Sunday, June 13, 2010

The cow spa

When we got our cow we wondered if we weren't a little bit bonkers. Getting a cow is a huge commitment in time, energy, and presence. We already feel badly when we depend upon friends and neighbors to feed and water chickens, sheep, and pigs and do minimal management of our garden if we go away, but to ask someone to learn to and then actually milk a cow seemed ludicrous! Well, we never even got to the point of asking someone to learn to milk - people have been coming out of the woodwork *asking* to milk our cow! So many people love our cow (she is pretty lovable) and her products (they certainly are yummy!) and are very interested in how it all works. Woo hoo!

Joann Grohman in her book "Keeping a Family Cow" extolls the benefits of keeping a cow to the point that it all sounds so unreal. How could this one animal do all that she says? She is right, though. To have a cow is to have wealth. We are awash in dairy products which, besides providing food for the humans on our farm, also provide nutrition for our chickens and pigs. For the humans, besides liquid milk, we make the creamiest and most delicious yogurt, ice cream, butter, soft cheeses (cream cheese, cottage cheese and others) as well as hard cheeses (gouda, romano, and others), sour cream, buttermilk, and ghee. We give away a lot of ice cream. We laugh when we think that most families make ice cream one or two times a year, but we make ice cream one or two times a week! We have a condition in our house called "dairy-itis," which is when you open the house refrigerator and nearly everything in it is a dairy product. We have taken to awarding "points" to anyone who finishes a container of dairy product. We don't actually keep track of the points, but it is a moment of pride when you take that last bit of milk from the bottle or use that last piece of butter and you can exclaim "I get a point!"

Our cow, Rustina, came from a local dairy. She had given birth to one calf successfully, but had lost a second calf part-way through a pregnancy. At the time she lost the calf she was still lactating from the first birth and so the dairy continued to milk her. After a while, though, her production fell to the point where it was costing a lot more money to raise her than she was getting for her milk. As a side note, nearly all cows cost more money to raise than they earn from their milk which is why dairy farmers get subsidies, but Rustina was costing *a lot* more money since her production, after 450 days of lactation, was pretty low (well, low for a dairy).

We bought her for relatively little money. She was living in a dairy barn and hadn't been outside since she had started to give milk. When she first arrived she was a little out of sorts - she didn't remember the great outdoors. She was very dirty and it took several days of brushing her before each milking before she began to look clean. What a beauty she was!

We joke that we have a cow spa because we brush her before each milking, during seasons with flies we put a non-toxic, made for humans, body oil on her which (in theory) repels flies, and she gets to be out in our pasture happily chomping every day. She has a new calf and they graze together, sleep together, and just hang out together. She is very social and the calf has greatly increased her happiness. She thanks us by providing a shocking amount of milk which is unbelievably creamy.

Our biggest problem now is what to do with her beautiful heifer calf. We thought, originally, that we could just sell her, presumably to a dairy, as she is quite valuable (she is 15/16ths Jersey). We find that we will not be able to do that. We could not put her in that situation. I think our only option is to find a situation for her similar to ours - where someone wants a cow or two and is compelled (by their own desire) to have a "cow spa" of their own. Only then could we feel comfortable selling her. In lieu of that we'll just keep her.

The butter we make, since putting Rustina on pasture, has gotten so yellow! I looks as if I've dyed it, but it is just the result of the grass. Here is how we do it:

After milking the cow we strain the milk into one gallon glass jars and put them in the refrigerator to chill. After a day or two there is a clear cream line where the cream has risen and separated from the skim milk. There are actually two layers of cream though they aren't visible from the outside of the jar. The top layer is a thick layer of "heavy" cream. We remove this first with a small ladle into another jar. The next layer of cream is "light" cream which is much thinner and this goes into a different jar.

The heavy cream is what we use for butter. To one quart of heavy cream we add about 1/4 cup of cultured buttermilk, put the lid on the jar, and let it sit for anywhere from 12 to 24 hours at cool room temperature (if it is hot out we might reduce this considerably or find a cool location).

After that time the cream should have a distinctive, nice, cultured smell. We pour this cream into our stand mixer which is outfitted with the whisk attachment. We mix it on medium to high speed for just a few minutes until we can see clearly that the butter has separated from the buttermilk. It looks like butter particles swimming in buttermilk.

We strain the butter with a small mesh strainer and put the buttermilk into a jar in store it in the refrigerator. It is cultured buttermilk, now, and can be used to inoculate more cream and also can be used for baking.

We put the butter back in the stand mixer bowl, add cool water and stir to wash the butter. We want to get all of the buttermilk out of the butter because this is what makes butter spoil. We strain and repeat this until the water is clear.

Next, we transfer the butter to a wooden board and begin to knead it with a wooden paddle. The goal is to get all of the water out of the butter. We knead and knead until we are tired of kneading or until it seems that all of the water is out. We add a small amount of salt, knead that in, and then form the butter into a block with the wooden paddle. The butter is wrapped in wax paper, labeled with the date, and stored in the freezer until we need it.

Homemade butter from fresh cream is an experience not to be missed. Thank you, Rustina!

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