How to assess the quality of a local farm based on the appearance of the animals, the quality of the pasture, the barn and milk house, and the tests that should be done on a regular basis.
People who are new to buying grass-fed dairy sometimes don’t know how to determine whether a farm is a decent place to spend their local food dollars. Be cautious: not all grass-based farms are made equal! There are clear indicators that the farm is well-maintained and the animals are healthy and capable of providing nutrient-dense dairy for your family.
The list below is based on a presentation I heard at a Wise Traditions Conference. Tim Wightman, Grassfed Dairy Consultant and author of the Raw Milk Production Handbook, gave the session. Tim has been a dairyman for over twenty years and a farmer for numerous decades.
Cows should be allowed to rest comfortably. When resting down, the herd should appear comfortable, with cows that appear half-asleep, possibly with their heads tucked to the side or quietly chewing their cud. Cows forced to lay down in mud or on concrete are an indication of a terrible dairy environment.
The herd should be grazing and appear to be happy.
Cows should have distinct coloration. White is white, while brown is brown. The color stays in the lines, and the cow’s distinct hues should not merge together. Cows with “happy lines” are a strong indicator of herd health.
Hair that stands up at the back and around the backbone can signal that the cow is not producing nutrient-dense milk.
Cows should be gleaming! The thicker coat diminishes this shine slightly in the winter, but cows who don’t shine are unhealthy.
Calves should be smaller than adult cows. Their backs should be completely flat.
Cows use their ears to look at you. When a cow stares at you, its ears should raise up and move towards you.
The grass in the pasture where the cows are grazing should cover their hooves. Pasture that does not reach that height suggests overgrazing.
The pasture grass should be luxuriant. A weedy meadow with obvious dirt patches is a bad omen.
Hay bales in a lush pasture are not only gorgeous, but they also indicate a vigilant farmer. Cows can get too much protein from lush grass. As a result, some hay is sometimes required to reduce protein in the diet.
Other Birds and Chickens
Unless there is enough of area to wander, diversity in chicken species is not a positive indicator.
Look for missing tail feathers if there is a mix of chicken species. This shows that there is insufficient area for laying hens to roam freely.
If meat birds lie down, don’t be alarmed. This is exactly what they do. Meat birds do not run about like laying hens.
Chickens running around where there is cow fodder or hay is not a good omen. Chickens are fine in the pasture, but not in the feeding area, because cows that consume chicken droppings can carry salmonella.
A large number of starlings or pigeons in a barn or on wires near a silo is an indication of a problem. Birds near food provide a risk of contamination from their droppings.
Take note of how many birds are breeding around the cows. It shouldn’t be too many!
Bird dropping contamination is a problem when there are bird nests above where the cows eat.
Cats Who Are Happy
Keep an eye out for cats surrounding the property. Cats are an excellent measure of how effectively a farm is handled.
Cats should be happy, healthy, and simple to pet. Sneezing cats with gunky eyes or a terrible coat are a negative omen for the farm.
On a farm, cats keep scavenger birds at bay, thus big and sassy cats are a good indication.
The Milk House and the Barn
The barn should have the aroma of beechnut chewing tobacco.
Ammonia, vinegar, or salami should not be present in the barn.
The milk house’s hoses should be transparent or black. Orange-stained or fractured black hoses are a bad omen. Hoses should be changed at least once a year.
The milking house’s glass should be perfectly clear.
The window sills should be dust-free.
There should be no obvious pitting on the floor.
Off-colored PVC vacuum lines or dusty stainless steel milk lines are not indicative of cleanliness and attention to detail.
Inquire about the farmer’s milk testing. No farm is flawless, but the following tests, performed once a month, are inexpensive and very informative. While they are a great tool for farmers to use to determine the quality of their cows’ milk, they are not required.
Bulk tank cultures — detects and quantifies the prevalence of mastitis in the herd.
Pathogen test outcomes (should be zero).
MUN (Milk Urea Nitrogen) Test – should be 12-13.
If the farmer says he doesn’t test since he doesn’t feed grain and has never had an issue, this is not a satisfactory response. There is no such thing as a flawless farm or farmer.
A MUN of 23 or higher means that the milk will not clabber, will not ferment into yogurt or kefir, and will not whip. High MUN milk is also acidic and harsh in flavor.
Clearly, grass-based farming is more than just cows grazing on grass. Cows are sensitive creatures, and biology isn’t something you can turn on and off. Farmers switching to grass-based farming should be given time to do so rather than being forced to make a biological switch (grain to grass) that is both impossible and ultimately unsustainable.