COLUMBIA — Ever since he was 10, Tim Lavy has worked with dairy cattle. He learned which breeds are better for milking and which cows are good at grazing and can maintain their body weight.
He grew up working on the family acreage, but when he decided to become a farmer, he wanted to do it his way.
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"I do things completely different than what I used to do and how everybody else does it," he said. "The way I feed and the way I breed the cattle."
He started Lavy Dairy Farms 20 years ago. Five years ago, he changed his practices so he could sell raw milk to consumers.
He switched his cows' diet from grain to grass, which he said has positively impacted the quality and taste of his milk.
Lavy also lets his calves feed directly from their mothers rather than "bucket-raising" them, or feeding them from a bottle.
"Calves grow better and bigger on the cow," he said.
Although it may produce less milk to sell, he is confident that having stronger, healthier calves makes a difference in production.
"It's a much more natural taste, which people like," he said.
The raw milk debate
Selling raw milk is a small but strictly regulated industry in Missouri.
Approximately 40 raw milk producers are based in the state, according to A Campaign for Real Milk. They are required by state statute to sell directly to consumers for their own use without a retailer involved.
As the sale of raw milk — essentially unpasteurized milk — increased in recent years, a conversation emerged over its safety.
The Campaign for Raw Milk argues that raw milk can be produced safely and has health benefits that are eliminated in the pasteurization process.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration have both warned against drinking unpasteurized milk because potential pathogens in raw milk can cause infectious diseases. Earlier this year, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services reported several cases of E. coli that may have been caused by the consumption of raw dairy products.
Lavy says he instills a sense of trust in his customers so they know they are getting a safe and high-quality product. He said he makes sure every piece of equipment is sanitized thoroughly, along with grooming the cows and maintaining a well-kept barn.
"I invite my customers out to the milking parlor with me," he said. "I show them the process."
Candace Carrabus, one of his customers, said she feels comfortable buying his products because he knows what he is doing.
"He's deeply well-versed in the chemistry of milk," Carrabus said. "And he's very open with his customers."
Focus on quality over quantity
Between 1993 and 2011, when Lavy was commercially selling his raw milk to processing plants, he said he was making less money for his milk.
"I was losing $200 to $300 a day," he said. "When dairy farmers produce more and more food, we get less and less money for it."
He said he makes more money selling directly to the customer. For every 100 pounds of milk he sells, he makes between $36 and $60.
If he were selling it commercially, he would make less than $20 per 100 pounds of milk. Annually, he produces 2,500 gallons of milk and sells each gallon for $3.
Unlike commercial dairies, Lavy said he doesn't look at how much milk a cow can hold. Instead, he focuses more on a cow's strength and how long it is able to graze.
Commercial dairy producers, on the other hand, pay more attention to the quantity of milk a cow can produce.
Besides genetics and nutrition, Lavy said cow comfort is an important aspect in maintaining his cattle because it determines a farmer's milk production.
Even if cattle have the exact same genetics and nutrition, if they are milked by different people, they will get a completely different milk production, he said.
"I look at a cow's hardiness and grazing ability," he said. "I want a cow that can take on different weather conditions and has stamina."
Cow comfort is key
Lavy was 23 when he took over his grandfather's dairy business.
Being calm and gentle is important when handling dairy cattle. Lavy said he takes extra care to make sure his cows are comfortable. Otherwise they will not be as cooperative.
On occasion, his father, Hubert Lavy — who worked in construction — would milk the cows, but his technique made the animals nervous.
"When my dad milked, production dropped 20 percent," Lavy said. "It was the way he handled the cows. He wasn't sure what he was doing."
After many years in the dairy industry, Lavy said he feels confident about the way he operates his farm and the product he sells to his customers.
"It's more a way of life than a business for me," Lavy said.