Pleasant Valley Farm

  (Tionesta, Pennsylvania)
Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
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Cheesemaking

Around our house, we don't really make a big deal of Valentine's Day. But this time of the year, Dan is at home more, and we had a lovely day together. So, what do a pair of farmers do to celebrate? In our case, we made cheese. We've seen that our eldest Dexter cow, Lil, has been losing some weight, so we decided to wean the calf and put her in the barn so she could get some extra feed. And since we're going through all that trouble, we decided she should pay us back in milk. Dan milks her twice a day, by hand. Being a Dexter, she doesn't produce gallons like the big black & white Holstiens many dairies use, but it's been more than enough for the two of us.

Dan started out by making some farmhouse cheddar. To make cheese, you need to heat the milk to a pretty exact temperature, and hold it for a certain length of time before introducing a starter culture. I am still amazed that a few minutes or degrees more or less can turn your cheddar into colby. The recipes for many cheeses, for the most part, are very similar. (exceptions are things like Swiss or blue, which require some special cultures.)   After we strained the curds, which are the solids that will form our cheese, we had a quantity of liquid left, called the whey. I decided that, rather than just feeding the whey to the pigs or chickens, we should make ricotta. Ricotta is traditionally a way to make a second batch of cheese from the whey. We did add a bit more whole milk just to get a bit more yield in the end. This time, we heated the milk and then added some vinegar. Again, we strained it, and got ricotta!

After the cheeses drain out through the cheesecloth, there is still more work to do. We mixed in a bit of cheese salt, and then for the cheddar, we put it, wrapped in cheesecloth, into a press. The press uses a spring to put pressure on the cheese, which is in a cheese mold that has plenty of small holes. This way, it presses out the last of the liquid to give you a firmer, harder cheese, which will continue to firm up over the next 60 days as we age it. (This is a food safety requirement for cheeses made from unpasteurized milk.) The ricotta, however, is ready to eat the same day. I mixed in a tiny bit of salt and then crushed up some basil I had dried last summer.

This also solved my problem of what to cook for our Valentine's Day dinner. I decided to make homemade calzones. While calzones may not sound all that special, when they are made of lots of homegrown ingredients, they really can be! (And, for the record, there is no thing as delivery in Tionesta...we literally cannot call any restaurant, not even a pizza shop, and have them bring it to us!) I made pizza dough and crushed up some more basil and oregano. Fresh ricotta and canned tomato sauce went inside, as did the onions we have been keeping since the stand closed, as well as some homemade pepperoni. I added a bit of grated Italian cheese (the kind with sun-dried tomatoes, garlic & basil we offer from Whispering Brook Cheese Haus), sealed them up, and put them into the oven on my preheated pizza stone. They came out crispy & delicious, and I firmly believe everything is better when you use ingredients you've grown and/or prepared yourselves.   The only downside to this delicious feast was the mess in the kitchen.  However my kitchen is almost never cleaned up completely, because I spend so much of my time cooking there, or washing dishes by hand.  

 ...and for those of you inclined to kitchen adventures, ricotta is really easy to make, and can be made with pasteurized milk from the store.  All you need in some cheesecloth & vinegar or lemon juice.  There are plenty of recipes online, and I even noticed it's included in March's edition of the Food Network Magazine.  I encourage anyone curious to give it a try!

 
 

Milking Finni

Last Monday, Dan had to go out of town for work.  He wasn't sure if he'd be gone for the day or for the better part of the week.  While I am very comfortable with all the animals, things always seem to go a bit goofy when I'm here alone.  I admit, I checked outside more than usual just to make sure the horses and cows were inside the pasture fence.  I also knew I had a very pregnant cow in the barn, but since Dan didn't say anything when he did morning chores, I didn't check on her during the day.  At evening chore time, I entered the barn and turned on the lights.  Finni was up, but definitely wet in the back end.  Oh NO! I thought, what if she has trouble, I'm here by myself, she's a first time mom and you never know how that will go, what if she won't take care of the baby,  what if she gets super protective with those horns?!?  So many thoughts went through my head.  Then I looked into the stall.  There was a half-dry calf on the ground already, no help needed.  As I poured water into Finni's empty bucket, the calf jumped to its feet.  I could tell that the calf was strong and by the look of its belly, it had already nursed, so Finni became a mom, and a good one, during the afternoon without any pesky humans around.  I also saw that we have a little heifer, a girl.  I was elated and couldn't wait to tell Dan.  He was just as excited as I, and also relieved that everything went smoothly.  Even though he got home very late that night, he couldn't wait to walk down to the barn and meet our new little girl, who I have named Pixie.

 

Meet Pixie!

 

One of the main reasons we got Dexters was to provide milk for ourselves.  We're not interested in becoming a dairy or selling any milk, it's simply too much on top of what we already do, but we have been excited about doing this for ourselves for some time.   We waited a few days, because the milk is actually colostrum for the first three days, and we weren't interested in drinking that, and it's so important for the calf's health that she gets lots of it for her immune system to start up properly.  So, on Thursday, we set out, stainless milk pail in hand, to see how Finni would take this new adventure.  I love Finni, and think it's awesome that she had horns, she just looks like an old-fashioned family cow.  But I've seen wool hanging from the ends of them when the sheep got too close to her feed outside- she knows just how to use them, and they are pointy!  I remembered how Lil kicked when we tried to milk her last year, all I could think was that this time, there would be danger from both ends!  Why did I think a horned milk cow would be such a cool idea?  So we tied Finni up very short, and Dan agreed to try milking her at first, both because he's milked by hand many times and I haven't, and so if anyone got kicked, it would be him, not me. (Who says chivalry is dead?)  My job was to give Finni small amounts of feed to distract her and keep her calm.  The first day, it was a bit hard because she kept knocking her feeder off of the boards and getting upset when it landed out of her reach.  We fixed this the next day by using a rubber pan that sits on the ground.  We've milked nightly since and Finni has never once kicked.  She doesn't even swish her tail and hit Dan with it, which is another common thing cows do when they aren't happy to be milked.  She has been a perfectly cooperative lady so far.  The only downside has been that we aren't getting much milk, but we had not tried separating her from the calf.  We're planning on keeping them separate for a few hours, milking Finni so we get a decent amount, then letting the calf nurse naturally for the rest of the day.  This way, we'll get milk and so will the calf- we won't have to bottle feed her expensive milk replacer.  We're having fun with this new adventure, and I am thrilled that my little cow has taken to supplying us with milk so gently!

 

Dan & Finni on our first try

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Waiting for Wednesday...

Farmers are generally patient people.  There is a lot of waiting from the time a seed is planted until you can eat the results, and depending on the animal, it can be a very long time waiting for the arrival of a baby!  But sometimes even patient farmers get excited about an upcoming event...that's why we can't wait until Wednesday, when our newest member of the farm family will arrive.  Her name is Finniat and she is a Dexter cow.  We purchaced her yesterday and we are beyond anxious for her arrival.  We would have brought her home with us, but we don't have a stock trailer and so had to make arrangements for delivery.  I am grateful I have Veteran's Day off from my day job, or I would be sorely tempted to stay home and use up vacation time!

So, what is a Dexter cow and why do we want one?  Although Dan grew up milking Jersey cows, we aren't really interested in becoming dairy farmers.  However, we are interested in having milk for personal use and to make our own cheese, butter, yogurt and other yummy dairy products. We did research on the wide variety of breeds available to find one that we felt would fit our needs best, and we fell in love with the idea of getting a Dexter cow.  They are the smallest non-miniature breed of cow and are celebrated as a tri-purpose animal, having qualities for beef, dairy and also as oxen for draft animal power.  A cow will be between 36-42" in height at the shoulder when she is full grown, making for a small, manageable animal.  They have the highest output of milk per pound of feed consumed, and are docile and easily trained.  They originated in Ireland as a family, backyard cow for milk with the ability to process unwanted offspring (usually males) as beef or to train them as oxen to work the field.  Dexters are becoming more popular in America as a homesteading cow, and luckily for us we found breeders of these amazing little cows within a reasonable driving distance of our farm.   We had a lovely time talking with the couple that owns the farm and really learned a lot.  They had several cows for sale and we got to meet the whole herd.  Dan was most interested in the practical concerns of buying a bred cow that would be producing milk in as short a time as possible.  All the cows were bred for the spring, so that didn't make the choice any easier.  I had an idea that I wanted a black one (the most common, but not only, color) and one that had horns, just because I like the look and think it lends an old-time appearance to the animals.  When I contacted these folks by email ,they stated that they had bred cows for sale, but that all but one was polled (naturally hornless) or dehorned, except one.  While standing in the middle of the paddock, discussing bloodlines and general information about the girls, one cow came up to me a couple of times, sniffing my outstretched hand as though she were curious and wanted to greet me, on her own terms. The other cows tolerated our presence, but didn't go out of their way to investigate us. This friendly little cow was among the ones for sale, and was the one that had horns!  So of course, there was no question in my mind she would be the one we should buy.  Although Dan looked over the other cows closely, the horned one was named Finniat and will be coming to live with us. She will be having her first baby this coming spring and will be our hand-milked family cow.  So now I feel like a small child that knows Christmas is coming really soon, but isn't quite here yet...it can be so hard to be patient sometimes!

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