A day on the farm and some reading material

Boss cow - Always the first into the dairy shed

Back to blogging after a couple of weeks of running the farm while dad took a much needed break. The farm is pretty busy at this time of the year, especially when there is only one person working. To give you an idea, a day on the farm during summer usually includes: milking 75 cows twice a day, shifting and maintaining pasture irrigation, checking Springers (pregnant cows/heifers) and sometimes assisting during difficult labours, feeding young heifers and springers, shifting electric fences (part of our strip grazing pasture management strategy – ensures the pasture receives a break from grazing pressure, which aids in pasture growth, reduces disease risk, reduces the risk of compaction, etc), checking cattle in the hill country, grinding grain (mixed with essential minerals and fed during milking to ensure the cows remain healthy), washing milk vats, a quick swim in the river 🙂 and finally feeding the working dogs. The days are long but also very rewarding and every day seems to bring something new.

After arriving home I thought I would share with you some of the Agricultural reading material that I have read and referred to for different farming ideas, strategies and inspiration.

Some of my helpful resources

1. Omnivore’s Dilemma (Michael Pollan) – An interesting read based around three food systems. Factory farming, Pasture/community based agriculture and hunter gathering. Think, Food inc. the movie.

2. In My Experience, Malabar Farm, Pleasant Valley, Out of the Earth (not seen) (Louis Bromfield) – Written in the 40’s & 50’s these books are still very relevant and describe agriculture, nature, communities and farming with passion, intelligence and optimism. The style they are written in makes them easy to read and I cannot recommend them highly enough. (Pleasant Valley is a good book to start on).

3. Home Cheese Making (Ricki Carroll), The Home Creamery (Kathy Farrell-Kingsley), Home Dairy (Ashley English) – These three books are great guides for making dairy products. The home creamery is a really simple book, while Ricki Carroll’s book is a good start for cheese making, Ashley English’ has produced a nice in-between book that is great for simple dairy products and cheeses. (Remember, these are American books including Imperial US measurements. For any Australian’s interested, I would go for Home cheese making by Neil & Carole Willman. Tip: If you live in Australia try this site for your cheese making ingredients, I have found it to be very price competitive and the postage is quick).

4. The Biological Farmer, Advancing Biological Farming (Gary Zimmer) – Modern day, in depth and very informative books, great for those interested in a practical view about managing soils and animals in a way that is sustainable, high yielding and efficient. Highly recommended for those involved in dairy/cropping or higher intensity/input type farming.

5. Agriculture in transition, From The Soil Up (Donald Schriefer) – Great books for understanding more about the soil and its elements. I would probably just purchase From The Soil Up. Note: This is probably more suited to farmers/gardeners who use tillage as a tool.

6. Eco-Farm (Charles Walters) – A great book covering just about everything to do with farm management, from animal health to insects, crops, the lie of the land, soils, nutrients etc.

7. The Weather Makers, Here On Earth (Tim Flannery) – Two very good books, which discuss climate change, envirnomental history and the science behind the situation we find ourselves in today. Written by a renown Australian Scientist these two books are easy to read and provide compelling information about why our climate is changing.

8. Agroecosystem Sustainability (Steven Gliessman) – A book based heavily on ecological Agricultural case studies from around the globe. This was a book prescribed for one of my university subjects, however it is very interesting to see how different communities and farmers, especially in third world areas have adapted and created sustainable food systems with the little resources they have access to.

9. Family Friendly Farming (not seen), You Can Farm, Pastured Poultry Profits (Joel Salatin) – Brilliant books to read. If you have never seen Joel Salatin speak about their farm “Polyface” in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley I strongly suggest that you check out Food inc the movie or YouTube some clips. This food production system makes sense, especially if you only have a small amount of land. For all those young or old farmers out there with a wealth of Agricultural experience don’t let the title “You Can Farm” put you off, as there are many good chapters in the book about economically introducing enterprises into your farm business, while increasing your return per acre/hectare, improving your soil health and increasing the viability of farming on small acreage.

10. The Farmstead Creamery Advisor (Gianaclis Caldwell) – A relatively new book (2010) that leads your through creating a successful home dairy/cheese business. A great read if you are considering starting your own dairy business or simply looking to  add value onto your existing operation. Again, this is an American book so some things such as, legislation, regulations and sizing will be different from your country if reading from outside the US.

11. Assorted gardening and self sufficiency books – Always handy to have on the shelf for quick reference on what/when to grow, how to make/preserve various products or quick guides for identifying fruit/veg pests.

There are many other great authors and publications out there on sustainable Agriculture (Sir Albert Howard, Rudolf Steiner, Wendell Berry, Merck Vet Manual, Acres Australia Newspaper, etc, etc) many of which I have skipped. However, I hope to have given you a look into some of whats out there, as I feel that reading different publications about farming can greatly improve the way in which we think and act on our own farm business. Often there will be ideas or systems that we don’t agree with or simply cant implement due to the climate, region or country that we live in. However, without a broad knowledge of what other people are doing out there it is all too easy to become stuck in old ways or taken along with the ‘newest’ quick fix product. Old, tried and true ways handed down through the generations are often very important, especially in farming, but I think it is also important that we progress and work towards more efficient farming methods. This does not necessarily mean buying the latest machinery item or upgrading the dairy but rather thinking more about how and why we do things on the farm. Either way, many of these books have motivated and inspired me to approach farming and Agriculture in positive ways rather than with pessimism. I think that modern day Agriculture is all too often pessimistic, which gives consumers a negative outlook on farming and sends the sons and daughters of farmers towards a life in the city. Lets start thinking positively and sensibly about how we can encourage young farmers and feed a growing world population.

Sunset on the farm

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Building a Cheese Press

The finished press (exc. Mold, pusher and linseed oil finish). The legs and vertical poles are galvanized, the drip tray is a simple cake pan. Dumbbell weights will be used to push down on the top board.

After some cool results with our other dairy products I think we are nearly ready to give hard cheeses a go, but before we get stuck in we are going to need some sort of press. After all, by draining the whey and pressing the curds we can achieve a hard, moisture free cheese that will safely age at temperatures which would usually spoil soft cheeses and other dairy products.

You could get away with a makeshift press but I’m going to show you another way. The design here is based on a few presses that I found while browsing the web but I have added and changed a couple of things. One important thing to consider when thinking materials is that the bottom and top board must be able to withstand and accommodate 25kg (50lbs) of weight. This is usually the most weight that will be used during pressing.

The cost involved in building a press can be next to nothing to very expensive indeed, depending on the materials used and how nice you want it to look. As soon as I realized that I was going to need a press I thought about what I could use that was already available to me. I knew that there was plenty of nice old timber at the farm and a cake pan at home, as well as some old dumbbell weights that could come in handy later. I did need to buy the gal legs and uprights ($5.00 each) but you could get away with timber dowel uprights beveled into the based (no legs) if you wanted to do it cheap.

Here are some photos, which will hopefully help to explain the process.

Drilling 22cm holes 3cm in from each corner. Be sure to attach a bottom board and drill into NOT through this extra board, this will ensure that the underside of your timber doesn't split. You will need 2 boards 400 x 250mm or larger for the press.

The top board can be used as a guide to mark the holes for the bottom board. Note: the top board needs 25mm wide holes to accommodate free movement when sliding on the 21mm gal poles, the bottom board only needs 22mm holes. The gal feet are high enough to ensure that the timber doesn't get wet + a pan can be placed under the whey drip tray.

Making a traditional timber finish is as simple as boiling some raw linseed oil. The Boiled linseed found in hardware stores usually contains chemical drying agents, which I don't really want on my cheese press. Boiling raw linseed somehow allows it to dry faster once cooled and applied. The old saying for oil application goes "Apply once a day for a week, once a week for a month, once a month for a year and once a year forever". Note: this timber finish is not a waterproofing treatment but hopefully with the drip pan in place I wont be getting the timber wet anyway.

The timber I used and was lucky enough to have available to me is Australian Red Cedar (Toona ciliata var. australis). It is one of the rarest and finest furniture timbers in Australia, with much of it logged in the pioneer days. This press is particularly special to me because of this and the colour and smell of the timber is just magnificent.

If you have any questions or suggestions on any of my blog posts by all means throw me a message. One more thing, does anyone have any experience with setting up a cheese fridge or something similar for aging hard cheeses?

Farmer’s Cheese

Farmers Cheese

Since some of our successes with other dairy products I thought we would try our luck at making some basic cheeses. For me the idea of Farmer’s cheese is exciting. It drums up images of felt-hatted European dairymen collecting the morning milk, adding some farm made yoghurt and rennet made from nettles or more gruesomely, calves stomach and making a fresh batch of cheese to have on their morning bread. This is probably a little more imaginative than reality but I thought that Farmer’s cheese would be a nice place to start. The cheese itself is an unripened cheese made using a bacterial starter (in this case home-made yoghurt) and rennet. The cheese is pressed in cheese baskets for 4 hours under about 1kg (2lbs) of weight creating a soft textured not unlike Mozzarella and Halloumi in taste and feel (It has a similar ‘squeeky’ feel to it).

Lets make it!

We used 3.8L (1Gal) of fresh milk from the farm, which I ended up pasteurizing in our double boiler (I wanted to try pasteurizing so I used the fast method of heating the milk to 72°C (161°F) and holding for 15 secs prior to placing the milk pan in ice water to rapidly cool to 4°C (40°F). You can also heat the milk to 63°C (143°F) however you must hold it at or slightly above this temp for 30mins).

You will also need 1 cup of plain yoghurt, which is the culture, 1/4 tsp of liquid rennet dissolved in 1/4 cup of unchlorinated 15°C (60°F) water, which allows the enzyme rennin to work its magic (separates the curds from the whey), 1-2 tsp of Cheese salt/De-iodized salt, enough Butter Muslin to line a colander and two molds and some string to hang the butter muslin up.

Heating can be tedious in a double boiler. However the even distribution of heat reduces the risk of scalding the milk.

I suggest that before you start try and have everything sterilized, clean and cooled to the correct temp. I didn’t do this well and it was stressful having to cool pasteurized milk with minimal ice. It was also kind of annoying having to wait for the rennet water to cool. If you are pasteurizing your milk it will take about 45mins-1hr to heat your milk in a double boiler. It will also take some time to cool.

The first step in making Farmer’s cheese is to combine the yoghurt and milk in a larger heavy based pot or double boiler and heat to 35°C (95°F).

Next, combine the rennet and cool water and slowly splash the mixture onto your slotted spoon and into the milk, stir gently for 30secs.

Remove from the heat and let sit until the curds produce a ‘clean break’ (usually within 30-45 mins). A clean break is when you can insert a sterilized thermometer or very clean finger into the curds and gently lifting, snap the curds. You are ready to take the next step when a neat crack (see photo) occurs.

A clean break

Cut the curds into 25cm (1 Inch) pieces with a long blunt-ended knife/curd knife. Heat the curds and whey to 50°C (120°F) gently stirring the curds from bottom to the top (stir for 5 mins). Stir every 5 mins until 50°C is reached. Transfer the curds into a colander lined with Butter Muslin. Tie the butter muslin and hang drain for 1 hr (see photo).

Curds and Whey

Transfer the cheese to a bowl and add the salt, gently crumbling it through. Line two cheese molds with butter muslin, add the cheese, cover the tops with the excess butter muslin and press in the fridge under a 1kg (2lbs) weight (I used a small ceramic ramikin to press down onto the cheese and a larger ceramic bowl on top to equal the 1kg). Press for 4 hrs.

Remove from the molds and keep in the fridge for up to 1 week. You are now the proud consumer of Farmer’s Cheese 🙂

Draining the Cheese

Bottling the Brew

Siphoning the brew

Well I hope Christmas was a success for everyone with heaps of relaxation and good food. Ours sure was and it was really exciting today to finally add some fizz and bottle the cider that we started making over 3 weeks ago (Check out our earlier posts on cider making). There are lots of different ways to enhance or improve the way your cider tastes, especially if you have made it using supermarket apple juice. Some people choose to add flavourings such as cinnamon, apple, pear, apricot, etc, which are available as natural flavouring rather than artificials. However, if you are just starting out it might be worth saving the expense and giving it a go without adding flavours. Your cider may not taste quite as nice but it will give you a feel for the cider process without spending too much money. Having said that I was quite surprised to find a nice, appley, alcoholic flavour at the end of my siphon tube (rather than a vinegar) even though it was luke warm.
A step that I was really keen to take was siphoning some of the cider into a hydrometer to measure the alcohol content. I found that it measured 980, whereas the pure juice measured 1080. What does this mean? Well, by taking the Specific gravity (S.G.) reading at the end of fermentation (980) from the S.G. reading at the beginning (1080) as well as multiplying by 125 we should get a result of 7500 or 7.5% alcohol content (ciders usually measure between 2-8.5%). As you can see ours turned out quite strong.

A note on cleanliness: It is important. I try to sterilize or soak everything that may be used for bottling in a specific solution designed for food grade sanitation, this will ensure that no ugly bacteria will spoil our brew or make us sick!

Making a fizzy cider by adding white sugar

Bottle your brew – Our local home brew equipment supplier gave me an easy option for bottling a fizzy cider. However if you are happy with a still cider just siphon the finished cider into any bottle that can be air sealed because there will not be any pressure placed on them. On the other hand a fizzy cider undergoes carbonation in the bottle hence creating pressure. In this case added glass strength is required. Swing cap bottles that have previously held beer are great because they are made to withstand pressure.

Gather your bottles together (I ended up filling 10 x 450ml Grolsch swing cap bottles full of cider) and clean them. Obtain a brewing specific sugar measure from a homebrew supplies. Ours has a measure for 330 ml, 500ml & 750ml bottles so all we have to do is fill the 500ml measure nearly to the top with fine white sugar and tip it into each bottle (The 500ml measure equals a little under 1tsp sugar).

After adding the sugar you can start siphoning the brew into the bottles, gently shaking the bottle to dissolve some sugar. Leave about 4cm gap from the top of the bottle and seal with the swing caps. I plan to give the brew 2 weeks carbonation until cracking one open. If in 2 weeks the bottle turns into a spewing geyser then I have put too much sugar in. Instead I hope to hear a nice pop and not too much froth when releasing the swing cap.

Our hidden trapdoor

We are only in a small house but I did manage to find a spot where the bottles can be stored. They wont be too warm, nor will they be in sunlight (I have read that keeping the brew in a dark spot is good to maintain a nice colour but I’m not sure how true this is). Anyway, I ended up putting the crates down through our little trapdoor and onto the dirt under our house. The temperature will be nice and cool/constant and should reduce the risk of the bottles warming and ‘bottle bombs’ forming. You might see this trapdoor mentioned in future posts as we plan to put a little timber shelf next to the cider crates to age some hard cheeses.

Varying ways – There are many different stages and ways to make cider and we have just skimmed the surface. We have chosen a particularly easy way to make cider for our first batch as we wanted it to be relatively cheap, simple and natural (containing no artifical flavours or colouring). There are ways to clear your cider more by racking (transferring) it into another vessel, which reduces its cloudiness and some people age their brew for many months prior to drinking. In the end it depends on how much time, money and effort you want to spend on cider making. With us it is more for the interest and the taste of cool cider on a hot summers day along with the joy (and a little bit of pride) in knowing that it was made in our kitchen 🙂

Dairy – Yoghurt & Quark

Heavy based pots help with heat distribution

Many of the soft, un-aged cheeses and dairy products are very easy to make. Yoghurt is one that is particularly easy. Yoghurt is produced by adding a yoghurt culture to milk, which can come in either a packet form or you can use store bought, living culture yoghurt. The introduction of yoghurt culture leads to the bacterial fermentation of the lactose in milk, which then reacts and leads to the production of lactic acid. Lactic acid is what gives the final product its tangy flavour and lumpy characteristics. Buying a commercial yoghurt maker is a good idea if you are going to make a lot of yoghurt as it regulates the yoghurt to the correct temperature throughout the incubation period, however I will explain another option.

Yoghurt

1. I used 1L of whole store-bought milk and 1/4 cup of store bought yoghurt which contained living cultures for my first batch and it turned out well. It is a very cost effective way to make yoghurt as you only need a small amount of bought yoghurt to culture milk.

Adding yoghurt culture using store bought yoghurt

2. Firstly heat and stir your milk to 85°C (185°F). A heavy bottomed pot is ideal for this purpose as it will reduce the risk of scalding your milk.

3. Remove from the heat and allow to cool to about 45°C (113°F) before adding 1/4 Cup of yoghurt (containing live cultures), this will ensure the bacteria have ideal conditions to function.

4. Place the mixture into your yoghurt maker or an insulated cooler with a few jars of hot water and leave for roughly 8-12 hrs (depending on how tart you would like the yoghurt) I found that 10hrs in a commercial maker produced good results.

5. Turn the yoghurt maker off and allow the yoghurt to cool a little before refrigerating.

Breakfast time tastes so much better 🙂

Quark

Quark is an unripened German cheese that is similar in consistency to sour cream. The Quark I made contains nothing but buttermilk and has quite a bland, and at the same time refreshing taste. Quark is hard to find in Australia therefore it usually has to be home-made, which is very easy as it requires no additional ingredients (rennet, etc). Some dairy producers, mainly in eastern Europe, do add a small amount of rennet to make a firmer quark, however the German Quark is usually smoother and creamier. Note: to make Quark from store bought pasteurised milk you must add a live buttermilk culture to your buttermilk or see my earlier post on making your own buttermilk.

The process

Fresh Quark can be a nice substitute for sour cream

1. Start with 2 L (2 Quartz) of buttermilk from the butter making process or homemade buttermilk (I used 1L for my first batch and it only made a small amount of Quark so I suggest that if you can, use 2L).

2. Pour the buttermilk into a ceramic, oven-safe pot and place in an oven for 24 hours. The oven will not be turned on, however if you can keep the pilot light on it will help to maintain an ideal temperature for the Quark. Because I don’t have a pilot light on my oven I placed the Quark into my yoghurt maker for about 12 hours, which produced good results.

3. Strain off the liquid through a double layer of butter muslin lining a colander. Wrap the sides over the Quark to cover the top and let drain for over 2 hours and under 6. Place a small plate on top of the Quark to encourage drainage of the whey.

4. The whey can be used for cooking, watering your plants or feeding the cat :). Refrigerate for up to 1 week.

Sniffing out the whey

A visit to the farm.

'Raelands' Farm

Yesterday Lauren and I drove up to the farm for the day to say hello and to grab some milk. We ended up bringing home nearly 7 Litres of raw milk straight from the dairy vat to make some dairy products. While we were there I had a quick look around for some timber offcuts so that I can soon make a basic cheese press for hard-cheese making. I also had another look at our old hand driven corn cobber that I might use to crack Pecan nuts. We have a great row of Pecans trees that dad planted years ago to shade the cows through summer and they have been bearing well for many seasons now. This season I am going to try and make some honey roasted pecans, maple syrup roasted pecans and maybe some pecan pies before the white cockatoos eat them all.

On the way home we dropped in to say hi to my grandmother who, at 90 years of age is still very sharp with her memory. We ended up having an interesting conversation about how they used to preserve all of their fruit for the year (mostly peaces, plums and citrus) either whole, halved or as a syrup for re-mixing with water to make refreshing summer drinks.

Green green grass

My grandfather apparently grew some amazing peach trees, with huge fruit that would ripen prior to the fruit fly season, which meant that Granny would peel and preserve peaches until she “felt like one”, as she put it. Its funny because when I was a kid I remember granny would often offer peaches and ice cream for desert, even after the days of canning had long gone. Growing food seemed to be very diverse in those days. Every household had a canning/preserving kit and would grow many different fruits and vegetables, and a variety of different animals. Long rows of peas were often grown down on the river flats and my ancestors would walk down on dusk with the children and pick peas with some of the other neighboring farmers. This would of course result in shelling peas “until you felt like one”. Some of this connectedness with our food has seemingly been lost, even to farmers, who grow things for a living. Maybe this is because it was done more out of necessity back then. Maybe it was done because you couldn’t buy as many items in the supermarket, whereas now you can. What ever the reason I think it needs to start shifting back the other way because relying on a single or a couple of bulk commodities leaves the farmer at the mercy of the market, whether driven by fluctuations in market demand or just greedy price givers determining how much profit they should make.

'Tubby'

Another result of this loss in diversity may be the subsequent reduction in small farms due to the industrialization of food production. It no longer seems as viable for the small farm, whereas many years ago the small farm was the back-bone of a community (in our case). Since a de-regulated dairy production system was put in place in the year 2000 we now have 2 dairy farms along our road. In 1995 there were 14. Some may say this was necessary, however, it has had a profound effect on our dairy farming community, which now seems driven by economies of scale and a few large producers. This in itself leads to environmental and animal welfare issues, where maximum production is a primary goal for many diary farms. This is not because the farmer is greedy or wants to push animals to the limit but rather the demand by price givers and a growing population wanting milk year round and lots of it. We have forgotten to eat seasonally. Cows produce less milk during winter, fruits and vegetables grow in the seasons they are suited to, chickens lay fewer and smaller eggs during winter and somehow we feel the need to alter this for the purpose of everyone wanting all foods year round. I think the growing popularity of farmers markets here in Australia will see more and more seasonal produce offered to consumers and there is a real connection and education with growers and consumers alike. Change is happening.

Dusk

Dairy – Kefir

Kefir (pronounced Ke-fear) Ingredients. The green stick is an airlock for the culture sachet.

Kefir is a probiotic, fermented milk drink. Sounds kind of gross doesn’t it, but it is supposedly one of the healthiest cultured dairy products that we can make in our kitchen. Kefir originated in the Caucasus mountains in Russia where shepherds carrying fresh milk in their leather pouches would occasionally find a fermented beverage after their days work. It is prepared by inoculating milk with Kefir grains (small tapioca like grains that grow and produce additional grains during fermentation). Traditional Kefir was made in skin bags, hung over a door way and purposely knocked by passers-by to help with the fermentation process.

Let sit at room temp, in a dark place/dark containers for 24-36 hrs

The Process

I decided to start making Kefir with a Kefir culture rather than Kefir grains. The culture also reproduces and can be used up to 3 times per packet/half packet, etc.  I plan to use Kefir grains in the future to give the traditional way a go.

Note: All utensils should be very clean before use. That means either sterilized or washed in hot water with detergent before air drying.

1. Obtain Kefir grains or Kefir culture sachets.

2. Stir in the culture to the recommended rate or 1/4 cup of Kefir grains to 2 cups of milk.

3. Leave covered in a dark spot or a dark jar for 24-36 hrs at room temp depending on how strong you would like your Kefir. At the end of this time your drink should be thick and some whey may be present on the surface (just stir it back in).

Straining the thicker Kefir off for re-culturing.

4. I strained the kefir through a fine strainer to catch about 1/3 cup of thicker Kefir culture to re-culture the next batch.

5. Pour your Kefir into a clean/sterilized container and refrigerate for 12hrs before consuming. I used some old spice bottles (see photo) so we can have a small Kefir ‘shot’ each day. Mmmmm 🙂

Half a litre of Kefir was made for the first batch, but I found that 1 litre would have been better so I just used the thick Kefir that I collected and added it to another 1/2 litre of milk. It ended up re-culturing well (I kind of wasn’t expecting it to work) and it should be ok to use once more.

Re-using spice bottles for Kefir 'shots'.