You can almost hear her say ‘cheese’

Posted July 17, 2009, at 7:32 p.m.

For thousands of years, the milk cow has played a nurturing role in human history. Today, her universal milk is still flowing, a source of nourishment for countless people.

But for Jill and David Frankenfield of Albion, their registered Jersey cow is more than a prodigious producer that gives about 4 gallons of creamy, protein-rich milk, every day.

Misty May is also a beloved member of the family.

“She loves us. She knows we love her,” said the Frankenfields’ 9-year-old daughter, Allison, as she stood in the family’s roomy cowshed and watched their brown cow prance out of her box stall into an outdoor cow pen.

The cow is named after world-class athlete Misty May-Treanor of Newport Beach, Calif., who won two gold medals in the Olympics for women’s beach volleyball in 2004 and 2008.

Indeed, May-Treanor’s four-legged namesake is a lively and winning creature, with large, liquid-brown eyes, a well-modeled, almost deerlike demeanor and breath as sweet as new-mown hay.

The Frankenfields opted for a Jersey because of the breed’s small size and gentle disposition, Jill Frankenfield said. Although Misty May is mild-mannered, she is polled — her horns removed — to make her a safer animal for the kids, she said.

She and her husband jointly own and operate Kennebec Timber Framing, www.kennebectimberframing.com, a small business located about 300 feet behind their home, in a 3,200-square-foot workshop. They specialize in the design and construction of homes, barns, campsites, sheds and more, using traditional mortise-and-tenon joinery.

Raising a cow to provide their family with fresh dairy products is helping them create a more self-sufficient lifestyle on their 27 acres of fields and woods, they said.

Purchased last year, the 3-year-old Jersey amply fills this goal. Every day, she reliably turns grass and grain into milk that is creamier than a Holstein’s, providing house milk, butter, whipping cream, cheeses of all kinds — and yes, homemade ice cream — in the Frankenfields’ kitchen.

“I make cheddar, mozzarella and Parmesan. The cheddar has to age; it won’t be ready until December,” she said of a recently made batch.

“I’ve helped my mom make mozzarella,” Allison said. During the school week, she and her brother, 13-year-old Jacob, share early morning and evening farm chores, including feeding the cow. Sometimes they do the small amount of hand milking needed to remove bacteria before the milking machine is attached, their dad said.

Although the Frankenfields are proud of Misty May, she is not merely satisfying some romantic, bucolic notion. Last year, escalating food prices in a down economy were a motivating factor in greatly expanding the vegetable garden and procuring livestock, Jill Frankenfield said.

“I don’t buy any dairy products. We also raise our own beef, chickens, turkeys and pigs. We started out with the garden idea, and thought, ‘let’s do more.’ We think of it as a minihomestead. It helps offset the food bill,” she said.

Milking time

It was milking time. Misty May was feeling frisky that late afternoon, the celebrity of the hour. She eyed her visitor with lively curiosity.

“A commercial operation focuses on production. I don’t think they can give their cows the same attention we give to Misty,” Jill Frankenfield said of their approximately 750-pound animal.

“Holsteins are huge,” she said of the black-and-white breed that is the major milk producer in the United States. Holsteins can weigh between 1,100 and 1,500 pounds, according to the USDA.

“She’s not a terribly high producer for a Jersey,” she noted. Nonetheless, their cow gives ample milk for the family, including supplemental food for other livestock, she added.

As Misty May eagerly crunched on grain poured by the youngsters into a large feed bucket, David Frankenfield hooked her up to a stainless-steel milking machine.

Six months out of the year, her main diet is green grass. In fall and winter, she feeds on hay. She gets a small amount of grain in the morning and at night, he said.

“We don’t feed her much grain,” his wife said.

“Too much grain will make a cow fat and produce less milk,” writes Joann S. Grohman of Dixfield in her book, “Keeping a Family Cow,” (Coburn Press, Dixfield, Maine).

The book’s seventh edition was published in 2007.

“That was the book that convinced me to get a cow,” Jill Frankenfield said.

Grohman’s inspirational how-to manual is based on a lifetime of experience raising family cows, whose milk she calls “nature’s most perfect food.” In her popular book, she discusses milking, feeding and housing, making butter and cheese, drying off, breeding, calving, diseases and disorders, pasture management, cow safety and breeds.

For a family cow, Grohman recommends the Jersey for her high level of milk solids (protein and minerals), for being a steady milker with a long milking life and for her adaptability, efficiency, intelligence and charm.

One-cow economics

The Frankenfields purchased Misty May in 2008 for about $1,000. “We see her as a long-term investment,” Jill Frankenfield said.

The cow was already bred when she arrived at the Albion farmstead. In February, she gave birth to a registered Jersey calf named Maggie, who shares a separate stall next to her mother.

If they sell the heifer calf, the Frankenfields could recoup a substantial portion of their cow’s initial cost. Nonetheless, they might want to keep her, they said.

David Frankenfield used his timber-framing skills to build the cowshed inside an existing barn, thus reducing infrastructure costs. To do so, he milled locally purchased logs into hefty, 8-inch-by-8-inch timbers and rough-sawn planks and boards in his workshop.

“A setup with a milk room like we have is really a bonus that we got when we purchased the property with the barns,” his wife said. He also has constructed the other animal shelters and pens. Sawdust produced in the shop supplies livestock bedding, he said.

But does Misty May really earn her keep? The Frankenfields believe she does.

Their estimated cow expenses, not including labor or the heifer calf’s feed costs, are roughly $1,570 a year, they said.

These annual expenses include: hay ($250 for round bales), bulk organic grain ($400), utilities ($720) to run the bucket milker pump, the milk refrigerator and tank heater for winter water, and vet fees ($200), they said.

Misty May is in milk for 305 days out of the year. She gives the family about 1,220 gallons of fresh milk a year. Milk not used for the family is fed to the heifer calf and two beef calves, four young pigs and 50 chickens, “which helps to grow and produce excellent meat,” Jill Frankenfield said.

They put the value of their cow’s high butterfat, noncertified organic milk at $5 a gallon. Thus, their cow is spilling over with $6,100 worth of annual milk bounty.

Subtracting expenses, the value they realize from her milk is $4,530 a year, they said.

If the milk were certified organic, its value would be about $6 a gallon, according to Rick Kersbergen, professor at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension in Waldo.

But for people thinking about keeping a family cow, Kersbergen cites variables in the expenses.

“If hay was at $2.50 per bale, that would be $680 per year, but if pasture is available, that would be about $450 per year,” he said.

He also averaged, over five years, the initial $1,000 cow cost and included feeding costs for raising a heifer calf, breeding and other expenses.

Not counting labor or infrastructure costs, his estimated annual cow expenses are:

Cow cost @ $1,000 — $200 a year

Hay @ $2.50 bale (for cow and heifer) — $800

Utilities — $720

Vet-medicine — $200

Grain (for cow and heifer) — $500

Supplies (i.e., teat dip, cleaning items, bedding) — $600

Breeding — $100

Fencing-fence charger @ $800 — $160 a year

Milking equipment @$600 — $120 a year

Total annual cow expenses — $3,400

Regarding the vet fees, he said: “I would bump that up, especially if you are raising an additional heifer, as things like dehorning, vaccinations, all come into play. Vet [fees] and medicine can change very quickly with a single emergency visit.”

Citing the current price of commercial milk at $3.80 a gallon, and adding an estimated $500 value for the heifer, Kersbergen puts the annual value for the cow’s milk at $5,136.

Subtracting his expenses, he estimates her annual milk value at $1,736.

Quality of life

“We’d be happy if we only broke even. … It tastes so good. We really enjoy the milk,” said David Frankenfield, who was raised in China, Maine. He and his wife are Waterville High School graduates and have been married for 15 years.

Their relatively recent farmstead venture is primarily about raising the quality of life, something difficult to put in dollars and cents.

“The animals also are there to help educate the kids. They get the grain ready for the cow, feed the chickens and help feed the pigs,” she said of their two youngsters who attend Temple Academy in Waterville, a private K-12 school affiliated with the Assembly of God church.

“Feeding the chickens is fun. I’ve learned a lot about farm animals — how to take care of them. The biggest surprise is how quickly they give birth,” Jacob said.

“We like having the animals and enjoy knowing where our food comes from,” Allison said. But sometimes it wasn’t easy on school days to get up at 5:30 a.m. to feed the cow and chickens, she said.

Although the pigs have names like R2-D2 and Sir William Hogalot, the youngsters said they are not shocked that the hogs are destined to be turned into bacon and pork chops.

The Frankenfields have their livestock processed at Jason’s Butcher Shop in Albion, a small business that offers USDA custom-slaughter services.

The kids have learned that farm life has its stark realism. Last year, a weasel set up residence under the henhouse and killed 12 chickens, prompting the Frankenfields to move the flock into its current, more predator-resistant pen.

Last winter, the family put in 75 maple taps, which boiled down in a small evaporator to about 16 gallons of syrup.

“We barter with some of the maple syrup,” Jill Frankenfield said. Each year her husband cuts five cords of firewood from their wood lot, hauling it out with his small bulldozer.

Despite last year’s economic decline, this year the family timber-framing business is picking up.

“It’s actually OK. We’ve got three buildings going right now. This year is better than last year,” he said.

Lynn Ascrizzi is a freelance writer and lives in Freedom.

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