Lawrence and Ursula own a herd of around 45 heritage breed cows, Ayrshire, Short Horn, Red Milking Devon and Tarentaise. These cows are considered dual purpose breeds, cattle that are used for both meat and dairy purposes. Cresset’s herd is 100% grass-fed and all of the cattle’s feed is produced on the farm, either pasture or hay.
Ursula milks her herd of free-range dairy cows, once a day, in the mornings. Most of the milk production occurs in the spring. Without the aid of artificial insemination the majority of cows have most of their calves in the spring and milk production diminishes over the winter. A large portion of the milk goes to raw-milk share members, who have bought shares in the herd so they can procure raw milk. In Colorado it is illegal to sell raw milk, but it is legal to drink it from a cow that you own. Every week the share members come to the farm to pick up their half-gallon mason jars full of raw milk in exchange for last weeks empty jars.
The milk is filtered at milking time, but is otherwise unadulterated. Because the milk is unpasteurized, it is full of enzymes (which help break apart the complex sugar lactose) and vitamins, both of which are not present in pasteurized milk. (Vitamins A and D are re-added to milk after pasteurization). Because the milk is not homogenized the cream rises to the top. The milk that comes from grass-fed cows is high in omega-3 fatty acids and other beneficial fats, making it the “olive oil” of milks.
Ursula uses many homemade remedies to treat her cows, including her homemade udder balm which is made by soaking Calendula flowers in olive oil. This balm is put on the cows’ udders at milking time to keep their udders soft and supple in Colorado’s dry climate. It is also the most beautiful udder balm have ever seen. The standard udder balm used in industrial dairies is made from a petroleum base and other workers at the farm told me they couldn’t use “Bag Balm” on their beef cows because the calves would refuse to nurse if they applied the petroleum based product on their cows. This isn’t a problem in industrial dairies where the calves never come into contact with their mothers’ udders, but are instead fed a milk replacer out of bottles or buckets.
Cresset excels at dairy calf welfare. The calves are taken from their mothers when born, but are transferred to a “nurse cow” where they live on a pasture and nurse on an actual cow. Most organic dairies remove the calves from their mothers and raise them in hutches where they are chained to a hutch (something resembling a large dog house). This prevents the calves from spreading microbes that cause diherria through the herd and aids in the domestication process, replacing their mothers with humans that bring bottles and buckets and can easily handle the captive calves. After 4-6 weeks the calves are turned out into a paddock or pasture together. (Veal calves are another issue entirely).
I asked Lawrence if the calves are easy to handle even if they are raised out in the field. He says they are pretty wild. During the summer he and Ursula are too busy to handle the calves, but they are able to spend the time with them during the winter. They keep the calves in a paddock close to the farm and spend a fair amount of time brushing them and getting them used to human contact. This close attention to the calves takes time and patience and is unique to a style of farming that comes from a time when people did not manipulate the animals into machines that produce milk 365 days a year. Their methods appear to produce a calm and content herd of cows. When I went to observe the morning milking the cows and bulls let my friend and I walk through their field without much notice.
Because the cows produce more milk in the spring Ursula sometimes has more milk than she has share members. She turns the extra milk into butter (which can be put in the freezer for a long shelf life) and quark, a kind of fresh cheese that they feed to the chickens and chicks on the farm. This high quality chicken feed results in some of the most beautiful chickens I have ever seen. Nothing is wasted on their farm, and this generous use of surplus milk to the rest of the livestock shows yet another ways that cows benefit a biodynamic farm.