Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Herd -- Luna

In the hopes of giving readers a better feel for the Farm, I have started writing biographies of each cow. Actually, I am afraid I will forget this information if I don't write it down. The herd has grown recently and my memory is taxed to keep it all in my head.

The first one I choose was Luna. She was standing in the front, so I picked her. No favorites here. Born on January first of last year, she just passed the one year mark. We have been putting her in the paddock with Joe, the bull, but I am not sure that it has taken yet.

Luna is of course a female, born of her mother Dinah 2.0 and a bull whose presence was made in the form of a straw of frozen semen. Not sure that I even know his name, but I think it was Ayatollah. Yes, I too thought that was an odd name for a prize winning Jersey bull. This fine calf's name comes from the white marking on her head. Looks kind of like a moon. I go back and forth between thinking that her many white markings on her body make her distinctive and special, and preferring the solid, fawn colored hide of the other members of this fine herd.

With a bit of luck, Luna will be bred here in the next few weeks. The gestation period for cows is nine months and a few days and my goal is to have her calve for the first time on her second birthday. If I have done the math right, her conception day needs to be in the next few weeks.

Difficult to see in this photo, but Luna still has her horns. Although the popular misconception is that male cows have horns and females do not, actually they all are born with horns. The horns are burned off when they are a few weeks old to prevent myself from being gored from a head shaking cow. Luna's horns never really came in on schedule, however, and so I just left them there. They are still rather diminutive even after her twelve months of age. I expect that her horns will be left on her, giving her an unfair advantage over the other, less horned, members of this tribe.

Next cow up in the bovine trading card series: Boo.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

A View Into Past Summer Days

The weather these past few weeks has been rather dreary to me. The rains have been incessant, although I must confess that the temperature has been a most pleasing fifty degrees. While cleaning out an old computer, I found this quick video. It reminds me of summertime here on the farm. The cow in question is Boo, presently the head cow and nurse-maid to Marta and Teddy. Im the less than sober guy.

Cheese Cave

After recovering from the phage scare of December, I have put my thoughts back to the cheese cave project. What is the great challenge of this farm and this cheese business is trying to guess what I want this farm, this life to be five years in the future. Designing and building a cheese cave is the embodiment of this challenge.

Presently I make one cheese: Dinah's Cheese,a fresh cows' milk bloomy rind soft cheese. It is aged for twenty five days and is aged in coolers in the make room. I like making this cheese, it is tasty, and moves from milk to cheese to customer in less than a month.

I want to make a second cheese. In fact I have been making small amounts of the new cheese already. To be called Francesca's Cheese, it is a hard cheese. This cheese will be approximately ten pounds when fully aged, made of cows milk and with luck, similar to a Grana Padano or Parmigiano. With a lot of luck.

What is different about this new cheese is that it needs to age for six, eight, ten, twelve months and it is quite large compared to the seven ounce Dinah's that are aging by the hundreds in the small coolers. The need is therefore for a large cheese cave.

I have hired an architect, whose usual jobs are human houses, and have asked her to design a cave for me. We have been going back and forth for weeks, with a great, long meeting yesterday. The plans are almost done and then the structural engineer will give his recommendations for the way that the walls and ceilings must be constructed.

The design is for a room approximately two hundred and fifty square feet, with a barrel vaulted ceiling. This rolling ceiling will help the air to move around the room freely, as opposed to a flat ceiling with potentially dead pockets of air. The entire bunker is built underground, with at least four feet of soil between the uppermost part of the building and the ground. With that much soil covering the cave, I hope to keep the interior temperature at a constant, year round fifty degrees.

The challenge is guessing how much cheese I will make in a few years to determine the size of this storage room. Yesterday I finally got to the point that I cannot predict the future, and that the better idea is to make an ample cave with the potential for expansion. Seems like a good plan.

Updates to follow as the work progresses.

A Cheese Hiatus

I got a bit too big for my britches. Or at least, I was lucky for a while.

Throughout the summer, through the fall and then into winter, the cheese making business was a pleasure. Not perfect, not always easy and certainly a challenge, but I was making good cheese. And oftentimes I made great cheese. I felt that I was set and nothing could bring me down. And then one day it all ended.

Around the first of December I got a text message from Jorge, who works for me here on the Farm, while I was in the city delivering cheese that there was a problem. He grasped that this change in the cheese made the day before was not right.

Usually the cheeses rest overnight and then in the morning are ready to be unmolded and salted and to further drain and dry. This batch on that cold, December morning were liberated from their molds and promptly fell apart. They were not cheese by any definition, but rather some loose curds that couldn't hold a form. When I returned home late that evening I found the draining table covered in wet curds.

Cheese making is unlike anything else I have ever done. I believe that most people think it is akin to cooking -- add a little of this, cook it a little till done, season till you like it and so on. Sadly, it bears little resemblance to cooking. It is more like a science project. The reactions are chemical in nature with very little room for error.

And so I spent the next two weeks after the curd collapse making batches of cheese and trying to find the condition or the process that had exceeded its variance. There are many, many such important points in the making process that can affect the final outcome. The temperature in the room, the age of the milk (one day old, two days old, three days old), the pH of the milk, the age of the cow that produced the milk, how late the cow(s) are in their lactation, the temperature of the milk at any number of numerous points in the twenty four hour process and so on. It is a lengthy list and I needed to check each one.

After two weeks I still was making soggy curds that could not be called cheese. This was an interesting challenge, one that I was fascinated about except that this wasn't in a classroom, this is my business. An article had just come out in the local paper and the demand for this luscious Dinah's Cheese went way up, just as my supply diminished to nothing. Nothing.

And then I isolated the problem. Through a continual checking of the pH of the milk, I realized that the pH was not dropping when it should be. The only possible cause was the starter cultures that I was adding were dying. Now I knew the problem, but not the reason for it. I then called in a couple of favors and asked people far more experienced than myself.

Margaret Morris at Glengarry Cheese Supply in Ontario quickly identified the problem as Bacteriophage. I had never heard of this and was astounded to find out that such a serious problem was not in my playbook. These phage, are airborne viruses that feed on whey spilt on the floor of the cheese making room. They have a most unpopular characteristic -- they have the ability to kill the cultures that are added to milk. Now that I had identified the problem I needed to find the remedy.

David Gremmels, an old friend and now the owner of Rogue Creamery and the President of the American Cheese Society, filled me in on how to combat these pesky phage. The whey is immediately removed from the make-room; the floors, walls and often ceilings are often bleached; everything in the room is constantly disinfected, bleached and rinsed; anyone entering the make-room walks through a disinfectant bath and then their boots are changed as well; and the cultures are changed daily to confuse the phage.

This sounded much more like a job all of a sudden rather than this fun project on one corner of the farm. Jorge and I stepped up to the challenge, bleaching everything in sight, adding new boots just for the make-room, and installing a bleach mat to walk through before entering.
Thankfully, this seems to have worked to kill or at least to keep the phage is check. New cultures have indeed managed to put these phage on the defensive, allowing my cultures to grow and multiply in the fresh, warm, sweet milk.

And so now I can say that the curing cases are filling up again with new cheeses. In a few days time they will be ready to be delivered to the city: ripe, melting with gooey centers, a bright, white rind holding it all in. I must admit that there were a few days that I didn't think I would ever find the problem, as each failed batch was thrown into a bucket and dropped into the pig pen for the hogs to devour. Only now is this a good story.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

That Wet Time of Year

This farm here of mine has a few animals: a couple of dozen chickens, a couple of pigs and at last count nine cows. Okay, maybe that is more than a few. And then there are those two dogs running around, but they don't really count as farm animals.

What is notable to me this time of year is the impact that they beast make on the land during the wet, winter months. Each of those creatures walks around, leaving their manure on a daily, hourly basis. Through some urine in there and it is quite a mess.

Most of the year the land can absorb all their activities well. The manure is broken down quickly and becomes a part of the pastures. The urine immediately soaks in and feeds the soil as well. When the sod is totally saturated, this takes a bit more time. And all during this time the cows walk by and compounds the problem.

Those places where the sod has been broken by the cows' hoofs it is even worse. Each time they pass by their sharp, weight feet churn up the mud that much more until a virtual brown soup remains.

This is certainly a predictable situation and one that will evaporate as the sun reappears in April or May. But what it reminds me of is the advice given to me by an older farmer many years ago. He said that you should only make decisions about the number of animals for your farm in December, and never in June or July.

In the summer months everything is possible, all is sunny and beautiful and the chores are a delight. This past week, troding through the cow paddock to let the cows out of the barn, slipping and sliding on the mud is less than a joy. Trekking out to the farm paddock to feed the bull is not a lovely jaunt on a bright, warm day, but rather an ordeal; navigating the large stretches of flooded pastures between me and him. Thankfully, the temperature is warm and the stock tanks are still filled with warm water. When the temperature drops below freezing and an great effort is needed to break through the icy top to free the drinking water for the beasts the challenge is that much more.

So I try to take that old advice to heart this time of year when it comes to animals. I must say that it is easy advice when the rains are incessant. It is those sunny, warm, dry days of summer when I tend to forget and fill the pastures with more cows.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Matha Stewart Arrives at the Farm -- sort of

This past week, Dinah 2.0 gave birth to a calf. A beautiful heiffer that George quickly and distinctly named Marta. As in Marta Stewart. I don't have the heart to tell him that her name is actually Martha, so this young calf is now known as Marta.

What is interesting about this calf is not that she is named after the queen of American domestic culture, but rather that she is living with Boo, her adopted mother. In that photo here, that is Boo just behind her, not Dinah 2.0, her actual birth mother.

While Dinah 2.0 could certainly be an excellent mother, I choose to mix up the parenting here in the barn. Dinah's milk is of very high quality as she is young and has just freshened. Boo, although certainly a handsome beast, is much older and her milk is of lesser quality. As I am trying to produce cheese of the highest quality possible, Boo's milk has been kept from the cheese making. As Marta is quite hungry and drinks a great deal of milk daily, I decided to attach her to Boo. Her new mother is calm, patient and slow, unlike her birth mother who is young, pushy and full of way too much energy. For the record, it was Dinah 2.0 whose tail damaged my eye. Enough said.

This experiment in animal husbandry has been a great success. I often stand by the fence and watch the ever giving mother Boo and her young charge. With luck Boo will be the wet nurse for the young calves to come.