In college, I majored in Animal Science with a pre-veterinary medicine emphasis, and in that curriculum, it was required that I take a class called Milk Processing and Marketing. I remember when registering for the class, I just couldn’t fathom having to study, of all things, MILK (!), for an entire semester. I had already taken Dairy Production and it had covered quite a bit of material on milk and so I just couldn’t figure out how there would be enough material to make an entire course all about milk. I thought this milk class was surely going to go down in history as the most boring class ever. Maybe I’m just a weirdo, but I ended up loving that class and I learned a lot, studied hard and received an A in the course. It ranked among my most favorite agriculture classes in college.
When I was a senior in veterinary school part of our large animal training involved visiting a prison dairy farm where we (students) got hands on experience with the dairy cattle. This correctional facility had a partnership with the veterinary college who provided medical care for the cattle. Prisoners were selected to work with the cattle and received special job training and coaching while incarcerated that would teach them a trade and provide job skills that they could use later on once they were released. The prisoners were in charge of the milking twice a day, the testing of the milk, the milk processing, the feeding, all the cleaning up and general care of the cattle. The senior veterinary students in turn received invaluable training in dairy herd health. It was just a win-win situation for both the prisoners and the fourth year vet students. I loved visiting the dairy farm because I liked getting away from the veterinary college. It was always nice getting to work out in the fresh air and sunshine and getting a change of scenery. And I dearly love cows. I also always found the experience very educational.
If I had to describe in one word how the prisoners at this farm came across to me, it would be devoted. They were conversant in all aspects of the dairy cattle industry. They took their jobs seriously, worked hard and put all they had into learning their jobs and caring for the cattle. I couldn’t help but notice they were very protective over the cattle too. The cows knew them and while these Holsteins weren’t always so comfortable with our bunch of inexperienced vet students working on them, they were totally at ease with the prisoners who cared for them. The cattle were in excellent health. I remember their healthy haircoats and big brown shiny eyes.
I remember one particular autumn day when we visited the prison dairy farm. I recall we spent the first half of the day doing reproductive examinations– i.e., rectal palpations. Our work was all overseen by the prisoners who believe me, knew dairy cattle and knew them well. It’s hard and dirty work and so by lunch time, we were tired, hungry, and thirsty.
For lunch,we were escorted into a little milk processing area where there was a counter and several stools. We were each handed a sack lunch which I recall consisted of something along the lines of a thick bologna sandwich, chips, an apple, and a cookie. Our beverage consisted of a tall glass of milk, straight from the dairy farm. When I questioned as to whether the milk we were being served was raw, I was told the milk had been pasteurized, but not homogenized.
For a quick review for those interested, pasteurization is the process of heating the milk up to a specific temperature and then quickly cooling it down. This kills disease-causing pathogens that may be present in the milk, supposedly making it safer for the consumer. It also increases the shelf life of the milk. Homogenization is a mechanical process where the fat globules in the milk are broken down into smaller droplets so that they stay evenly suspended in the milk rather than separating into cream (in non-homogenized milk, you will have a creamy layer on top). Most milk you see in the grocery store is homogenized.
I had never had non-homogenized milk before and let me tell you, it was a huge treat (and I’ll just mention I’m not a big milk drinker). I grew up with a mother that made her three daughters drink milk every night for dinner. She always said, “If you want strong bones, drink all your milk!” I remember doing silly things like adding a drop of green or blue food coloring to my milk to make it more appealing. Or sometimes I’d add a teaspoon or two of Nestle’s Quick Powder.
But anyway…. back to the prison farm. I was hot and sweaty after working those cattle and a glass of milk is not, in my opinion, the ideal beverage to quench a heavy thirst. But I wasn’t going to be rude so I kindly and politely took what was graciously given to me.
AND OH THAT MILK! The milk was cold and thick and frothy on top and the BEST glass of milk I had ever tasted in. my. life. It was like drinking a milkshake (minus all the sugar). It was indescribably delicious and unlike any milk I had ever consumed. I wanted more. I questioned why grocery stores didn’t sell non-homogenized milk like this. I was told that it has a much shorter shelf life (the homogenization process lengthens the shelf-life of the milk) and also that non-homogenized milk can be a little harder to digest. I’ve looked in several local grocery stores and I’ve never been able to find any non-homogenized milk. Organic Valley shows a non-homogenized milk on their website and they supply their products to Publix and Kroger (where I shop), but I have not been able to find it. I even emailed them inquiring about it but never heard back. They have a lot of different milk products but no non-homogenized milk that I can find. I’m guessing it’s not a big seller.
I long for the days of milk-man deliveries and glass milk bottles to make a come back. Milk just tastes SO much better when it’s stored in glass and not a milk carton or a plastic jug. Don’t you think so?
Later that day at the prison farm, we had a chance to watch some of the milking and we went into one of the dairy barns. It was one of the cleanest dairy barns I’d ever seen. The prisoners loved working with those cattle, worked hard, and took their jobs very seriously and did those jobs with so much love and compassion that it touched my heart. They took great pride in what they did. It didn’t take me long to notice how they knew each Holstein cow individually. They knew them by name and they knew each cow’s temperament. They told me about each cow’s little quirks, which cows could cop an attitude or had a tendency to kick, each cow’s health conditions, etc. They knew how to handle each of those cows and they handled them well.
Those cows did what the inmates told them to do, and you could see the bond between prisoner and cow was strong. I heard “cow care” stories from prisoners that day that choked me up. These men were genuinely and sincerely happy and eager to share their knowledge with us and I couldn’t have asked for better teachers. They taught this young student some tricks of working with dairy cattle and I’ve never forgotten that day. I was impressed with their knowledge. I saw a lot of love that day and it did my heart good.
This young veterinary student learned more that day about handling and working with dairy cattle from a group of prisoners than I ever could have learned from a textbook or a professor’s lecture, and I was truly grateful for that experience. What a wonderful program for all involved.