by Sanne Kure-Jensen
The dairy and farmhouse cheese operations are an integral part of Shelburne Farms, a non-profit education organization in Shelburne, Vermont whose mission to cultivate a conservation ethic for a sustainable future. Tours of the dairy barn and cheesemaking operation are included in their three-day ABCs of Farm-Based Education workshop. The property is a working dairy and diversified farm, which strives to protect soils, plants, animals and the environment.
The Dairy Herd
Shelburne Farms’ herd of purebred Brown Swiss milking cows dates back to the early 1950s, when Derick Webb introduced the breed. He selected Brown Swiss because the cows are hardy, strong-legged, excellent foragers and have gentle temperaments. According to Sam Dixon, Shelburne Farms’ dairy farm manager for the past 15 years, each of the 115 milking cows produces an average of 53 pounds of high-quality milk daily for about ten months each year.
Calves at Shelburne Farms are born each spring, which allows them to enjoy peak quality forage. Calves are bottle-fed with their mother’s milk. Most heifers stay on the Farm for milk production, while a few bulls are raised for beef. Some animals maintain the Farm’s purebred breeding stock and others are sold.
There is a strong 4-H program in Vermont and Shelburne Farms is home to the local club. Each year, students in Shelburne Explorers 4-H “adopt” and show Shelburne Farms’ calves and heifers. 4-H prizes help bring higher returns for the breeding animals that are sold, while educating the next generation about animal husbandry.
Shelburne Farms promotes livestock health through good nutrition and sanitation as well as low-stress handling. The dairy herd is Certified Humane by the Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC) third-party, nonprofit organization. Shelburne Farms was the first Vermont farm to earn this distinction. The Farm also is proud to be a member of the Dairy Herd Improvement Association (DHIA) and to have earned the Dairy of Distinction award over the past several years.
Feed & Practices
Shelburne Farms has practiced rotational grazing spring through fall since the early 1990s. Dixon explains that he supplements the pasture forage with free choice minerals that includes a selenium booster due to deficiency of this mineral in local soils. Although Shelburne Farms’ dairy is not certified organic, it grows hay and grains for silage without crop herbicides, pesticides or chemical fertilizers. Pastures and hay fields are fertilized with whey left over from cheesemaking. Shelburne Farms’ certified organic Market Garden partners with the dairy to generate and utilize compost. Overall, Shelburne Farms is dedicated to minimizing erosion and water pollution, enhancing wildlife habitat and utilizing renewable energy sources like solar and biomass, which supply one third of the Farm’s energy needs.
Cows are milked twice daily in a double-12, mid-line swingover design milking parlor. Twelve cows line up on each side of the pit. As the cows on one side are milked, those on the other side are prepped. The system allows for uninterrupted milking and one person can milk about 50 cows an hour. Milk is hauled from the holding talks at the Dairy Barn to the cheesemaking facility at the Farm Barn. This practice reduces stress for the animals; they line up to come inside when they feel their udders are full.
Farmhouse Cheddar Cheese
Shelburne Farms first started making Farmhouse Cheddar from the Brown Swiss raw milk in 1980. In the early years, cheese was sold wholesale and on-site. Today three cheesemakers make more than 150,000 pounds of cheddar annually. Visitors to Shelburne Farms can observe the fascinating process of making cheese.
1. Cheesemakers first warm the milk to 80 degrees F and add dry starter culture. Later they add rennet, which thickens the milk to a tofu-like consistency.
2. Next, the cheesemakers cut into the milk, separating the solid curds from the liquid whey. They then cook the pea-sized curds in the whey for an hour to firm them up.
3. The cheesemakers drain the whey and gently rake the curds into semi-firm “packs.” This allows the cheddaring process to begin.
4. They cut the packs into slabs and begin stacking them on top of each other — the process of “cheddaring.” Turning and restacking the slabs controls the temperature and moisture while lactose fermentation continues.
5. Next, the cheesemakers mill each slab into small “fingers” or chunks. The fingers create more surface area to absorb the salt that is sprinkled overthe vat. The salt halts culture development and helps remove more liquid from the cheese when it is pressed.
6. The cheesemakers scoop the “fingers” into compressible forms and press the forms overnight to remove any remaining whey and forms solidblocks.
7. In the morning, each 40-pound block of young cheese is removed from its form and vacuum-sealed for aging.
8. After 6 to 30 months, the blocks are cut for sale and either hand-dipped in wax or plastic-wrapped and ready for sale.
The American Cheese Society has awarded multiple ribbons to Shelburne Farms’ various Farmhouse Cheddars since 1990. This includes their Smoked Cheddar, cheese spread, 6-month Cheddar, 12-month Cheddar and 24-month Cheddar.