Passages

Spring is always a time of new beginnings on the farm, and that’s certainly been true this year. In early March, before Spring even officially got here, we had over a dozen goat kids born. It’d actually been a long drought; the kids were way overdue. We woke up the morning of March 6th, still with zero kids. By the evening of March 7th, we had SEVEN. Two sets of twins, and our first-ever set of triplets. Over the course of the next week, the rest of our goats delivered. They ended on the evening of March 13th, with another set of triplets. Here they were, trying to warm up in my office, the morning of March 14th:

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One of the males was very strong and went right back out to his mother. The female unfortunately had been born in very poor shape, and she didn’t make it past the first day. The other male was in-between; he was in poor shape, but just strong enough to pull himself to his feet, stand, and take a few steps at a time. He stayed in my office for several days, hanging out with the dogs. I actually grew adept at bottle-feeding him at my desk, while checking email. (The Yeoman Farm Children were bottle-feeding a couple of others, out in the barn.)

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To say we had our hands full was an understatement. We certainly didn’t need a dozen goat kids; what we really wanted was the milk, and a few females to keep as replacement milkers. One of our goats in particular, Button, was getting really old (she was our last surviving goat to have made the move from Illinois nine years ago), and had been looking especially worn out after this most recent kidding.

Mrs. Yeoman Farmer got in contact with the woman who serves as the goat coordinator for our county’s 4-H program, to see if they had any interest in our males. (The Yeoman Farm Children themselves haven’t participated in 4-H; we think it’s a fine organization, but we’ve simply had too many other things going on.) The goat coordinator was delighted and relieved to hear from us. As it turns out, they’d been unable to get kids this year from the large goat producer who usually supplies them. With the weird weather last fall, it seems everyone’s goats had gone into heat late. That meant kids were late this year. She had a long list of 4-H children who were wanting goat kids to raise; MYF’s call had come just in time.

All our goat kids are mixed dairy breeds, which is fine for our purposes, but it means the males don’t get especially large – and they’re not especially valuable as breeders. So, we let seven of the males go for ten bucks each. We gave away the frail one for free. And we even threw in what was left of the milk replacer that we’d bought.

All told, financially, we barely broke even (the 22# bag of milk replacer alone cost over $50) — but that wasn’t our goal. We wanted those bucklings gone, and we wanted to help out some local children. Above all, we wanted the milk. And are we ever getting milk: at least six quarts at each milking. That’s twelve or thirteen quarts a day. (Yes, that’s more than three gallons.)

Our eldest daughter, who’s taking a year off after graduating a year early from high school, has basically turned the kitchen into a cheese factory. Mrs. Yeoman Farmer has been assisting, especially with the hard cheeses; her press has been running more or less non-stop.

As if that weren’t enough, March decided to truly go out as a lamb: on the very last day of the month, we had our very first ones of the year born. FletcherBelle delivered a healthy set of twins (a male and a female), and has been doing an excellent job raising them.

FletcherBelle Lambs 2017

We had another set of twins born two days ago; in fact, they arrived while I was out in the barn taking care of early-morning chores. The female was very strong, and immediately thriving. The male was barely alive, and looked like he hadn’t fully developed in utero (his eyes, in particular, were badly deformed). I wrapped that one in a towel, took him to my office, and made him comfortable in a box near the furnace. I also held him in my lap from time to time. We knew he wasn’t going to make it, but got some satisfaction from knowing his few hours with us weren’t spent abandoned on the floor of the barn.

It hasn’t all been joy and rebirth. Life is a cycle, and we’ve had some sad reminders of it lately (much sadder than the loss of a couple of newborns). A week ago Sunday (March 26th), we lost our very oldest animal, a sheep named Conundrum. She was nearly thirteen years old, and the last couple of winters had been difficult for her. She hadn’t produced a lamb in a while. In recent weeks, she was getting more unsteady on her feet. We really should’ve butchered her last fall, but none of us had the heart to do it — she’d just been with us so long, and was such a fixture in the flock.

Conundrum had the distinction of being our first lamb born to a ewe that’d been born on our property. She arrived on a Saturday morning: April 17, 2004. I was in California, on a business trip, when I got the call from Mrs Yeoman Farmer. I remember being so happy, and so proud, I wanted to pass out cigars to my clients at our meeting. I can’t find any pictures of her as a lamb, but this was her as a yearling:

conundrum - yearling

And this was her in the Spring of 2014, at the age of ten, with the last two lambs she produced (she had a premature stillbirth the next year, and did not lamb last year).

conundrum 2014-2

She’d been especially unsteady on Saturday, despite the extra attention we’d been giving her. I checked on the flock late Saturday, before going to bed, and she’d seemed alright. Then, when I came out the next morning, I found that she’d left us sometime overnight. Hauling her body out of the barn was terribly sad, but I was grateful she hadn’t lingered in pain. And I did give thanks for all that she’d provided us over her nearly thirteen years.

We closed out that week by losing Button, our oldest goat. As I mentioned above, she’d been tired – and having twins had taken a lot out of her. She was still nursing her female, and we weren’t taking any additional milk from her; our idea was to keep this female as Button’s replacement, and build her as strong as we could by letting her take as much milk as she wanted. Button had seemed to be holding her own, despite being tired, but sometime in the early hours of Saturday … she wasn’t able to keep going.

I found her when I came to do chores that morning, and quickly moved her body from the barn. Our eldest daughter was very fond of Button, and I knew she wouldn’t want to find her like this. She’d want to remember her the way she was, like in this photo from nearly seven years ago (note the lopsided horns – Button was always getting herself stuck in fences, so we trimmed the right horn back to make it easier to free her):

Button-Kid 6.27.10

Disposing of the bodies of dead animals on the farm is always a challenge. Digging graves for mature sheep and goats is tough without a backhoe, so we prefer to give them a “Viking Sendoff” (minus the boat). Early last week, one of the Yeoman Farm Children and I built a large pile of logs and tree branches, and placed Conundrum atop it to incinerate her remains. This past Saturday, we did the same for Button.

It’s a bit sad: we’re down to exactly two animals, both of them sheep, which made the move with us from Illinois at the end of 2007. Soon there will be none. But that’s all part of the cycle of life on a farm, I suppose.

And it’s certainly something to contemplate as we bottle-feed Button’s beautiful little orphaned doe kid, and think ahead to when she’ll be producing kids — and milk — of her own.

Pet Lamb

Monday evening, we had to make a tough call regarding the runty lamb born over the weekend. She was not making any move to nurse on her own, and was not taking a lot of milk each time we went out to feed her. Nasty cold weather was moving in, and the draftiness of the barn was beginning to take a toll. The lamb was expending so much energy just keeping herself warm, she’d never get to the size needed to thrive. Worse, she squeezed out of the separating pen and wandered off to various corners of the barn on more than one occasion.

I really didn’t want to move her out of the barn. That’s a last-resort option, especially for the lambs, because the mother ewes virtually never take a lamb back after it’s been gone for more than a few hours. That’s why I left her out there as long as I did. But by Monday evening, it was getting clear she’d likely die if we just left her there. And since she wasn’t nursing directly on her own, there wasn’t much of a “relationship” left to disrupt.

So, here she is, living in my office building.

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We got a large box, and lined it with an old towel. I got another old towel, and swaddle her with it for each feeding, in case she decides to pass something out her rear end while I’m holding her (it happens).

Getting her warmed up has definitely helped. She’s still not eating as much as I would like, but she’s taking anywhere from an ounce to two ounces at each feeding. Yesterday afternoon, she walked all around my office exploring it. She’s urinating and defecating, so something is definitely moving through her system.

Even so, she’s weak. She curls up and sleeps a lot. She’s not terribly steady on her feet. Her right front foot skews outward at an incorrect angle. Everything about her screams “cull,” and I suppose we’re silly for not finishing her off right now.

But I just can’t do it. It’s the Principle of the Thing. For whatever reason, we’ve been given stewardship over her. As long as she’s willing and able to take a bottle, I’ll give her one. We’ll cuddle her in our arms as we watch television. Bottom line: we’ll let this thing play out, and see where it goes.

If there’s any upshot to the situation, it’s that we’re getting to milk Cocoa Puff. We still have her in the separating pen, meaning we’re able to give her extra feed (including a little grain, to keep her milk production up.) Yesterday afternoon, Homeschooled Farm girl got a full quart out of her – with plenty left over for the healthy lamb. HFG is planning to make yogurt out of that quart of sheep milk, which is one of Mrs Yeoman Farmer’s favorite treats.

And, in the meantime, all three of the other lambs are thriving. I just kind of wish the rest of them would hurry up and get born!

Feeding Runty

I always hate leaving the property during lambing season; you never know what you’ll find when you come home. Still, you can’t simply suspend the rest of your life. So, after getting the flock as well-situated as we could yesterday morning, we went to my father-in-law’s house and enjoyed a nice Sunday afternoon visit and dinner. (Including a leg of lamb from last year’s flock, which we did up in the Crock Pot with potatoes from last year’s garden.)

As nice as the visit was, I was anxious to get home and check on the sheep. Last April, over the course of a 48-hour period early in the month, we had something like a dozen lambs born. It was pure chaos in the barn. If a deluge like that was coming, I wanted to be there to help manage it.

Fortunately, the lambs appear to be taking their time and spacing themselves out for now. None was born while we were gone. After getting hay for the sheep and goats, I climbed into the makeshift separating pen we’d built yesterday morning for Cocoa Puff and her twins. The larger twin seemed to be doing quite well. The smaller one was looking much worse. She was curled up in pretty much the same place where we’d left her in the morning. I picked her up, and she seemed very weak. I knew it was time to intervene.

Homeschooled Farm Girl and I got a pan of warm, soapy water. I then used a towel to clean Cocoa Puff’s udder thoroughly. The warmth has the added effect of helping the udder relax and the milk to let down. I held Cocoa Puff securely, and HFG milked about two cups of colostrum into a bowl (leaving plenty in the udder for the larger lamb). After milking Cocoa Puff twice a day last year, HFG knew exactly how to do it. It was just like old times, and those two cups of colostrum came out in a flash.

I found one of the bottles and nipples that Little Miss Sweetness had used in the NICU as an infant, filled it with fresh colostrum, and sat down to feed Runty. My fear was that she would be too weak even to suckle. Fortunately, we’d gotten to her in time. As soon as the first drops reached her tongue, she went right at it. Within a couple of minutes, shIMG_20160404_111650265e’d taken all 2.5oz. I refilled the bottle, got her back on the nipple, and she took another half ounce or so.

Just to make sure that everything was going well with the other new arrivals, I offered the bottle to all three of the other lambs. I caught each one, sat down with it, and put the nipple into its mouth. None was the slightest bit interested. And that was a relief! Combined with how substantial each of the lambs felt, their disinterest in the bottle confirmed for me that they’d been getting plenty of milk from Mom.

Runty took another bottle before I went in for the night, and one this morning when I came out to do chores. (No lambs were born overnight, BTW.) I just checked on them again at 11:30, and gave her another bottle. She’s not really strong, but she did take 2oz. I’m definitely concerned about her small size, and not terribly optimistic about her long term prospects. But as long as she’s going to keep fighting, I’ll keep feeding her. For me, it’s a difficult emotional balancing act: I want to do everything I can for her, while not getting too attached. That’s tough to do sometimes, when you’re working so closely with a little creature.

While she was feeding, her twin sister nursed directly from Cocoa Puff. That was good to see. I put Runty down, and Cocoa Puff sniffed her all over. Then she did the same with the other lamb. This is a bonding ritual, and the primary way a mother sheep recognizes which lambs are hers. When she sniffs one that isn’t hers, or that she’s rejected, she typically head-butts it away. Cocoa Puff didn’t do that with either lamb, so that’s a good sign. If we can get Runty big enough and can teach her to nurse directly, that would be excellent — and, for her part, it’s looking like Cocoa Puff will take her back.

In the meantime, it’s looking like Runty is going to be a bottle baby. And that’s okay. Cocoa Puff is a very milky sheep, so this will mean a good bit of milk — and sheep cheese — for our family.

Taking the Fourth … And Lambs!

I’ve been an active member of the Knights of Columbus for many years now; the Knights are a Catholic men’s service organization, whose members give countless volunteer hours (and dollars) helping the Church and the community. I’ve also found that being active in the Knights is a great way to meet other like-minded men, and I very much enjoy the time we spend together. My oldest son (previously known on the blog as Homeschooled Farm Boy … which no longer really fits, because he’s no longer a boy and he’s graduated from homeschooling to college, but whatever) joined about a year ago as well.

The K of C has four “degrees” of membership. The First is where everyone begins. Over time, as members decide to make more of a commitment, they can advance to additional degrees. I quickly advanced to the third degree, which is considered “full membership,” and had been there for a long time. I guess I just hadn’t felt a big sense of urgency about taking the fourth degree; it is an optional “extra” on top of the full 3rd degree membership, so not strictly necessary. One practical barrier: it seemed the exemplification ceremonies were always a long distance from home, and would require too big of an investment of time. Don’t get me wrong: I did want to become a Fourth Degree Knight. I just wasn’t sure when I’d be able to do it. (For those unfamiliar, this link has a good summary about degrees of K of C membership.)

This spring, the opportunity finally presented itself. There would be a Fourth Degree exemplification not only in the area — but at our own parish. How could I pass that up? What sealed the deal was that my son also wanted to do it. We’d be able to advance to the highest degree of Knighthood together.

The standard “uniform” of the 4th Degree is a black tuxedo, and everyone needs one for the exemplification ceremony. (A small number of 4th Degree knights make up the “color corps” that most Catholics are familiar with: those are the tuxedo-clad men with cool hats, capes, and swords who sometimes form processions at Mass — but that’s only a small number of 4th Degree guys. The rest of us don’t dress up like that.)

I hadn’t even worn a tuxedo since my wedding, which was more than 20 years ago. My son had never worn one. I ended up buying one for myself, and we rented one for him; he needed it for the exemplification, but he’s probably not finished growing. Chances are, he’s not going to attend another ceremony where he’ll absolutely need the tux before he does finish growing, so we figured a rental made sense for now.

The exemplification was today. It was an absolutely wonderful experience. Not only the ceremony itself, but the full day of fellowship with my brother Knights from all over the region (some drove quite a distance). After the exemplification itself, we all attended the 4:30pm Mass at our parish with our families. There was then a reception, and a big catered banquet. If anyone reading this is a 3rd Degree Knight who’s been on the fence about advancing to the highest degree, my advice is: just do it. It’s totally worth it.

Here we were, after the ceremony, while waiting for Mass to begin:

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We finally got home sometime after 9pm. I changed out of my tux, pulled on my junky farm clothes, slipped into my boots, and headed to the barn. And … found a wonderful surprise. The first two lambs had just arrived! It’s hard to get a good photo in the barn at night, so this will have to suffice for now:

Cocoa Puff Twins 2016

They are twin females, from a chocolate brown ewe we call Cocoa Puff. She’s a good mother, and was busy getting them cleaned up. She still had afterbirth hanging from her rear end, and both lambs were still pretty wet, so they’d only recently been born. I was really glad I’d decided to keep the barn door closed tight today while we were gone; it was a pretty chilly day, with snow and wind gusts (so much for Spring). The temperature inside the barn stayed reasonably comfortable, so I’m hoping both lambs will be fine. I’ll check on them again before I go to bed, but Cocoa Puff is a pro.

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Last year, Cocoa Puff’s lamb died. That was sad, but Homeschooled Farm Girl saw an opportunity to begin trying to milk our sheep. Cocoa Puff gave a lot of milk, and we made quite a bit of really outstanding cheese (cheddar) from it. By summertime, HFG had gotten Cocoa Puff pretty tame and trained for milking — and really enjoyed it. The only disappointment about Cocoa Puff having twins is that they’ll need all her milk. We won’t be able to milk her again this year.

There are still about a dozen more ewes to deliver. I’m sure at least one of them will have a singleton, or will lose a lamb, and thus give us a chance to make sheep cheese again.

What an amazing day! From ceremonies with tuxedos, to the lambing pen, all within a couple of hours. I can’t imagine a better life.

Easter Goat Update

Things are settling down after our Easter Sunday goat kid adventure. The kid spent the night in my office, and then on Monday morning we moved him to the barn with his mother. They’ve been together in a separating pen, to facilitate their bonding. It’s a lot easier on them if the rest of the herd isn’t constantly walking through and causing disruptions.

The biggest problem was that the kid never nursed immediately after his delivery. He did take a bottle of colostrum, which was good, but he needed to figure out how to get his milk directly from his mother. We weren’t even sure if Thistle would take care of him at this point.

Homeschooled Farm Girl went out several times on Monday and Tuesday, physically putting the kid on one of Thistle’s teats. Fortunately, he got the hang of it quickly. Even better, Thistle stood steady while he took the milk. By Wednesday morning when I came out for chores, he was on a teat and suckling all by himself. That was a big relief. The process doesn’t always go this smoothly.

Thistle-Kid 2016b

There was another potential problem, however. While putting the kid on a teat Monday, HFG noticed that Thistle’s birth canal appeared to have prolapsed somewhat as a result of the delivery. I looked at it, and agreed. The same thing had happened to one of our other goats; the vet was able to get it back in and sew it in place, and that goat was able to breed again without issue.

Tuesday morning, Mrs. Yeoman Farmer ran Thistle to the vet. By the time he looked at Thistle, the goat’s vulva had largely drawn itself back inside. The vet said it definitely had prolapsed, but was fixing itself — so wasn’t going to need medical intervention. He gave us some advice for getting her cleaned up and continuing to make sure it healed properly, and charged us just $25 for the visit.

Although it was sad that Thistle’s other goat kid was stillborn, that does mean she has plenty of milk for her surviving kid — and for our family. HFG has begun milking her twice a day, and we’re getting around a quart each time.

Thistle Milk

One last note about Thistle: a couple of years ago, she had a really nasty growth of some sort in her left eye. We took her to the vet (same one), and he said the eye was already ruined. The only real treatment was to remove the eyeball before the growth spread. Apparently, popping an eyeball out is a pretty simple surgical procedure (who knew?). He then sewed Thistle’s eyelid closed, to protect the empty socket. She was back with the herd in no time.

Does she look funny? Absolutely! But at least she’s now very easy to catch. All you have to do is approach her from the left rear. She can’t see you coming. She’s a very gentle goat, quite milky, and easy to milk. I’m relieved she’s doing so well after this latest scare, and back on her feet. Here’s hoping we get to keep our “one-eyed goat” in the herd for many more years.

Thistle-Kid 2016a

The Milkman Cometh

When Little Miss Sweetness made her dramatic arrival two years ago, she had a gastric issue which required immediate surgery. She would end up hospitalized for the first month of her life as she recovered. She also had a heart defect, which would require a separate surgery a few months later. (All these issues are now behind her, and she’s a thriving two year old.)

For the first two and a half weeks of her life, LMS got all her nutrition intravenously. Only slowly did the hospital staff allow her to transition to breast milk; even then, it had to be delivered by NG tube, so she wouldn’t have to work hard sucking – and so the amounts could be strictly measured.

However, from Day One, Mrs. Yeoman Farmer’s milk supply was as abundant as it’d been with any of our other kids. So, as she sat by LMS’s side in the NICU, day after day, and week after week, she pumped. And pumped. And pumped. For one stretch, she was regularly producing 50 to 60 ounces per day.

One of my jobs was to walk the filled-and-labeled 2.7oz milk bottles down the hall to the hospital milk room, where they would be frozen. My other job was to scoop up another handful of empty bottles, and bring them back to MYF.

Little Miss Sweetness barely dented that supply of frozen milk by the time she was discharged. When the hospital milk room packed all those little bottles into Styrofoam coolers for us to take home, we were astounded at the sheer volume. The five coolers took up virtually the entire rear-most cargo portion of our minivan! I think I muttered something about being glad we had so many chest freezers back at the farm. We were going to need them.

And the milk didn’t stop coming. The doctors didn’t want LMS to nurse directly, or even exert herself sucking from a bottle, until she’d had the heart surgery and made a full recovery from it. So, with the NG tube in until at least November, MYF had to keep pumping. I made bulk purchases of larger milk freezer bags on Amazon, which were soon filled and added to our stockpile. I started wondering if we might also need another chest freezer.

LMS eventually had her heart surgery, made a strong recovery, and got the green light to begin nursing directly. She picked it up right away, much to our relief. And just in time: the pump had gotten so much use, MYF had literally worn it out and the thing was now falling apart.

What to do with all that milk in the freezer(s)? We had one 9 cubic foot chest freezer packed to the gills with nothing but milk, with the overflow stuffed into other freezers wherever I could find space.

We didn’t want to get rid of all of it; there was no guarantee that MYF’s milk supply would remain high enough for long enough. The “strategic reserve” gave peace of mind that we’d never have to buy formula. Still, barring a true catastrophe, it was far more than we would ever need. We wanted to donate at least some of it to a family that could get some good use out of it.

But how could we find that family?

MYF began making calls. The nearest milk bank was a long ways away, and wouldn’t take our milk anyway (understandably, because MYF hadn’t undergone a health screening, etc). The local crisis pregnancy center, which supplies formula for mothers who need it, didn’t know any mothers who wanted frozen breast milk. The local adoption agency didn’t know any adoptive mothers who wanted it. None of our friends had recently adopted a baby. No one knew anyone who’d recently adopted a baby.

So, the milk sat. And sat. And sat. We were now sure we would never need any of it for Little Miss Sweetness (who was rapidly becoming Big Miss Sweetness), but it was still not clear what we should do with it.

Finally, this spring, through word of mouth, we learned of mother-to-mother milk sharing networks. One of the largest is called “Eats on Feets,” and seems to operate primarily on Facebook. Mothers needing milk can post requests, as can families with milk to donate. People then connect through private messages, and arrange to get the milk from donor to recipient. In addition to the national Facebook page, there are numerous state-specific and region-specific chapter pages. This makes it easier to find local donors and recipients, so milk need not be shipped.

I browsed the Michigan listings, looking for families-in-need-of-milk that weren’t too far from us. Some of the requests were very simple, just giving a name and location. Others gave a fair amount of detail about the travails the family had been going through, and the lengths to which they were willing to drive for milk. It’s impossible to read these without being moved, and without wanting to help. I felt guilty that I hadn’t done more, sooner, to find this organization.

I sent several private messages, through Facebook, to mothers who’d posted requests for milk. (At this point, I wasn’t sure I was comfortable putting up a post announcing that we had milk. Perhaps it’s because I’m male, and virtually 100% of all posts were by mothers. I don’t know.) Some never responded at all, most likely because FB segregates messages from “non-friends” into what’s essentially a spam folder. If you don’t check it, you don’t see those messages. Others did respond, but either (1) decided we were too far away, (2) had just gotten a freezer full of milk from someone else, or (3) didn’t feel comfortable using milk as old as ours.

I waited for the just-got-a-freezer-full people to contact me back, but that didn’t happen. So, the milk sat.

Finally, shortly before the Fourth of July, I decided it was time to make a post of my own on the Eats on Feets board. Within hours, I had three separate mothers contact me. I filled them in as to the age of the milk, and none was troubled by it. We arranged public meeting places at times that would work for us and for them, at gas stations just off the freeway.

What a joy it was to pack the milk back into those Styrofoam coolers the hospital had sent us home with! I packed and delivered roughly one-third of the milk one evening to one of the fathers, and Mrs. Yeoman Farmer made the other two trips. The last of these was to deliver to a mother who’d invested in an enormous amount of freezer space, so she took every remaining ounce I could find in every one of our freezers. This is what the back of our minivan looked like, just before MYF pulled out:

It’s wonderful having our freezer space back. And it’s even more wonderful knowing that we’ve been able to supply three families with something so valuable, it can’t be purchased in any store.

Protecting us from Ourselves

Hey, readers in Wisconsin: your state government is on the case, protecting you from any stupid decisions you might want to make about what you put into your own body. You know, like … raw milk.

N.B. this is a crackdown extending even to those who’ve organized their farm to sell ownership sales to those interested in obtaining raw milk. Selling shares has been an effective traditional means of circumventing prohibitions on raw milk sales. If I own a share in the cow, the milk from the cow is mine and I’m free to drink it. I’m not buying or selling the milk. Just drinking what came from this cow that I’m a part owner of.

It would be one thing if the state wanted to protect ignorant consumers who might accidentally grab unpasteurized milk from the shelf at the grocery store. But these farm share owners, by the nature of the trouble they’ve gone to, have demonstrated themselves to be about as highly aware of the risks and benefits of raw milk as it’s possible to be.

Raw milk has some pathogens which are potentially harmful if the milk isn’t handled correctly? Yeah, yeah. I know that. But I’m an adult, a thinking and reasoning subject, who has decided that this product’s benefits far outweigh any of those potential harms. And that this product is far superior to the chalk water that the dairy industry wants me to be stuck with.

Let’s hope that at some point, government at all levels will get out of our way and let us make nutritional decisions like the free adults we are.