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Alabama Family Takes Milk From Cows To Curds

Alabama Family Takes Milk From Cows To Curds
August 12, 2002 |

Around every corner at Cedarcrest Farms in Marengo County are reminders of a dairy farming heritage that spans eight decades and four generations of the Rankin family.Photographs of champion dairy cows hang on the walls of the small, red-painted office where 10-gallon milk cans once sat awaiting transport to a nearby bottler. And just a few yards away, Cedarcrest’s latest bull prospect rests in the original 40-cow barn where workers once milked the herd by hand.It is certainly more than the late A.G. Rankin could have imagined when he began milking 16 Jersey cows in 1919. Today, that herd has grown to 1,100 cows, and Cedarcrest is considered one of the finest Jersey dairies in the world.A.G. Rankin’s youngest son, William, credits his brothers, Amzi (who passed away last year), John and Joe, for much of the family’s success.”Our family has been blessed with good cow men. My older three brothers knew what we needed to have, and they’ve worked to breed good cows,” William said. “We don’t have the highest producing herd in the U.S., but everybody that’s bought cows from us has been pleased.”Sales held at Cedarcrest Farms are a testimony to the Rankins’ knack for breeding world-class Jersey cattle. In 1999, almost 100 buyers made the trip to Faunsdale to purchase heifers, cows and bulls for herds in 26 states as well as Canada and Brazil.What draws folks from around the world to this west Alabama farm? The answer can be found in the framed, 8×10 glossies that decorate the walls of the Cedarcrest office. Take Generators Topsy, for instance. To the average visitor, she was a long, deep-bodied, light-brown cow with a black nose and bulging milk bag. But to those in the Jersey breed, she was the 1973 U.S. National Grand Champion. Perhaps the most famous Jersey ever bred at Cedarcrest, though, was Duncan Belle, who was voted the best cow of all time in the American Jersey Cattle Association’s Great Cow Contest.Extraordinary cows like Generators Topsy and Duncan Belle, have earned the family a reputation for raising top-quality seedstock. John Rankin is quick to point out, however, that Cedarcrest Farms is still a working dairy.”You can’t sell enough cows to make a living,” he said. “If you’re not profitable making milk, cow sales and the rest won’t make up the difference.”Fortunately, the Rankins also excel when it comes to producing milk. Although Southern herds typically don’t produce as much milk as dairies in other regions, Cedarcrest Farms manages a very respectable average of 13,500 pounds of milk per cow, per year. And while Holstein dairy herds often boast of higher milk production, John said Jersey milk is superior in terms of butterfat and protein.”Jersey milk has about 1.5 percent more butterfat and about 25 percent more protein,” he said. That makes Jersey milk the preferred choice of some creameries–including Mayfield Dairy, which proudly features a Jersey cow on its ice cream products. The higher butterfat content also can mean a higher price for producers. But in the mid ’90s fluid milk prices dropped so low, the Rankins began looking for new ways to market their milk.They joined forces with other west Alabama dairy producers and purchased a cheese plant in Uniontown that originally had been built by Kraft in the 1930s. “When we bought the cheese plant, fluid milk prices were down, and we could have taken our milk and put it into the cheese plant and made more money,” John said.Ironically, the price of fluid milk quickly rebounded, and by the time the plant was operational, cheese prices were so low the Rankins could no longer afford to use their own milk. Today, John’s son, Pat, and grandsons, Patrick and Brooks, operate the plant using surplus milk often purchased from out of state. Southeastern Cheese in Uniontown processes about 600,000 pounds of milk per day, which yields about 50,000 pounds of cheese. Although the plant seldom uses milk from Cedarcrest Farms, Brooks Rankin said it is a good insurance policy for the family.”Most of the dairies in the Southeast have been put out of business by the milk market going down,” he said. “If milk prices go down, this gives us another option for marketing our milk.”When milk arrives at the plant, it is cooled to 35 degrees then pasteurized at 161.5 degrees. It is then cooled to 80-90 degrees before the culture is added. The mixture is processed in stainless steel vats for two hours and is then moved to draining tables for another two hours. Excess whey is removed using a vacuum, and the curds are pressed into barrels.The stirred-curd, barrel cheddar is naturally white in color and is sold in 500-pound containers to plants, which use it to make processed cheese products like sandwich slices. Although most of the cheese is shipped out of state, the Rankins operate a store at the plant where they sell aged cheeses, whey cream butter and a variety of Amish jams and jellies.The Rankins’ efforts to enhance the profitability of Cedarcrest Farms, however, are not limited to the cheese plant. They also have upgraded their two milking parlors. John’s other son, Jim (who also is a veterinarian and the farm’s chief mechanic), operates the No. 1 dairy, while Joe’s son, Jody, operates the No. 2 dairy. William explained that both milking facilities were renovated based on research by Jim and Jody.The involvement of younger Rankins has helped keep the dairy innovative and successful through four generations, William added. Today, his daughter, Annie, is the newest member of the Cedarcrest team. A recent graduate of Auburn University, she is following in Jim’s footsteps–which includes jobs like milking at 4 a.m. and cleaning out waste water lines on an irrigation unit.Despite the long hours, the 23-year-old said she’s happy to be learning the family business.”When I was on the marketing team at Auburn, I noticed that a lot of the people I met–who had graduated–weren’t very happy. Even those that had money weren’t happy,” she said. “But every time I’ve gone to a sale or we’ve had a sale here, I’ve met good people who loved what they do. Everyday there’s something new at the dairy; there’s always room to learn something.”

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