The other day I stopped by Taft Hill Dairy and asked owner Lugene Sas if I could come by for a visit and ask some questions for a farmer profile. My request was met with sincere warmth and hospitality and I was told I could come by any day between 3 and 5 pm, during milking. I returned later in the day and had the pleasure of spending a beautiful Colorado afternoon following Lugene around his farm. Set amidst the backdrop of the gorgeous Rocky Mountains, Lugene runs a small milking and beef operation.
The first thing I noticed, aside from his greeter dog Elly, was the admiration Lugene has for his herd. It is apparent when he speaks of them and about what they do. Not what they do for him, but literally what they do, as in the process of making milk. After 30 plus years in the dairy business, it is remarkable that he still experiences joy and admiration in the daily task of working with his herd.
Lugene says he wasn’t always so impressed with cows. He grew up in Southern Minnesota where his dad owned a hardware store until he was sixteen. His father then bought a farm and began raising beef cattle. His uncles were dairy men. His wife grew up on a dairy farm. Maybe it was fate that he too would one day do both.
He began working on a dairy farm in 1979. After a year of working on the farm his initial dislike turned to amazement at how hard the cows work to make their milk. When he talks about the mechanics of how a cow turns their fiber into milk, how they pump ten gallons of blood through their system to produce one gallon of milk, he describes not only the biology but the miracle of the process as well. That explanation alone answered my question “Why do you do what you do?”
After ten years working for dairies, he and his wife started their own. He has worked the gamut, from high volume conventional farms milking three times a day to the present incarnation of working a small, manageable herd. Manageable being a relevant term of course. When he first started out it was 20 hour days, seven days a week. It was as unsustainable as it sounds. Through various transitions, and a change in the laws near seven years ago, his farm evolved to a smaller herd and raw milk cow shares.
Currently, Lugene milks approximately eighteen cows a day, once a day. He went back and forth testing one milking versus what has become the traditional two milkings per day and he settled on the one. “If I thought it was harmful for the cows I would go back to two. But they make just enough each day and it hasn’t been a problem. And truth is, I’m getting older and it’s easier.” Lugene doesn’t do this alone. He has the assistance of a few high school and college kids who come to the farm each day at milking time. Lugene and his wife also have off farm jobs, as many farmers do these days.
The cows, made up of Holsteins, Jerseys and Guernsey’s, calf approximately every 14 months. They have a rest period when they are done milking, before the cycle begins anew. For most dairies, female calves are prized, as they renew the herd as older cows are retired from the cycle. At Taft Hill, most of the calves are kept, with the males raised for beef shares. Of the eighteen that are milked each day, the milk from half goes to cover the shares of nearly 450 members, and the remainder goes to feeding the calves. Many of whom have clearly imprinted on Lugene.
Of course, I had to visit the calves. I am a sucker for big brown eyes. And those lashes. They melt me. The calves are segregated from the rest of the herd in calf huts. When I noted that Lugene must still love dairying after so many years, based on how he smiles when he talks of it given the inherent hard work and long hours, he attributes it to the calves. “Every baby born is phenomenal, a miracle.” That reverence shows in how closely he watches over the new additions, monitoring their health, weight gain, eating habits, and their budding personalities.
Each member of the farm has a name. It was impressive that he knew each one, and could rattle off their kin, characteristics and personalities. While there are some crosses in the herd, he tries to maintain a percentage of pure breeds. The majority of the cows owned by share holders are the Jerseys and Guernsey’s, though personally he prefers the crisp taste from the Holsteins.
After listening to his experiences, the one question left was why raw milk? For one, he was raised on it, as were generations of his family. Aside from that, it would be the quality. Intact, as he called it. With their high fiber diet of organic alfalfa and organic grass hay, local silage, and wet brew from O’Dell brewery, where Lugene works removing the wet brew from the facility, the milk is high in omega 3’s, low in omega 6’s and has a high content of CLA proteins. It is also digestible for many with lactose intolerance, as members have attested. When milk is conventionally pasteurized, its molecular structure is changed. To some, that structural change makes the choice of raw milk reason enough.
During my tour of the milking facility, the thing that struck me was how clean not only the facility was, but the cows too. I grew up near dairies back east. They were muddy and smelly and it was always wet. The same doesn’t hold true here. I remarked on my surprise. As Lugene put it, moisture is a dairy man’s enemy. It creates conditions ripe for bacteria. Given the dry climate, and the care taken to ensure moisture is kept to a minimum, the result is noticeable. In the dairy room he explained if the cows happen to kick the machine off, everything stops, all the equipment is drained and cleaned, and they start over. Quality and cleanliness is the priority. The bottling room shows the same attention.
So, how does one purchase raw milk? You don’t. You purchase a share in a cow. At Taft Hill, that cow has a name and you can see her when you pick up your share or if you request a visit. Lugene is also open to folks coming by, asking questions and trying his delicious milk. Personally, I was never much of a milk drinker. It always left a funny coated feel in my mouth. I didn’t like the aftertaste or the sweetness. Then, I tried raw milk. Crisper, fresher and sweet without tasting sugary, creamy without tasting fatty. If you’re curious, I would call or stop in and say hello to Lugene. Tell him Erica sent you.