Our Milk Testing Protocols

First thing’s first: I need to apologize for the delay in making this post. Earlier this year I wrote about the importance of sanitation and testing when it comes to raw milk, and then I never got around to writing about what we do on our farm.

Let’s talk about sanitation!

  • We use a closed milking system to prevent dirt, hair, feces, and insects from contaminating our milk. 
  • During milking, we wear gloves, use teat dip, and use a clean towel to wipe each goat’s teats.
  • After milking, we bottle and chill milk immediately. Milk is poured in our clean kitchen, into glass bottles that have been sanitized with diluted bleach.
  • We wash all of our milking equipment with soap and hot water, followed by an acid rinse, after every use.
  • We soak all of the critical components of our milking system in diluted bleach after every use.
  • We regularly clean our goat’s pens so that they’re always laying on clean bedding. This helps to prevent mastitis as well as fecal contamination from dirty animals.

I’ve spent the past few months brainstorming the best ways to aggregate and present all of our milk test data. We run standard plate counts and Coliform/E. coli tests on a bi-weekly basis. I decided that, for simplicity’s sake, I am going to make available the averages for each test that we run. The numbers for the current year are a rolling average, updated in real time: Milk Test Averages

So what do these numbers mean?

The standard plate count (or aerobic plate count) is a quantifies the amount of bacteria in our milk. This test counts both beneficial and potentially harmful bacteria. Although the state limit is 30,000/mL, we aim to keep the overall bacteria level of our milk under 1,000 cfu/mL to reduce the likelihood that harmful bacteria may be present.

A Coliform count lower than 10 cfu/mL is indicative of excellent sanitation. While we always strive for excellence, our average may not fall below 10 this year, as we had a few slightly elevated Coliform counts at the beginning of the milking season. We’ve since made adjustments to our sanitation procedures to meet our goal. 2020 is our first year testing and selling milk, so we are still learning!

We also use a weekly CMT (California Mastitis Test) to monitor the SCC (somatic cell count) of each of our does throughout her lactation. An elevated SCC indicates the presence of mastitis (an infection of the mammary glands). If one of our goats tests positive, we can immediately begin milking her separately and discarding her milk until we are certain that the infection has cleared.

It is possible to test for specific pathogens, such as Salmonella, Campylobacter, and Listeria. However, doing so is usually unnecessary so long as the APC and Coliform counts are consistently low.

The Facts On Raw Milk

The sale and consumption of raw milk is a bit of a hot topic. Like it or not, the laws prohibiting the consumption of raw milk were put in place to keep people safe. In my home state of New Hampshire, they take the motto “Live Free or Die!” quite literally. There, the sale of raw milk is legal and almost entirely unregulated. Here in New York it’s a different story. While raw milk sales are legal, it is exceedingly difficult to become a licensed raw milk dairy. We’ve found the licensing process to be cost prohibitive for small farms like ours, so we decided to go in a different direction and sell our raw goat’s milk for pets. There is a thriving market of dog and cat owners who purchase raw milk as a probiotic for their furry companions, however, we recognize that there is probably a percentage of that customer base who aren’t buying milk for the intended purpose. We definitely don’t encourage it, but since there isn’t much we can do to stop it, we want to do our part to educate people so that they can make safe choices regarding raw dairy products.

If you are choosing to partake in the consumption of raw milk, here are a few things to keep in mind:

Sanitation is everything!

  • You should NEVER buy milk from someone who doesn’t use a closed milking system. Dirt, hair, feces and insects can easily fall into a milking pail. Even though these things can usually be strained out, the milk has been tainted and should not be consumed.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask your farmer questions! He or she should be able to walk you through all of their sanitation protocols step by step. Some things to listen for are:
    • Washing all of the milking equipment with soap and hot water.
    • Rinsing all of the milking equipment with some sort of acid. This prevents solids from being redeposited after the initial wash.
    • Using teat dip before and after milking.
    • Wearing gloves during milking.
    • Using a clean towel to wipe each goat’s teats.
    • Chilling milk immediately after milking. When the milk comes out of the udder, it is around 100 degrees (the body temperature of the cow or doe). Milk will spoil quickly if it is left sitting in the barn at this temperature.
  • The living conditions of the animals play a big role in milk safety, as well as in the health and welfare of the animals. Pens should be kept clean to prevent the cows or does from contracting mastitis (an infection of the mammary glands). Dirty pens lead to dirty animals, which leads to an increased chance of fecal contamination during milking.
  • Milk should be tested regularly. There are several different tests that can be used to assure the safety of raw milk. Which tests are run and how often isn’t of particular importance, what matters is that your farmer is monitoring their bacterial counts and taking measures to keep them low. I will share more about the different types of tests and how to interpret them in a later post. Testing can be expensive, but if someone says that they can’t afford to test their milk, you should be extremely wary, as this indicates poor management, which may extend to their herd management as well.

I will be making another post soon that will spell out our farm’s sanitation and testing protocols. We believe in total transparency; that’s why we will be making our milk test results available to the public. Our hope is that one day, consumers will become so well educated about agriculture that they’ll be able to make decisions about food safety themselves, and the current ultra stringent regulations will no longer be necessary.