Dexter Cows and Kefir Cheese
by Rose Marie Belforti of King Ferry, NY
Excerpted with permission from the January/February 2008 issue of the newsletter of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.
After two years of intense planning and construction, we finally have a Dexter dairy. We have been called Finger Lakes Dexter Cattle for the past seven years, but now we are Finger Lakes Dexter Creamery. Our farm consists of twelve acres, in the Finger Lakes region of New York. We are one mile off the Scenic Route 90 Wine Trail and hope that our location will attract tourists that are here for the culinary delights the area offers.
Although there are a few Dexter dairies in the British Isles, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, we are not aware of any in the United States. Our hope is that Dexter cattle will be a solution to renewed interest in alternative ways to farm. People are demanding fresh wholesome foods, and the local small-scale dairy can provide for these needs.
I first found out about Dexter cattle while surfing the web in 1997. At that time I was a city dweller and was looking for my perfect farm. My children were leaving the nest, and I was ready to move back to the country. When I finally moved to our sweet little farm in 1999, I bought my first Dexter – a little dun heifer that came home with us in the back of our pickup truck!
One cow led to one more, and with the help of my neighborly A.I. technician, we had a few calves before long. We A.I. all our gals and try to choose the best genetics we can find for our breeding program. We have a small herd of eight Dexters presently, and will keep that number below twelve.
We hope to bring awareness to the importance of raising and farming with Dexter cattle. Our small cattle can do important work for sustainable agriculture. We hope that our model for a Dexter dairy will inspire others, and be an example for others to build their own imaginations on. Dexter milk is exquisite, and well worth our efforts.
Reports from individuals suggest that the production level varies with breeding and feed, but ranges from 1.5 to 2.5 gallons per day. The milk has approximately 4.1% butterfat content. Dexter milk is certainly thick and creamy and high in butterfat. But when my cows are off lactation and I go to my Holstein farmer to buy raw milk – wow, what a difference! When I culture the Holstein milk it is literally like cultured water compared to the Dexter milk! The Dexter’s abundant cream comes to the top, and you can scoop it off and save it until you get a quart or so, pop it in the blender, and give it a whirl. Voila – homemade butter! And the buttermilk makes great pancakes. A favorite recipe is to soak steel-cut oats overnight in the buttermilk, then cook it up in the morning with cinnamon and raisins and see how good breakfast can taste. A little Dexter is a wealth of treasured milk that can be used in so many ways!
We pasture our cattle and use no drugs or other additives in their feed or care. We do feed a little grain to bring the cows into the stall to milk, about a handful each time. All other feed is grass and alfalfa hay purchased from neighboring farms. The milk is as clean and fresh as can be! Our cattle have access to pasture year-round.
On a small scale, one can maintain a humane approach to dairying, so that the care for the cows is as important as the milk they give. A contented cow is a joyful thing to behold!
We love the closeness we have with our herd twice a day for milking, training them to become docile milkers, and teaching them polite manners in the milking parlor has been very rewarding. Don’t let anyone ever tell you a Dexter cannot be milked! After an entire summer of training one of the most stubborn gals ever, we can tell you, it can be done! Routine is the key to the heart and mind of a Dexter. Do the same thing every day – that is what they like best. After a while, it can be what you like best, too.
Setting up the Dairy Facility
We have decided to concentrate on making cheese rather than selling milk. After working with our New York State Agriculture and Markets Milk Division on rules and regulations for building a dairy, we received our legal producer status in November 2006. There is a very steep learning curve to starting up a dairy for those with no previous experience. Each step of the way we consulted with the inspectors concerning our building plans. It is better to get it right the first time than to have to go back and do it again. We did not have a previous dairy building on our property so we had to start from scratch, from designing the ditching and waste control, to placement of the milk parlor, milk cool room, holding area for the cows, and the cheese making room. Once it was built, getting to know the correct sanitation procedures has been the biggest challenge. Clean has a new meaning! We call it “the art of cleaning.”
We started hand-milking one cow. Now there are three. We are still milking by hand, and love the relationship with our cows, but will have to begin using the milking machine this spring as we add one more cow to the operation. We plan to milk a maximum of six cows. We purchased a 1940s Surge milking machine and assembled the entire unit from new and used parts we acquired from retired dairies in the area. The equipment we needed for the milk cooling room and the cheese room took an entire year to assemble because many of the things needed were just not readily available. With the help of some small dairy equipment dealers and by finding items on eBay, we managed to put it all together, under close scrutiny of the inspectors. We use a refrigerator for a bulk tank. With such a small amount of milk it works just fine. In order to get our milk cooled down to 45 degrees Fahrenheit within two hours, we put it in the freezer, and then move it down to the fridge when it achieves 45 degrees. In the cheese room we are using two refrigerators to age the cheese, but we will soon need a bigger space. We have two very old jacketed steam kettles that we use for warming the milk to start the culture. The kettles have been converted to hot water. We were very blessed to have ingenious plumbers, who designed a system even though they had no clue about it when they started, but were inspired to plumb a tiny cheese factory, something they had never done before.
My husband and I have a great interest in the promotion and conservation of the Dexter breed, as well as Kefir milk culture. We are making an aged raw milk Kefir cheese. Kefir grains are a mixture of living microbial lactic bacterium and yeasts. They have been used for centuries to culture milk, promoting good health and longevity. Kefir grains propagate naturally when immersed in milk, making them an ideal sustainable natural resource. They have been nurtured and passed down for generations, and recently have become available in the U.S. They have never been applied to commercial cheese production that we know of. Although there are Kefir products on the market, they are not made with Kefir grains and do not include the unique array of beneficial probiotic bacteria inherent in the Kefir grains.
Applying for a SARE Grant
We applied for a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) Producers Grant in 2005 and received funding for our project in July of 2006. The plan was to upscale a home recipe to a commercial process for Kefir cheese using authentic living Kefir grains. In cooperation with the Cornell University Food Processing & Development Laboratory, we set out to establish a standard for the new Kefir cheese.
The most important thing about choosing a grant to apply for is to really make sure it matches what you intend to do. Each grant funder has very specific ideas about the projects it wants to fund, and if your project or idea does not fit with what the organization is seeking, the application will be a waste of time. Read the grant information very carefully to see if what you want to do fits what the grant funder is targeting.
If you think you have a pretty good fit, the next step is to carefully read the instructions. Grant proposals need to meet several requirements that are spelled out in detail in the instructions. As you plan your outline for meeting the requirements for the grant, make lots of notes, make sure you answer questions very specifically, and write clear and concise sentences that answer the questions asked. I cannot emphasize enough that the applicant must answer all the questions asked, and have a strong intent to meet what the funders want to know in each question. Spend a lot of time writing the proposal, revise it several times, and have a friend or two read it through for you. If you have technical advisors (and you should for a SARE grant) work with them and have them read it through for you before you submit it.
When you receive a grant, you will be expected to meet certain obligations, which will depend on the source of the grant. Whatever you tell them you are going to accomplish, you should expect that you will have to do it; that is why it is important to be honest, practical, realistic and sensible, and make sure you can fulfill what you tell them you will do. Be careful what you promise, because they will hold you to it!
[CreamLine editor’s note: It is possible to change your grant project somewhat mid-stream, and it’s a good idea to write into your proposal a feedback loop that allows you to change course if things aren’t going well or new circumstances arise. For example, the Hometown Creamery Revival project was initially supposed to help five farmers get started in dairy processing. A couple years into that project, however, it was clear that three of them were not going to be able to make the transition by the end of the project. So we changed the project to include more workshops and training for farmers outside the project, and also started up CreamLine and the “smalldairy” web site, which were not part of the original proposal. In this way, the project ultimately benefited more farmers and potential processors, which our funders were enthusiastic about.]
Most grants, such as SARE grants, are not going to fund start-up endeavors. These grants are for testing new ideas and techniques, or for educational purposes to inform farmers of new ways to do things. In my case, my cheese is unique and has never been standardized. I convinced them that Kefir grains are a sustainable way to make cultured milk and cheese, and that other farmers could use this method as well. One of the readers for the SARE grants said that my grant was chosen because I did a good job writing the proposal, and that my outreach to other farmers was exemplary. I told them I would accomplish several things, and I was thinking at the time I wrote it that I would take my sweet time fulfilling these obligations. Well, I recently found out that I have to meet all my outreach obligations before they will give me the final check, which is half the amount of the total grant! Needless to say, I am boogying!!!
To Market, To Market
We are just coming to the end of our project with Cornell. The very exciting aspect of our new venture is our brand new cheese, a very nice raw milk Kefir cheese aged for 60 days or more. We use full cream in our cheese! With Dexter milk that means a lot of luscious, rich cream. Our new cheese is called Wild Man Kefir cheese, which we began selling this past spring.
This summer I have just begun to get my cheese making off the ground, although it has been very rocky. Learning to maintain a mother culture is by far the most challenging, although keeping up appearances for the inspectors has been, shall we say, a learning experience. Bringing a new used refrigerator into the cheese-making room has caused several weeks worth of headaches, and now marketing concerns add just a tad bit more frenzy to the environment. It’s got to be done!
One thing I have learned about making a new aged cheese is that one can never have enough patience. From milk to curd to brine to aging room to packaging and getting the cheese out the door, it is a long wait to the final product. When I started out with just an idea to make cheese it was all rather idealistic. Now that I am finally making cheese, it has become very pragmatic and scientific. The more I learn, the less I feel I know. I think once the marketing falls into place and the cheese becomes consistent, I will feel as if I am really on the way to becoming a cheese maker. But for now, I am happy with my little successes.
Reprinted with permission from the author and from CreamLine, a quarterly newsletter devoted to small-scale commercial dairies.
Rose Marie milks Dexters and makes cheese at Finger Lakes Dexter Creamery.
Purebred Dexter Cattle Association, 404 High Street, Prairie Home, MO 65068, www.dexterstoday.com, (660) 841-9502.
American Dexter Cattle Association, 4150 Merino Avenue, Watertown, MN 55388, (952) 446-1423, www.dextercattle.org.