October 27, 2011
WARWICK, Mass: Even at the recent high milk prices, a 30-cow dairy is a pretty hopeless economic situation if you are just selling commodity milk.
However, Mark and Jeanette Fellows have found that size herd can generate an excellent living if you sell your milk as tasty farmstead raw milk cheese.
“Thirty cows is the size operation that fits our farm’s grass and labor resources. Rather than try to get bigger, we decided to add value to our milk,” Mark said.
Part of this decision to stay small was a desire on Mark’s part to do most of the work on the farm with horses.
Mark had gone seasonal in 1991 and learned he could make really cheap milk with no grain if he only made milk in the green season.
“Going seasonal is the best thing I’ve ever done and the only thing that kept me from quitting dairying. I was totally burnt out after seven years of year-around milking.”
The cows calve in mid-March and are milked twice a day until August first when they are shifted to once-a-day. However, they are still shifted to fresh grass on a twice-a-day basis.
The cows are dried off at Thanksgiving.
In 1997, Mark became active in a local dairy marketing co-op and was intrigued with the idea of direct marketing a dairy product.
“I wanted to do something special with my milk,” he said.
At approximately the same time Jeanette started making cheese for the family on the family stove and discovered she liked it.
Following this new-found passion, she attended a cheese-making school at the University of Guelph in Ontario.
Returning home they renovated a small 11 X 13 milk room into a cheese-making facility.
“Our total investment in the cheesemaking equipment was around $25,000,” Mark said.
“Cheese making fits seasonal production like a glove.”
Jeanette decided to specialize in raw milk aged Colby and Cheddar cheeses. USA law allows cheeses aged over 60 days to utilize raw milk which provides a superior cheese flavor.
“I only make cheese during the green season, so it has a nice rich, yellow, buttery color and all that flavor from the grass the cows eat.” By 2001, Jeanette had become confident enough in her cheese quality to begin to sell it to the public.
Mark had been running the dairy on an organic basis for 10 years but had never gotten certified. They did so in 2002 and were then the only Certified Organic dairy in the state.
The nearby Amherst (Mass.) Farmers’ Market turned out to be an excellent cheese-marketing venue and the demand for their cheese price of $50 for an eight pound wheel was excellent.
Currently, half of their milk production is turned into cheese and Jeanette makes around 10,000 pounds a year with a twice-a-week routine. Their spring milk surplus is sold wholesale to an organic milk marketer. This amounts to about 25% of total production.
Jeanette said that it makes no sense to make a lot of different varieties of cheese if they all look the same.
“I’ve only got one set of cheese molds, so I just keep it simple.”
She recently added a Parmesan-style cheese which she calls “Italian Grace” since it is made in the shadow of Mount Grace in Warwick.
“My farmstead cheese is unique because it is made with our own raw milk from our own grassfed cows and is flavored by what the cows eat.”
While cheese is their centerpiece operation, they also have several smaller “holons” or products that are actually byproducts of dairying and cheesemaking.
GRASSFED BEEF AND VEAL
“We quickly learned what everyone in direct marketing learns and that is that the easiest way to increase profits is to sell more stuff to the same customer,” Jeanette said.
As a result, their product offering has expanded to include grass-finished beef and veal, pastured organic eggs, whey sauerkraut and pickles, whey-fed pork and raw fluid milk.
“When I first went seasonal, my biggest problem was getting my Holsteins to settle in the breeding window and I began to cross them with Normande,” Mark said.
“The Normande is a real beefy diary breed and fits well with a grassfed beef program.”
Mark said most of their grass-finished beef comes from two year old heifers that are culled for one reason or another.
“The nice thing about not trying to expand numbers is that you can be totally ruthless in your culling,” Mark said.
The male calves are sold as four-month old, pastured, suckling vealers at a retail price of $7.00 a pound.
Beef bones for broth are also a hot item.
A side benefit of not feeding grain has been a much more fertile cow. Mark said only five cows out of 35 didn’t settle on the first A-I service in 2004.
RAW MILK IS A BIG DRAW
On-farm raw milk sales are legal in Massachusetts and have proven to be a major market maker for on-farm sales.
“It was the raw milk that really made our on-farm sales take off,” Mark said.
This raw milk is sold in plastic jugs for $5.00 a gallon and current sales are around 100 gallons a week.
Approximately half of these sales go to a small consumer co-op in Boston who drive up for it each week.
Jeanette said the problem with fluid milk sales is that the consumers want it year-around and she and Mark cherish their winter vacation time.
“The only way a small dairy can work is to not have to milk year around,” Mark said.
“Our raw milk customers don’t like it, but otherwise we never get to get out of the rut.”
Jeanette said a major part of their success has been plugging into consumers radicalized by Sally Fallon’s Weston A. Price Foundation.
The Weston A. Price Foundation promotes traditional European style foods including raw milk and grassfed meats and has a sizable consumer following.
“I don’t think we could have done this five years earlier,” Jeanette said.
“Sally Fallon is doing a great job building a market for us.”
Jeanette recommended that people interested in doing something similar first go seasonal and learn to make milk solely from grass first. She said this is the foundation upon which to add value-added products.
She said they started small and only used 25% of their herd’s milk in the first year for cheesemaking.
“Being grassfed and seasonal and being alternative farmers is the key to our success,” she said.
“We definitely have less input cost and we have a clear division of labor between Mark and myself.
“He does the majority of the animal work and I do all of the processing and the bulk of the marketing.
“We work hard for six to eight months of the year and then spend the rest of the year resting, planning and working with the horses.”
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