If you've ever wondered how you can raise food year-round (and not just cold-hearty vegetables, but tomatoes and even tropical trees), or if you've ever considered getting a dairy goat or dairy cow, today's podcast with Andrea from VW Family Farm in Arkansas is just for you.
In this episode of the Pioneering Today Podcast (episode #301), I'm talking with Andrea Vinson of VW Family Farms. Andrea and her family live on a 700-acre farm where they homeschool their children and raise over 100 head of cattle, 40 pigs, 200 chickens, 15 beehives alongside sheep, dogs, cats, turkeys, ducks, and more.
They also have 22,000 feet of garden space where they grow their own fruit and vegetables, including tropical fruit like papayas! They utilize a greenhouse fitted with an aquaponic system which allows them to grow summer-time vegetables year-round, and it also allows them to raise their own tilapia fish.
If aquaponics, raising your own fish, or growing tropical fruit is on your bucket list, this is the podcast for you.
Andrea also dives into her preferences (and pros and cons) of raising dairy goats vs. dairy cows. This is a jam-packed episode, so grab a cup of coffee and let's get chatting!
In this episode of the Pioneering Today Podcast (episode #301):
- Andrea shares about her family's 700-acre farm.
- What got them started on their homesteading journey.
- How they use hydroponics and a greenhouse to grow veggies year-round as well as raise tilapia.
- Advantages of using aquaponics in a greenhouse.
- How aquaponics plus the greenhouse allow them to grow summer crops all year long.
- How they raise dairy animals without being tied down to daily milking schedules.
- Pros and cons of raising dairy goats and the differences between dairy goats and dairy cows.
- How much milk they get each day and if they pasteurize the milk or keep it raw.
- Connect with Andrea on YouTube at VW Family Farm, on our Facebook group, or on Instagram.
- Be sure to check out their aquaponics playlist on YouTube right here.
This Podcast Sponsored by Butcher Box
This episode of the Pioneering Today Podcast was sponsored by Butcher Box!
Butcher Box contacted me a while back to see if I would like to try out their meat products. When I let them know I wasn't interested because we already raise a year's worth of meat here on our homestead, they let me know about their seafood box.
This really piqued my interest because, other than catching a year's worth of crab, we don't have access to much other seafood (other than the occasional salmon that run the river near us).
I also started thinking about all my readers who haven't quite made the leap to living on a homestead or farm where they're able to raise their own meat, so I at least wanted to give it a try to see if Butcher Box would be a viable option.
In my first box, I received halibut, lobster tail, steaks, ground beef, pork sausage, and chicken. I know I said we didn't need most of those products, but in full transparency, I didn't want to recommend something that I hadn't tried myself, so I got a variety.
Truthfully, the only differences I noticed were in the ground beef. Our home-grown ground beef is slightly deeper red in color and the Butcher Box ground beef was slightly leaner than our own. Other than that, the flavor of all the meat was phenomenal and I truly love their sourcing practices.
Butcher Box ensures all their meat products are raised using the healthiest methods, including grass-fed AND grass-finished beef, free-range organic fed chickens, pastured pigs, and wild-caught fish.
I will continue to order the seafood box for my family in the future. And if you want to try out Butcher Box, first time orders can actually get a free essentials bundle in your first box!
The essentials bundle includes 3 lbs. of chicken breast, 2 lbs. of pork chops, and 2 lbs of ground beef. If you want to try out for yourself, head on over and place your order on Butcher Box.
Melissa: Hey there, pioneers, and welcome to episode number 301. Today's episode is really an interesting one, as well as exciting. We're going to be talking about elements of raising your own dairy animals and... get this one, this one is very interesting, your own year round vegetables and tilapia, so fish, using hydroponics. Not only are you raising your own fish, so for those of you who are in more land locked areas or don't have a river to go fishing in or whatnot and want to be able to raise vegetables in a greenhouse because my interview today is with somebody who lives in an area that's not warm enough to raise vegetables year-round due to the colder winter months, but by using a greenhouse that uses hydroponic water growing for the vegetables, it also means that they can grow their own fish, so they are raising their own tilapia year-round.
Melissa: That's a really fun and different aspect and avenue for us to go down that we're going to be talking about in today's podcast episode, but for those of you who are like, "I don't know. It's cool, and I kind of want to hear about it, but I'm not sure that I'm ready to dive in and do that," and maybe you're like, "Yes, I've been waiting to hear for something like this because I really want to dive and do that." We're also going to be talking about doing alternative method or ways of doing thing on the farm, which is definitely with hydroponics and fish, right, but also talking about how to make having dairy animals, including cows versus goats, etcetera, how to do that in a way where you're not tied to the farm 24/7 or how to do it if you still have a busy life.
Melissa: I'm really excited for today's episode, not only because of this content that we're going to get into in this interview here in just a moment, I also want to bring up different ways and resources and avenues for those of us who maybe don't have all the perfect parts of a homestead in place yet. In an ideal world, we would be raising all of our own food and we would have a local source if we didn't, some like our neighbor that we knew down the street that we would be able to then barter with. I'm talking in a perfect world. A lot of us have certain aspects and certain places of this in place already or working towards that, but I think it's important for us to also do what works best for us no matter what season we may happen to be in, which is why today's podcast episode is sponsored by Butcher Box.
Melissa: Butcher Box contacted me a couple of months ago and asked if I would be interested in trying some of their products. At first, I emailed them back and I'm like, "Well, we raise all of our own meat. We raise our own grass-fed beef, we raise our own meat chickens, I've got the hens for laying eggs, we raise our own organic grass-fed pork. I don't really need it. I think your company's awesome that you offer it to people, but I don't personally need that." They came back and they said, "Well, we also have a seafood option." Then I started thinking about it, and I'm like, "You know what? I am very, very fortunate that we are at a place in our lives and that we have the property and the space to be able to raise all of our own meat, but I actually know a lot of people who aren't in that right now." It's something that they want to do down the road and I actually have people who are like, "You know what? I don't ever really want to raise my own livestock. I just want to do the fruits and the vegetables. I don't want to bring the responsibility of livestock on or it's not something that I have any intention of doing in the near future."
Melissa: I think that Butcher Box is a great product and a great place to support if that's where you're at, where you don't have a local person that you could get it from or raise it yourself. I actually emailed them back and I said, "You know what? I would love to try your seafood," because we are able to go crabbing in our little, tiny 17, 20-some, it's over 20 years old actually, ski boat in the bay for crab, Dungeness crab where we live, and we also get salmon, but that's the only seafood that we're able to get ourselves and that we put in the freezer and preserve up and have, so there's lots of other types of seafood that we just don't ever have because for seafood, I want it to be wild caught and done so in an ethical manner.
Melissa: Especially with any of the other types of chicken, beef, pork, etcetera, I want heritage breed, I want it a hundred percent grass-fed, and a hundred percent grass-finished. We're able to do that, but if I go to buy it... so for whatever reason if I want extra cuts of something because sometimes, I just want chicken wings or chicken breasts occasionally. My son loves buffalo wings and when we butcher our chickens, we butcher them whole, and I freeze them whole, and I'll roast a whole chicken. There are sometimes where I want just a specific cut, so then I'll go to the store and that will be something that I'll look to pick up. It's very, very, very hard for me to find a hundred percent grass-fed truly free-range organic chicken, not where they're just saying it is, but they're not really if you look at the conditions. That's really, really important to me as well as being organic.
Melissa: I started looking at Butcher Box, and I said, "Yeah, I would like to try some of your guy's items," when I started to see what they stood for and how they source from small farmers who don't have the network or enough customers for their products. Butcher Box is that in between. I don't want to say I was really skeptical, but I'm like, "I don't really know how well we're going to like it." I actually had them send me some beef as well and some pork, as well as the seafood because I wanted to be able to compare it to the chicken and the beef that we raise ourselves here. Then, I also put in some of the seafood that we're not able to get ourselves that I haven't had in years.
Melissa: We got some of their halibut. I have not purchased halibut, so that just means we don't eat it, in I don't even know how many years to tell you the truth. The box came, here's the interesting part, so I went ahead and put in my order with them, which they covered in exchange for me trying it out because they knew I didn't really need it, just in full transparency. I got an email that has your tracking. They look... because this was part of it, so I'm like how is it going to arrive to me? Is it really going to still be frozen solid, how does do in shipping, etcetera? From where they're shipping it, they look at how far away you live, and the time of year, and if it requires dry ice, then they'll put it with dry ice. Otherwise, they pack the box really, really well, so that it will still be frozen solid when it reaches you.
Melissa: The delivery guy, because we live way out in the boonies, you guys, the delivery man, bless his heart, did not get to my house until 7:30 PM at night. He came up in his little van, so that meant that the meat had not been in a refrigerated area for a very long time, since at least that morning because it was so late in day. I opened up the box, I was so impressed. It was still, every single piece, was frozen solid, so there hadn't been any type of thawing issues. I could pop it right into the freezer without any type of worry. As of to date, we ate the halibut, which was phenomenal. I plan on getting more. We also got lobster, which I didn't know how it was going to come because I don't actually like lobster, but my husband, I know I... people hear this and they are shocked. I don't like lobster. I know. I'm probably weird, but my husband loves lobster and when I saw that was an option, I'm like, "I've got to try this for him."
Melissa: It comes shucked, so it's just the lobster tail meat and it's already shucked and in this nice little vacuum sealed package. I don't know what I was expecting. I think I actually expected to see a frozen solid lobster tail. That's not how it comes. That was really exciting. Then, we got steaks and we got some sausage, and we got some chicken. I already tested their ground beef because I really wanted to see what it looked like next to our ground beef, and taste, I really couldn't tell any taste difference. I did it in meatballs, so there's a little bit of flavoring when you're making meatballs, of course, but I really couldn't tell as far as texture goes. As far as taste goes, I didn't taste any difference between theirs and our ground beef.
Melissa: The only difference that I will say that I did notice, and it was slight, but I did notice that is our ground beef it a darker red color than theirs was. Ours was a darker, more vibrant, deep red color when it thawed out and looking at it side by side, than theirs, and I think theirs was slightly leaner than ours, which isn't a bad thing. Just an observation with the amount of fat that came out while I was cooking it. Theirs was a little bit leaner. That's not a negative, just a side by side comparison, but that was really the only difference that I saw. Everything else, like I said, flavor, texture, all of those things, I really couldn't tell a difference between theirs and ours. Just a very slight difference as far as the fat content and the color of the meat. Ours is a little bit darker than this particular batch that I got from them.
Melissa: The exciting thing is, though, I think Butcher Box is an excellent option for getting that hundred percent grass-fed, and not just grass-fed, but grass-finished beef. A lot of people don't know that it can say grass-fed beef if they've been fed grass for a certain percentage of their life, but they can still be grain finished and fed grain even if it says grass-fed. It needs to say a hundred percent grass-fed and grass-finished beef to get true all grass-fed. That's really important for us because the difference between a hundred percent grass-fed versus some that still have been fed grain is the actual fat that you're getting. A hundred percent grass-fed and grass-finished beef is high in omega three. If it's fed corn and/or a lot of other grain products, then it's higher in omega six, and we want the omega threes. That, from a health standpoint, is what we are after.
Melissa: One of the awesome things that Butcher Box is offering for listeners of the podcast is for a very limited time, they are doing, if you're a new member, meaning you're not signed up and already using Butcher Box, you get a free essentials bundle in your first box, your first order that you place with them. Get this. You get this for free with your first box, you guys. Three pounds of chicken breast, two pound of pork chop, and two pounds of ground beef. This is all using grass-fed, grass-finished where applicable, and organic true free range from small farmers type of quality in your first box. How to make sure that you get all of that free meat added to your first order? You want to use ButcherBox.com/PioneeringToday. No spaces, no slashes. Again, that's ButcherBox.com/PioneeringToday to get your free essentials bundle.
Melissa: Okay. Now to today's interview and podcast episode. Today's guest, I've been teasing, is Andrea Vinson. It wasn't until 2012 that they pulled their kids out of school to homeschool and then a whole new world opened up to them. They, very similar to me, had some different health problems, so they started trying to grow their own food. I know from the messages and the emails that you guys send me, and the reviews, that that is where a lot of you are at as well, and they now have, get this, that's a relatively short period of time, honestly, to go from nothing to this.
Melissa: They have over a hundred head of cattle, 40 pigs, 200 chickens, 15 beehives, along with sheep, dogs, cats, ducks, turkeys, etcetera. They have a 22,000 square foot of garden space that they are using to produce their own fresh vegetables and fruit, but that's also where they have this large aquaphonics... aquaponics, sorry, not phonics, aquaponics greenhouse that they raise their vegetables in year round, that also that in turn feeds the tilapia and provides them with a fresh fish source. They raise all of their own meat and are launching a meat business to sell to the public, along with eight dairy cows that they milk, and they make their own dairy products, from yogurt to cheese to kefir to sour cream and more. I am really excited to introduce and have Andrea on the podcast, so let's get to it.
Melissa: I am super excited to welcome Andrea to the Pioneering Today podcast. Andrea, welcome.
Andrea: Thank you. I'm very honored to be here.
Melissa: Yeah. I'm really excited to chat with you because you are doing some very interesting things that I haven't even done yet on our homestead, and I think it's so much fun to get to learn from other people, but I know a little bit about you. This is still our first official meeting, even though it's all done virtually. I'd love for you to give a little bit of background on how you guys got going down this path and what you guys are doing now for everybody listening in, kind of catch them up to speed.
Andrea: Okay. I'll try to make this the shortened version, there's so much to... story. Back in 2012, well, even before that. We live in the country and we're in Arkansas, so around us everyone gardens, everyone grows a little bit of produce here and there, but back in 2012, my husband started having some health problems which led us to a farm. We met a homeschool family with a bunch of kids and all the kids were respectful and hard workers. They were growing all this food. We just kind of looked around, we were like, "Wow, we want this." What started as for health, led us down this total path we did not even know that we needed.
Andrea: Our first step was we got some pigs and a couple cows, and we took our kids out of school and started homeschooling them. We jokingly say that's our first step off the deep end. That just opened our world up to so many interesting people that were living right around us that we didn't even know. All of that just snowballed a little bit at a time. We didn't start everything all at once, into gardens and then more gardens. Then just one day, I remember standing in the middle of my green bean row and thinking, "I think I could grow a year's worth of green beans. I think I'm going to try that." It was just one thing after another.
Andrea: We started growing all our vegetables and then we started growing all our meat. We got bees for pollination and for honey. We got milk cows and just one thing led to another until here we are today and we're actually launching a non-GMO meat business here in the next month to offer meat to others around us and around the country, more healthy, ethically raised meat that I just think should be available to everyone, so that's our story in a nutshell.
Melissa: Oh, my goodness. There's so many similarities there. My journey also really began with the health aspect and then it all mushroomed to where it is here. Raising a year's worth of green beans, that was where we started and now do a lot more, so that was really fun. How many acres do you guys have?
Andrea: My husband's grandpa was a very good businessman. He lived like he was poor, but he bought land every chance he got. A hundred dollars an acre here and there, so he left... it's a 700 acre farm to my mother-in-law, my husband, and his brother. His brother served 25 years in the Navy, he's not really into the farming thing like we are, but he supports us and does whatever he can to help us. Then, my mother in law has always worked and things, so they're wonderful. They let us do whatever we want, so we pretty much farm about 700 acres.
Melissa: Oh, my gosh. That is a big farm.
Melissa: Wow. Well, my hat off to you. That's a big operation. On that acreage, what type of animals and approximately how many head or flock, whatever we're talking there, are you guys raising right now?
Andrea: To be fair, we started our homestead on about between five and 10 acres, so our main homestead is right up here at our house. Then, the lands are like for our big herd of cows that we started and then we grow pine trees and we cut our own hay and things like that, so we have... about two years ago now, we had just a few cows, and then we bought a large beef herd of mixed cows. Currently, we have about 120 head. Then we have about six sheep, we just play around with the sheep. We have a livestock guarding dog that stays with them and we thought about letting that grow organically just through them having babies and having what they call a flerd of goats and sheep that rotate with our cows because we rotate our cows on rotational grazing.
Andrea: I have eight milk cows. Let's see. We have quite a few pigs right now. Probably... it's a lot for us. Probably between 30 and 40. We're working out to having four sows that will be having piglets for us throughout the year. We have probably 20 hives of bees and more dogs, cats, and just lots of chickens. Probably 200 chickens for layers and then this year, we're going to grow our largest batch of broilers. We've always grown a couple hundred, and we'll process them ourselves and keep some and sell some to local people, but this year we're planning to do probably around 2,000 and offer those for sale in our new meat business. We're very excited about that.
Melissa: Yeah, yeah. You definitely are self-sufficient, but it's also a business, so the livestock is two-fold there.
Andrea: It's grown into that, yes.
Andrea: First, in the beginning it was just self-sufficiency and then it just grew into there's so many people that just don't have the ability to do this, but they want good quality food, so it just took on a life of its own.
Melissa: Yeah. No, I love that. When you said 120 head of cattle, that's how big my dad's herd was when I was growing up, so it just immediately took me back. I'm like, "Oh, I know the cow part." We didn't raise the chickens or the pigs when I was growing up. My dad only had cattle, but when you said that, I'm like, "Oh, I know exactly what you all are doing right now." Yeah, that's awesome. In addition to all of that, you guys also have a really fairly good size garden space and I'm really intrigued because I've had a lot of people ask me, and I don't have any experience in this aspect, and that is you do a large aquaponics greenhouse, so you can have vegetables year round and you also raise tilapia.
Andrea: Yes. That was... we started, like I said, growing all our vegetables outside and I learned to can and things like that and just put up all the food. Dehydrate all the different things to preserve the food, but I love salad, so that was just one thing I never figured out how to have all winter long. That's where that idea was born. My husband went down the rabbit hole and really got into that. It's so neat. He has tilapia in a big... it's called IBC tote and they do their thing, eat and make waste. Then, that goes through a whole system of PBC pipes and things that feeds these beds that are in his greenhouse. They have actually gravel in them. There's no dirt in the whole system, so that water flows through there constantly and feeds those plants. It's amazing.
Melissa: Yeah. That is fascinating, so I'm curious, one, I know you said you're in Arkansas, but what are your average winter temperatures because you'd be able to do it during the winter, so I'm just curious what your guys' winters look like.
Andrea: We definitely get down into the teens. That's not uncommon. We don't usually go below that, but we do have cold weather to where we have to heat it just a little bit. Not as much for the plants. We have a couple things in there, like we've grown tropical things that wouldn't survive here. We have a Meyer lemon tree growing right now and papaya tree and some things like that, that definitely wouldn't make it here, but we have to heat it just a little bit sometimes on the coldest nights because the fish would die. We have toyed around; we haven't found the perfect way to heat it yet. We're still figuring all that out, but that's how that goes.
Melissa: Okay. I'm super... What kind of heat system are you currently using when you do have to heat? Is it just a type of heater that you plug in?
Andrea: [inaudible 00:21:37] we've used propane, we've filled a bunch of black barrels and put those in there for the black to absorb heat. Honestly, his dream would be to... this would be a huge undertaking, but to dig up and do like the geothermal [crosstalk 00:21:55]-
Andrea: ... heating thing. He's a big YouTube fan, he's a do-it-yourselfer, so that would be his ultimate goal would be the geothermal.
Melissa: Yeah. Oh, that's fascinating. Yeah, I was curious about the heating aspect of what your temperatures were because I'm not doing hydroponically, but we have a high tunnel, which I don't heat it at all, and I'm able to grow lettuce pretty much year round except during... honestly, like during December and January it grows very little until about the end of January. It's just now starting to actually grow where I'll be able to start harvesting from it. It just is so slow growing the months of December and the first part of January that it is in there and alive, but it's not like it's harvestable.
Melissa: Then, as you hit February, it just explodes in there and then I'm able to do it, but I've toyed with the idea of playing with heat, but I've never done any type of heat in there, just to see if it's the temperature or if it's the lack of daylight because I don't use any artificial light in it either. I'm just really curious what you guys' temps were and what you were discovering with that because I've played around with that idea of trying to make it more productive during the dead of winter as well.
Melissa: Yeah. Good to know that the black... filling them, I'm familiar with the method, but I haven't tried it, really didn't provide quite enough warmth then.
Andrea: Not quite enough to keep the fish alive. It might do well if it's vegetables. Yeah.
Melissa: Yeah. I'm curious, with the fish, walk me through the cycle of how many you have and the space that you have in there. How long does it take them to get to size, how much work does it involve, that type of thing?
Andrea: Yeah. It's not super labor intensive, I guess. The most labor intensive is getting the whole thing set up, and then when you're starting with just like pure water, getting your Ph and everything correct took a little bit to get the plants to grow and the rate they should and things. The fish are in there and then you can feed them whatever you want to. You can feed them spent vegetables and things; they'll eat that. They almost eat like a piranha. They'll just come up and just boil on top of the water. It's kind of neat to see, but we also feed them some fish food and we're definitely seeing that they definitely grow slower if you're not giving them enough to eat, so they should be harvestable in a decent amount of time. I don't exactly know. That's more Ben's expertise, but ours took way longer than they should on our first round, so we're realizing we need to really bump up the feed a little bit.
Andrea: We have, like I said, a rather large IBC tote they're in and I want to say he had probably 30 in there or so, and then, they will tell you that tilapia will not reproduce on their own. That they won't spawn and reproduce in your system, but ours absolutely have. We've never had to buy any more fish. We'll actually see them... because they're so small, they'll swim through the system and they'll come up in the beds and we'll pick them up and put them back in the tank. We've never had to buy tilapia again since that first time.
Andrea: He did have a mishap here a while back, and he's still figuring all the logistics of what happened, but he lost several. We may have to buy some this year, but we're waiting for the cold weather to pass. It's really enjoyable to us. Once we got it all set up, if you want to grow lettuce, you just sprinkle the seeds basically on top of the rocks, and then, you might moisten them one time and then they just grow like crazy. It's pretty amazing.
Melissa: Oh, wow. Yeah, that is really fascinating. That's one of the things that here we could get salmon. We have a salmon run, and then we do have some trout and stuff, so we do have some fish in our river, but we honestly don't really go fishing that often and get it. I love the idea of being able to have... and I do like tilapia, though I have a lot of reservations where I will buy it, obviously, commercially just because I don't want it from China the way that they farm and that's where-
Melissa: ... a lot of commercial tilapia comes from. In the way that you're doing it or like that, I really do enjoy it because it's a nice mild white fish. I'm very intrigued, so I'm going to have to dive into that. I'm looking into that a little bit more, but it sounds like it's not as... I think I had visions in my head that it was going to be very... like, something I was dealing with a lot and really labor intensive. It sounds like once you get things set up, which is really, obviously, the case with anything new, but once you get an infrastructure in place, it's really not too bad on the maintenance side.
Andrea: It's not at all. It's one of our least labor intensive things we do, honestly. It's very enjoyable. We've been able to grow all kinds of neat things out there year round that really like cool weather, but they're in there and they're protected, and the water is flowing all the time. I really like bok choy and just all the lettuces, Swiss chard, all those types of things really thrive in there.
Melissa: Okay. Interesting. I know you said that this is more your husband's realm, so if you don't know the answer to this, that's totally fine, but I'm just curious, if you weren't looking at also being able to raise the fish, what would be the advantage to going the aquaponic route versus just in the ground inside a greenhouse?
Andrea: Right. Well, for one, it just feeds that plants, that flowing water. With the fish, they're feeding them. If you don't have the fish, you can put supplements in the water, and they just grown like crazy. I don't think things like, that are not necessarily native here, would grow here in the ground even in a greenhouse maybe. Like the papaya tree likes that tropical climate because all that water flowing creates... it's very humid in there all the time. It's almost like a rainforest feel. They'll be water dripping and it's just warm and, like I said, just very humid and things. We have tomatoes growing now. All kinds of stuff that are real summer crops we can grow all year long.
Melissa: Okay, and that makes sense. I love that because you're right, there is that different humidity level that you have in summer, so you're really able to replicate that with the aquaponics.
Melissa: That makes a lot of sense. Okay. Thank you because I've honestly always thought that, but I've never had anybody where I can ask them, so I was trying to... because I'm like, like I said, I could do the lettuce and some of those cool crops just fine in the ground here, so I'm like, there has to be an advantage to doing it. Many people are probably like, "Gosh, girl. You didn't know that?" But that makes a lot of sense, so-
Andrea: There's probably more that I don't know.
Melissa: Well, you were talking about that the tilapia and that stuff is actually one of the less labor intensive, so I'm going to assume that the dairy animals are probably your more labor intensive animal that you guys do. Is that correct?
Andrea: They are a bit. They're probably my favorite though, so I guess I don't mind it because they are my girls. That is my animals here on this homestead, so I've enjoyed them, and I did not even grow up in the country. I grew up on a golf course actually, so to me, this just feels like this is my calling and the milk cows are a part of it. I really enjoy them.
Melissa: Okay, so I have thought about getting dairy animals in the past, but honestly, the knowing that it's a daily maintenance when they're in milk and being tied down to them has been one of the things that has held me back. Also, would I really be able to use all of the milk. Do you milk every day twice a day or what's your system for milking?
Andrea: Well, we grew up, we're pretty much in dairy cattle country. We have dairies that were all around us. Most of them have gone out now, but that's what my husband did growing up from the time he was 12 on up, he worked at a dairy. All of them that I've ever heard of were milked at 4:00 AM and 4:00 PM and it took hours each time. They missed so many activities and things with their kids because they were so tied down. When we first got our dairy cows, we started with one, it took my husband a bit to let go of that mentality that we could step outside of the box because people in this homesteading community, especially on YouTube, which is where we share our story, we were seeing them do it a bit differently. To answer, no, I do not milk morning and night and I honestly don't even milk every day. I know that's hard to wrap your mind around, but we just made it work for us. You don't have to do that on a milk cow.
Melissa: Okay, so now when you said you don't even milk every day because I know some people will do like calf sharing where they'll milk once a day and then the calf will be with the cow for 12 hours, and then they'll take it away and then they'll milk, and they'll let them back in again. Is that the same principle that you're using here?
Melissa: You'll just keep the calf with the mom if you know you don't want to milk that day.
Andrea: We keep the calf with the mom and then we will put the calf up at night and they spend a cozy night in the barn with feed and hay and water. Then, I milk the cows in the morning and then put them back together, but I don't even do that seven days a week. They do just fine with it. Our calves in our experience will just drink whatever basically you let them, and if the mom, the milk... I call them moms. I talk about them like they're people, but if the cow has way too much milk at the beginning, now you might want to milk every day for a bit just to give her some relief if the calf can't keep up, but it doesn't take very long at all, just maybe a couple weeks. That calf is going to be draining that cow. You're going to have to separate them even to get any milk for yourself. You don't have to worry about that they just couldn't drink it all and my cow will dry up. No, that calf will drink if you let them whatever the cow has after even just a couple weeks.
Melissa: Okay. Yeah, and I've noticed like with our beef cattle, which I know are not... milk production is obviously different in the breeds, but we'll even reach to the point where the calf will be a yearling and some of the moms, not all of them, but some of them won't even wean them at that point. We actually have to separate them because it's like, okay, you have been on long enough. We need to let her dry up, so that she can sometimes put on weight. Just different instances.
Melissa: Okay. Now, to do that, though, it sounds like you really do need to have... if you don't have a full barn, you need some type of milking shed or somewhere where you can pen them up and/or separate them because with our beef cattle, we just have them out in the field. We have a round pen if we ever need to, but we don't actually have a covered barn area with stalls and that type of thing. It sounds like with the dairy cow that you really do need to have a little bit more of a covered type structure.
Andrea: Well, it's good, but I have separated ours. We have a corral also and if we have somebody put up in the barn, like a beef calf or something that's had a problem, I've separated them in the corral many times. They're cows, so like you said, your beef cows are standing out in a pasture. These are used to that, too. If I didn't have them in a corral, they more than likely wouldn't be in the barn all night. They'd be out milling around and out in the open. It's not like that is cruel just to put them in a corral for the night.
Melissa: Okay. Then, if you guys just want to go somewhere, like on vacation, then you just let the moms and calves go out, so you can actually leave even when they are in milk production, you can leave for a while, provided obviously you have someone checking that they have feed and water, all the normal stuff, but-
Andrea: Absolutely. Yes. We have eight at this point, so we have at least two at least in milk all the time. We just put them together, they'll just keep mom drained and they're happy and we've not had any trouble with it.
Melissa: Okay. Now, did you also do... I know you said that you had some sheep and I think you said goats, too, because you guys do the rotational grazing, which I love. As far as having a dairy goat versus a dairy cow, now I know, obviously, you're going to get a lot more milk from a cow than you would a dairy goat, but I think a lot of people feel more comfortable starting with dairy goats because they are smaller. Do you have any thoughts on choosing one versus the other or maybe pros or cons between those two dairy animals?
Andrea: Well, I have milked quite a few goats, we've made a lot of goat milk soap and we've drank goat's milk and all that. For one, our family prefers the taste of cow's milk, so that's a big kicker is what does your family want to drink and make things out of as far as yogurt and cheese and those things. Also, just I've had a lot of things going on here and I'm homeschooling now two high schoolers. In the past, they were younger, so I don't want to milk every single morning. When I was milking goats, I pretty much had to, to get enough to do what I wanted to do with it. This allows me, I can go out there a few times a week and get all I could ever want and usually have some to sell to neighbors to make some feed cost back without doing it seven days a week. That's a big thing for me.
Andrea: Also, in my experience, some of the goats we've had, they can be a little temperamental as well. I've had goats kick way more than I've ever had cows kick, and on that note, I would encourage people don't be afraid, like, oh, they're going to kick me and kill me. That was me at the beginning because I knew nothing about... I was like, they're going to kick me in the chest, I'm going to be a goner, but cows don't even kick that way. If they kick, more than likely they might put their foot in your milk bucket because they're going to raise it up and lower it down. They don't kick. I'm not going to say they never can. It may not be impossible, but they don't generally kick to the side of their body. They kick up and down or back. It's not really something to be afraid of if that's what's holding you back.
Melissa: Okay. Now, one of the things... because we have with our beef cattle, they're not halter broke. I mean, they're just out... they're grass-fed, but we use a little bit of grain ever now and then because if they do get out, you know, that thing like I can get them in with grain, that's how I get them in horse trailers if we're taking them to bulls or just different things like that or into pens, but they're not tame and they're not broke.
Melissa: With a milk cow, I've heard stories of where people will buy a cow for milk that's supposed to be trained and halter broke and trained to milk, but then they get it home and it doesn't seem like that's really the case. Have you ever had any-
Melissa: ... type of experiences with that?
Andrea: I've heard people that have contacted me, like what in the world do I do now? I've never had one halter broke, but I see other people that do. The way I've trained mine, and I've trained a few that were absolutely wild, that were mine, like they were born here, but once they get up to the milking age, I start thinking, "This isn't going to work." I would say give any cow, if you get them home and you think, "What is going on," give them a bit. Just let them start figuring out where's the feed because you're going to have to give them some sort of a treat to get them to stand anywhere unless you're just going to absolutely tie them up and try to do it that way. I mean, that's a personal preference, but I give mine a little bit of grain every day when I milk them to help their milk production because they're losing a lot by providing you that milk, so whatever you choose for that to be, and they will figure that out.
Andrea: They just have a different personality than beef cows. They're very personable, they're usually pretty sweet, so they're going to figure that out really quickly and they're going to want that. Mine will stand there. If they're eating, they'll stand there all day and let me milk or do whatever. Every one of them. I think most of them can be trained.
Melissa: Okay. See, I just assumed, again, this is not having any dairy cow experience, only beef, that they were all halter broke.
Melissa: Do you have them in a stanchion that actually, when they go in for the food, then you can close it around to keep them immobile, at least for their head, or do you just them free stand and eat?
Andrea: Mine just free stand. They're spoiled. The days that I separate their calf, they know that the next morning they're going to get milked, so they're standing there waiting on me, wanting their grain. I just open the gate; they walk into an open barn like they could leave if they wanted to. They just stand there and eat out of their little trough and I milk. I'm usually done before they are; and I only give them just a few pounds of feed. Then, they actually just back up. They're so, so smart and so funny. They come in, in the exact same order every day and they're creatures of habit, so as long as they know the routine, they're going to do it.
Melissa: What breed is your milk cows?
Andrea: Mostly Jersey, that's my favorite because they have such a high butterfat content. I do have a Brown Swiss, she's a really good cow, and I have a Milking Short Horn at this point, so [crosstalk 00:40:49] Jersey.
Melissa: When they're on the milk share, like you said, where you're only milking them a couple of times a week, approximately how many gallons are you getting at that milking?
Andrea: The two I'm milking right now, their calves are getting older, but probably... I don't know. They're big calves. I'm going to say eight months old. I could wean them very easily, but we didn't get the bull back in with them right away, so they're not about to drop another calf. I'm just hanging on to them, milking them until someone else drops a calf, so I'm not just completely out of milk. Between them, I'm only getting a gallon right now, but they're way far into their milking cycle. If you have a good Jersey that she's just calved recently, you could easily get two or three gallons just from one cow.
Melissa: Okay, because I've heard, and again, you can obviously correct me if I'm wrong, but I've heard that when you are doing the calf share, that you obviously get less milk than if you are not calf sharing-
Melissa: ... per milking. I was just curious what that volume looks like.
Andrea: When we first started doing all this, we listened to a lot of... I don't know if you're familiar with Wardee Harmon at Traditional Cooking School, we listened to her a lot and she had a podcast about that they will hold back milk from you because they know the calf [inaudible 00:42:13]. They will. They absolutely will. If you let them stand there long enough and eat, they'll just let it down like... I guess it's like they can't hold it a super long time. They'll let it out and you'll get like their richest, creamiest part after you've already milked them. You can stick the milkers back on there or if you're doing it by hand, you can milk a little bit more and that's where your cream comes in.
Melissa: Okay. I'm a big fan of cream, so okay. Awesome. I'm assuming, do you keep your milk raw, or do you pasteurize it? What's your process?
Andrea: I keep it raw. My kids I say have become milk snobs. They go to summer camps and things and they don't like pasteurized milk, so we keep it raw. We strain it and get it chilled pretty quick. Then, I even keep it raw when I make yogurt and I make raw milk cheese, which is just at lower temperatures and things like that.
Melissa: Yeah, which I have done... I purchased, obviously, the raw milk because we don't have a dairy cow and I've done some raw feta, some different soft cheeses. I haven't done hard cheeses yet, but I'm curious, because I do yogurt, but it's with a... I'm lucky enough that we have a dairy near us that's organic and grass-fed. I get it in the glass bottle with the cream on top, so it's not homogenized, but it is vat pasteurized. It's a lower pasteurization, obviously, than what most commercial milk is, but it is still pasteurized. With my yogurt, I do heat my up and then put the culture in. When you're doing the raw milk yogurt, and I actually did some tests with the milk where I didn't heat it and made it and then some where I did to see the difference in the thickness levels-
Melissa: ... which is usually the purpose of heating your milk for yogurt anyways. With the raw milk yogurt, I'm curious, how do you do your raw milk yogurt, and do you notice that it is runnier, or do you use on the back end like a little bit of gelatin or something like that to thicken it?
Andrea: It is definitely a little bit runnier. My favorite way to do it is just I make it in the Instant Pot these days, but you can do it on the stove, is just heat up just like a cup or two, get it hot, so you're not heating up and killing off all the good stuff out of a whole batch of yogurt, and then I dissolve a little bit of gelatin in it from the get-go and then put the rest of the cold milk in there, so it cools that way back down and put my culture in there. Then, let it culture just at a rally low temperature. It is thick as can be.
Melissa: Okay, so you are using a little bit of the gelatin to get that thicker texture on there.
Andrea: Yeah, because I don't necessarily like it runny.
Melissa: I don't either, which is why I heat mine. I know when I use this term some people kind of frown, but I am lazy where I can be.
Andrea: Oh, yes.
Melissa: I do not like to strain my yogurt. I want it to be thick with the process from the get-go. I am not going to take the time to strain it, but I like really thick, creamy yogurt. I'm like, I'll strain it if I'm making obviously like a yogurt cheese or something like that, that require pressing for regular cheese, but when it comes to yogurt, I'm like I don't have time for that. It just has to be thick from the get-go.
Andrea: Yeah. Yes. I agree.
Melissa: Oh, I love it. Do you guys also just do a little bit of the milk from the animals just for your own personal use? Just obviously drinking and yogurt and kefir and cheese and all of that or are you guys planning to also do that as part of your business? Do you sell the milk or sell some of the cheese products?
Andrea: I've never sold cheese because it takes me two gallons to make a batch of cheese, so I feel like it would be so expensive and take so much milk. I've never ventured into cheese selling, but we've sold lots and lots of milk over the last few years, but currently, I just told my customers a month ago that I needed a break because every so often, I get two over-scheduled, and I'm like, okay, something's got to give here. We're trying to build a website and get this meat business going. That was just one of the things that had to go.
Andrea: Currently, I'm just milking for us. It might be something that in the future I offer for people coming here to pick up meat. In Arkansas, it's legal to sell raw milk, but they do have to come to your farm to get it, so it would have to be people willing to come pick it up. We'll see where that goes in the future. And my production is way down right now, so that's another reason I'm not selling currently is because I would be milking probably seven days a week to get enough for us and to sell.
Melissa: Gotcha. Yeah. Like you said, that does become a lot of work.
Melissa: Yeah. Yeah. This is probably again going to sound like a silly question to some people, but I'm super curious. With your dairy animals, so when you breed the dairy, the girls, and it's not a heifer, if it's a steer, then do you just raise that up and it becomes a butcher animal just like you would beef except it's a dairy breed or how do you guys manage the offspring?
Andrea: That is exactly what we do. We raise up the steers and they have become beef. Prior to now, we have just raised a few steers a year just for us and immediate family and friends and things like that. That was way more profitable for us to turn it into beef for someone than to take it to the sale barn, the auction. You might get maybe $150 or $200 for a grown out steer that's a dairy breed at the auction. They're just worth nothing here, but if you grow them out, I mean, they're still very good beef. Your steaks will just be smaller, things like that, but they're not less quality necessarily. That's something I'd encourage people is you can take a dairy cow and turn it into your dairy needs as well as your beef. If you don't want a herd of beef cows, necessarily, you can share it with someone else and help pay for your costs and things and your time.
Melissa: Raising the steers especially for... that are a dairy breed obviously, but then raising them for the beef, are you finding that they come to a good butcher weight at about the same time? Like at two years old or what's your guy's experience? I just have no experience with dairy breeds, which is I'm sure is very apparent to anybody listening in.
Andrea: It's about the same timeline. I would say two years old is a good thing to shoot for. They're obviously not going to be as beefy. They're not going to have as much meat on them. If you're selling it to someone like as raised out beef and you're charging by like what they called a rail weight at the processor, which is basically after they skin it and things like that, but it still has all the bones and everything, it's going to be lighter obviously just because they're made to make milk and beef. It's, like I said, it's still very good. You still get plenty for just a family that's just wanting to venture into raising beef.
Melissa: That answered one of the questions that I've had was what's your best practice for managing the offspring of the dairy cow, so you definitely answered it for me. Well, I feel like I have learned so much about so many actually different topics. Thank you for answering my questions as we went down a little bit of the rabbit hole of the aquaponics and the greenhouse and all of that. You guys are just doing an incredible amount of different things on your farm, which is really fun. For everybody listening in, if they'd want to check out more of what you guys are doing and see some of the different things, where's the best place for our listeners to connect with you?
Andrea: The best place where we show our life here is on YouTube and our channel is VW Family Farm. Then, we have a really awesome group of people that follow us on there that we created a Facebook group actually, and it's also called VW Family Farm. Then, we have an Instagram page. It's @VWFamilyFarms, with an S, and that actually is our teenage daughter. She manages that for us and people like chatting with her as well. She's into modest fashion I guess you would say, Western fashion and just all things teenage girls and farm. It's a pretty fun place, too.
Melissa: Awesome. Okay. Well, I'm going to have to go check out your guy's YouTube channel because I really want to see this greenhouse and the aquaponics in action. I'm going to go and have some fun looking at that. It was such a pleasure to get to know you and thanks for sharing your knowledge and inspiring us to try some new things.
Andrea: You're so very welcome. One last thing I wanted to mention. My husband has a whole playlist on the aquaponics for anyone that's interested on YouTube. He also did a mini setup where it was like a two level PVC pipe. You can build it in just a couple hours, and it grew on a patio just for those who don't have a aquaponics greenhouse and show just with a little pump and a little Rubbermaid tote and stuff. Very simple. That'd be a great place to start if someone's wanting to venture into growing in water.
Melissa: Oh, perfect. I will, in the show notes, I always do a blog post of the company's episodes, so I'll make sure and put a link in there to that playlist, too, so that everybody has a easy way to go [inaudible 00:51:44] that and check it out. Yeah, thank you.
Andrea: You're welcome.
Melissa: If you want to be able to look at any of the links and resources from today's episode, make sure you go to MelissaKNorris.com/301 because this is episode number 301. I hope you enjoyed that interview as much as I did and don't forget our sponsors for today are Butcher Box. You can go to ButcherBox.com/PioneeringToday to get your free essential bundle before it goes away. I can't wait to be back here with you next week, same time. Blessings and Mason jars until then my friends.
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