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3 Signs that Your Dairy Farmer Produces SAFE Raw Milk

It seems like only 10 or 15 years ago, most people were leery of raw milk. That's because 100 years ago, poor milking conditions and milk handling resulted in a lot of people getting sick, even dying, from raw milk. There was generational fear of raw milk still lingering.

I am thrilled that raw milk is making a comeback. I am convinced that switching to raw milk will make a positive impact on anyone's health

What concerns me, though, is that the pendulum has swung too far to the other side. Many people now have this rose colored glasses attitude about raw milk, as if raw milk is SO safe that it somehow is immune to ever making anyone sick. No matter how it was produced or handled.

That's dangerous.

According to the NIH:

In the United States, outbreaks associated with [raw] dairy consumption cause, on average, 760 illnesses/year and 22 hospitalizations/year, mostly from Salmonella spp. and Campylobacter spp.

It's sad because these illnesses are avoidable.

If raw milk enthusiasts want to encourage law makers to ease restrictions on raw milk, and not tighten them, we need to do a better job of making sure that people consume raw milk that is safe.

That means that consumers need to be educated.

Case Study

The owner of California's largest raw milk dairy had a nasty reality check one day when a little boy was hospitalized due to pathogens from HIS MILK.

That really woke him up. He did a lot of research, improved his methods, and he went on to found the Raw Milk Institute, or RAWMI. Their mission is to educate raw milk producers to provide dependably low-risk raw milk. None of this, "well, it hasn't killed me yet so it must be safe enough" business.

Someone with a compromised immune system or in a high risk category could very easily get sick from the same milk that a farmer has immunity against.

Even people who aren't in high risk categories will find that milk tastes better, has a longer shelf life, and is better for fermenting, if it is clean and safe.

Most dairy farms sell milk to a plant which will pasteurize it before selling it as dairy products. There is no reason for those farmers to do a lot of extra work to ensure that their milk is clean and safe when raw.

Smaller farms who don't ship their milk may assume that it's fine simply because it hasn't killed them yet. Seriously. That used to be my attitude, too, until I did raw milk safety training from RAWMI prior to selling milk and learned how important milking hygiene is.

Milk was never meant to see the light of day. And it is a very good medium for growing bacteria--including pathogens. If it goes directly from teat to mouth, there is little that can go wrong with it. But when we harvest milk and do things to it that nature never intended, we have to be careful that we don't ruin it.

The best milk for consuming raw comes from dairies that specialize in milk intended to be consumed raw, by farmers who bend over backwards to ensure that it is safe.

How do you know if a farm produces safe raw milk or not? Ask to see their milking area and equipment!

Seriously, don't be shy. Your health is on the line. Farmers who sell raw milk in Vermont are REQUIRED BY LAW to show to you their set up, so you are not being rude to ask.

When you are in their milking area, look for these three things:

1. Is their milk processing room clean, and equipment shiny (inside and out)?

Do they keep everything that comes in contact with milk sanitized? Buckets, hoses, and claws (that's the name for the funny thing with 4 cups that attaches to the cow's udder) should be spotless. Surfaces should wiped down. Nothing in there should gross you out.

Most small farmers milk with a "bucket milking machine", which is small enough to break down and clean every piece and hose by hand periodically. Ask how often they do a deep clean. It should be at least every couple of weeks. Bucket milkers are the easiest way to milk a cow and keep the milk clean in the process.

I know from personal experience that it's almost impossible to consistently keep milk clean when milking by hand (instead of by machine) because frankly, cows are dirty and a lot of dirt and hair falls onto an open pail of milk. And flies land in it. You can't chill it quickly because of how long it takes to milk by hand (see point 3).

Large farms who milk many cows have a pipeline system that is extremely difficult to keep clean. In a pipeline, milk-stone builds up even with regular cleaning, and it grows many kinds of bacteria, including pathogens. (I was told this by a friend who had a pipeline that she knew harbored bacteria.) The only large farms that have safe pipeline systems are those who specialize in raw milk and work hard to keep them clean, which are not the majority of large farms.

Bucket milker and components hanging to dry after a thorough washing in a clean milk room.

2. Udder Prep and Sanitation

Cows' teats and udders can be filthy--even cows that are kept in relatively clean conditions. Cows seem to aim for laying right on manure plops. It can take up to 5 minutes to get them really clean, which is something that farmers who aren't motivated to do a good job for raw milk are not going to do.

Do they get all manure and dirt off the teats? Do they use teat dip to sanitize teats (which is not, however, a substitute for cleaning sufficiently prior to dipping)? Do they discard the first few squirts from each teat?

3. How quickly do they chill their milk?

Milk must be chilled to 40F in under 2 hours according to state guidelines, but according to RAWMI, 1 hour is much better. And it's totally achievable. Bacteria can grow a lot in a short amount of time if the milk is not chilled properly.

Most big farms have a bulk tank which helps them chill milk quickly, so large farms have the advantage here.

Small farms may have a small bulk tank, which is good. If not, ask them how they chill milk. If they put jars of warm milk in the fridge, or even in the freezer, that is an automatic no. It takes milk 11 hours to chill in the fridge, and several hours in a freezer. Putting jars of warm milk in a sink full of ice water is much better. Better still is to put milk jars in a brine bath in the freezer because that is colder and faster than ice water, achieving 40F in about 30 minutes.

Bonus! 4. Do They Test Their Milk At Least Monthly?

If farmers do a great job on all of the above, then they probably have clean, safe raw milk. There are so many variables, though, that you don't really know that their practices are working without seeing test results.

Two major parameters measured by milk tests are the number of coliforms, and aerobic bacteria (aka SPC or APC) per mL.

Farmers who do not do a good job of producing milk for raw consumption will typically have:

  • coliform counts in the 100's,

  • aerobic bacteria counts in the tens or hundreds of 1,000's

When their milk is pasteurized and bottled, surprisingly, it will still have coliforms and aerobic bacteria! There are legal limits to allowable numbers of those in pasteurized milk:

  • 10 coliforms

  • 20,000 aerobic bacteria

A friend of mine once bought pasteurized milk that tasted like chlorine. My guess is that that batch of milk exceeded legal limits, so they dumped a bunch of chlorine in it to kill the bacteria. Gross.

The legal limits for raw milk are a little tighter than for pasteurized milk:

  • coliform counts under 10,

  • aerobic bacteria counts under 15,000 (but RAWMI tells us to aim for under 5,000)

The bacteria found in high quality raw milk is more likely to be beneficial bacteria than pathogens. Raw milk, after all, is SUPPOSED to have some good bacteria.

While all raw milk farmers have some variability in results, I frequently achieve the lowest test numbers possible:

  • less than 1 coliform (it means they did not find any),

  • less than 250 aerobic bacteria

You can see that it is possible for well produced raw milk to meet higher standards than pasteurized milk!

A farmer who takes pride in doing a good job on raw milk should be happy to answer your questions and show you around. A farmer who does not take raw milk safety seriously might get defensive about it. Their attitude will tell you a lot.

Cheese, the Perfect Laboratory for Bacteria

I used to buy raw milk from friends who owned an organic farm and shipped their milk to a plant for processing. They were good friends and I am grateful that they sold me a little of their delicious raw milk. I got a lot of pointers on how to keep cows from them, too.

I was able to drink their milk just fine. However, a few times I made aged cheese out of it. All of those cheeses got defects caused by bad bacteria, and they made my tummy sick. I'm not even in a high risk group.

A lot of the points mentioned above, this farm would have failed at. It's not because they are bad people and they don't try to be good farmers. It's because they had a lot of cows to milk so they didn't spend time on things that seemed unimportant to them. They drank it without problem, and most of their milk was destined to get pasteurized. They were good farmers, but they were not aiming for good quality RAW milk.

I am able to make beautiful cheese out of my own clean raw milk now.


Raw milk, especially from grass fed cows, is one of the healthiest foods known to mankind. Not only does it not have all the "bad stuff" that is prevalent in modern processed foods, but it is full of so much good stuff like probiotics, enzymes, and every nutrient that you need to be healthy and thrive.

Drink raw milk and drink it with confidence!

A bucket milker is a closed system that does not allow any dirt into the milk from the environment, and it milks cows quickly and comfortably.

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