Valley Bounty: McCray’s Farm and Country Creamery
What is June like at McCray’s Farm and Country Creamery?
“Insanity,” according to Steve McCray.
Steve McCray runs the South Hadley farm along with the rest of the McCray family. Milk is the main product they produce and for dairy farmers, late spring always brings on a rush of activity.
On McCray’s farm, much of that work is laying the groundwork to be able to feed its herd of 50 dairy cows for the coming year.
“Everything revolves around the weather,” McCray said. “You want the corn in the ground by mid-May, but the weather doesn’t always cooperate. So you get it in the ground when you can.”
As June sweeps in, it’s time to start mowing the farm’s pastures to make hay.
“When you’re making hay, usually you need three or four days of sunshine.” McCray explained.
Once the grass gets mowed, it needs time to dry out before it can be baled for hay. Microorganisms can thrive in wet hay bales. Sometimes that causes the bales to get moldy in storage, making them unappealing for the cows. But in the worst-case scenario, the metabolic activity of microorganisms in a wet hay bale can generate enough heat to cause it to spontaneously combust, a risky prospect for bales stored in a wooden barn.
To hedge his bets against the weather, McCray makes haylage in addition to traditional hay bales. To make haylage, McCray runs the already-cut hay grass through a chopper.
“With haylage, usually you’re chopping it the same day you mowed it. So if they screw up the weather forecast when you’re making haylage, it’s not such a big deal,” McCray explained.
After chopping the haylage up, McCray rolls it down to get as much air out as possible. He then covers it with plastic so it can ferment.
Once it’s ready, the haylage will be added to the mix McCray feeds his cows. That mix includes haylage, hay, corn silage, corn meal, grain, and whey.
As McCray puts it, “Every bite our milking dairy cow eats is pretty much a balanced diet.”
After milking their cows, most dairy farms send their fresh milk off to a plant where it is combined with milk from other farms and processed. In 2013, McCray’s took a big step to transform their operation: they began processing and bottling their own milk.
The first step in McCray’s Farm’s milk processing facility is the clarifier, which removes the butter fat from the milk.
Next, the milk runs into the farm’s vat pasteurizer.
Pasteurization is a process in which milk is treated with heat to eliminate pathogens and extend its shelf life. Many dairy plants use a high-temperature short-time system, which heats the milk to a very high temperature for less than 30 seconds. McCray’s vat pasteurizer uses less heat and it takes about 45 minutes to pasteurize a batch of milk.
“It’s longer and it’s more labor intensive, so it costs more to make the milk,” McCray explained. But, McCray says, their lower-temperature system helps the milk retain more flavor after pasteurization.
Once it’s been pasteurized, McCray’s milk is homogenized.
“Back in the day all the milk used to be cream-topped,” McCray explained. “The homogenizer kind of smashes the milk together so it won’t separate. That’s why you don’t need to shake your milk anymore, it’s all one consistency.”
Finally, the milk runs through a cooler, which brings its temperature way down to 38 degrees.
Once it has been bottled, McCray’s milk is sent out to grocery and convenience stores throughout the region by a distributor called All Star Dairy.
By processing their own milk, McCray’s has been able to somewhat insulate themselves from the chronically low milk prices faced by dairy farmers who sell to processing plants. But McCray’s margins remain razor thin on their milk sales.
“We’re grateful to our distributor All Star Dairy, but wholesaling milk just doesn’t really cut it,” McCray said.
He looks at the incredibly low rates that large chains like Walmart sell their fresh milk for and knows he’ll never be able to beat that price. That’s why McCray’s has diversified their business.
A few years back, they partnered with a cheese company called Julima.
“That’s just helped tremendously. Because they buy our milk and they rent the milk plant space. That’s been a godsend for us,” McCray said.
Julima makes traditional fresh cheeses in the style of several different cuisines from around the world, largely influenced by the Portuguese cheese making tradition.
McCray’s has also found success welcoming the larger community to the farm.
They have a free petting zoo, mini golf, and a creamery where they serve ice cream, burgers, and other lunch and dinner foods. Right now, the creamery is open for window service. Luckily, there’s plenty of outdoor seating for socially distanced eating, and McCray said visitors are welcome to bring a blanket and relax on the lawn.
Another major source of income for McCray’s is pick-your-own pumpkins and haunted hayrides in the fall. Like so many other farmers across the Valley, McCray is in the tough spot of making crop planning decisions now, with no way of knowing what the reality on the ground will look like when harvest time comes around.
“I’m going full steam ahead because if I don’t plant enough pumpkins and this whole pandemic fades away, I’m screwed,” McCray said. “I’m hoping this whole thing goes away. Because otherwise, I’m going to have a lot of pumpkins rotting in the fields.”
June is dairy month, so it’s a great time to support our local dairy farmers. Visit massdairy.com to learn more about dairy farming in Massachusetts.
Noah Baustin is the Communications Coordinator at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture).