Local Milk in the Flathead: Interview with Joe Brenneman

July 18, 2008, the ESP core team (Edd Blackler, Edmund Fitzgerald, Sally Janover and Catherine Haug) invited County Commissioner and local dairyman Joe Brenneman for an interview about milk production in the Flathead.  This was shortly after the Meadow Gold Dairy shut down its processing plant in Kalispell, converting it to a distribution warehouse.  There are currently two commercial dairy farmers in the valley:  Brenneman and Hedstrom, both of whom had sold their milk to Meadow Gold, and now sell to Country Classics.

[NOTE:  Meadow Gold is owned by Dean Foods, Inc, the largest dairy company in the US, and one of the largest in the world.  Country Classic Dairies is a Montana-local dairy cooperative based in Bozeman]

Here is the text of the interview (Joe’s responses are paraphrased for brevity).

ESP:  How many dairy farms in the Flathead, and who are they?  

JB: Brenneman and Hedstrom.  There may be some goat farmers.

ESP:  Are local dairy cows pasture fed, or confinement fed, or a mix?  

JB:  Mostly a mix, but Hedstrom’s are probably confined (small farm area); Brenneman uses silage/grain mix and pasture.   

ESP:  How much of their diet is grain and how much grass?  

JB:  He has tried seasonal grazing, not enough feed to keep up milk production.  Pasture flooded during hi-water season.

ESP:  Do they regularly use antibiotics?  rGBH (recombinant hormone)?

JB:  Antibiotics infrequent, using injection to treat illness only; not in feed.  No rGBH used by either dairy farm (national trend).

  • [ESP Comment:  the prohibition on rGBH and antibiotic feed is a requirement of Country Classics, to whom both dairymen sell their milk.]

ESP:  Would there be interest in forming a dairy co-op to provide local milk to stores in the valley, especially as fuel costs escalate (for transporting milk)? 

JB:  Both dairy farmers would be interested, but would there be enough customers?  Need to do some simple math.  Joe produces 5500 lb/day, Hedstrom about 8 – 9000 lb/day.  At 8.6 lb/gallon….  Doesn’t take a lot of milk to feed the Flathead (he’ll do some calculations for us).  

They produce more milk than is consumed, so the excess could be used to make cheese, yogurt, etc..  Can build a small processing plant — a guy in Michigan does this and puts it on a trailer, to be used at each dairy farm.  A processing plant is not cheap, but pasteurizers are easy to get. 

It’s probably not economically feasible right now; consumers will buy cheaper milk as long as it’s available, rather than buy local milk just because it is local. 

  • [ESP comment:  The concern about numbers of customers is real, in the face of stiff competition from discount grocers such as Wal-Mart and Costco, even though the quality of local milk would be superior.  But why are these national sources less expensive than local milk, especially when it has to be trucked into the Flathead?  The answer is that large commercial dairies cut corners in cleanliness and quality, hiding under the protection provided by ultra-pasteurization of their milk and the use of antibiotic-laced feed.]

ESP:  If energy costs make it difficult to import milk, how long would it take to set up local processing?  

JB:  A couple months.

ESP:  If families wanted to keep a cow, how much acreage would be required?  On average, how much milk will one cow produce?  

JB:  A cow eats 4% of its weight in dry matter/day.  It makes a difference whether you grow your own feed.  1000 lb Jersey eats 40 lb daily. Grain is mostly dry matter;  would need 30 lb hay and 15 lb grain/day, for example.  If on pasture, about 10 acres to feed one cow.  And need equipment to grow and harvest.

ESP:  What kind of cows on the Brenneman farm?  Hedstrom’s? 

JB:  Holstein cows at both.  Joe has some crossed with Jerseys.  Holsteins are bred for high milk production but they seem to get sick a lot; breeding with Jerseys improves health of the offspring.

  • [ESP comment:  Because of the tendency of Holsteins to get sick, many dairymen use feed treated with antibiotics, which then contaminates the milk.  However, our dairymen do not use antibiotic feed (as mentioned earlier).]

ESP: Is anyone in the valley making butter, cheese, and other dairy products for sale?  

JB:  Some cottage industry cheese; Lifeline in Victor.

ESP:  General discussion on milk:

JB:  Joe is now a member of Country Classics Coop; less transportation cost than with Meadow Gold.

Schools buy on bidding process; was Meadow Gold; doesn’t know what it is now.  Schools don’t pay a lot.  And they now buy milk in plastic bottles instead of wax cartons–kid’s like that better.

One Response to “Local Milk in the Flathead: Interview with Joe Brenneman”

  1. […] Read on for the interview with a modern milkman, and my hope for Bigfork.  See also  our interview with Joe Brenneman, a local dairy farmer. […]