Farmstead cheese creates a Swiss connection to Indiana family's European roots

by Allan Nation

CLAY CITY, Indiana: In 1996, Alan and Mary Yegerlehner and their three children decided to go to Switzerland and look up their long-lost relatives.

In 1851, Alan's relatives had moved from the Canton of Bern, Switzerland to Holmes County, Ohio. Nine years later they moved to Clay City near Terre Haute. Alan is the sixth generation to farm there.

While staying with family in the small village of Bleienbach, Alan and Mary saw farmers engaged in small-scale cheese making and Alan developed the dream of making cheese one day on his own farm.

Several years before, he had started converting their 200-acre farm from a grain-based dairy to a more natural, pasture-based system.

"In the 1980s we got way too involved in grain farming and equipment. I wanted to get as far away from that as possible," Alan said. Also, the margins from commodity milk production were too thin to involve his children in the farm.

Alan moved to seasonal, once-a-day milking and eliminated all grain cropping and the feeding of supplemental grain and corn silage.

"We wanted a truly healthy product high in omega-3 and CLA," he said.

He said it frustrated him that there was no way for a dairyman selling commodity milk to be rewarded for producing a healthier product.

GETTING FREE OF COMMODITIES

In 2000, a small-scale cheese maker affiliated with an Indiana winery was wanting to sell out and retire. "We just happened to be in the right place at the right time," Alan said. They bought all of his equipment and the cheese maker helped him set it up and stayed a day or two to teach Alan how to run it.

"That was sure an intensive cheesemaking course," he said.

The Yegerlehners renovated an existing barn into a combination milking parlor, processing room and retail store.

The customers in the retail section can watch the cheese making process through a glass window.

"We were blessed with some very patient and forgiving customers in those early days."

In 2001, they only utilized about a third of their milk for direct sales but by 2004, they were completely free of the commodity milk market.

They have about 90 milk cows and could expand to150 on the current acreage.

Today, the Yegerlehners make cheese, butter, yogurt and cottage cheese from their milk. They experimented with a frozen custard-type ice cream last summer, but marketing it was difficult because of the cost of high quality inputs. They do, however, make ice cream on-farm using a premium commercial mix and all natural flavors.

They also sell grass fed beef, naturally suckled pink veal and whey-fed pork - all of which are natural by-products of dairy production and manufacturing.

Alan emphasized that the dairy was the centerpiece enterprise and that the meat was just a profit-sweetening holon rather than a true separate enterprise. As such it is only seasonally available.

For example, veal is only available in June and July, pork in mid to late fall and two-year-old grass finished beef in early summer through late fall.

The meats are processed in a local state-inspected locker plant and can't be shipped out of state.

This product mix is sold through a marketing program that includes an on-farm store, Internet mail order, farmers markets and wholesale to upscale food venues such as wineries, other grass fed producers and 12 artisan food markets in three states.

All production is organic but is not currently certified.

"Since we sell most of our products direct, we just don't think certification would add any value," Alan said.

Advertising comes primarily from word-of-mouth, school tours and free media publicity.

They do advertise in the Weston Price Foundation's Quarterly Magazine "Wise Traditions" and on eatwild.com and get good results from both.

One Indiana Weston Price Chapter picks up 300 pounds of butter at least twice a year to distribute to their members.

"I thought I had enough butter in storage to last through the winter but we were totally sold out by the first of January."

While the on-farm store is their primary marketing venue most customers drive 60 to 75 miles to buy there.

"One of the things that impressed me on our trip to Switzerland was how much of the food eaten in the village was locally produced.

"I thought I could do the same thing here but other than a couple of like-minded neighbors all of our customers come from the cities.

"That has been a huge disappointment to me."

A DIFFERENT QUALITY OF LIFE

Alan said that trying to balance production, processing and marketing was difficult.

While on-farm processing allows the production end to be simplified with seasonal production and once-a-day milking, the time saved is largely consumed by added processing and marketing chores.

The Yegerlehners have dealt with this stretch through specialization.

Twenty-five-year-old daughter, Kate, is in charge of herd management, Alan is in charge of processing and Mary takes responsibility for marketing.

"I tell people considering this they will have a 'different' quality of life than if they just stayed with pure production. For us it is a better one but it may not be for everyone."

He said their solution to avoiding dairy burn-out was to shut down everything for two months each winter and relax. The lactation season ends sometime before Christmas (weather and grass supply dependent) and resumes in late March.

Alan wants the cows to have had two weeks of green grass before calving.

During the winter the cattle are grazed off the farm and the on-farm store is reduced from six days a week to Saturday-only sales.

"I'd quit before I'd go back to year around milking," Alan said.

"All of the products we make must fit well with seasonal production or we won't consider them."

CHEESE HIGH VALUE LOW INVESTMENT

He said the beauty of cheese making was that it was a very high value product that lent itself well to seasonal milk production and required little investment in processing equipment.

By specializing in aged, hard cheeses, one can avoid pasteurization regulations and its attendant equipment investment.

The downside is that you have to know how to make good cheese.

The Yegerlehners produce unpasteurized aged cheddar, jack, Swiss, Gouda and pasteurized fresh mozzarella, cheddar and cottage cheese.

Clay City is known as the "Mayberry of the Midwest" due to its laid-back pace and friendly town cop. This is celebrated with a Mayberry Cheddar.

The cottage cheese is a by-product of butter manufacturing and is only available during the April to December milking season.

Alan said ice cream, butter and yogurt manufacturing were all easier to learn than cheese but butter and ice cream don't pay as well unless value can be added to the skim.

Butter is much easier to make, can be stored frozen for a long time and has opportunities for value added byproducts such as cottage cheese and whey-fed pork. However, under Indiana law it requires pasteurization.

While butter sales are booming, he said their cottage cheese sales do not utilize all of the skimmed milk. As a result, a lot of this potentially valuable byproduct goes to the pigs.

The Yegerlehners offer 23 different flavors of ice cream.

To make a quality dippable ice cream without homogenizing, the use of emulsifiers such as egg yolks is a must. Ice cream requires pasteurization, can't be sold mail order, and like butter forces you to deal with a lot of byproduct skimmed milk.

"I sure wouldn't try to make on-farm ice cream without pigs," Alan said.

The whey and skimmed milk is taken to the pastured pigs in a tanker wagon where it is fed in troughs that are moved frequently to prevent excessive pasture damage. The pigs have a portable shade structure and are confined with two wires of portable electric fence.

The pigs are purchased as feeder pigs weighing 45 to 85 pounds in the spring and are harvested at 220 to 300 pounds at the end of the cheese making season. Alan has found the 85-pound pigs a better choice due to their improved hardiness and capacity to fatten in the fall.

No protein supplement is fed as the pigs are on green, legume-rich pasture. Cheese whey is too low in protein to be the sole food source for young growing pigs but buttermilk is a complete feed.

The pork is sold as ground pork, sausage and chops.

"Several years ago, I started the practice of letting a portion of my land rest each year. That's where I put the pigs."

GRASS FED BEEF AND VEAL

Alan said they presently let the cow suckle the calf for around three months before weaning.

This tremendously simplifies calf care, improves calf health and growth, produces a high value veal product, allows for more time for processing but uses lots of high value milk.

He has also found that milk production falls after weaning and does not typically recover under once-a-day milking.

"We're currently re-evaluating this situation now that we are fully utilizing all of our milk.

"We know we can get 90% of our twice-a-day milk production with no calf on the cow but hate losing the cachet of a 'naturally suckled' veal product.

"Do we just settle for less milk? Go back to twice-a-day after weaning? Milk more cows? We are actively searching for alternatives."

One idea is to graft several cows on one cow as is done in Europe. The calves are weaned using the low-stress, across-the-fence method whereby the calf and the dam can see each other.

The calves are protected from coyotes by two companion donkeys.

Two major problems are that the weaned calves typically gain poorly on summer grass when they are this young and are very susceptible to internal parasites.

Unfortunately, veal is not highly prized in the Midwest and much of it goes into Veal Bratwurst.

As a result, the majority of the male calves are grown out and sold as 24- to 30-month grass-finished beeves.

The cull cows are processed into ground beef and sausage. Summer sausage is a big seller in Indiana.

Other beef products produced are: beef jerky, pepperoni, salami, bologna, and big hot dogs.

"We try to turn as much of what would be ground beef into something that has a higher value."

DEVELOPING OWN BULLS

Alan described his genetic program until recently as "wandering aimlessly with unplanned cross-breeding programs

Breeds used either currently or in the past include: Holsteins, Guernseys, Jerseys, Ayrshire, Dutch Belts and Milking Shorthorns.

However, daughter Kate has gotten very interested in genetics and plans to go away from pure dairy genetics and more toward the dual purpose type of cattle.

"We want a balance of both milk and muscle," Alan said.

Kate plans to eventually produce their own bulls and eventually use natural service breeding exclusively.

Alan likes that the dual purpose breeds' milk is very high in butterfat and stays consistently high in fat across the whole lactation. This makes cheese making easier.

"We're trying to develop what Gearld Fry calls 'peasant wisdom.' The ability to see what you observe."

The following spring's replacements go through the parlor with the lactating cows the last two to three weeks before drying off to learn the parlor routine.

Once the cows are dry, they are driven down a county road to their off-farm wintering site.

All the neighbors are invited to participate in this "cattle drive" and are paid in ice cream and fun.

"One of our dreams was to build a sense of community with our efforts," Alan said.

"I saw this community spirit in rural Switzerland and I want it here too."

by The Stockman Grass Farmer


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