An Afternoon with Jersey Cows

A couple of months ago, I went to a walk-and-talk at Tablehurst Farm about their poultry unit, and today I visited the dairy unit. It’s a very small scale operation, and all the more charming for it. They sell their raw Jersey milk via a vending machine at the farm shop, where you can buy and then refill proper milk bottles to take home and enjoy. Raw milk can’t be sold through a third party due to the health concerns, but this aspect of unpasteurised milk production was tackled with many other facets of small scale/high-welfare dairying during the afternoon.

The dairy herd comprises 7 cows at the moment, brought in from elsewhere although new calves from these particular cows will augment the herd in future. This is why the incomers do not have horns, as cattle destined for commercial production are usually disbudded at a young age to remove the horn at its growth point, thus removing a potentially dangerous ‘weapon’ and allowing more stock to be housed in an area. However, this practise also compromises the cows as they no longer have their horns to demonstrate pecking order, or live in the correct spacial allowance to prevent stress. Horns are also much much more than simply adornment, which we were shown in detail later on. They are an intrinsic part of the cow, and have a huge blood supply and intricate internal structure which helps with temperature regulation and denotes social status in the herd. Cows are creatures with a complex social order within their group. I am a great believer in allowing nature to discern if something is ‘necessary’ or not, and given the energetic cost to the animal of producing horns, I have no reason to doubt that they serve an important purpose.

We watched the cows eating silage and listened to the cowbells – worn so that their whereabouts can be identified. Most of the time the cows are grazing, and this adds to the nutritional value of the milk, and also their contribution to carbon sequestration. We think of a field of grass as being, well – “grass”, but of course traditional permanent pasture comprises many species of grass, herb and legume as part of its natural composition. Grain crops, or grass leys, are only around for a matter of months before that area is ploughed or tilled for another cycle. The different root structures and the soil biome is vastly different in more longstanding grassland, and this is a vital part of the nutrition and welfare of the cow, which in turn is passed on to us in the milk.

We then went to meet Maisy, who had calved a few days before. Both mother and youngster were calm and contented. The calves stay with their mums for about 5 months; this is known as cow-calf dairying and as the name suggests, there is milk taken but there is still enough to nourish the calf until it is old enough to feed itself. The digestive tract of a cow is a complicated but beautiful bio-processor, and the four stomachs require a gentle introduction to roughage from an early age so they develop properly, so the calf will start to graze in the herd and at 5 months, can be self-sufficient and is weaned. This is very different from standard dairying where the calf is relocated a day or two after birth and reared on milk powder. To me, the system at Tablehurst is a bit like how I handle my bees: I do take honey, but only that which can be spared, and I don’t feed sugar so I have to be mindful of how much I ask of the forage, and the bees. These cows are not fed concentrates so are reliant on producing calves and milk from the grazing land. This shows the value of a nutritious and diverse sward which can sustain such productivity.

The cows are milked using a free-standing milking unit. They have a small amount of wheat bran (a by-product of milling white flour) to encourage them to stand to be milked, and this also gives them both roughage and a nutrient boost. Raw milk production requires stringent hygiene and steps are taken to reduce the potential problems at source, before the milk goes for testing. Wipes, teat dips, and scrupulous checking ensure the milk is clean and safe. The difference between raw and pasteurised milk is that the former does have the potential to contain harmful bacteria, but also definitely contains a whole lot of good bacteria and nutrients that are lost during the heat treatment. It will naturally sour as lactose-fermetation starts to take place, but this is not unsafe, whereas pasteurised milk doesn’t have this ability to change its composition and therefore goes “off”. Clabbered milk contains a proliferation of probiotics and good bacteria, but it can only sour and develop these beneficial bacterial communities if it has not been pasteurised. Again, drawing parallels with the beekeeping world, raw honey may granulate and contains pollen and “impurities”, but heat-treated honey is very limited in its nutritional value.

Here is the dairy set up:

A cow here gives between 5-10 litres a day, and they are milked once, in the morning. Her calf stands with her as she is milked, quite often suckling while the cluster is on the udder. Milk let-down is a voluntary process; I remember feeling an odd sense of déjà vu when I was breastfeeding my first child and certain terms regarding lactation from my dairying days seemed strangely familiar! Of course a cow needs to calve in order to produce milk and if her offspring is male, he will go for meat when he has reached a suitable age and weight. Jerseys are a milk breed, so have very little substance as the calories consumed go wholly in to milk production so what may look like borderline emaciation is simply conversion of food to milk rather than muscle. However, by rearing the males for meat, there is a return in the form of usable beef for the shop, as otherwise they would be slaughtered shortly after birth as they are not cost-effective to rear. This is a hidden cost of high-welfare milk production: the bull calves are effectively a waste product, so if you want to promote a decent and worthwhile life for them with an end use, the costs of humane rearing need to be built in to the price of the milk.

Mastitis can be a problem with any lactating mother, and the cows here are checked for any subclinical signs regularly. Antibiotics aren’t given (which would be standard practise in commercial dairy units) so a minty salve is used, as well as providing homemade mineral licks consisting of seaweed, apple cider vinegar and molasses to provide iodine and other trace elements (the soil in this part of the world is quite low in iodine), and rock salt for mineral balance. This boosting of general good health is vital as medications are limited with biodynamic farming, so the whole cow is kept in peak condition to allow her to fight off any infections naturally.

We were able to ask numerous questions and photograph the patient cow and frisky calf before heading up to the barn for an all-important chance to sample the produce. In here are housed the older calves, born in April/May. They are just beautiful, with their little horns poking through a coarse topknot:

Laid before us on the table were milk (of course), yogurt, cream cheeses with various additions such as garlic and black pepper, and a range of products from Happy Belly Foods, including kefir, ghee, whey, and a delicious dish of spinach and paneer to demonstrate the range of products that can easily be produced at home – if you have raw milk.

We looked at horns in more detail. These photos show the lattice of bone which feeds the keratin sheath, the ridges at the base which denote the number of calves the cow has had. Bulls’ horns are solid inside, perhaps to provide strength and structure to what is naturally an organ of combat.

It was an absolutely fascinating couple of hours, and hugely informative about the way the cows are managed. Biodynamic farming requires a bit of a different mindset in order to grasp the ideas, but it makes perfect sense from a production point of view to maintain a closed unit, or at least not be overly reliant on resources from elsewhere so to think about what can be used effectively on site. This encourages innovation and reliance which is so valuable at this time. Acknowledging the true costs of production is sustainable and honest, and the end result is so delicious, nutritious, and versatile I enjoy supporting such an admirable cause simply by purchasing some milk. There are a lot of confusing and conflicting aspects of life at the moment, but somehow choosing the food I buy and eat is one area I can feel in control and like I can make a difference.

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