Belly ache leads to farmer creating raw milk enterprise
It’s a story repeated in farm kitchens across the country, but it’s only when it’s brought to your attention that you realise how strange it sounds.
“We were still buying milk,” says dairy farmer Patrick Bradley. “And milking cows and selling milk but buying milk.”
Obviously, for a farmer to drink their cow milk produced at home, it’s going to be ‘raw milk’, but in terms of taste it’s arguably nicer than the homogenised and pasteurised version you’ll pick up out of the supermarket fridge. It was a personal health matter that inspired Patrick to drink his herd’s milk, and inspired him to diversify his enterprise just over a year ago.
“I was three and a half stone heavier than I am now,” recalls the Newtowngore man, “and I was a bit sick every day – a bit sick, not too bad.”
To address his stomach ailments he had a ‘live blood analysis’. This is an alternative medicine technique which involves the practitioner taking a blood sample and examining it under the microscope there and then. On the basis of this Patrick was advised to give up a few foodstuffs, including bread and dairy.
“I said to her, I like dairy, is there a substitute? No she said, ‘Drop it’.”
The practitioner relented suggesting that Patrick should switch to raw milk.
“My stomach in two weeks became 100% - I could eat stones,” he quips. “And I dropped the weight – it’s maybe not all due to raw milk, but it’s certainly part of it.”
He recalls that in his youth his parents would have drank home produced milk but when his baby sister arrived, concern in those less hygiene conscious days over brucellosis and whatever other diseases, his mother switched to buying milk. That’s the way it’s been in the Bradley household up to about six years ago.
Now he drinks his own herd’s milk, which has had nothing done to it save for being “double filtered and cooled”.
“It’s a lot creamier – I’d forgotten how nice it was. I actually love it. That’s what interested me in it – I thought Jesus why can’t we bring this to the people?”
Patrick runs the farm along with his octogenarian father, Hugh, who’s milked cows since he was five years old. About 80% of their milk is supplied to Lakeland Dairies.
“Between us we have 130 years of dairy farming,” Patrick enthuses.
Does his father still chip in?
“He does, he’s out every morning at six o’clock. It keeps him young!”
The Bradley family herd has a rich diversity - Holstein, British Friesian, Ayrshire, Jersey, Shorthorn.
“And everything crossed,” says Patrick. “We do it for hybrid vigour – it gives animals better health. They are far more prolific and they breed better and have better feet and much better quality of milk. Now they don’t have the volume, and the once a day [milking] you would be losing volume as well, but the protein and the butter fat in the milk is far far higher.
“The cream on ours from the cross-bred cows on once a day is taking up the top third of the bottle.”
Patrick he comes across as a relaxed, easy going sort. His chilled demeanour could be informed by his decision to go to once a day milking.
“It’s a lot easier on time, and with this little bit of a business you don’t have to rush back for the evening. It’s a good lifestyle choice, but if you want millions of gallons it’s not the job.”
Having previously been banned, it became legal to supply raw milk in 2015, thanks in the main to campaigners, Raw Milk Ireland. It opened the door to the Bradleys.
“We just thought it would be a runner because of the type of milk we have and because we were heading for the once a day milking.”
The Bradleys started producing their own bottled raw milk for sale on March 9, 2017. ‘Lovely Leitrim Farm Fresh Milk’ can be found in quite a few Cavan shops, including Fresh Today and Rudden’s service station. Patrick’s also supplying shops in Leitrim, Roscommon, Longford, Meath and markets in Navan, Sligo, and Dublin.
Patrick says that the percentage of consumers who would be open to drinking raw milk is “very small - it’s very niche.”
He suspects that part of the constraint in sales is due to the rather unpalatable connotations of “raw”.
“There is really no such thing as ‘raw milk’ - there’s just milk,” he says before explaining the history of pasteurising milk, dating from the mid-1800s to kill all bacteria “good and bad” which eventually became the norm.
“Then when we went back to pure milk, they made us call it ‘raw milk’. So it really should only be ‘milk’ or ‘pasteurised milk’.”
Patrick therefore believes that currently it’s only those who knows its benefit who are buying it.
“And they’re buying lots of it. And there’s people who would run from it in case it might touch them,” he says with a chuckle, “because they don’t know any better.”
He says that raw milk is popular amongst the Polish community.
“They never call milk ‘spoiled milk’ or ‘bad milk’ – they’d even leave it out and let it turn before they’d drink it, because raw milk never rots, it only changes form. Whereas pasteurised milk, when it comes to the end of its long life, it rots, it’ll kill you.”
For those who prefer their milk fresh, raw milk has a shelf life of about five days if kept under 4C.
Patrick claims that the US experience has tainted raw milk’s image.
“There’s an awful bad image on raw milk from America because with big huge herds fed totally on grain and getting antibiotics and growth promoters and bad housing and unhealthy situations – that’s the type of world news that raw milk gets. Whereas here, everybody’s raw milk would be alright here, because they are basically grass fed and the environments are good.”
Irish raw milk producers are subject to the usual Department of Agriculture inspections, while the Food Safety Authority also require them to have a HACCP plan - the same quality control as say, a restaurant.
“Our operation is very very simple, there’s not a lot involved in it because you’re not doing anything with it,” says Patrick, explaining that there he uses two double micro-gauze filters.
“It’s filtered going to the tank and it’s filtered coming from the tank to the bottler.”
While Patrick emphasises the benefits of raw milk, he’s also clear that it makes financial sense for them.
Despite having done “nearly nothing” to promote their raw milk, it has grown to account for about 20% of the Bradley enterprise. They have no immediate plans to expand.
“I’m happy enough at 20%. If it’s going to rise I’d like to see it rise a good bit because it’s just about as much as I can do without going into automation and employing staff.”
Having created quite a wholesome, idyllic image of his enterprise, the Celt wonders if he has chickens and ducks running around?
“No, only cows! If it’s not milking it’s not staying,” he says with a laugh.