Feature Writing: The Family Milk Cow

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Lani is a regular contributor to Shenandoah Living Magazine.

Recent Story:

“The Family Milk Cow” by Lani Furbank
Published in Shenandoah Living Magazine in September of 2014

[“Come on, honey,” Faith Schlabach says, coaxing Heidi over. Heidi ambles through the grass, and Faith leans down and strokes Heidi’s forehead and ears. “Good girl,” she coos, with an accent that blends her northern roots and her southern experience.

Heidi is a 7-month-old small-standard Jersey cow. She lives on Misty Morning Farm, on 6 acres of pasture nestled behind the mountains in Fulks Run. As the sun sets, it glistens on Heidi’s coat, fresh and clean from a bath. “She’s one of our showgirls,” Faith says. Heidi only stands about 3 feet tall, and she won’t grow too much bigger.

Heidi and her friends are miniature and small-standard Jerseys, and they are of an elite pedigree – they do not carry the A1 mutation common in dairy cows, one that some worry is harmful to humans who drink their milk. Instead, these cows have ideal genetics for grazing and digesting grass instead of grain to produce nutrient-dense milk.

Faith and her husband, Adam, raised Heidi and almost 30 other calves this year to be once-a-day milk cows for local families. Their farm used to be a hobby farm. They had their own chickens, raised their own cows and had a vegetable garden. But when their neighbor gave them a heifer calf to raise and sell, the idea for a new family business was born.

Now, as a “hyped-up hobby farm,” Faith and Adam are part of a movement they call “the return of the family milk cow.” Family milk cows are rare, but the idea is beginning to catch on. In five years, they have already sold 30 cows.

The Schlabachs started farming more than 10 years ago, when Faith was suffering from serious health problems, and needed to change her diet to be as natural as possible. With these changes, she saw dramatic improvements in her health, and the health of her family. They started their business because they wanted to spread the word about the benefits of hormone-free raw milk from grass-fed cows with grazing genetics.

One of the biggest benefits is the high CLA content in grazing cows’ milk. CLA is a cancer-fighting fat, and according to a study done by Utah State University, milk from grass-fed cows is 500 percent higher in CLA than milk from cows that are primarily fed a grain diet. In addition, the Weston A. Price Foundation conducted a survey that revealed that 82 percent of raw milk drinkers in Michigan could safely drink raw milk, even though they were diagnosed with lactose intolerance. Three of Faith’s family members are a testament to this – none of them could drink pasteurized milk because they would display milk allergy symptoms, but they now drink raw milk without any negative reactions.

Most of Misty Morning’s clients are folks who have a primary career for income but have started farming on the side. They usually turn to farming to provide natural food for their families. Faith says 70 percent of the people who buy cows from Misty Morning have never owned a cow before. This is because the typical experience of their clients involves a gradual increase in commitment. Most families will try caring for chickens, a garden and some fruit trees first. If that goes well, they’re ready to try a cow.

Working with first-time owners requires providing support for families as they learn how to care for their new responsibility. So, the Schlabachs offer a free milking school for families who purchase one of their “babies.”

Milking school is an-all day affair, with instruction and hands-on sessions. It covers everything from the milking process to preventing disease and using rotational grazing methods.

Isaac, Faith and Adam’s 18-month-old grandson, has only attended milking school once, but his grandpa is always happy to give him a little extra training.

“Here Isaac, you lead her in,” Adam says. Isaac swings the cow’s lead rope up and down, almost like he’s flicking the reins to tell Big Ginger to giddy up.

As they head toward the milking parlor, a momma hen struts past, her peeps in tow. They scurry around in a zig-zag pattern – trying to keep up, but getting distracted by sights and sounds along the way.

While Faith gathers the supplies to sanitize the udder before milking, Adam hoists Isaac onto Big Ginger’s back. Isaac’s eyes light up, and he giggles as he pats her back, bouncing up and down. Adam scoops Isaac back up just in time, catching him before he plants a big kiss on Big Ginger’s backside. He hands Isaac off to Faith, who holds him as he looks on, soaking it all in.

“This is a Walmart special milking bucket,” Adam chuckles. He rests his elbow on Big Ginger, to make her aware of his presence, and he sits comfortably on the bucket, right under her udders. With a gentle but authoritative hand, he grasps two teats and begins to milk.

“Believe it or not that’s oftentimes what we do, when we have the other cow, we both milk, and we come in at the same time and that’s our Friday evening date,” Adam says. His wife of 29 years responds with a laugh.

With each squeeze, milk spurts out, hitting the sides of the metal bucket so fast that it vibrates. The first few times, the stream sounds like a gong, but as Adam works up a rhythm, the bucket fills and the sound dulls. As he works, a frothy layer forms on the surface of the liquid, a sign you’re milking fast enough, he says. All the while, Big Ginger munches on hay, undisturbed.

Having a cow like Big Ginger or Heidi can dramatically change a family’s lifestyle. With just one cow, you get fertilizer – 22,000 pounds from the average cow – milk, cultured milk to feed to your chickens or pigs, and you can make countless dairy products.

Bob Gillette, one of Misty Morning’s clients, is “an attorney turned farmboy,” Faith says. When he retired, he returned to his farming roots and now raises or grows most of his own food. He has chickens, turkeys, bees and a garden. In September, he bought two cows from Misty Morning, and he uses the milk to produce cheese, butter, cream, buttermilk, yogurt, cream cheese, curds and whey.

The Schlabachs take advantage of the resources their cows provide, too. Their daughter-in-law, Abi, brings out the antique butter churn, a gift from their 92-year-old neighbor. Faith begins to turn the creaky handle, and as it whirls, the milk splashes up the sides of the glass jar. This method takes about 30 minutes, but Adam doesn’t mind. He enjoys churning by hand while watching television or a movie. In a pinch, the blender will whip up the butter in just a couple of minutes.

Miniature and small-standard milk cows are ideal for a family, because they only need a few acres of pasture for grazing. With a miniature cow, you can get away with just half an acre, if you supplement rotational grazing with hay in the winter or times of drought. The cows are all raised without hormones, so their milk is as natural and local as it gets. They each produce between one and three gallons a day, which is just the right amount for a family drinking milk and making other dairy products. A large wheel of Monterey Jack cheese requires two gallons of milk.

Faith slices a generous hunk off of the wheel of pale yellow cheese covered in smooth red wax. She balls up the wax rind; she can reuse it for her next cheese. This wheel of Monterey Jack is her first attempt at hard cheese. After three months of waiting, she had opened it the previous night. The taste test was successful. “That won’t last me very long,” Adam had said. Half of the wheel is already gone.

The cheese might not last, but the heifer who makes it will. Hypothetically, after buying the first heifer, you’ll have an indefinite supply of milk and meat. When a bull calf comes along, you can raise them and send them to “freezer camp,” as Faith calls it. And eventually, you’ll save a heifer calf to replace her mother when she retires from milking.

But having a cow isn’t just about the production. For Faith and Adam, it’s about bringing their family together and learning responsibility. When their kids were growing up, animals were a central part of their lives. Rain or shine, they would have to go outside to care for the animals. And Abi thinks this tradition is worth continuing with Isaac. “Part of our parenting plan is to get him responsible by giving him a cow,” she jokes.

Back out in the pasture, Isaac comes over to greet Heidi. Faith bounces him on her knee. “You like that little cow, don’t you?” she asks with a smile. “He’ll be my relief milker when he grows up.”]