pay the members from the proceeds of the cow sale.

Starting a Dairy Share

Measure the Demand
One dairy cow can fill ten to twenty shares, so put out some feelers to see if your local community can support a dairy share.  If you have an established farm, find out the interest level of your customers. If you are nervous about having enough people to fill your shares, wait to buy the cow until all the shares have been purchased.

Determine Your Cow’s Milk Production Capacity
Note: the standard is to measure milk in pounds, which is far more accurate than gallons. However, for the small-scale home dairy I think it is easier to discuss in gallons. For your personal production records, you may want to weigh your daily milk pail for accuracy.

Commercial dairies primarily milk Holsteins, but the homesteader most often chooses to have Jerseys or other such breeds for their good temperament and high butterfat content.  While a Holstein produces many gallons per day, you can expect your cow to give 3 to 6 gallons per day, assuming you are milking every twelve hours.  On our farm, we count on 5 gallons per day per cow during the peak production period of the lactation cycle.  By the last month of the cycle, they each give as little as 1.5 gallons per day. 

Our cows have plenty of good pasture, which we manage intensively.  We believe strongly in a grass-based diet for ruminants, but our research showed that a small amount of grain fed to dairy cows greatly benefits milk production.  The rule of thumb is to feed 1% of the cow’s body weight in grain.  This is thought to feed the bacteria in the rumen, which in turn efficiently digest the forage so your cow can transform that grass into milk. In addition, we feed alfalfa pellets and high quality minerals at the time of milking.

Which grain ration you feed your cow will also effect her production.  Though commercial feeds are high protein and low cost, you sacrifice quality in many respects. Consider sourcing grains that are free of GMO crops, contain no soy, and are grown organically (see sources).  Such feeds are much more expensive, but most dairy share members are willing to pay the higher price for quality.  Also note that roughage (grass and hay) is just as important.  It is the cellulose that translates into butterfat, so the more high-quality grass she eats, the more cream you’ll have on top.  Fresh grass will also keep your milk tasting as sweet as melted ice cream. 

Another major factor in milk production is the number of milkings per day.  If you are starting a diary share as a major part of your farm business, you will need to milk twice per day (every 12 hours).  If you simply want a dairy cow for your family and hope to supplement the feed costs with a few shares, milking once per day will give your more flexibility.  On our farm, we milk two cows twice a day.

Calculate the Number of Shares
Calculating the number of shares available is difficult if you have not yet milked this particular cow.  If she’s new to you, play it safe and assume you’ll be getting 3 gallons per day (1.5 gallons per milking twice a day), which gives you 21 gallons per week.  You can always sell more shares a few months into her lactation. 

There are a few key points to consider when deciding how many shares to sell:

The Calf: In order to start milk production, your cow will have a calf, and that calf will need milk.  Milk replacer formula is expensive and less healthy for the little one, so feed mama’s milk if possible.  For the best production, separate the calf from the cow after the first few days of colostrum. Keep him in a separate pen and bottle-feed him a gallon per day.  Thus your calf needs at least 7 gallons per week.  You can wean the calf after three months, but he will greatly benefit from six to eight months of milk, plus pasture.

Fluctuation in Production Throughout the Lactation: If your share equals a set amount of milk per week, be sure not to calculate based on your cow’s peak production. Keep a safety net of a few extra gallons to make sure you can fill all the shares later in the cycle.  One way to avoid this is to instead make a share equal to a percentage of the milk, so that the amount a member receives each week can fluctuate with the cow.  (Note that this is technically the more legally foolproof way to assign shares.)

Your Personal Milk Consumption:  If you are driven to have a dairy cow (and the lifestyle that comes with it), then you must be a lover of dairy products.  The primary benefit of this business is having plenty of milk to drink, with more for yogurt, cheeses, and all the other delicious possibilities.  Don’t forget your own family’s dairy desires; be sure to keep several+shares for yourself.  In my family of four, we drink roughly ½ gallon per day, plus make cheese, yogurt, and treats weekly.

Calculate the Cost for Consumers
As stated, the purchase of a share is a one-time fee for the life of the cow. Since ownership is indicated via exchange of money, you must charge something.  The price of each share is entirely up to the farmer, and if you research other dairy shares you’ll find that they run anywhere from a nominal $1 to a substantial $100 each.  The most logical calculation is to take the price you paid for the cow, perhaps adding some for the labor it took to get her, plus any costs in setting up the dairy on your farm.  Then divide that total by your number of shares.  Remember to include your personal shares in this calculation, as you must also own part of that cow in order to legally drink her milk.  (FYI, shares in our dairy share are $50 each.)

Boarding Fee
The world of retail assumes that the price for a product fairly covers the materials and labor used to produce that product.  In a dairy share, the farmer is not selling milk, but he does need to be compensated for materials and labor for boarding the cow. Thus the simplest place to start with calculating your price is to assign a value to a gallon of milk.  Milk from commercial dairies is cheap (dairy farmers receive $1 to $2 per gallon and are subsequently government-subsidized), so do not set up your dairy share to compete with them.  In contrast, milk from smaller scale organic dairies generally goes for $10 per gallon retail.  One approach would be to stay competitive with that price.  For our dairy share, we assumed members would be getting roughly four gallons per month for ten months of each year, making our boarding fee $400 per year. 

A more accurate process is to do the calculation in reverse, taking the number of hours you’ll spend caring for the cows and decide on your hourly wage. The difficulty there is pinning down the exact amount of time you spend managing your cows and their pasture, which varies day to day and season to season.  If using this method, don’t forget to include the cost of materials; including monthly feed, winter hay, the occasional fencing tools, etc.

Because we used the price-per-gallon method, we were happy to discover that adding a second cow greatly increased our hourly wage. Managing two cows did not double the work, so we went from earning $1.50 per dairy hour to earning roughly $4.50 per hour.  Don’t be disheartened by these low wages.  As is typical in farming, you must consider all the non-monetary benefits (milk!).  In addition, you, the farmer, maintain ownership of the yearly calf, which offers another source of income.

Bottle Fee
You will need many bottles throughout the week (preferably half-gallon glass jars), and it makes the most sense to charge a fee to the members for the use and care of the bottles.  Consider charging a bottle fee up front with the share purchase, and then a small annual fee to cover washing, replacing lids, etc.  If one share equals one gallon of milk per week, plan that each share will need 6 half-gallon jars.  Managing the bottles is one of the biggest headaches of running a dairy share, so I will devote an entire section to that below.

Create Your Contract
The contract between you, the farmer, and each share-holder will be legally binding.  The main purpose of it is to ensure that you are operating within the legal parameters of your state.  Therefore, I urge you to become a member of The Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund (  Once a member, you will have access to a generic dairy share contract, plus free access to a group of lawyers who will help tailor your contract to fit the laws specific to your state.  In addition, if you are ever challenged legally, you can apply to have your case taken by the fund; if accepted you will be defended for free by lawyers who specialize in the rights of farmers and consumers.  This precaution may sound paranoid, but big business works hard to make sure that retail sale of raw milk remains illegal in most states, and there are plenty of officials ready to fight for their cause.  I’ve read enough horror stories to convince me to continue paying the annual FTCLDF membership fee!

There are, of course, some fundamentals to include in your contract.  First and foremost, make sure that it is clear that you are not selling the milk.  This is an exchange of money for labor.  Include the prices for a share, boarding fee, and bottle fee.  Make sure to state your policy regarding bottle returns.  Lay out the schedule for the boarding fee (monthly or annual).  Our year starts the month of calving.  If you will be delivering the milk, rather than have it picked up at your farm, you may want to include a small fee for that as well.  Be sure to include information pertaining to the care of the cow.  For example, you may want to state that any veterinary fees will be split among the shareholders, whereas the cost of breeding, and the subsequent calf, is the responsibility of the farmer. 

Milk & Bottle Calendar       
Before your cow freshens, you need to set up a weekly milk calendar.  Each member should be assigned a day on which she will receive her milk, and that milk should be as fresh as possible.  Ideally, a Monday pickup will be getting Monday’s milk, but there are some logistics to consider.  First of all, you may not have milked that evening before pickup, so you’ll need to bottle Sunday night and Monday morning for a Monday pickup.  Furthermore, you should have a safety net for the occasional kicked bucket.  On our farm, we bottle one day ahead, so Sunday morning and evening’s milk goes to Monday members.  If the cow kicks the bucket, or the load is otherwise spoiled, we still have Monday morning’s milk as a backup and we can shift the rest of the week accordingly.  Since you will hold a certain number of shares for your family, spread those throughout the week, offering another safety net.  (Hopefully your mishaps are few and far between, but you might as well plan for it.)  Again, don’t forget to factor in the calf’s daily ration.

To keep us on track, each year we create a bottling chart and fill in the shareholders names below.

Bottling Day
Pick-Up Day
Name & Number of Shares
Sunday AM
Sunday PM
John Smith x 1
Jane Doe x 1

Nearly half of our members pick up their milk at our farm.  With that in mind, we do our best to group members who are coming from the same direction in the same day, offering them the opportunity to carpool or alternate pickup.  We keep a separate refrigerator in an insulated closet off the house, for self-service that does not require folks to come into our home.  The other half of the shareholders pick up their milk at set locations, to which we deliver for a small fee ($10 per year).  We do this two days a week, so the number of members who can receive this service is limited by our milk supply for those days.

Milk Bottles    
I recommend wide mouth half-gallon jars with plastic lids; the typical two-part metal lid gets rusty and damaged easily.  You will need to decide on your system for jars.  As stated, you should assume that you need six half-gallon jars per share.  That’s two on the farm to bottle, two at home, and two in transition (aka rolling around the car). You have two basic options for how to manage those jars: Use the bottles as they come in, or assign those specific six bottles to the shareholder and hold the returned jars until the shareholder’s day comes the following week.  The benefit of the first option is that you don’t have to store the jars; there is a constant flow with only enough jars for on hand that you’ll need in the coming day(s).  The downfall is that it is harder to keep track of who neglected to return their jars that week.  Though you can keep better track of this with the second option, the downfall is you have to store a lot of jars, so you need some serious shelf space.  We have found that many people return bottles that have been used for other foods, and the leftover smell is a concern.  With assigned bottles, only the pickle eaters bear the risk of pickle-flavored milk.  Either way, make the shareholders responsible for replacing any jars they break.

Bottle Sanitation
We put in our contract that shareholders are responsible for returning their jars clean.  We did this mainly so we don’t have to deal with stinky or crusty bottles, but we still feel it necessary to wash the jars again.  Our sponge is designated to dairy only, and we replace it often so sanitation is maintained. Who knows the condition of other people’s sponges?!  We don’t want to risk the contamination of milk as a result of a dirty jar. 

Washing so many bottles each day is time consuming.  We know a farmer who uses assigned bottles, and he claims that the shareholder is exclusively responsible for the cleanliness of the jars.  He does not rewash.  This makes sense, but somehow it feels too risky to us.  If the shareholder were to get sick, it would be hard to prove that the cause was an unclean jar.

Jar Return
The single most frustrating factor in operating a dairy share is bottle return (or lack there of!).  Our experience with this has been the only cause for us to consider closing shop.  We’ve known other farmers to solve the problem by bottling into single-use plastic milk jugs, but we strongly advise against it. First of all, the plastic contains BPA, a poison that can leach into the milk. Second of all, it’s wasteful.

The fundamental problem is that people are busy and forgetful, and missing two glass jars doesn’t seem like a big deal.  Apparently, folks neglect to consider the big picture -- that they might not be the only ones to forget their jars that day, and they might not remember to bring four the next week to make up.  We’ve calculated that we are missing at least 100 jars from last year alone.  We’ve had days where we had two cows’ worth of milk to bottle and not a single jar available.  We’ve had days where we fed the milk to the pigs because even our cheese pots were full.  We have sent begging emails and threatening emails, but we finally realized that we need to change our policy to something more extreme.  As much as we hate to clog up precious shelf space with bottles, we will assign six jars to each shareholder.  If, on the day of bottling, there is no jar for a member, that member gets no milk (though their boarding fee is not reduced; the loss is on the member).

Sanitation, Filtration, Storage
Because you are distributing milk among many families, likely including children, sanitation is of utmost importance.  Raw milk has a bad rap because of dirty farms and bad handling practices. Contaminated milk can make people very sick.  On the other hand, clean raw milk is one of the healthiest foods you can enjoy.
When we started our dairy share, we bottled in our kitchen (though we kept all utensils, sponges, etc separate).  This setup never felt clean enough, so we soon set up a separate space altogether. The “Milk Closet” has a sink and countertop, walls lined with stainless steel, wire shelves for drying the milk pails and the bottles and lids, soap for our hands, soap for the various milk vessels, a sponge for the counter, a sponge for the pails and bottles, and filters for bottling the milk.  It is recommended that you wash your pails with a small amount of bleach or other sanitizer.  Water for washing milk equipment should be 165oF when it leaves the water heater so that it is no less than 145oF when it reaches your sink.
No matter how clean your cow’s udder is when milking (and it should be spotless!), you will need to filter the milk upon bottling.  This keeps any small hairs or particles of dust from going into the jars with the milk.  I know a cow owner who filters with cotton muslin, which she washes with very hot water and hangs in the sun to sterilize.  I think this is a fine system for the herdsman who milks exclusively for his own consumption.  For a dairy share, however, it is best to use disposable paper filters (see sources).  You can either filter all the milk at once into a large vessel and then bottle, or filter right into each jar.
The key to a long shelf life for raw milk is quick cooling.  Your milk should be chilled to 42 oF within 45 minutes.  Some farmers set the bottled milk into ice water to chill as quickly as possible.  If you are placing it right in the fridge, make sure to space out the warm bottles (and make sure your fridge is cold enough, most likely on the coldest setting).  Make sure your members know to transport their milk in a cooler with ice.  Suggest to them that they store their milk on the bottom shelf of their home refrigerators.

Miscellaneous Notes
Testing for Diseases
When purchasing your dairy cow, be sure to get any records of illnesses such as mastitis, bloat, milk fever, acidosis, Johnes’s Disease, and Tuberculosis.  If no records exist, it would be wise to have her tested for Johnes’s and TB, but be aware of the high rate of false positives and repeat the test if necessary.
As for mastitis, be vigilant about checking that your cow’s udder is healthy.  You will likely develop a feel for her udder and would quickly notice if something is wrong.  You can keep a strip cup in the milking parlor to use either daily or if you suspect the beginning of an infection.  It is also handy to have your own California Mastitis Test (CMT) kit; they are not expensive.  Mastitis is thought to be transmittable to humans.
Value-Added Dairy Products
Because your dairy share members own their milk, it is perfectly legal for them to pay you (for your labor) to transform their milk into a value-added product such as cheese or yogurt.  Even if you’d rather not get into processing milk for shareholders, it’s a great idea to learn some basic recipes for you own milk.  After all, fulfilling your family’s dairy needs is the number one benefit of being a dairy farmer. 
Companion Farming
If you have chosen to be a dairy farmer, you are probably already interested in livestock.  If you have room on your farm, a couple of animals go great in conjunction with dairy cows. 
First are chickens:  If you have a moveable coop, you can rotate your chickens into the pasture after the cows.  In this way, the chickens will clean up the manure, spreading it for fertilizer (and adding their own), and eat parasites within the manure.  Even if you don’t have a chicken tractor, let out a few rogue chickens to do the job.  They will be follow your cows all day to spread the manure, motivated by the bits of grain from the dairy feed.  Do your best, however to keep the chickens out of your milking barn, as chicken manure is dirty stuff.
Second are hogs: Pigs love pasture, so theoretically you could rotate the hogs into the pasture after the cows. Unfortunately, hogs are also hard on fields with their natural tendency to root around.  Plus, pig manure is really dirty, and it seems less than sanitary to allow that stuff in an area where the cows will soon return.  Even so, hogs are great to have on a dairy farm. Give them their own corner of pasture and woods, and then offer them all your dairy “waste” in exchange for extra pounds of tasty meat.  It is inevitable that your cow’s hoof will end up in the bucket at least once a year.  Rather than pour it out for trash, feed it to your hogs.  They will lap it right up.  In the same vein, if you get into cheese making, you will have plenty of leftover whey. Chances are, you’ll even have some cheese failures, so just offer it up as pig food.  Feeding whey and milk to hogs increases their appetite, gives them a healthy variety to their grain-dominated diet, and adds flavor to the meat.

Sources for your Dairy Share

Grain; organic, non-gmo, non soy:
Countryside Organic Products 
(if they do not deliver your area, contact them to see if they can suggest a source)

Milking Equipment (including filters):
Hoegger Supply Co.
 Lehman’s Non-Electric
New England Cheesemaking Supply

Suggested Reading, Books & Websites:
The Untold Story of Milk: Green Pastures, Contented Cows & Raw Milk Products by Ron Schmid
The Complete Herbal Handbook for Farm & Stable by Juliette de Bairacli Levy
Fertility Pastures  and  Herdsmanship and Cure Your Own Cattle by Newman Turner
The Milk Pail Companion: Dairy Farming for Your Community by Agatha Grimsley 
(Not yet in print; please contact me if you would like to order a copy:

Weston A. Price Foundation and
Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund

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