I love raw milk and I personally believe it’s one of the most nourishing foods we can consume.
However, I’m certainly aware that not everyone shares my enthusiasm — largely because there are lingering questions about its safety. Is raw milk safe to drink? Really, truly?
Like most things, intentionality and being an informed consumer plays a key role in obtaining raw milk that is safe to drink.
Raw milk, unlike many foods, is remarkably safe to consume due to its highly probiotic nature. However, that’s not to say it can’t be overwhelmed by harmful bacteria or other microorganisms if it’s produced, stored, or transported in unsafe or unclean ways and therefore becomes unsafe to ingest.
Thus, determining whether or not the milk you drink is safe is a critical question you must answer.
So, with that in mind, here are a few questions you should ask when choosing a raw milk source.
Raw Milk: Questions to Ask Your Farmer
First, get yourself up to speed on why raw milk is worth sourcing by reading Wardee’s article, Choosing the Best Milk, and my article on 5 Reasons We Drink Our Milk Raw.
Next, read through this list and decide which questions are important to you. Carry it with you when you go to the farmer’s market, your local co-op, or when you visit the farm and use it as a starting point to ask questions.
Please note, the questions below are a good, basic set of questions — they’re meant to get good thought processes going before you visit the farm and to help you structure your questions so you know what you want to ask, not provide a checklist of questions to provide to the farmer.
However, if you’d like more in-depth information or just want to explore raw milk further, I heartily recommend the following resources:
- The Farm-to-Consumer Foundation now has their 45-page Raw Milk Production Handbook available for free on their site in PDF format. It’s written as a primer for small-scale dairy farmers, but it’s packed with useful information for the consumer as well.
- Amanda Rose, PhD, has a very useful 9-page Raw Milk Consumer Guide that’s free when you sign up for e-mail updates from her site.
- A Campaign for Real Milk has a number of articles about the safety of raw milk and how to ensure it’s safe.
Also, keep in mind that some of these questions don’t have a “one size fits all” answer. For example, if you’re purchasing your milk from a neighbor who just has too much milk for their own family from their one or two cows, they may or may not test their milk for disease (and that’s okay), whereas a large operation may test both their livestock and their milk at least once a week (and you might feel they should).
Keep in mind that at the farmers’ market or when visiting a large operation, you may be speaking with a farm worker, a farm manager, or someone who has been hired specifically to work at the farmers’ market, and that person may need to verify information with the farmer. The farmer, on the other hand, should be able to answer any of these questions easily.
Last, call ahead to see what their visitor policy is. Some prefer drop-in visitors, but many prefer to make an appointment. They’re running a business and dropping in unannounced may be inappropriate (and may even cause safety issues).
The Questions to Ask at the Farm
In addition to asking some or all of the questions listed below, the most important thing to observe while at the farm is the general state of cleanliness, the availability of pasture (this may be difficult to observe in some large operations), and a farmer who pays attention to detail.
Remember that working with cattle by nature gets dirty, so we’re not looking for pristine barns, but there shouldn’t be other animals in the milking area, the floor should be swept and washed after each milking (assuming it’s a milking parlor rather than a single cow being milked in a barn), there should be very few flies, the cows should be clean enough that they’re not switching manure around, and there should be easy access to refrigeration for the milk, easily accessed work sinks, etc.
The free handbook from the Farm-to-Consumer Foundation mentioned above gives very specific information about this aspect — the information starts on page 27.
And here are the questions-to-get-you-started. They’re in bold. If I have any thoughts about a question, you’ll see it just below that, not in bold.
Question 1. Do you and your family drink the milk from your farm?
Question 2. How often do you test your cows for disease? Do you ever test the milk for pathogens? If so, how often? When a test comes back positive or with a high bacteria count, how do you respond?
Note: It can be helpful to know ahead of time what the requirements in your state are for testing, as it will help you know if the farmer is meeting or even exceeding the required standards. However, also keep in mind that testing can be extremely expensive in some places, so the farmer may only do it when required — and that’s okay.
Question 3. What breeds do you have on your farm? Why did you choose those breeds?
I like to ask this question not because it gives great insight into the safety of the milk itself, but because often a farmer who really deeply cares about the product he or she is bringing to market will have a thoughtful, maybe even passionate, response to this question. Even with a shy, soft-spoken farmer, the response to this question helps me gauge how much care the farmer puts into the farm operation. Also, I personally love the taste of milk from Jerseys and Guernseys in particular, so I love to find farms that use those breeds.
Question 4. How often is the cow on pasture? How often is the herd moved from pasture to pasture? In the winter, what comprises the largest portion of the cow’s diet — hay? sileage? grain? something else? If the cow receives any feed, is the feed organic? If not, does it contain GMOs, soy, or any animal-derived protein?
Note from Wardee: The place we would truly draw the line, and recommend you do the same, is if the answer to the last question is yes. We recommend staying far away from GMOs and soy.
Question 5. When the cow is ill, what is your protocol? Does she receive antibiotics at any point? And when the antibiotics are finished, is she incorporated back into the herd?
The organic standards for milk from cows that have received antibiotics differ in different locations, so either look up the standards in your area ahead of time or ask the farmer. You may also have your own preferences about this.
Question 6. (If you’re picking up milk at a farmers’ market or a designated drop point) How long has the milk been outside refrigeration? Is it kept on ice during this time?
Raw milk is safe to drink, provided it has been obtained, stored, and transported in clean, safe manners. Do your own due diligence when it comes to the safety of your milk and may you enjoy it for years to come!
What questions do YOU ask when you find a raw milk supplier? What questions do you WISH you could ask?
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[email protected] says
Great questions to ask! Thanks for sharing.
Truman McCausland says
Thanks so very much for your wonderful educational material. Always informative and well written. Always topics that touch the heart of America. I would like to hear more on the different flavors of milk, Just basic milk tends to taste different from batch to batch. Is it the processing plant or animal feed that changes the taste. Also why is there such a great difference in the taste of real cultured cows butter like grandmother made. Thanks very much.
Kresha Faber says
You’re so welcome. I’m glad it was helpful.
As for the different flavors of milk, that depends on two things. One, flavor can differ slightly based on breed, and that’s largely due to butterfat content – Jersey milk, for example, has a higher percentage of cream than milk from Holsteins. But the larger factor is what the cows eat – my mother remembers strongly disliking the bitter flavor the milk took on when their cows moved from sileage in the winter to those first shoots of green grass in the spring, for example. Whether the cows are eating alfalfa or whether they’ve gotten into some onion grass can all affect the flavor of the milk. If the milk is pasteurized, the flavor tends to get neutralized a bit, but when left raw, those flavors are much more present. And of course, if the cows aren’t on pasture and are just eating hay or grain, then the flavor of the milk won’t change much, as the feed doesn’t change.
As for the cultured butter, you hit the nail on the head right in your question. The butter is actually cultured, so the flavor is different than sweet cream butter because like with yogurt or sour cream, in order to culture the milk (or in this case, cream), you add a probiotic culture into it, which gives it a bit of a tang and recognizable flavor. This helps the butter last longer, so it has been a traditional way to make butter for centuries.
I help that helps!
Marcy Jackson says
Excellent questions to ask! I will be passing this on to our families who are still considering raw milk.
I live in England and used to go to Taunton farmer’s market. There was a farmer selling delicious milk and cream form his small herd. I asked what they were fed. He looked at me as if I was stupid and said “Grass!”
He wouldn’t sell it raw even though I asked many times. He said the testing was too expensive, although he and his family drank it raw of course. So I had to make do with it being pasteurised. He didn’t homogenise it so that was a blessing. He stopped selling it at the market when he got a buyer for all his cream to make the famous Devon clotted cream.
Down the road from me is a mixed farm with a small herd. The family drink the milk raw but cannot sell it because it would need testing. She wouldn’t even barter with me. Shame. So I have to get it my raw milk from miles away.
30 years ago I got raw milk delivered to my door by the milkman.
30 years ago I drank the raw milk from our own family farm. I took it for granted at the time. Raw milk is illegal to sell here in Canada. ???? does anyone know of a petition I can sign?
Pat Winter says
In addition to the questions you have suggested I also ask about the freshness of the milk (what milking is this from? ) Did you commingle? Ie. did you put warm milk on cold milk in a bulk tank? Bacterial counts change dramatically for the worst when this is done. If a farmer put four days or 8 milkings in a bulk tank the milk is always as old as the first milking in the tank, so four dAys old. I will pass thanks! The flavour of milk is also dependent on which part of the lactation the cow is in too in addition to diet and breed
Kresha Faber says
Those are great comments! Thanks so much for adding them to the list. 🙂
Mary FRAGIACOMO says
Does the cream line change depending on feed? How do you get more cream from your cow and what factors into that?