When Being Yellow Bellied is a Good Thing…
We love the first day of butter making. There’s nothing like churning the first cream of the season into a 1200 pound mountain of smooth, lightly salted, very yellow butter. As we take a ceremonial first taste, we have to ask: why is spring butter so magical?
Milk is a complex mixture of fat, proteins, carbohydrates, minerals, vitamins and other miscellaneous constituents dispersed in water. Yet, the amount of these components vary based on the cow’s diet, the breed of cow, and a cow’s stage of lactation. Being a seasonal, grass-fed dairy is reflected in how our butter tastes and also how it changes over the course of the grazing season.
Spring butter has an unmistakable yellow glow. This color is affected by the increased amount of fresh grass in the cows’ diet during the spring as they start grazing. Fresh forage is bountiful in carotenoids, classes of mainly yellow, orange, or red fat-soluble pigments, which then manifests in our high fat butter. When ingested by a cow, one carotenoid in particular, beta-carotene, is converted to vitamin A. This results in a butter with a higher vitamin A content in the spring. Winter butter is produced primarily when the cows are on stored feed such as hay and hay ferment, so it is paler in comparison.
If you don’t notice a huge change of color in our butter, it’s ok. Many of the cows that produce our butter are mixes of breeds that naturally produce milk with a higher carotene content regardless of the season (i.e. Jerseys and Guernseys). Also, very often the cows at Red Gate Farm are grazing fresh forage well into November, and don’t stop milking until December. So, there is a small window in which we are creating “winter butter” from a mix of fresh forage and stored forage. Because of all of these variables, the color shift over the grazing season is subtle, gradual and not at all linear.
More than just the color, the texture of Meadow Butter changes over the season as well. Spring butter is perfectly spreadable, if not slightly leaky, while winter butter can be firmer, even appear to be somewhat brittle. This change reflects the saturation of milk fat in the butter. The presence of longer-chain saturated fatty acids increases the hardness of butter. Milk with a high proportion of unsaturated fatty acid content tends to create softer, runnier products.
During their outdoor grazing period, our cows’ milk is composed of lower saturated fatty acids and higher unsaturated fatty acid concentrations. During the winter, when the herd is fed stored forage, the reverse is true and our cream contains more saturated fats and less unsaturated fats. Saturated fat molecules are more uniform, and they form crystal structures more readily than unsaturated fats. These fat crystals yield a firmer product with a higher melting point. Many bakers consider the firmness of winter butter better for baking, finding that it makes it easier to work into a dough and bakes into perfect flaky pastries and crusts.
One final variable that affects Meadow Butter is you. Since, our butter can be frozen without compromising its taste or texture, if you choose to squirrel some away for the winter, then you can enjoy spring butter year-round. In fact, at Kriemhild we store our butter reserves in a commercial freezer between packing and farmer’s markets or wholesale shipments. This storability is also why we attempt to reserve enough to bridge the winter off-season, though (as our regular customers know) demand has historically outpaced our rate of butter-bank deposits -- which is another reason why we “run out” each winter.
Although we at Kriemhild Dairy rejoice the arrival of our spring butter, we celebrate the seasonal variation in dairy. With its cycles, subtleties, ebbs, and flows, we embrace all the nuance that seasonal dairy brings -- yes, even the off-season. After all, absence makes the heart grow fonder (and hungrier), and experiencing seasonality garners true appreciation for the natural rhythms of our food system.
How about both?
April 22 is earth day, and per Earth Day tradition, many folks will feel inspired to plant a tree, and they should. In a time of drastically changing climate, planting trees is one way of combating the excess of greenhouse gases trapping heat in the atmosphere. Through photosynthesis, trees and other plants pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and convert it into sugar, cellulose, and other carbon-containing carbohydrates that they use for nourishment and growth. This natural process is called carbon sequestration.
Although trees are famous for their carbon sequestering abilities, it is actually soil that is the largest terrestrial reservoir of carbon. Soils contain approximately 3/4 of the carbon pool on land — three times more than the amount stored in living plants and animals. This is great news, but, how does carbon come to be stored in soil? The answer: through plant roots. When plants convert CO2 into food for themselves, they are also creating food for microorganisms in the soil through their root exudate. These microorganisms eat and defecate, directly adding organic carbon to the soil and increasing its organic matter.
Trees are impressive exemplars of biomass, many of which grow taller and older than any human. However, in reality the greatest amount of carbon is sequestered in the soil of grazing lands. While trees store most of their carbon in vegetation that eventually dies and rots (re-releasing the carbon), carbon sequestered by grazing lands is more readily transferred into the soil itself, where it can be permanently stored (1). Among the types of agricultural land, grazing land has the highest ability to sequester carbon, partly because its soil is left intact as it is used. Although many crop farms now use practices to keep soil covered, carbon is lost to the atmosphere every time cropland soil is disturbed via tilling and in some cases harvesting. Our soils have lost more than half their carbon over the last 200 years due to common crop farming practices.
There is a long-held misconception that pasturing livestock only results in overgrazing and desertification of grasslands. However, if done with proper management, the use of grazing lands with domestic livestock can play a significant role in mitigating climate change. Researchers have estimated that it is possible for 29.5-110 million metric tons of carbon to be sequestered annually in the grazing lands in the United States (2).
Grass has evolved to be grazed. When grass is grazed by an herbivore, it stimulates the plant to begin a phase of rapid biomass production. This means more photosynthesis and thus more carbon sequestrated into the soil. In the absence of grazing, or well timed mechanical harvesting, grass merely grows to a certain maturity, becomes senescent and dies. Dead grass will decompose, but the amount of carbon it adds to soil is nowhere near the amount the cycle of grazing and regrowth can sequester. Nothing can mimic the natural interaction between plants and grazing animals.
When overgrazing occurs, the grass does not have enough time to regrow, so it drains the energy reserves in its roots. This results in shorter and shorter roots that are unable to hold the soil together or feed the resident microorganisms. Proper grazing management allows grass to recuperate after a calculated grazing period on a specific area by a certain number of animals. The livestock are moved rotationally around the pasture in paddocks, and may not re-visit a previous paddock for weeks at a time. This management is very healthy for the soils, and it is beneficial for the animals subsisting on them. There are several different types of management strategies that take a pasture’s rest and regrowth into consideration such as Management Intensive Rotational Grazing, Mob Grazing, and Holistic Grazing Management, to name a few. Well managed grazing land could rival the intensity of passive soil carbon accumulation of native ecosystems.
As a triple-bottom-line business that equally weights Environment, Community, and Profit in our operation, we at Kriemhild take great interest in the grazing management of our producers. We believe that grazing is important nutritionally for livestock animals and the food they produce, but it also has the ability to affect profound and far-reaching positive environmental impact. If all of the countries on earth committed to increasing their soil carbon by just 0.4% each year, the global community could store 75% of our annual industrial greenhouse emissions. The way that farmers choose to use and manage agricultural grazing lands, and the practices consumers support thru our purchases, can and do shape our global environment thru local ecology.
So, don’t hesitate to plant your tree on earth day. Just remember this as well: when you choose purchase our Meadow Butter or Crème Fraîche, you are choosing to support over 1500 acres of active soil carbon sequestration; and that’s one more way you can influence global change thru small, local action.
(1) Schuman, G.E., D.R. LeCain, J.D. Reeder, and J.A. Morgan. 2001. “Carbon Dynamics and Sequestration of a Mixed-Grass Prairie as Influenced by Grazing.” In Soil Carbon Sequestration and the Greenhouse Effect, special publication no. 57, edited by R. Lal, 67-75. Madison, WI: Soil Science Society of America.
(2) Follett, R.F., J.M. Kimble, and R. Lal. 2001. The Potential of U.S. Grazing Lands to Sequester Carbon and Mitigate the Greenhouse Effect. Boca Raton, FL: Lewis Publishers
The Kriemhild Dairy Farms office is a modest place, to say the least…
If you ever visited the office, you’d remember the line of barn boots that decorate the entryway next to a quaint washer/dryer set up and you’ve probably been greeted by one or two friendly pitbulls. Being that our headquarters is the basement of Red Gate’s herd manager, Brian Rivington, and only a few miles down the road from the farm, we were only slightly surprised to find a newborn calf next to the heater when we came in for our 9:30am meeting one morning. The calf was born on a day of particularly cruddy weather to a first-time mother. It became chilled and might not have survived if Brian had not found it and immediately intervened. A hot water bath and hair dryer session later, the little heifer calf, now known by the name “Rosebud”, became alert and responsive. We watched and cooed over our little visitor as we went about our office routines, and she was able to join the rest of the calves in the barn later that afternoon.
During calving season at Red Gate Farm, the calves are kept separately from the mothers. This is a common practice on many dairy farms, and is done for various reasons that are unique to each farmer. At Red Gate, the main reason is that their calves have a better survival rate when they are kept separately from the adult cows. Unlike beef cattle, dairy cows have generally been selected and bred to enhance milk production and not mothering abilities. Therefore, the mothering instincts in most dairy cows is unpredictable and it is often safer for the calf to be removed once it is born. Creating a designated Calf Barn is the best way the Rivingtons have found to avoid the calf being ignored, stepped on, crushed or even attacked by the mother or another cow in the herd. Separating calves from the herd also makes it easier control the calves’ environment, since newborn calves are much more susceptible to pathogen and environmental threats than an adult cow. Having a separate barn for the calves helps reduce the chances of them getting sick and is conducive to monitoring the calves’ health.
Some dairy farms choose to prioritize calves being left with their mothers because they find it to be a more effective management style for their calving systems. There is strong anecdotal evidence that calves that are raised this was have greater longevity. One of the benefits of their system is that their calves have the opportunity to drink fresh milk instead of milk replacer (As it happens, about 60% of dairy farms in the U.S. chose to feed milk replacer to their calves so that they can have close control of the calves’ nutrition and also save the harvest of fresh milk for sale.)
However, at Red Gate Farm, the Rivingtons find that their calves thrive the most from being fed fresh milk pooled from the entire herd. This means that at milking time, some of the fresh milk is diverted away from the commercial batch to fill a 120 gallon tank that is specifically set aside to feed calves.
After Red Gate’s calves are able to stand (shortly after birth), they are fed 2 liters of colostrum, the antibody and nutrient-dense first milk of a newly freshened cow. This feeding within the first few hours of life is critical for a newborn calf whose immune system will not completely develop until 1-2 months of age.
Another advantage of the Rivington’s system of separating calves at birth is ensuring that every calf gets enough colostrum soon enough, a necessity that is not confirmable if left up to the mothers. Also, when the calves are given their first drink, it is pooled colostrum from multiple fresh mothers. So, not only does each calf receive antibodies from their mother, but they also benefit from the combined immunities of a large chunk of the herd. On top of feeding their own calves, Red Gate’s cows are able to produce enough surplus colostrum to be one of a number of farms that supply a veterinary biotechnology company that manufactures commercial colostrum replacer and supplements for other farms’ calves and livestock.
Although the thought of calving in the spring may conjure up images of flowers and sunshine, we are all familiar with the reality that March and April weather in Upstate New York is... fickle. This is not good news for calves who, like our friend Rosebud, are vulnerable to colder temperatures. Calving is a wet process, and if the calves are not dried off properly on a cold day things can go downhill quickly.
At Red Gate, when calves are separated from the herd, they are temporarily kept in “hot boxes”, which are calf-sized wooden pens in a room with radiant heating in the floor (a luxury most of us humans don’t even have ourselves). Based on years of experience, the Rivington Family has figured out that radiant heated floor was the way to go for their farm. “The calves are already lying on the floor [as newborns], so the radiant heated floor heats them from the bottom up,” Nancy Rivington explains. The calves are kept in their cozy hot boxes for about 12 to 24 hours. While there, they receive their colostrum and their selenium supplement, their navel is dipped to prevent infections directly entering their bloodstream, and their ears are tagged so they can be accurately monitored.
Once a calf has had enough time to practice standing it is ready to be moved into a group pen with like-sized calves of similar ages. “We group them in groups of 18...we’ve never used hutches. Both Bruce and I feel that it helps the calf learn to get along with the others,” Nancy explains as she helped a calf get a grip on a group feeder full of fresh milk during a morning feeding. The calves are fed fresh mothers’ milk up until they are weaned at 10-12 weeks of age, slightly later than the norm of 6-8 weeks, and the Rivingtons are careful to keep a limit on how many calves are in a group to allow adequate space for them to grow without getting crowded.
If you ever follow along during a milk feeding in the calf barn, you’ll notice that only a small percentage of the time is actually spent feeding the 200 calves, and that the majority of the time is spent watching and observing. Anyone working in the calf barn knows the early signs of sick calf whether it’s as obvious as diarrhea or as subtle as taking a little too much time to get up for feeding. The entire calving process at Red Gate farm is designed to optimize calf health, so when a calf does fall ill, which happens despite the best management, it can receive the immediate individual attention it needs.
We feel privileged to have such an intimate connection and understanding of Red Gate Farm’s practices. It’s a special experience to witness firsthand the compassion that the Rivington Family and the farm workers have for their animals. Farmers are in a unique realm where their compassion and care for the animals serves their own human interests, beyond the obvious benefit to the animals themselves. For if the animals are not well cared for, a farm and its business cannot be truly sustainable.
Every farm has different challenges and advantages that affect their management decisions. Even at Kriemhild, as connected as we are to dairy production, we are fascinated to continuously learn how one way of management can serve one farm well, and yet that same practice may not work well at all on another. There is no one right way to farm. The methods a farmer uses are in consideration of their specific animals’ needs, what their specific land provides, what their specific customers value, and what their own specific values are. And the management style a farm uses this season is not necessarily what they have always done, nor what they will continue to do forever. A dynamic, changing spectrum of methods fall under the term “farming.” It truly is the oldest applied science, and the original performing art. We salute the creative, compassionate, scientific farmers at Red Gate Farm during their busiest and most reverent season: Spring Calving.
P.S. If you haven't already, check out our event page for Calving Day at Red Gate farm. You're invited!!
Why no Butter?
You may have recently found yourself asking this when at a local Farmer’s Market or a Kriemhild Dairy retail partner. We’re willing to bet this question has come to mind in a few of you because we’ve certainly been fielding a good many inquiries about our current Meadow Butter “shortage.” <--finger quotes implied
Our quick answer when asked is simply that our sole supplier for our Meadow Butter source milk, Red Gate Farm, is a seasonal dairy farm. Unlike farms that implement rotational breeding, Red Gate chooses to breed their cows together to follow nature’s rhythm of pasture grass growth. This choice means that the moms-to-be have been dried-off (a.k.a. not-milking during the final months of pregnancy) since December, and by extension, we do not yet have milk to make your favorite butter.
Although this short explanation gets the general point across, we would like to dig deeper on what commitment to being a seasonal farm really means: a holistic farm management choice that is far more subtle and intricate than just the result of a perceived butter-famine in the dead of every winter.
Milk, like all other food, has a season; not that many of us realize that nowadays. Before the introduction of grain feeding practices, farmers were keen to match a cow’s peak milk production to pasture quantity and quality. This meant breeding in the fall, and calving around March and April. This schedule closely mimics nature, as most wild grazing animals give birth in the spring when there is high food availability as they nurse their growing offspring.
A seasonal dairy is different from a year-round dairy in that all the cows are on the same breeding and birthing schedule. This results in the whole herd going dry for the same two month period in the winter to save up energy for birthing in the spring. On a year-round dairy, each cow still dries off for two months, but since the breeding and calving periods are staggered, different groups of cows go dry at separate times of the year, giving the illusion of seasonless food production.
Many year-round dairy farms find that grain or corn silage (a fermented feed made from corn stalks) work best in order to meet the cows’ high nutrient requirements during the winter milking. High quality stored pasture feeds like hay and hay ferment (haylage) can also meet winter production nutrition needs. Seasonal management lessens the reliance on grain, corn products, and stored forages.
The Rivington family have been managing their herd seasonally since 2005, only a few years after starting Red Gate Farm in Hamilton, NY. They chose to manage the farm seasonally for a few reasons.
Firstly, because of their commitment to grass-fed farm management, organizing their herd’s reproductive cycles around the the grazing season made practical sense; their cows are able graze on fresh, nutritions pasture when their nutrient requirements are the highest (during lactation), and then can maintain their body condition on stored forages throughout the winter when they are not milking and therefore have lower nutritional needs.
Another logistic factor that complemented seasonal production was their selection of an open-air milking parlor design. Red Gate Farm’s milking parlor is bright and breezy in the summer, providing ample ventilation (and vitamin D) for both bovines & humans during milking times. By extension, given the climate of Upstate NY, this design doesn’t necessarily lend itself to the most comfortable temperatures for humans or cows during the winter. Drying off the herd for two of the colder months of the year, again, works with nature and limits this issue.
In addition to providing their cows with the best nutrition, eliminating their need for grain, and compensating for their limited infrastructure, the final major factor supporting seasonally dairying is a human one: it offers the Rivington family a break from the twice-a-day (and sometimes thrice-a-day) milking for two months. With their daily farm work hours reduced from time-and-a-half down to part-time, the Rivington family can sleep full nights, have weekends off, reflect on the season, plan for the future, and most importantly recharge before going back at it for another 10 months straight.
In spite of these benefits, do not be deceived! Seasonal dairying is not all sunshine and blowing bubbles in your milk. The trade off for the two-month break during the winter is two epicly intense periods of breeding and calving. In order to dry off the whole herd at the same time, more the 300 cows must breed, conceive, and calve on a tight schedule. These two narrow windows of time leave very little room for mistakes, and only raise the stakes for this family farm. In order to increase the chances of having the herd bred within the same 60 day time span, all the cows must be at the pinnacle of health; wellness begets fertility. Nine months later, calving season consumes the daily and nightly, activities as the increasing number of calves need to be tagged, moved, and fed. This frantic pace can reach the extreme of one calf being born every hour. Although the breeding and calving periods are, shall we say intense, seasonal farming allows the Rivingtons to keep the pregnant cows’ and newborn calves’ wellbeing at the forefront of their focus and attention.
Since Meadow Butter stores well in the freezer with no effects to its quality or nutrition, we intend to supply it to you throughout the winter as we grow our production and when we bring on more dairy farmers as Kriemhild partners. But even then, our butter, like a meadow, will still be produced seasonally, and remains a seasonal product. So, you see, the “shortage” (finger quotes again) isn’t really a shortage, but a natural ebb between swells of abundance. We feel that highlighting this connection between the foods we love and the seasons of nature is essential to understanding what it means to be well nourished.
As the Butter Churns
Author: Ellen Fagan
Farm and Outreach Coordinator