The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

Home-Grown Yogurt

April 19th, 2015 by Ed Bruske


This week marked an important occasion for us: We started consuming the milk from our Jersey cow, Emily.

Our first milk project: yogurt. The milk looked a little thin, like skim milk. And sure enough, the yogurt turned out runny as well. What could that be about? Well, as novice dairy farmers, we are learning new stuff all the time. Turns out a milk cow gets to decide whether she “lets down” the creamy part of her milk or save it for her calf. Since we’re sharing Emily with her boy calf, it’s a good bet she’s holding back on us–at least for the time being.

How can a cow possibly do that? I’m sure it has something to do with hormones and an instinct for perpetuating the species. The calf is growing by leaps and bounds, but the milk Emily gives us is thin gruel. In fact, it’s getting better incrementally each day. And she is getting a little bit easier to milk as time passes. We’re still going at it by hand, until we can run an extension cord out to our makeshift milking parlor in the walk-in shelter and train her on our new milking machine. We’re told that Jerseys new to milking like to dance around and that would describe Emily perfectly. Not only are we first-time milkers, we’re trying to milk a moving target.

But, back to the yogurt. We’re not trying to make raw milk yogurt. Some purists insist on heating the milk very little, in order to preserve all those microbes that come out of the cow naturally. For the time being, we’re not taking any chances. We heat the milk to 190 degrees Fahrenheit as part of the yogurt process.

To make my yogurt, I’ve always heated the milk just short of simmering. I think many people don’t understand that making thick yogurt is not about how much inoculant (bacteria culture) you put in it. It’s not about how long you incubate the yogurt. It’s about the heat you apply. Because yogurt thickens when heat forces the protein molecules in the milk to bind together. The longer you can keep the milk at a high heat–say, 190 degrees–the thicker it will be, up to a point. If you want to make really thick yogurt–for instance, Greek-style yogurt–then you have to think about draining out the liquids, even using centrifugal force to drain out the liquids.

What I conclude about Emily’s current state of yogurt is that she is still holding back some of those protein solids that otherwise would be binding together to make the yogurt thick. I guess we just have to be patient and keep milking.

As for my yogurt formula, I’ve spelled it out in this space many times. It’s very simple. I fill a quart jar about three-quarters full with whole milk, then add cream to the top of the shoulder of the jar, leaving room for the inoculant (some of the last batch batch of yogurt). Heat this over very low heat in a heavy sauce pan to 190 or 195 degrees. Remove the pot from the heat and allow the milk to cool to 120 degrees. Whisk in a couple of heaping tablespoons of yogurt from your last batch, containing the live bacteria culture. Warm up your quart jar, fill with the milk/inoculant mix and place in a small, insulated cooler with some other jars filled with hot water.

Allow the milk to incubate in this warm environment for 24 to 48 hours, replenishing the hot water in the other jars if you so desire. Voila! Perfectly thick and delicious yogurt. Just add fresh fruit.

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Shearing Time

April 17th, 2015 by Ed Bruske


Before we even bought our farm in Upstate New York I gave quite a bit of thought to the kind of sheep we’d want to help us mow the property. I settled on a type originally from Australia–the Dorper–that sheds hair rather than growing wool that needs to be shorn. I figured in our dotage we wouldn’t want to be bothered learning how to wrangle sheep to shear them. Eventually my wife would drive hundreds of miles across the state to purchase a small group of purebred Dorper ewes and a ram to start our future block. Perhaps she needn’t have bothered.

Our first sheep purchase consisted of six Friesian wool sheep that had been culled from a nearby cheese operation because they weren’t producing lambs. Through a neighbor, we met Joe, who inseminates cows by day and shears sheep in his off hours. Joe’s price for shearing–$10 per sheep–seems so reasonable, I wonder now why we spent so much time agonizing over this aspect of sheep maintenance.

Spring is the time for shearing. As ewes prepare to give birth, you want all that wool out of the way. But you don’t want to shear too early, as the sheep lose protection from the elements once the wool is removed. Not only are they more exposed to cold, but the lanolin they build up in their wool coats acts as waterproofing. It takes a few days before they build up protection again.

According to Joe, our Friesians are more resistant to being shorn than other breeds. They don’t sit still for it. “I guess that’s just my luck,” Joe says, as he wrangles another ewe into position and starts zip, zip, zipping with his electric clippers, starting from the sheep’s head and working toward the tail. The wool peels away in thick swaths. After Joe turns the sheep and shears the other side, holding the ewe’s head between his legs, the wool coat lies on the ground in one big piece, ready to be cleaned and spun into–what? A new sweater, maybe?

I look forward to having Joe on the farm shearing because we have a chance to chat and Joe’s a wealth of information. He used to own a mixed flock of some 50 sheep himself. In addition, he knows a ton about cows.

For instance, Joe confirms that many of our area farmers had to adjust to an extremely cold and lengthy winter by feeding their stock extra grain. He also confirms that identifying stress in sheep is hard when they over-winter with all that wool.

That helpful knowledge comes a bit late for us and the yearling ewe who died in our care recently after an especially stressful pregnancy. But this is how we learn to be livestock farmers: one conversation at a time.

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