Life in the raw

Just blame it on the kid.

Really, it’s the baby goat’s fault, Michelle DeLong is quick to explain when she

describes how she and her husband, Marc, got into the direct-to-consumer dairy business.

“I had a bottle kid, and I needed milk,” she said. “I asked Marc to bring home one of the Jersey cows his parents had kept when they sold their dairy a few years earlier. She produced 8 gallons a day, and I only needed half a gallon for my goat. I was making cheese. I was making yogurt. But I couldn’t use it all.”

She advertised the excess milk on Facebook and quickly sold out. The demand snowballed. Seven years later, the DeLongs are milking nine Jersey cows and eight to 10 Nubian goats twice a day in a Grade A-level dairy on their 120-acre farm in Marionville, Mo. The fresh, raw milk is bottled and sold straight from the farm.

“This was not the plan in life,” Marc laughs.

He was raised on a commercial dairy farm, just a few miles down the road, where his parents, Ron and Patty, raised high-quality, award-winning registered Holsteins and Jerseys for more than 40 years. Well respected in the industry, the DeLongs are members of the Missouri Dairy Hall of Fame and showed their cattle across the country with multiple champion titles to their credit.

Michelle was raised as a “city girl” in nearby Springfield but discovered a love of horses when she was given her first one at age 14. After graduating from Missouri State University in 2006 with an animal science degree, Michelle moved to rural Marionville and bought her own farm, which she named Eagle’s Wings Ranch. She added several more horses, a couple of donkeys and eventually goats.

“My neighbors had some goats, and I realized how much fun they were,” Michelle said. “So I put together my own mixed herd. I had about 70 goats before Marc and I got married in the spring of 2011.”

Michelle met Marc when she went to work on the DeLong family dairy, where she helped milk the 50-cow herd twice a day to supplement her second part-time job as a substitute teacher. Ron and Patty decided to get out of the labor-in­tensive dairy business and focus on beef cattle shortly after Marc and Michelle were married, but the newlyweds didn’t want to take over the milking operation. They did, however, keep a few of the family’s best Jersey heifers, which had been carefully bred and selected for their high-quality genetics.

But re-entering the dairy business wasn’t in the plans—yet. Marc had established his own beef operation, Camelot Cattle Co., and Michelle was content to raise goats and horses. That all changed after they brought home Quickie, one of the reserved DeLong Jersey cows, to produce the milk Michelle needed for that orphaned bottle kid.

“Once we saw the interest people had in buy­ing our extra milk, we realized there was a need to fill,” Michelle said. “We added more cows, and it just kept picking up speed. The business organically became what it is today.”

After they were married for about a year, the DeLongs started the transition to registered Nu­bians. If they were going to raise goats, Marc had said, they were going to do it right. They began with four well-pedigreed does and have built the herd to around 30 today.

“Out of all the breeds I had raised, I liked Nubians the best,” Michelle said. “They have fan­tastic personalities, they absolutely adore people, and I love their floppy ears. They produce sweet milk with higher butterfat. Plus, they’re the only dairy goat considered dual-purpose and can also be raised for meat.”

The Nubians and Jerseys are milked together twice a day, every 12 hours, in an 1850s-era barn converted into a simple yet effective dairy facility. The goats are milked two at a time with a portable tank milker. The cows are milked three at a time with automatic milkers attached to pipelines that flow into a 90-gallon, stain­less-steel tank in the adjacent bottling room. There, milk is filtered and cooled before being dispensed into sterilized half-gallon glass bottles and chilled in an industrial refrigerator.

In general, there are concerns about the safety of raw milk, which hasn’t been pasteurized to kill potentially harmful bacteria, and some states ban its sale altogether. But Missouri law allows the sale of raw milk as long as it goes direct from the farm to the consumer. The DeLongs are adamant that their meticulous handling and management practices keep Camelot’s products safe and nutritious. Michelle also completed a Dairy Goat Quality Production course in 2018.

“You start with the best-quality dairy animals and keep them healthy, happy and clean,” Marc said. “Then you have to handle the milk correctly, with the proper sanitation and cleanliness. Our milk is never touched by a human hand, from the time it leaves the parlor until the time it goes into the bottle. And the quicker you get the milk cooled down and keep it cold, the better.”

For added safety and sanitation, the DeLongs don’t allow milk customers to bring their own containers. Instead, they require a one-time bot­tle deposit collected with the first purchase.

“Where a lot of raw milk dairies go wrong is not getting their bottles sterilized or letting people bring in their own jars or jugs,” Michelle said. “We don’t do that. We know our bottles are clean and sterilized, so for liability’s sake, we only sell our milk in them. The more we can control the quality, the better it will be for everyone.”

Sales are made on the honor system by cus­tomers who are vetted before they are allowed to buy from the farm. They leave their empty glass bottles on the store’s counter, write down what they are buying and put their payment in the designated cash box. 

“Customers can come whenever it’s convenient for them,” Marc explains. “The store is open 24/7. They can usually take care of themselves, but we have our phone number posted on the refrigerator if they need us for any­thing. There’s always someone here on the farm.”

One of those loyal customers, Karen Brazda of Marion­ville, stopped by on a recent Friday afternoon to get a half gallon of Jersey milk to treat family visiting from Texas.

“You can taste the difference,” she said. “It’s really sweet and creamy, and when it’s ice cold like this, right out of the cooler, there’s nothing like it. We made ice cream with it this summer, and you don’t have to add any extra cream or anything. It’s so good.”

In total, Camelot’s nine milk cows are producing about 40 gallons a day. Each goat averages 1 gallon per day. The DeLongs have a market for nearly all of it. Raw Jersey cow milk is $2.50 per half gallon, and Nubian goat milk is $4 per half gallon. Michelle also uses the milk to make soaps and other skin-care products.

“We don’t advertise,” Michelle said. “Our business has grown mostly by word of mouth. What’s the saying? Build it, and they will come? We built this, and they just keep coming. We have some really great customers. Some even drive from a couple hours away to get our milk.”

Jersey milk is available year-round, but Nubians are seasonal breeders. On the DeLong farm, the does are bred in the fall when their milk production is slowing down. They are dry in January and February before kidding in March after about a five-month gestation. Goats typically give birth to two or three kids. The Camelot herd averages triplet births, Michelle said.

“With good management, triplets should be about average,” she added. “We’ve had several sets of quads, too. The better nutrition they get, the more the does ovulate because their body knows it can support the babies.”

Both the goats and cows on the DeLong farm are fed MFA’s Turbo 16 Plus dairy ration, purchased in bulk from MFA’s Aurora Feed Mill. This complete feed is formulated with 16% protein along with added cottonseed and cracked corn. The De­Longs also feed their cows and goats MFA minerals and provide free-choice hay—a grass-clover mix for the Jerseys and alfalfa for the Nubians.

“For milkers, especially, you want to provide enough protein to support production and enough carbs to keep the optimum amount of weight on them,” Michelle explains. “You have to find a good balance between protein and carbs so you get pro­duction without the animals losing too much weight.”

Of course, she adds, the right feed isn’t everything. High-quality milk production also takes the right combination of nutrition and genetics. Breeding premier milk cows has been a longtime priority for Marc and his family, and Michelle is taking the same approach with her dairy does and bucks, looking for the best bloodlines and traits to improve the progeny.

And her efforts are paying off. One of the farm’s Nubian does, a 3-year-old named Missy, was recently listed among the nation’s top 10 breed leaders by the Dairy Herd Improvement registry, based on official 305-day lactation records. For 2019, Missy was No. 3 in milk production and butterfat and No. 9 in protein production out of all the Nubians tested in the DHI program.

The recognition has been good for business. Michelle says all of the farm’s doelings are reserved for 2021—and the mamas aren’t even bred yet. She even has some requests for the follow­ing year.

“She’s our first one in the top 10, and that’s pretty elite,” Michelle said. “A lot of people will see that list and look up our farm. I may not have planned to be in the dairy business, but it’s different when it’s your herd that you’ve developed.”

“Just look at Missy,” she continued. “I picked how to breed her. She’s got my herd name. And she’s No. 3 in the nation. That’s a rewarding feeling.”

Over the past year, she and Marc have been prepar­ing for an even more rewarding new adventure on their farm—parenthood. On Oct. 12, Michelle gave birth to twins, a daughter, Brielle Marie, and a son, Samuel Colt. In preparation for kids of her own, Michelle reduced the number of goats she’s milking and sold a few does to lighten the load until she and Marc find their balance as farmers and first-time parents.

“We’d just planned to have one, but God has a sense of humor,” Michelle said. “I guess if you’re going to have two, you might as well have one of each. We’re thankful for this miracle, and we know the farm is going to be a great place to raise our children.”

For more information, visit camelotcattlecompany.com or call 417-466-5436. For more information on MFA feeds and minerals, visit with your local MFA or AGChoice location or online at mfa-inc.com/feed.

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