Gene Logsdon: Arguing About Raw Milk

The Contrary Farmer

Forgive me if this turns into a maudlin memory of barnyard days gone by. I do it not out of sentimentality but hopefully to shed a little light on the pros and cons of pasteurizing milk.

I loved it when, two weeks ago, a number of readers recalled some of the same fond memories I have of milking cows by hand. Yes, Chris N, squirting milk into the mouths of a row of cats waiting nearby in the alleyway. Yes, moving swiftly to pull the bucket out of the way of kicking cows and splattering urine. Yes, the quiet calm of the barn at dawn or dusk or especially when the moon was peering through the stable door. Yes, the irritation involved in milking cows with small teats. Yes, the flitting barn swallows and cooing pigeons and hooting owls. Yes, that particularly unique smell of milk, hay and aged manure bedding combined. Yes, a glass of milk warm and foamy directly from the cow. Yes, the separator and cream so thick you had to spoon it out of the jar.

There are only two things in life I know a lot about: stealing bases in baseball and milking cows. Stealing bases is a whole lot more fun. Dairy farming is hard and trying work and the best you can say about it is that it teaches patience and fortitude that come in handy in other trying moments in life—like dealing with rejection slips as a beginning writer. If you can endure kicking cows, rejection slips are a snap. I never worried about the milk; it’s the cow that can kill you.

Almost all cows kick occasionally, but a few of them are total outlaws and need to be turned into hamburger as soon as possible. My Outlaw knew how to pull her back leg slowly forward under her belly and then lash out lightning fast and backward to nail the poor milkmaid or milk-lad. I put kicker chains on Outlaw which theoretically immobilizes the back legs so she can’t kick. Outlaw retaliated by jumping up and down on both legs like a pile driver, which action can turn a milk bucket into a crumpled tin can in no time at all. Mind over matter, I thought smugly. I put a rope around one of her legs, pulled the leg out off the ground behind her and tied the rope tightly to a stud in the wall. By God, now we’d see who was boss. With all her weight on the other leg it was impossible for her to kick. So? She swayed over and fell on me.

In olden times, we poured the milk from the bucket through a strainer into metal cans (that are now found in antique shops). The cloth strainer pads caught flies, hay dust and loose hairs from the cows’ flanks that might fall inadvertently into the open bucket. The most trying event was when a cow put her foot in the bucket. Then any milk in it had to be dumped or fed to the hogs and the bucket washed again. My grandfather could not stand for a cow to poop during milking and when he saw a tail start to raise he grabbed a five gallon bucket kept handy just for that purpose, and caught the waste in it.

I still wonder why none of us ever got sick from the milk. We sold ours to a cheese plant so we did not have to maintain the stricter rules and regulations of Grade A dairies selling milk directly for human consumption. But we did our best anyway because we were drinking the milk. The stable was cleaned regularly. The cow shed was regularly bedded with clean straw. The cows spent the night out on pasture in spring, summer and fall. (The cleanest way to milk is out in the field with a cow that will stand still and I have done that too.) With only a half dozen cows in the barn, cleanliness was not difficult. The cow flanks could be curried and usually were during winter. Teats and udders were washed before milking at least by the more conscientious farmers. In more recent years when I kept only one cow, for extra cleanliness, I milked with one hand into a small-mouthed jar held in the other hand to avoid possible dust or cow dandruff in the air from getting in the milk. Then Carol strained it carefully and cooled it quickly with a very clean milk carton full of ice put right in the milk. We were handling only a half gallon or so every morning so this kind of handwork was doable. The cow’s calf suckled the milk we didn’t need.

In olden times, we had special wheeled carts to move the cans of milk from the barn to tubs of water near the windmill to cool it in warm weather until the milk truck came to pick up every other day. We had to worry about milk souring if cold water was not flowing constantly from the well into the tubs. But what we saved for ourselves went directly into the house to be strained again and cooled quickly in the ice box and later the refrigerator.

Cows could contract tuberculosis and brucellosis transmissible to humans (disputed—everything is disputed by someone) the latter as undulant fever. As this became a known danger Mom bought a little kitchen pasteurizer for the milk we drank. (The pasteurizer makers no doubt over-emphasized the danger.) But then the milk tasted scalded. Eventually, as science and the dairy industry learned how to test cows for these two diseases and others, rigid programs were put into effect to eradicate them from cow herds. So Mom quit using the pasteurizer and we went back joyfully to raw milk.

The modern mechanization of the milking process vastly improved the cleanliness. The milk flows directly from the cow through the machine milker’s suction teat cups into a pipeline and into a stainless steel cooling tank. Rarely a teat cup might fall off the udder and could possibly suck up a little dirt on the floor although the floors are concrete now and constantly sprayed clean with water during the milking process. There are strainers in the line too. The cow’s udder is washed before every milking and the teats dipped in medical cleansers to keep everything ultra antiseptic. Milk goes from warm to 38 degrees or thereabouts in a few minutes in the tank. That quick cooling made it taste better to me. I had always enjoyed milk but now Dad said I was drinking away all the profit. The point is that with all the improvements in the milking regimen, my own opinion is that pasteurization is no longer necessary if you are dealing with a conscientious dairy farm. You can’t make anything in life totally and completely safe.

Unfortunately, health departments have been very slow to come around to that way of thinking, so the controversy rages. I sympathize with them even though I think they are being overzealous. You can hardly blame them when, as happens, people who think they have been sickened by milk want to sue everyone in sight. But I think society will slowly come around to allowing raw milk sales everywhere. The biggest problem standing in the way is that the commercial dairy industry has invested huge amounts of money in modern pasteurization plants and it fears that it could not compete with raw milk if the latter became universally adopted. Many jobs are at stake. Time will tell.