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Our raw milk cheese creamery was the center of the day today. The construction is moving along nicely. Our state inspectors made an appearance and helped us out with details on safety measures. We work with them every step of the way to make sure all safety concerns are addressed.
I want to take a minute and say welcome to all the new listeners and welcome back to the veteran homestead-loving regulars who stop by the FarmCast for every episode. I appreciate you all so much. I’m so excited to share with you what’s going on at the farm this week.
Our Virginia Homestead Life Updates
Winter animal care was high priority today. Let’s talk about that before we get into the details of our lovely raw milk cheese creamery project. We check up on the animals regularly. Some we can easily see in the front fields and every time we go out the driveway. Others are out there in the back fields. It takes a bit more effort to check up on them, but rest assured, they are not out of sight, out of mind. I’ll start with the cows.
Our beautiful Normande cows are the centerpiece of our small farmstead raw milk cheese creamery. It is our habit to check on them first. I say first, but they are all out there together. And while we may be aiming at the cows, sometimes it is the sheep or goats that we encounter first. Many times, it is the donkeys. More on that later.
There are five big girls in our current herd. I say big girls because these five have already had a calf. We have our newest arrival, Rosie, who is still known has a heifer. That means she has never had a calf. I guess technically she is a bred heifer. She has never had a calf but is currently pregnant. Currently she is in a pasture with the younger calves so we can keep a closer eye on her as her pregnancy progresses.
The “Big” Girls
Anyway, of the five big girls, four are pregnant. Everyone looks healthy and happy. Claire barely looked up as I approached. She was far too busy eating grass to give me much notice. Violet always looks up whenever we come near. She wants attention and yet she doesn’t want attention. I guess what she really wants in a treat. But they don’t get treats in the winter. Only during lactation. So, she will have to wait until late March or early April to get any more treats. Butter is quite open to petting, while Buttercup avoids it at all costs. Cloud has had her hooves repaired but she is still quite standoffish when out in the field. All of them are easy to get close to when they are up in the milking shed. Funny how that goes.
The grass in those back fields is holding up very well. They are literally still eating green grass and it is coming on close to mid-December. Scott believes they will not need hay until late February. I can’t tell you how great that is for a couple of reasons. The cost, of course, is always the first concern in my mind. I do all of the accounting and cost is always on my mind.
The next great thing is that the green grass is always going to be better nutrition and the animals truly prefer grass to hay. We want to keep them on green grass for as long as possible. Ideally, we would be able to graze them all the way through the winter until the spring grass appears in late March. That is a goal we likely will not meet for many years. We would need additional pasture, especially as we are on a path to grow our herd.
Hay is Still Needed
If we double our herd size, having green grass available to them for the entire winter is a really long shot without clearing some of our wooded areas and turning them into pasture. That’s a huge job for the distant future. They do fine on hay. It’s just similar to having a burger and fries when you really want a nice traditional home-cooked dinner. Sure, the burger and fries will keep you fed. But the real treat is that homemade roast leg of lamb with macaroni and cheese on the side. Throw in some crowder peas and it is a meal to be savored.
Speaking of savoring a good meal, the sheep will continue to eat as much grass as they can scrounge. When the pickings get slim, the cows will rush to the hay as Scott brings it into the pasture. However, even when they have hay available, the sheep are going to go for every little bit of grass they can find. They eventually go eat the hay. And shortly thereafter, they are right back out there grazing on little bits of grass.
One of the regular exercises we do when checking on animals is counting them. Well, we don’t really count the cows. They are all grazing quietly in the field and we simply identify them by name. The sheep can be a little trickier. They hang out in a bunch and they move together almost as one unit. Trying to pick out individual animals is nearly impossible. Even counting bodies can be a challenge. One method that works well is for Scott to walk toward them from one side and I hang out toward the other side. As they move away from him, they will string out just a little bit and I can more easily get an accurate count. Because they can see me, they walk or trot in my direction more slowly and I can get that accurate count. Eventually, they make a turn away from both of us and bunch up again. I gotta be quick with the count.
It’s important that we count regularly and make sure they are all there. If a predator starts picking them off, they will continue one by one until we do something. We have to be vigilant in protecting the sheep. We accounted for all 12 that are in the flock with the big cow girls. This includes three younger girls from spring a year ago and all nine of the lambs from this past spring.
As far as the goats, well there is no goat counting. At least not nearly as often. There is little we can do to protect them that they cannot do for themselves. Goats are quite different from sheep in their herding behaviors. For one thing, they can go places sheep wouldn’t dare. Case in point, they were all in a different field than the cows and sheep. It seems that no matter which field that everyone else is currently occupying, the goats find a way to get into the next field. Another disadvantage to counting them easily is that they mill around much more randomly than the sheep. They do cluster together but it is a much larger circle. The space separating each animal is quite a bit larger. And when they see someone approaching, they all get up and start moving about in varying directions in small groups. Eventually, one will take the lead and start to move the herd in a particular direction, everyone else follows – sort of.
Again, this is a little different than sheep as they will be farther apart and then bunch up and then spread out again with one or two moving in a random direction. It’s kind of like they are trying to do a goat “head fake” trying to fool you into thinking they are going to run in a different direction from the rest of the herd. Lots of times it is not a fake and they bolt in that direction, taking 1/3 to 1/2 the herd with them. They split up into two or three groups and then rally back together after they run past you. This is what I am talking about when I refer to their self-protection against predators. They go in so many directions, it’s harder to catch them. It’s also harder to count them. Their speed and agility are phenomenal.
Today, when they saw us approaching, they immediately moved into the woods. Not running away in particular. Just moving out of sight and into the cover of trees. That’s a signal that these beauties are going to make you work hard for a head count. Maybe we’ll get them counted next time.
While we were checking on everyone, the donkeys came up for a cuddle and to say “hi”. They have their fuzzy coats on for winter and look so sweet. Just about every day, they wander up to the milking shed and bray at us, well mostly Scott while he is out there working on the building next to them. Have I mentioned how people friendly donkeys are? According to what I’ve read, they are even more personable than horses. I can believe it. They followed me around while we were checking on the other animals. And Daisy likes to come up behind me when I stop and give me a little shove with her head. You know, just a little notice that, “Hey, I’m here. Give me some loving.” And one of the greatest things is that Cocoa will come up behind Daisy and put her head across Daisy’s back trying to get close enough for a nice nose rub, but keeping her mom between us. After that, she will come around and get a more proper petting. What would we do without our donkeys to brighten the day?
Raw Milk Cheese Creamery
I didn’t give an update on our raw milk cheese creamery last time and lots has happened. There were special panels planned for the milking parlor and in the cheese make room. These panels are specifically chosen because they can be cleaned easily. That work is currently in progress.
Scott started with the milking parlor. The special panels are smooth, white panels that are glued to the wall. It was a little tricky getting them to stick strongly enough for the glue to set up in the cooler weather. In fact, they never did stick completely. So, plan B had to be put into action. Scott found appropriate screws to hold the panels in place. So far, so good with that plan. The milking parlor is done. There was a small run under the ledge where they stand in front of us. And then there was a larger bit of paneling along the wall in front of the cows. On to the cheese make room and more challenges.
Raw Milk Cheese Make Room
The cheese make room is designed to be cleaned easily and efficiently. These panels run from floor to ceiling, all the way around the room. I’m impressed with them. Clean up before, during and after cheesemaking is an important, necessary and time-consuming effort. These panels are going to be excellent for helping me out with keeping the room immaculate in the least amount of time.
Part of the challenge with getting the glue to stick relates to the ambient temperature and the temperature of the walls themselves. Even though screws have been added to the mix, they are really only there to hold it up against the wall until the glue can set. The panels are only screwed into the wall around the edges. The center is still held against the wall with glue. A few days ago, the temperature quite strongly took a downward turn. Additional techniques had to be employed to get the cheese make room warm enough to keep going with construction. It’s always something, right?
Heating Up the Room
We have a couple of small space heaters we used during our time living in a camper in South Carolina. Those had to be dug out. One was already in use in the small cheese room to keep the temp up to the proper level in there. Scott tried to use the other, lesser unit to heat up the cheese make room. He had even tacked up heavy plastic on the ceiling beams to hold in some of the heat. Imagine the extra time added for that little bit of unplanned construction.
He added the heater but it wasn’t strong enough to do the job. The cheese make room is quite large. The cheese cave is much smaller than the cheese make room. The remedy for that was exchanging the radiant heater out of the cheese cave with the weaker heater. The lesser unit is adequate for the job of keeping the temperature up to the target in the cheese cave, though it does not hold the temperature with the same steadiness as the radiant heater. Anyway, the radiant heater worked well enough when moved to the cheese make room, keeping the temperature up to 50 degrees or so. The work on the wall is now progressing quite well in there.
Stairways to Attics
Moving on to stairways. There will be two very long stairways from the ground to the attics. Attic space is in use above the creamery and then a half stair up to the attic above the milking parlor. There is an outside door into each of these areas. What’s missing is an easy way to get into those doors. Temporary methods using the tractor to lift a pallet full of stuff or simply climbing a ladder with your arms full are inadequate. Scott is working hard to get those stairs designed in between waiting for the cheese make room to be warm enough in which to work. Yay! I’ll be glad when the stairs are done. I sent lots of stuff up there for storage – stuff that I use but perhaps not that often. Being able to just climb the stairs to get it back will be great. And then of course, once I’m done using it, back up the stairs I go to put it back into storage. Lots of herd share jars, canning equipment, and so on. The dehydrator just made a trip back down and will go back up in a few days. Stairs are going to be great.
Another huge step forward is the ordering of the materials for the roof. That was a big deal. Many hours went into the estimates for how many and which pieces are needed to do the job. It is going to cost lots more than I expected, but in the end, you just pay for it and move on. You gotta have a roof and the roof area for this project is huge. Take a look at some of the photos and videos on our Facebook page. There will be much more to report on that coming up soon in future podcasts. The materials are ordered but have not yet arrived.
The VDACS Inspectors
The last bit of info I want to share about the progress of the creamery is the visit from our local VDACS inspectors. VDACS is the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. The state version of the USDA. We have a great guy that we have been working with for quite a few years, beginning long before the first tree was cleared from the land.
For this visit, he may brought along another inspector that will likely take over our inspections should he retire. She had been to our farm a couple of years ago and it was great seeing her again. Both of these great people offer lots of pertinent information to keep us out of trouble. We work together to spot areas where contamination may occur and how we might avoid the situation. New procedures, additional pieces of equipment and altering the work flow are all discussed.
We are getting closer and closer to completing this project and becoming a fully inspected USDA facility. At that point we will be ready to start selling our cheese to the local restaurants and wineries. Our dream gets closer every day, every moment.
That’s about all I’m going to cover in today’s podcast. A brief trip around the homestead with updates on the animals and bringing you up to date on our progress with the creamery. I didn’t talk about the quail. I’m figuring out how to pickle quail eggs and I’ll wait until next time to give details on that. There are five different flavor recipes I’m trying out.
Christmas is fast approaching. I hope you are enjoying the season. We don’t celebrate the commercial Christmas. It has been many years since I had a tree or a wreath or lights or anything. Sometimes I think about it but the effort to make it happen does not fit into my schedule. My children are long grown and my youngest grandchild is now 16. How about a nice nativity scene? I can go with making that happen.
Family visits mostly happen over Thanksgiving so Scott and I generally celebrate the birth of our Lord with just the two of us. There are a few other family members that we may visit sometime after the 25th. And who knows who might pop in to see us? We shall see. It’s always great to get together with those we love and Christmas provides the time off from work for others making it easy for us to catch them at home and unburdened by work. I do hope to work in a short visit or two between now and New Years Day.
Once again, I want to thank you all for listening to me ramble on about our traditional raw milk cheese and traditional homestead living and I hope all your dreams come true as well.
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Thank you so much for stopping by the homestead and until next time, may God fill your life with grace and peace.
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