Joel Hendrickson’s journey into a niche dairy market included plucking hairs from the tips of his cows’ tails.
A couple weeks later, for $16 per cow, genetic test results provided each cow’s beta casein protein type.
About 60% of the cows were A2/A2 — exactly what Hendrickson wanted. Why? Some claim that A2 milk is easier to digest than milk that contains A1 beta casein.
So, Hendrickson sold his cattle that tested A1/A2 or A1/A1, purchased A2/A2 replacements and artificially inseminated them with semen from A2 bulls.
The result is pure A2 milk going into the bulk tank from 140 cows.
To further capitalize on that, Hendrickson and his wife, Amanda, invested in building Ten Finns Creamery — just a couple steps away from the milk house on their Menahga farm. In December 2019, the Hendricksons began delivering non-homogenized whole milk to stores and restaurants within a 50-mile radius as the first and only A2 milk producer in Minnesota.
Although prices for their milk retails $1 to $2 higher per half gallon than other milk, local demand continues to grow.
What is A2 milk?
The difference is just one amino acid. According to Wikipedia, the amino acid proline is found in the A2 beta-casein protein while the amino acid histidine is in A1 beta-casein. The percentage of A1 and A2 beta-casein proteins varies between cattle breeds and among countries. The A1 version of the protein is common among cattle in the western world.
Milk from other animals such as goats and sheep typically is A2 and considered more digestible.
Some researchers say that A2 interacts differently with enzymes in the human digestive system, which makes it easier to digest.
The Hendricksons experienced it firsthand at Thanksgiving. Amanda’s nephews drank almond milk because they couldn’t tolerate cow’s milk. They drank some of the A2 milk, liked it and had no digestive issues.
Hendrickson learned about A2 milk five years ago from an article about producers in New Zealand who commercialized A2 Milk in 2000, which attracted attention in other countries and the East Coast in the U.S.
“I figured it was no more expensive, and not going to hurt anything,” Hendrickson says about developing his own A2 herd.
Since cows with A1/A2 proteins can have A2/A2 calves, Hendrickson used AI from A2 bulls first before testing his herd, which likely increased the numbers of A2/A2 cows. Most of the cattle are Holsteins, but he also has one Jersey and some Swiss and crossbreeds.
“I like Swiss. The crossbreed hybrids have vigor and they grow fast. I’ve had them calve at 21 months,” he says. “It’s nice to have something different to look at and they are tame.”
Plus, the Swiss bred helps bump up his herd’s butterfat and protein levels — to 4.1% and 3.45%, respectively. Besides access to pasture, he feeds typical total mixed rations and hay in the winter.
Setting up a creamery
The creamery the Hendricksons sold their milk to wasn’t set up to market their herds’ milk separately, so they considered hauling milk to a creamery in the Twin Cities for processing. But when they discovered quality used equipment available from a former creamery, they committed to setting up their own on-farm processing. Their purchase included a pasteurizer, several tanks, bottle and carton fillers, and butter, yogurt and cheesemaking equipment.
Hendrickson worked closely with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and built a 40-foot-by-42-foot insulated steel building on concrete just 5 feet from the milk house. The sealed floor and plastic tongue-and-groove Nudo plastic walls are easy to clean and meet MDA requirements.
“I built it next to the parlor so milk lines go right into the creamery,” Hendrickson says.
After testing for antibiotics, the milk goes into a pasteurizer set at 163 degrees F. The low temperature meets requirements, and customers have commented it tastes like “real milk” and not “grocery store” milk. After a quick 16 seconds in the pasteurizer, milk is chilled and then flows into a 120-gallon balance tank and pumped into a carton filler.
The Hendricksons chose to use 2-quart cartons instead of bottles because they require less storage space and there aren’t bottle returns to deal with. Filled milk cartons are packed in boxes and stored in a walk-in cooler until orders are delivered.
For now, the Hendricksons operate the creamery themselves thanks to the help of some of their 10 children — for whom the business is named after. The four oldest children, ages 9-14, take turns working at the carton filler, with additional help from other siblings feeding calves and doing chores on the dairy side.
They have been fortunate to ease into the business. Any milk they don’t use is purchased by Nelson Creamery Association. With great support of nearby customers who appreciate quality and local food, the Hendricksons ran between 350 to 400 gallons of milk a week through their creamery three months after they started selling it to stores and restaurants.
“It has the capacity to run 1,000 gallons a day [the herd’s daily production] and I could double the herd,” Hendrickson says.
The goal is to have enough orders to hire someone to run the creamery while he focuses on the cows and crops.
Hendrickson is optimistic orders will increase. After passing federal inspection, he can work with distributors interested in taking Ten Finns milk beyond central Minnesota. In addition to whole milk, the creamery also offers 2% milk and butter. And with 150 certified organic acres, there is an opportunity to sell organic A2 milk in the future.
“For us, this was a way to create a sustainable future so our kids could take over the farm someday and make a decent living,” he says. “With 10 kids, there’s bound to be a couple of them interested. And it’s fun to see that people who couldn’t drink milk can drink milk again.”Goerge writes from Parkers Prairie.