I always loved Kilgus Farms milk when we sold it at Open Produce. It was delicious, affordable, and it tasted cared for…although I can’t describe exactly what gives it that character.
Now that I’ve been to Kilgus Farms, I can say for sure that it is cared for. What a wonderful place. I arrived early in the afternoon, with enough time to find Matt and his wife Jenna and aunt Carmen, and to have an ice cream before going on a tour of the farm with staff from Bistro Campagne, a restaurant in Chicago.
We started in the store, which is self-serve and open every day except Sunday – this is where to get that amazing soft-serve ice cream, the perfect afternoon pick-me-up on a hot summer day, as well as their fantastic milk, cream, yogurt, and plenty of cuts of meat. In addition to their herd of Jersey dairy cows, the Kilgus’ raise goats and pigs for meat, some of which is sourced by Chicago restaurants.
We get Kilgus Farms milk in Chicago through a distributor called Natural Direct; they source regional, sustainable, small producers of dairy, meat, and other grocery products like delicious jams and organic eggs. They are a small distributor that focuses on distributing local products. A truck comes twice a week from Natural Direct to carry Kilgus products to various stores, restaurants, and businesses in Chicagoland. Stores like Open Produce have personal relationships with representatives from each distributor (and we order from nearly a dozen distributors for different products), so we are able to ask Sid particular questions about the quality and availability of regional products without having to know every farm in the area.
The farm has been in the Kilgus family for three generations, but they only recently switched the herd to Jersey cows, and they started bottling their own product in June 2009. Now they milk 3000-3500 lbs of milk every day and sell about 2800 gallons of milk (and milk products) every week. The milking herd consists of about 95 cows, but the farm is home to another 95 cattle that are either dry or too young to milk. Cows can be milked as young as 2 years old, and the oldest milker at Kilgus farms is 12. This is an advantage of the Jersey breed, but Matt also points to pasture raising in increasing the cows’ longevity.
Jersey cows are my favorite; they are beautiful, with a creamy coat of brown and white, and huge, expressive eyes — and my beloved Chevalerie cows are Jerseys. They are the smallest breed, and they give less milk than other breeds, but their milk has the highest butterfat and nutrient content, and Justin, who took me out later to bring the cows in for milking, suspects their smaller size makes them hardier in warmer climates.
These cows are raised on pasture from April to November, and fed twice a day, when they come in for milking, a mixture of non-GMO corn silage, alfalfa hay raised on the farm, and a protein/vitamin mixture. They rotate around 17 2.5-acre paddocks every 24 hours. While bottling on the farm may be new to the Kilguses, this is the seventh year of rotating grazing. Their milk is not organic – to raise animals organically is expensive and very difficult, given the many inputs of feed and processing – but mostly because if a cow gets sick, Matt gives them antibiotics and keeps their milk out of the milking stream for a while.
(This one looks like a little Sarah!)
In a land of cornfields, the Kilgus family are pioneers. They are successfully – although slowly – breaking into the niche market in the region for sustainable, local, family-farmed milk products and processing everything on the farm. And everyone there was exceedingly kind and so hardworking.
After our tour, and some errands in town, I started to make yogurt. Matt pulled out a half gallon of straight Jersey milk for me to use, which I eagerly accepted.
Jersey milk has a higher milkfat content than whole milk sold in grocery stores; straight from the cow it has 4.5 to 5% milkfat, but grocery store “whole” milk is required to have 3.25% milkfat. All of the Kilgus milk is pasteurized and passed through a separator, which uses spinning discs to separate the heavy cream from skim milk – like a preliminary stage of homogenization, which completely destroys the milkfat molecules so that cream will never form on top of the milk. Once heavy cream and skim milk have been bottled, whole milk is added to the skim milk in stages to make the 2% and “whole” kinds.
I got to use some of the 4.5% true whole milk for my yogurt, which I made in Matt and Jenna’s backyard, with their daughter Camlin supervising carefully. Once it had cooled and I had inoculated it and set it to incubate in the garage, I left it for the night.
The next morning, I got up early…although not as early as nearly everyone else. At 5:30 a.m., an hour after milking started, I pulled myself upstairs and across the street to the farm. The others were hard at work, cycling the cows in and out of the milking room, 10 at a time, on either side of the room. I was impressed at how patiently and eagerly the cows waited to be milked, filing in and out of the milking room, which had raised floors for the cows on either side of a central milking galley of sorts. After watching for a bit, I grabbed some cloths and started wiping off the iodine solution sprayed on their teats to clean them before milking. The machine had the same kind of extremely-awkward mechanism as the milker we used in France, so it felt familiar but was still, like I said, awkward, and I tried my best not to slow up the hour-and-a-half milking process. After the cows left and before the next 10 were let in each side, they sprayed off any dirt or feces that had gotten on the walls or floors.
As the last cows were hooked up, I left the comfort of the motors running and the warm, sweet, bitter smell of cows and fresh milk to get some pictures of the other animals in the early morning sun before heading off. Everyone was so much more energetic in the morning, before the afternoon heat had settled in, and I tore myself away as I realized I’d forgotten to take my yogurt off the heat at 6:30.