Raw Milk: What You Should Know About It
Raw milk doesn’t need to be mysterious or scary, but sometimes it’s hard to find clear answers to the questions you have and Googling can make it even more confusing. As lifetime dairy farmers and raw milk producers, here is what we have to say about it:
Isn’t raw milk illegal or something?
In 1987 the FDA mandated pasteurization for all milk sold for human consumption. This effectively shut down interstate shipment of raw milk (except milk intended for pasteurization) and accelerated the commercialization of milk processing. However, did you know that each state has its own laws and guidelines for the sale of raw milk by farmers? Indiana allows consumers 2 different means of acquiring raw milk from a farmer.
- A cow/herd share agreement. This is a contract by which an individual can essentially purchase ownership shares in a farmer's cow/herd, therefore giving them ownership of a portion of the milk that is produced each week.
- Raw pet milk. Indiana permits raw milk to be packaged and sold for pet use. These permits don’t require any long-term commitment from the customer like a cow share agreement does. Grass Corp. has held a permit to sell raw milk in Indiana since 2007 and has served many happy customers and their fur babies across southern Indiana :)
Is raw milk safe?
Any milk, both raw or pasteurized, can become unsafe if it is contaminated during handling. With proper handling, sanitation, and refrigeration, it is possible to prevent the contamination and spoilage of milk, even in its raw state. Not all farms are equal though, and it’s important to know how the animals are cared for and how the milk is handled before purchasing it raw. Keep reading to learn more about how we do it on our farm and for our top tips for keeping milk fresh longer!
Factors, such as animal health and diet, also affect the quality of the milk. At Grass Corp., we feed our cows an all-grass diet, allow free access to salt and other minerals, and provide a clean, low-stress environment. The cows are given plenty of space for exercise and time in the sun. Healthy, stress-free animals make better quality milk which is a great place to start when keeping raw milk fresh.
What is the milking process and how do you keep everything sanitary?
Before we started selling raw milk under a pet food permit, our farm operated more like a conventional dairy and sold our milk to be pasteurized and sold in stores. Our farm was a Grade A Dairy, which basically means we met top standards for sanitation and our milk consistently tested clean for bacterial counts. Each time the semi truck picked up milk from our farm, they tested it and sent us the “cell count” results. A somatic cell count is an indicator of its likelihood to contain harmful bacteria. The better the results, the higher the food safety. In order to keep optimal cell count results, every step of the process has to be sanitary. We use our many years of experience in sanitary milk handling to make sure our milk is handled properly all the way from the cow until it is sealed and chilled.
It all starts with grass-fed! Cows that spend their time on pasture and are moved to fresh grass frequently, are much cleaner, healthier animals than conventional dairy cows. Their bellies and udders aren’t covered in dirt and cow pies making it easier to keep everything clean when milking them.
First, the cows are brought into our milking parlor and their udders are cleaned before milking. Any loose dirt or debris is brushed away and cleaned from the udder and teats. The teats are then dipped in an iodine solution to sanitize them. We complete the cleaning process by wiping away the iodine and any remaining impurities with a clean paper towel. Now they are ready to milk.
We use a closed pipeline milking system. This means the milk is contained within a closed, food grade pipe system as it goes from the cows udder to a stainless steel milk holding tank. Keeping the milk in a closed system greatly reduces the risk of contamination. The system also contains a commercial grade milk filter, just like the ones we used as a Grade A dairy, that adds another step to ensure the milk is kept clean. The filter is changed and the system is cleaned and sanitized after every milking with industry standard cleaners.
While automated and closed systems are great for efficiency and sanitation, mechanical handling of raw milk can lower the quality and cause it to go rancid quicker. At Grass Corp., we strive to minimize the mechanical handling effects on the milk while keeping sanitation paramount. The milk from our cows only makes a single trip through the pipeline from the cow to the holding tank. This is very limited mechanical handling compared to commercial milk that gets transferred multiple times between the holding tank and bottling facility.
How is it packaged?
Once the milk is in the holding tank, it's time to package and refrigerate. Fast and effective refrigeration is critical for keeping bacteria at bay and maintaining freshness longer. From the time the first milk is taken from the cow, to when it reaches a fully chilled state, is less than one hour at our farm. When the milking process is completed, we immediately package the milk and then put it on ice water for a very fast chill. Commercial milk is left in the holding tank to cool and then waits up to 2-3 days to be bottled. Holding tanks take longer to chill because only the surface area around the tank is being used to cool the milk. By packaging the milk immediately after it reaches the holding tank, we are able to greatly increase the surface area around the milk that is being chilled; reducing chill times significantly.
In an effort to reduce plastic waste, we package milk in reusable glass mason jars or food grade, single-use bags that are made with much less plastic than standard milk jugs. The reusable mason jars are washed after use and then sanitized using a small amount of bleach diluted in water directly before refilling them. A benefit of jarring the milk when it is warm and then chilling it quickly on ice, is that almost every one of the jars creates an air-tight seal. Milk that we package in bags is also sealed with extremely little to no air left inside the package. Immediate packaging also reduces unnecessary exposure time to air inside the large holding tank, helping to keep the milk fresh longer.
How long does it stay fresh?
After the milk is packaged and completely chilled on ice, we move it to our walk-in cooler where it waits to be delivered to one of our pickup locations. Milk from our farm reaches our customers within 3 days from when it was collected from the cow. Sometimes our customers receive milk that is less than a day old! That means that when you place an online order for milk, It most likely hasn't even been produced by our cows yet!
Because the milk is so fresh when you receive it, we expect it will usually stay fresh for at least 7-10 days in your refrigerator. Raw milk can last even longer, but there are many factors that play a part in how long it stays fresh. Here are a few things you can do to help keep raw milk fresh as long as possible:
- Keep it cold! Keeping milk in the refrigerator and not letting it sit out will help maintain freshness. Things like storing it in the bottom or closer to the back of your refrigerator, or even putting ice packs around it in the refrigerator, can help keep it just a little bit colder than setting it on the top shelf.
- Keep it clean! Things like leaving the lid open or transferring it out of its original packaging are opportunities for it to be contaminated or exposed to more air. We recommend using the milk directly from the packaging you purchase it in to reduce the chance of contamination and unnecessary exposure to air.
- Keep it sealed! Reducing the number of times and the amount of fresh air that the milk is exposed to, can help maintain freshness a little bit longer as well. A single jar of milk that is opened and closed multiple times a day over the course of a week is more likely to turn sour than a jar that has been kept cold and sealed for a week.
Where can I get raw milk?
You can order raw milk right here in our online store for pickup at a wide variety of locations across Indiana. You can also pick up milk at the farm, but we request that you please call us or place an online order before coming to the farm since Grass Corp. is operated solely by our family and we do not maintain regular store hours. Due to regulations, our milk is not available for pickup locations outside of Indiana or Home Delivery like many of our other products are.
If you have more questions, or want to share your raw milk experience with other interested readers, join the conversation below.