Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Miller's Dairy Open House

Last Saturday we headed out for a day of relaxation and to investigate a place I've been curious about for a while. Miller's Dairy, a farm just east of Creemore, was having an open house.

Miller's Dairy is housed right on the farm where the milk is produced.

The milk comes from Jersey cows - a breed known for its very rich, creamy and flavourful milk. In the last decades, most milk comes from Holstein cows; Jerseys have become somewhat unusual. They can produce up to 30 litres of milk a day, compared to Holsteins which produce up to 45 litres. In addition, Jersey milk has a considerably higher percentage of fat (cream) than Holstein milk.

We entered the first barn, which was plainly the original barn of the farm. Jersey cows strike me as noticeably calmer and friendlier than most cows (or maybe I just mean Holsteins). They certainly seemed to take the mobs of visitors passing through very much in their stride.

They do have their funny ways, though. We noticed that the heifers (young cows, not quite yet of an age to calf and be milked) had rings with little spikes on them through their noses. Apparently they still have the inclination to nurse, but as they are away from their mothers, they try it on each other - an unsuccessful and possibly damaging activity, and the nose rings prevent it.

Visitors check out some calfs before they continue on to the next area.

Here's Richard Millsap, one of the 7 employees at Miller's Dairy. He was on hand to answer questions about the cows and the dairy. He told me that there are about 250 cows on the farm, of which about 110 to 120 are being milked at any one time. The dairy produces about 15,000 litres of milk per week, of which a little more than half is bottled on the farm. The rest goes into the standard commercial milk stream.

Next, we went out the back of the first barn and found the bottling plant.

It forms a little square with another building, which we will go into later...

 ... meanwhile, let's have a sample of chocolate milk. Huh. Tastes like chocolate milk. (I have to say, chocolate milk is not my thing, particularly. Give me... well, give me their 10% coffee cream, and their whipping cream. Yes, I'm all about the dairy fat, which is one reason I am a fan of Jersey cows.)

Inside the bottling plant, Dwight Bryan, the plant manager, was on hand to describe the bottling process. As ever, the process of moving, storing and processing milk involves large swaths of shiny stainless steel. The milk even comes into the plant directly from the milking barn in underground steel pipes.

The first place it goes is into this large storage tank. From there, the milk is separated into skim milk and cream. Then they go through the plate pasteuriser (heated to 168°F for 20 seconds) and the milk is also put through the homogeniser, which breaks down the fat globules so they are too small to coalesces and rise.

Some of the skim milk goes through the process first, then measured amounts of the cream are put back into the milk to create 1%, 2%, and "whole" (3.25%) milk, and finally the 10% cream that has made my morning coffee such a delight for the last few months since I discovered it. Dwight didn't say, but this must happen before the homogenisation (surely?) or the milk would separate, I would think. Someone please correct me if I'm wrong. Lastly they bottle the whipping cream.

Any cream left at this point goes to the Alliston Creamery, where it is made into my favourite local butter! Any extra milk also goes to other bottlers.

Most of their equipment is shiny-new, but there are few pieces of older equipment. It makes me smile to see them still in use!

Here's another older piece of equipment.This is the bottle steriliser, which then sends the bottles into the bottling room to be filled.

After we left the bottling plant, we went into the final building, the new grey building shown above. I was a little surprised to realise this is the milking barn, and the home of the cows currently being milked. Gage Hill, another employee, was on hand to describe the milking process.

There is space to milk up to 16 cows at a time, 8 on each side. The system is highly mechanised. As each cow steps onto the metal plate in the milking area, she is identified via an ankle bracelet. The amount of milk produced is measured - if it is lower than expected, a health check is done - and the temperature is taken, which can determine whether a cow is in heat or not.

In spite of the sophistication of the milking equipment, it is not robotic. The milkers are placed by hand, after the teats are dipped in an iodine solution to clean them. The milk is then tested before it makes it into the bottling plant.

A milk-producing cow is milked for about 1 year before she runs dry. At that point, she goes back into the dry-cow herd, and remains dry for about 9 months. A typical Jersey can expect a career of about 12 years. The milking cows live in a large, airy and very open barn, but don't go outside. At one point they had that option, but so very few of them ever went out that now they just keep the gates closed. I guess it's a lot of work hauling around 30 litres (kilos!) of milk!

More cows! I was interested to see the variation in them. Some had black mask like markings on their faces, some had an overall dark cast to the colour of their hides, and one even had a large white patch on her back. My mother, who went with us, thought they looked rather different than the Jersey cows she remembers from her childhood - she used to help collect the neighbours Jersey cows at the end of the day when she was on summer vacation at her Aunt's farm, and even had a cow named after her. I suspect though, that this is just a more genetically diverse group than the cows she knew.

Can't see it in the picture, but the bar in the lower left is moving, dragging manure towards a trench, from which it will presumably be moved out of the barn. The whole farm had obviously been scrubbed to shine for the tour, but we were certainly left with the impression that even on ordinary days it is impressively clean.

As we exited the barn, we had a chance to talk to Marie Miller, one of the owners of the farm. She told us that while Miller's Dairy products are not (yet?) sold in Toronto, they are available in about 95 stores at this point. They have been interested in keeping their market local. I know the milk is carried by Foodland stores in my area (and my local Valu-mart has it, but I suspect they are a bit of an anomaly.) Richard Millsap had earlier told us that that Miller's Dairy milk is available in Kincardine, Hanover, Meaford, Thornbury, and Owen Sound, and presumably a number of other places in that general range.

I was wondering how having your own dairy fits in with the Milk Marketing Board. Marie told us that the milk is transferred, on paper, to the DFO, and then they buy it back and bottle it. In spite of this extra layer of bureaucracy, Marie is a big fan of the quota system, which she thinks has provided stability to keep a lot of Ontario dairy farmers in business during hard times. Both Marie and her husband John, come from long line of dairy farmers. John Miller is 5th generation of his family to be dairy farmers, and they were also bottlers and makers of ice-cream in Goderich.

Alas, the farm was not set up to sell to their visitors, so after the tour we made a dash into Creemore to the 100 Mile Store there. I was able to score some whipping cream, with which I intend to make clotted cream. Because Miller's whipping cream is not homogenised - I confirmed that with Dwight Bryan - it should work perfectly.

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