On the Farm at Kilgus Farmstead

“Of all the things we’ve done putting the cows out to pasture has paid off the most.” I’m paraphrasing Matt Kilgus, who very graciously spent a few hours with myself, Jane, Terri, and Jorma, showing us around their farm, both on the operations side and also the best part – meet & greets with the animals. Matt was talking about a decision their family made six years ago to turn a massive corn and soybean field into a pasture for their medium-sized dairy herd of about 70 cattle. “The return just in terms of the animals’ health has been incalculable, they get exercise, they harvest their own food, and fertilize the pasture in turn. There’s a lot of value in the pasture.”

Full disclosure: the photos I’ll be sharing of our visit do not represent how your typical dairy cow lives in these United States. The Kilguses have made a series of decisions that led them to raise dairy cattle traditionally, and bottle their own milk, something few dairies do nowadays. They also decided six years ago to pasture their cattle, something that is rare in American dairy cattle these days. Most dairy cows never, ever see a blade of grass in their lives.

A most interesting fact we learned during our visit is that Kilgus Farmstead has an average heifer age of 6-7 years, and some cows as old as twelve. The modern, squeeze-all-you-can-out-with-drugs dairy industry usually literally “spends” a heifer in about four years. That should tell you something about the relative health of the animals and perhaps also the quality of the dairy they give. I have long believed that healthier, more vibrant animals must provide healthier food with better energy.

A few years ago, with the family growing and the children interested in working the farm (how awesome is that!) the Kilgus family was left with a dilemma: how to provide more work for the family with what they have. “Just putting 500 cows out there to make the numbers happen just wasn’t an option. We needed something else.” This led to their decision to start bottling their own milk, which allows them to market more directly to customers, and hopefully will provide their family with a decent living in a sustainable way on their family land. Since they commenced their bottling operation this past June, signs have been good. And, their milk is superb.

The Kilgus family decided some time ago to work with Jersey cows, which are somewhat smaller than Holsteins, the most common dairy cow. They are also more docile, making them easier to work with. The best thing about Jerseys? Milk fat content averges about 4% over the year, reaching 4.2% in the winter months and bottoming out around 3.6% in the summer months. There are two reasons for the lower fat content during the summer: the animals have much more exercise moving about the pasture, and summer heat makes it a little harder to carry fat as more calories are expended keeping cool.

I can talk forever about farming and animals, but I suspect I should get along to the photos I took. I’ll attempt to trace the life of the animals from birth to milking. There are also some photos of goats and whatnot, since the family has a few more things going on than just dairy.

This past Tuesday, when I looked at the weather forecast, Jane and I decided at the last minute to get in a car the next day and head out there, something we’d planned for much later, late April or early May. It was a very spur of the moment thing, and Matt was very gracious and sporting to not only agree to meet us on less than a day’s notice, but to spend three hours with us during our visit. The sad part is that since we were so early, the cows were not yet out to pasture, but I did get some photos of their lush green digs they are enjoying by today (they were preparing the paddocks the day we were out there.) Perhaps we’ll visit again this summer and hang with the cows on the green.

I’m still not sure I like calf hutches. This is the one aspect of the farm that did not leave me ecstatic.  The calfs are separated and kept in little hutches (there is room to move about a bit) where they will be alone for a few weeks while they gain strength and develop their immune systems. Just like human babies, calves are little disease vectors because of their immature immune systems, and traditional farming has long separated them from the herd for a few weeks after birth. This theoretically (veterinarians would say definitely) reduces the overall incidence of disease in the herd. After a few weeks in the hutch, they move to new digs a few yards away, and here we have one basking in the sun, another enjoying a bit of shade:

Eventually, they move into the big barns (10,000 s.f.+ for a 70-head herd) and join the rest of the adults

At the trough feasting on silage
A glimpse of one of the pastures that sustains the cattle over the summer. They move to a fresh paddock every day.
Jorma is making a new friend. This is Carla.

A squeaky clean milking room reminded me so much of the one my Uncle Lee used for years and years. My favorite recollection of those days is how much the cattle actually like being milked. They pretty much just let themselves into the milking room when it’s time.

After milking, the milk is sent directly to a flash chiller, which chills it down to 38 degrees in very short order to keep it fresh, and it stays in the chilling tank. From there, it is moved by a single pump and pipe to the bottling room, something they do three times a week. There are a lot of regulations that go into running a milk bottling operation, and the Kilgus Family has clearly done their homework.

The bottling room. You have to sanitize and wear special duds to go in here!

The bottling process is a little different than I thought. They have a separator (off to the right out of the photo) that works a little bit like a centrifuge to separate the skim from the cream. That’s where they start, with all skim and all cream. Then, skim milk gets mixed with the appropriate amount of cream in the box-like machine in the rear there to make 2%, whole, or half and half. In the case of heavy cream or skim milk, they go straight to the next step, which is a pasteurizer, which you can barely see in the rear left there, it’s kind of a tall machine. The Kilgus Farmstead Dairy uses a very light pasteurization, and don’t quote me on the exact numbers, but I’m a little bit familiar because they are similar to (but not exactly) the HAACP procedures we follow in the kitchen for food safety. The liquid is very quickly raised to 165 degrees fahrenheit and held there for fifteen seconds. It is then rapidly chilled back down to 38 degrees for bottling.

Pasteurization of raw dairy products (except some aged cheeses) is required by law in the United States, and overall it is probably to the benefit of public health. Before pasteurization, a sick cow could in rare instances pass all number of diseases to humans, including some not commonly associated with foodborne illness, such as anthrax. looking at a herd as healthy as the Kilgus’ it’s easy to conclude their milk doesn’t need to be pasteurized in order to be safe. But, it is a safeguard nonetheless, helps the shelf life somewhat by knocking down microbial activity. Most milk on the market, including a lot of organic milk, is ultra-pasteurized. It can sit in a cooler for a month or more before turning. That process destroys some vitamins and enzymes (but only a small portion, great nutrition remains.) Kilgus Farmstead Dairy undergoes a light pasteurization that allows about a two-week shelf life. It preserves more minerals and enzymes, and definitely tastes better. A benefit of buying farm direct is that we get our milk so fresh, we will definitely use it within two weeks of delivery, so it is always fresh, and supremely delicious.

I have always been fascinated by goats, so I have to part by sharing a few goat photos from the farm. Ever since I was a young child, I have always marvelled at how social and outgoing most farm animals are. And, they are so much like people. Matt had a gate open to a large pasture from the goat barn. You can see it in the one of the photos. And the goats just hang out inside, socialize, and eat. They can go out and play anytime they want, and sometimes they do. But mostly, they hang out inside, socialize, and eat. So much like us.