Quality time with the cows of Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co.
This article is part 3 of a series of articles about my recent visit to Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company in Point Reyes, California.
As Chief Marketing Officer Jill Basch Giacomini finished describing Pt. Reyes’ cheese production, we heard some sad mooing coming from the barn next door. That, Jill pointed out, was the hospital barn. With about 700 cows on the property, some animals are bound to have some medical issues at any given moment. We couldn’t tell exactly what was wrong with the two in the hospital barn, but I hope they recover soon!
As we made our way to the next stop, the milking area, Jill filled me in on the family history of the company. The land has been part of the Giacomini family since 1959, when UC Davis grad Bob Giacomini purchased the pristine 700 acre property. All of the sisters carry fond memories of farm life. They didn’t always make cheese; the farm used to produce just fluid milk. The sisters eventually grew up and went their separate ways. They launched their own families, careers, and lives. In the late 90s, though, Bob and his wife Dean shifted gears. Fluid milk wasn’t satisfying anymore; they wanted to produce a truly personal product—cheese. Not only that, their daughters felt they needed to help with this enterprise. Only their full efforts would keep the farm in the family. The sisters, who were thinking of their own growing families, realized that they wanted to preserve the farm to share it with their children, nieces, and nephews.
The family drafted their business plan, dreaming big from the beginning. Their first batches of cheese rolled out in August, 2000. In January 2001, they attended their first Fancy Food Show. The company has grown exponentially since those early stages. Now, they have nearly 30 employees, nationwide distribution, and the respect of many in the food industry. There’s no secret formula to their success. However, I noticed right away that the sisters are all incredibly sophisticated, innovative, and efficient. They are constantly finding new and better ways to make cheese, package cheese, save energy . . . and the list goes on.
Speaking of saving energy, the company uses an ingenious methane digester system to convert much of their byproduct into energy. But now I am way off on a tangent!
The milking room! This was my first time seeing a trigon milking parlor. It’s shaped like a triangle, and holds five animals per side. With this configuration, the staff can just stand in the center and monitor the milking without having to travel very much. With 300-350 animals to be milked twice a day, this room takes heavy foot traffic. The cows are brought to a pen outside, where they are all washed by a series of sprinklers. Milk samples are taken before fully milking any cow. Like a great overseer, the herdsman has a perch above the milking parlor where he gets computer readouts of each cow’s information, and can also visually survey the process.
With milk on our minds, we stopped over at the area where all cows in this herd have spent one time or other, in some form—the maternity ward. Pregnant cows in their last month of their roughly 9-9 ½ month gestation period come here, at the center of activity, so they can be watched by all the employees. This was the perfect time for Jill to share that the Giacomini herd is a closed herd. They don’t buy new animals to maintain herd diversity, but have other ways of keeping the gene pool healthy!
The pastures were next, which cows have access to year-round. The family does what it can to keep the cows healthy, but to also keep their feed local. A nutritionist advises them regularly on how to give the cows a balanced diet. They grow their own rye grass to keep for winter months, but bring in brewers’ grain, almond hulls, cotton seed, and alfalfa to round out the bovines’ dinner plates. This is where many cheese makers spend much of their energy. After all, each cow eats about 65 lbs. of food and drinks about 30 gallons of water per day, and we know that quality food makes quality milk, which leads to quality cheese. It’s clear the Giacominis take the feeding of their animals very seriously!
Our last stop with Jill before our tasting at the Fork was to visit some newborn calves. I love baby animals, and I know lots of other people do, too! I didn’t really ask too many questions at this point because I was too busy letting calves suck on my hands. Gavin the photographer managed to get one particularly slobbery photo. As for the types of cows in the property, most are Holsteins, but Jill said there is a smattering of other types, like Jersey or Ayreshire.
Next post will conclude the visit--with a cheese tasting.
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