Maybe it’s the Zombie Apocalypse Prepper in me, but whenever I’m looking out the window as I’m driving someplace, whether it’s around town, or on a longer haul, what I see is pasture. It could be a park, or an empty lot, or open space on the edge of town, but to me it’s all forage, and a place that could be potentially grazed. Then I consider what it would take to put a cow, goat or sheep there and start figuring how much meat we might raise if we took advantage of these scattered parcels. So imagine my excitement when I ran across the Lubbers Family Farm’s “Cow Taxi Project” on the SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) website. Here were folks who not only saw the forage, but figured out a way to use it to feed their dairy herd and turn that grass into cheese.
Lubbers Family Farm is just 10 minutes west of Grand Rapids, Michigan. There is a lot of development pressure around the farm, but there are still many undeveloped parcels. If the Lubbers could figure out an economically viable way to use these parcels, they could expand their dairy operation to support a creamery, and they’d also address local government’s interest in preserving agriculture. Cows would remain a part of the landscape, pastures would contribute to the environmental sustainability of the area, and dairy products would be available to local residents. So, using a small SARE grant, they set up their “Cow Taxi,” carefully measuring the dollars and cents, and impacts to production and animal health to see if this could be a viable solution.
They began in the summer of 2010, purchasing gates and building simple gravel loading ramps at the home place and the North 30. Then they began trial runs with a few cows and their small stock trailer to iron out potential kinks in the plan. They shifted first to an 18 hour milking schedule, and then to once-a-day, identifying and culling cows that weren’t suited to the new schedule. At the same time they completed construction and licensing of the creamery on their farm. In their 2010 progress report they noted that getting a creamery going is “far more difficult, time consuming and expensive than we had anticipated.” They measured a small drop in milk production with the switch to the 18 hour schedule and a significant drop at 24 hours and mastitis in a few cows increased with decreased milking frequency. They also began tracking milk components important to cheese making. They found that milk from pastured cows contributed significantly to the quality of the cheese.
The Lubbers purchased a stock trailer with pipe sides and a removable canvas top and in May of 2011 they began running daily taxis for their herd, taking two trips to haul all 28 cows. The herd adapted well to loading. Most of them walked easily onto the trailer, though a few needed convincing. Their taxi season ended in December.
Did It Work?
Following are the measurements theLubbers used to figure out if the taxi was a good investment. The data was collected before the project began from May 1 through August 20 in 2010 and for the same months in 2011 when the taxi was operational.
The Lubbers reported that the project worked well for them and they planned to continue, perhaps even expanding to neighboring farms with abandoned pastures. It was less energy intensive than green chopping and providing hay, and provided the added benefit of the cows spreading their own manure across the pastures they grazed. They noted that the cow taxi works well for once-a-day milkings but probably wouldn’t be well-suited for twice or more per day milking schedules or for large herds. They said running the cow taxi was well suited to pastures and parcels located close to an urban center and to providing milk for a value-added farm enterprise serving nearby customers.
Karen Lubbers says, “The Cow Taxi was great fun and really worked.” They liked it, the cows liked it, and when things were good, they made the best cheese in Michigan, even winning Grand Champion in Michigan their first year out. They found that by milking once a day, their milk had less liquids and more solids, something quite good for making cheese.
But then something happened that chemists and cheese consultants nationally and internationally had no reason or solution for. A certain protein in their cheese degraded rapidly causing about 25% of the cheese to go from great tasting to little taste at all in a very short time. Had things gone according to plan with the cheese making, the Lubbers would be running their cow taxi today. Instead, without a way to isolate the problem, or the resources to find a way to change what was happening, the Lubbers chose instead to shut down the creamery.
Cow Taxis remain a great idea! Could this work for you? I’m dreaming of a small herd of Dexters or mini Jerseys or Holsteins. Now I just have to see what the neighbors think about cows in my backyard. 🙂