While we were visiting family in Minnesota, we came across Autumnwood Farm. Pat Daninger, who runs this dairy farm and creamery was kind enough to host Free Range Quest for an early morning cow milking lesson before we caught our flight back to Portland, and it was one of the best experiences of my life.
I have always been inspired by the way that every piece of geographical history can come together to create a nourishing chronicle of its components. Autumnwood Farm is over a hundred years old and has around 50 (hormone-free, of course) milking cows who rotationally graze during the day on many gorgeous acres of grass. All of the milk is low-temperature pasteurized and bottled on site at their micro creamery. This milk is some of the best I’ve tasted — a far cry from the gray, cardboard flavor they passed out with my elementary school lunches, this glass-bottled milk displays the notes of the land — subtle hints of sweet clover, alfalfa, grass, hay… Supreme cream.
I had very little experience with cows save for our recent hands-on research, books, and visits to the State Fair — and milking a cow has been a life-long dream of mine. Experiencing each stage of the creation of various cheeses is fascinating to me, but I have long wondered if the lifestyle of a small-scale dairy farm would be right for my delicate sensibilities — I am not a fan of rising ahead of the sun and the idea of being covered in poo before the ass-crack of dawn seemed like it might be beyond my capability (on a continuous, daily basis, anyway).
After a night of crashing thunderstorms and very little sleep, we woke up at 5 a.m., put on our uniforms, and headed to the country. David and I learned to hand-milk as well as machine milk the cows upon arrival. I was a little skeptical of the machine milking; several people have asked me if it is an unpleasant practice (for the cow or the human). The contraptions (often referred to as a vacuum claw… oof!) used to machine milk are strange-looking and it almost seems like it would hurt the cows… but I’m telling you, these cows LOVE it, they go into just the same lovely oxytocin trance as they would in nature. I also put the suckers on my hand to see what it feels like and it felt gentler than sticking your hand in a vacuum hose, not bad at all. It is an incredibly clean, pleasant and efficient method of milking. After the milking lesson, we visited the adorable new calves in the barn and the first thing these babes wanted to do is suck our thumbs — with those teeth! — Well, if I were a dairy cow I’d choose the machine any day.
In the barn next to the milking house, the calves were being fed and watered. While we were observing, one of the more rambunctious calves escaped his pen and was doing the rounds, meeting with the other calves, running through the straw, and occasionally walking outside to watch another cow being scrubbed down and gussied up for the County Fair. He was lured back to the pen with a bucket of milk and sucked down about a gallon in under a minute.
The Daninger Family who runs this multi-generational farm are just as in love with the cows as the cows seem to be with them. This is a very clean operation, but hey, these are big animals, things get messy… The filthy and physically demanding work involved in taking care of these gorgeous animals is obviously a passion for the Daningers. There are no vacations from this lifestyle, though it typically takes the Daninger family only two hours each morning and evening to clean and milk every cow — they’ve got this down to a science! Each morning these happy cows are attended to, one by one. They are cleaned and milked and then happily shuffle back out to the Autumnwood Farm pasture to moo and graze until their evening milking.
My favorite cow at Autumnwood was ‘Panda’ – She was only a few months old when I met her — already beautiful, strong, and so loving… This gentle giant who could someday produce nearly a dozen gallons of milk per day was nuzzling my shoulders, nipping at my bandana, and doling out giant-cow-tongue kisses! She had the sweetest breath of any cow there ever was — seriously, this cow’s mouth was intoxicating! Panda smelled like hay and molasses and she was the one to solidify it for me; I want to start a home dairy. A herd of full-size cows is more than I could handle, but a couple of family cows seems like a beautiful dream to me, even if it means early morning milking and a lot of hard work (We are looking into a particularly small breed of Jersey cow that will be more manageable for a tiny operation). Waking up early to work on something I am passionate about seems like the best alarm clock ever… The Quest continues!
Update: Grandma D., who runs the creamery shop at Autumnwood, was kind enough to send me some great photos of the Daninger family “sales force” at the farm which I have added to the slide show — This true family operation is so inspiring!