Up Close and Personal with the Cows of Cornell

Finger Lakes, Dairy Farm

A few weeks ago, I was invited to travel to the beautiful Finger Lakes region of New York, as part of a weekend hosted by the American Dairy Association and Dairy Council. We were treated to a behind the scenes look at Cornell University’s state of the art dairy processing center and their food science center.

While I knew that Cornell had a world-class restaurant and hospitality program, I didn’t know they also had a long-standing relationship with agriculture.  Founded in 1865 as a state-sponsored land-grant college, it carried a mandate to make agricultural studies a key part of the curriculum. In 2012, the school’s new Teaching Dairy Barn opened with “cow comfort” as its number one priority. And from everything I saw, the residents seem quite happy. As the professors and grad students who work at the dairy barn like to say, “a happy cow is a productive cow!”

The dairy barn houses 185 happy Holsteins and seeing them up close was one of the highlights of our weekend. Let me tell you, as a city girl growing up 20 minutes west of NYC, these cows are BIG! And they are treated like princesses—they can eat when and however much they like (their feed consists of a moist, fermented fodder made from corn, mixed with alfalfa, soy, canola oil, and grains). No straw beds for these girls; they bed down on sand, a much more comfortable cow mattress (being inorganic, it does not foster the growth of bacteria). The cows are never tied in place and when they get an itch, they mosey on over to the electronic back-scratching device (I kid you not). These are large, rounded nylon brush heads, and when a cow roams over to the machine, the brushes automatically start up and rub their back and flanks.

Terry Krongold, Cows of CornellSo just how happy are these cows? Well, I thought you’d never ask. Each cow produces an average of 95 pounds of milk per day! The dairy at Cornell is in the top 95th percentile of milk production. Nice, but what does that really mean? The Cornell cows give so much milk that they are milked three times daily. To put this in perspective, most farms milk twice a day.

Yogurt productionWhat does Cornell do with all that milk? Half the milk stays on campus when school is in session and the rest goes to a regional dairy co-op. But with all that good production, surely they must produce something besides milk, no? Yes, indeed. We spent half of our visit in the Food Science lab (part of Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences), learning how they partner with corporations like Chobani, Yancey’s Fancy, Murray’s Cheese, and others, training them on basic dairy sanitation, fluid milk production, yogurt and fermented products, and cheese production.

The Dairy Plant is a 12,000 square foot facility equipped with the latest in automated dairy processing technology. Companies can partner with food science specialists to develop products in smaller, limited-run quantities. From an observational balcony, we had a bird’s-eye view of the path raw milk takes as it is transformed into ice cream, pasteurized milk, and yogurt. The dairy produces 1.5 million pounds of raw milk into fluid milk, yogurt, pudding, and 20,000 gallons of ice cream annually.

In addition to producing fluid milk, yogurt, and ice cream products sold on the Cornell Ithaca campus, the Dairy Plant serves as a training facility for Cornell students, NY State Department of Agriculture and Dairy Inspectors, FDA Dairy Specialists, and NY State dairy plant managers.

Cornell Big Red CheddarWe got the opportunity to sample freshly made ice cream, yogurt, and the university’s pride and joy, Cornell Big Red Cheddar. We also learned from Cornell’s yogurt gurus, the difference between good and bad yogurt (there’s more to this than you might think), and the five types of yogurt—cup set, stirred (Swiss style), drinking, frozen, and Greek. Before this weekend, I had never sampled freshly made yogurt. I’ve eaten my share of high-end supermarket Greek yogurt, but this was a revelation. Full of just-milked flavor, smooth, and delicious, if I lived near Cornell, this is where I’d be getting my yogurt. (Not to mention my cheddar supply.)

As our tour was ending, I ran to the campus store to buy a wheel of Big Red (I was not leaving without it!).  This is what cheddar cheese should taste like. Alas, it is only sold on campus, so I am hoarding my wheel, sharing it with a few cheese-worthy friends.

Wegmans-Cornell PartnershipSpeaking of cheese, Cornell has partnered with Wegmans to highlight and import NY State and US cheeses for their stores. With Cornell’s guidance, Wegmans is building its first affinage (cheese cave) facility in Rochester – a 10,000 SF facility to age its own cheeses. In addition, Wegmans hired an affineur to manage the caves. This is a prime example of the kind of partnerships Cornell’s Agriculture school is focused on. They are working with Wegmans to create a cheese-making curriculum focused on both basic and advanced skills as well as developing standard operating procedures to ensure the highest level of food safety and quality assurance.  Participating in the first-phase of the pilot program are Keeley’s Cheese Co., Danascara Artisan Cheese, Sprout Creek Farm, Goats & Gourmets, and Old Chatham Sheepherding Co. Cornell is looking for 3-5 more cheese artisans to meet with Wegmans for the next phase of the program.

Dairy farms in New Jersey are doing some pretty progressive things, too. One example is the Fulper Family Farmstead in Lambertville. A fifth generation family farm, they are paving the way for greener dairy farm practices, including renewable solar energy, soil conservation methods, and nutrient recycling to ensure they are producing a sustainable product.

The family recently began producing Greek yogurt and mozzarella that they sell to restaurants and offer for pickup or at local farmer’s markets. The Lambertville area is a great destination for a road trip, and the Fulper Farm offers a variety of agritourism options, such as farm tours and summer camp.

Our base camp for the weekend was the beautiful Geneva on the Lake resort. The hotel, built in 1914, was based on villas in Florence, Italy. It sits on acres of rolling lawns and English style gardens overlooking Seneca Lake. We were there just past harvest, but this area is on my list for next September/October to enjoy the fall foliage and the vineyards up and down Rt 14. Many vineyards in the area specialize in Riesling, one of my favorites.

Cows, CornellThe weekend in the Finger Lakes was a fascinating peek into the “cow to consumer” process. Cornell is leading the pack by helping dairy farmers produce a better product, developing higher food safety standards, and most of all, putting cow comfort and health at the forefront of everything they do. Sounds like a win-win for everybody. Think about it the next time you stand in front of the dairy case at your local market.

Terry Krongold is a life-long, passionate baker. In addition to a full-time job in the pharmaceutical industry, Terry has been involved with food for many years, including co-ownership of a dessert catering company in the late eighties called I Love Cheesecake, specializing in fine cheesecake and unique desserts. Terry is the author of The Cook’s Tour, a blog focused on food, baking, and travel. When not working, writing, or baking, she spends time planning vacations around restaurants to visit. She can be reached at terry@cookstour.net.