The “solid” facts about winter cheesemaking

Most people don’t realize that cheese is a seasonal product. Since its discovery sometime around 2000 BC, fresh cheese has been a way to use surplus milk. The process of aging cheese is actually one of the earliest methods of food preservation, and provided crucial protein and other nutrients during the lean winter months, when certain species of dairy animals don’t usually lactate.

Milking goats

Photo credit: Barry Staver, from “Doing Time Together,” culture: the word on cheese, Winter ’12.

Despite advances in the dairy industry over the centuries, cheesemaking has changed little, and on a small scale, remains a highly seasonal endeavor. Since milk is the main ingredient in cheese, it’s important to understand how its chemical composition changes over the course of a year. These factors are additionally influenced by species, breed, terrain, and climate.

Milk comes from lactating mammals, i.e., those that have recently given birth. In the case of cheese, that milk comes from a ruminant, or cud-chewing mammal with a four-chambered stomach. The stomachs of ruminants are specially adapted to break down their entirely plant-based diet.

Now, think about the seasonal nature of grasses and other woody, leafy plants (goats are browsers, rather than grazers, and so prefer to strip branches of shrubs and trees or nibble thorny grasses to obtain nutrients). Here in Colorado, pasture is either covered in snow, or fairly barren, as is the case with our high-desert dairy in Cañon City. In that part of the state, there’s little in the way of forage for goats, even during the spring and summer months, which is why we supplement our goats’ diet with alfalfa hay and grain year- round.

Eating Goats

Photo credit: Barry Staver, from “Doing Time Together,” culture: the word on cheese, Winter, ’12

The change in diet is one major reason why milk undergoes compositional changes with the seasons. In the case of our herd, the biggest change that we see is in the ratio of solids (fats and proteins) in the milk, which become higher in winter.

Climate changes can also affect milk. There’s  a sharp contrast in seasonal temperature in Colorado (in Cañon City, it routinely tops 100 degrees in summer,  and drops to the mid-20s in winter). Goats are naturally inclined to drink more water in hot weather (which is also generally when they’re lactating), which results in lower levels of milk solids during the summer months. The variance in milk solids requires our cheesemaker to carefully review their levels and make slight recipe adjustments throughout the year.

The timing of breeding season also depends upon goat breed and climate. Goats naturally lactate for up to 10 months after kidding. Ideally, they’ll be given a break before being bred again, to allow their bodies to regain strength. For a cheese company of our size- we maintain a herd of 1,100 milkers- we can stagger the breeding. This enables us to keep a small, but continuous, supply of milk throughout the year, so we can continue to make cheese. Like us, many cheesemakers also have aged cheese in their line, so they have product to sell during the winter months.

Fortunately, our does have just started kidding again, and a plentiful supply of milk and bouncy baby goats are just around the corner. We look forward to seeing you soon at the farmers markets!

For more detailed information on goat milk composition, go to the DRINC (Dairy Research & Information Center, UC Davis) website.