I first came across the Little Milk Company at a small artisan showcase hosted by the Teeling Whiskey distillery. I am immensely grateful I made the effort to go, despite the snowy six kilometres it took me to find it. Coming from a country where the sale of raw milk is heavily legislated, I was astounded by the difference in their unpasteurised cheeses' taste and texture. The reasons for this quality are so numerous that I ended up interviewing one of the company's ten founding farmers, John Liston, who helped me to unpack the terminology and differentiate the several key concepts that specify dairy farming as 'organic'.
An overview of what they are about
What caught my attention was the creaminess of the Little Milk Co's vintage cheddar. Having tasted only cheeses made from pasteurised milk, I am accustomed to a sharp cheese disintegrating rather than slicing when I cut it. They also make a delicious Brewer’s Gold, a cheese made according to a traditional monastic sterilisation method: it is matured in Irish stout. I’m not usually a fan of beer, but hops and cheese mix better than I expected.
What distinguishes the business is that all their cheeses are made using organic, unpasteurised, local milk. Ten small organic farmers banded together in the face of the high competitiveness and cost of milking during summer. After engaging consultants and weighing up the numbers, the result was a business centred around the production of wholesome milk for use in cheesemaking.
The terminology got a little thick for me at this point, and I had to unpack the jargon from an urban perspective, concept by concept:
The basics of dairy farming
A dairy cow produces much more milk than a cattle cow, in the region of about 25ℓ per day. For this reason, cattle calves are usually raised on the milk of a dairy cow, rather than that of their mother. Commercial farms expand the volume destined for your local supermarket by milking cows two to three times a day, with a gradual decline in solid content in the milk with each round.
However, milk used in cheesemaking needs to be high in fat and protein.
The dairy industry speaks of ‘summer’ and ‘winter’ milk. Summer milk is produced during the dryer months, when cows can feed from pastures at leisure, producing high-quality milk, and lots of it. Summer herds are typically managed to coincide calving with February-March, and in Ireland and New Zealand, emphasis is also placed on synchronising calving to a period of approximately six weeks. Winter herds produce milk during a period when food is scarcer, and usually their diet is supplemented with preserved feeds. Since cows produce milk for approximately ten months after calving, summer herds are ‘dry’ over the December period and winter herds mid-year, and their mating managed to facilitate this.
Dairy-passionate chefs speak of the drastic difference in summer and winter milk produced by the same farm as a ‘terroir'. This is a term usually used to refer to the impact the environment has on the development of flavours in wine, but recent scientific study has shown that there is a basis for variation in the development of flavours due to the feed, lactobacteria and location associated with a specific herd (which is precisely what gives a wine its distinctiveness too).
Milk from any shelf, from any supermarket, from any country in the world tastes the same to me - and I am learning to put this down to the pasteurisation process.
Organics and profitability
Turning a farm organic is no small undertaking. Organic certification boards impose standards that must be met and maintained, and the upfront cost places heavy pressure on farms as small as those of Ireland.
Upon signing up, the farm is granted a two-year conversion period during which to eradicate all artificial pesticides, fertilisers and insecticides. Cow housing needs to be animal-friendly. This means ample space, straw bedding, and shared shelter in large sheds.
Dairy farming the old-school way poses another challenge: the only reason we get milk is because calves drink milk. Commercial farming usually places calves onto a milk supplement in order to extract more from the mother - a no-no in the organics business. Calves are weaned onto grass at approximately three months of age, meaning that the yield of milk for sale needs to be carefully managed during their development. Overmilking stresses the cow, affects herd fertility, heightens disease risk and reduces milk quality. John also speaks of a broader calving period between March and November - the Little Milk Co is anti-animal husbandry. The delivery of a calf is no small undertaking - it is strenuous for both the Mama Cow and the farmer. Expand that to a moderate herd size of 65, and you’ve got your hands full.
Cows feed freely from pesticide-free pastures in summer, and from high-nutrient, unsupplemented organic feeds composed entirely of dried grasses in winter. These stocks typically need to be imported, and make the organic dairy business even costlier.
Why ‘raw’ milk?
In most cases, milk is sterilised by heating to kill pathogens, and homogenised by shooting it through high-pressure jets to break apart the fat droplets. John doesn’t agree with either. The need for pasteurisation is reduced through the safety and sterility of modern farming. He stipulates that a hundred years ago, when herds of cows were brought into cities during industrialisation, they were typically raised on low-nutrient foodstocks. Disease was rife, cleanliness was low, and pathogens frequently made it into the final product.
He is also against homogenisation, which rearranges and modifies the molecular structure of the fat globules. This not only reduces the nutritional significance of these compounds, but can alter the way they are recognised and used by the body.
He referred me to the Weston A. Price Foundation. To use John's words, though he doesn’t necessarily stand with their more extreme arguments against vaccination, ‘what they say [about raw milk] makes a lot of sense’. The organisation was founded by a dentist who detailed the effect of a high-sugar, low-fat diet on his patients’ dental condition and bone structure. Our ancestors typically slaughtered animals for their nutrient-dense organs, rather than their flesh. Weston A. Price states that people originally fermented foods to preserve them, as a means to access fat-rich and nutritious foods year-round. The organisation claims that eating food in its original form, whole fat and wholesome, is the healthiest way, with implications for disease reduction such as diabetes, cancer and aggression in autism. For organic markets, the trend towards a older eating habits is an increasingly profitable one.
Why ‘once-a-day’ milk?
Farmers such as John are not involved in the physical production of their cheese, as this is outsourced to facilities with the technology and manpower to undertake the lengthy operation. Instead, his concern is providing milk of the highest protein and fat content possible as a starting point. Good milk = good cheese. Running an active dairy farm is no small undertaking, and after balancing the books, he determined that it is more economically beneficial to milk his cows just once a day.
Once-a-day milking extracts approximately two-thirds the yield, with a small loss (6%) in fat and protein content. The savings on farm running costs, compounded by the improvement in cow health and fertility and time saved makes it a good solution - and it is rapidly gaining traction in both organic and commercial circles. However, John strongly emphasises that not all organic dairy farmers are once-a-day milkers. The farmer ‘runs his numbers and decides on the critical mass’. Each farm is different, and the production of nutrient-dense milk can be achieved in a number of ways.
Of the farms that make up the Little Milk Co, four of ten milk once a day. From his herd of 65, John obtains approximately 3000-3500ℓ of fat-rich milk per year, which he estimates would be increased to 5000ℓ should he double the frequency of milking.
Fat-rich milk makes for excellent cheese, and it pleases me to see a company such as this doing so well.
I was fortunate enough to get John’s first-hand account on issues that I come into contact with daily. They've surfaced in my molecular laboratory, in discussions with raw food chefs, in my Instagram feed and in the popular press. We are becoming increasingly fixated on what and when we eat. I love food, and I love good-tasting, good food. Documentaries like Chef’s Table appeal to me because they centre on the backstory to what arrives on the plate, with a soulful emphasis on the magic of the soil-to-table process.
My interest in sustainable agriculture is a recent development, and I have much to learn. Thanks to the farmers, cooks and foodmakers who willingly answer my numerous and often silly questions, I am learning more about the middle ground between the GMO-intensive focus of my university studies, and the foodmiles-heavy focus on shopping exclusively for organic goods.