Chapel Hill Creamery

Chapel Hill Creamery uses an old-fashioned, small-scale approach to handling its dairy cows.

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by Kathleen Walls

Say “cattle raising,” and the average person probably thinks of a rugged guy on horseback twirling a lasso to round up beef cattle. Such is not the case at Chapel Hill Creamery.

Portia McKnight and Flo Hawley established Chapel Hill Creamery in 2001. Together, they run this dairy and cheese-making operation in North Carolina’s Piedmont region. They’re a hands-on team, and do much of the milking and cheese making themselves. In 2015, the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association awarded the pair “Farmer of the Year.”

McKnight and Hawley also work closely with Allison Sturgill, their herd manager. Every day, the trio works with 60 cows, a few pigs, and one talented ox. And when I visited Chapel Hill, I got to watch these hardworking farmers in action. McKnight demonstrated their cheese-making process by making some cheese right on the table in front of us. “Cutting the curd” took on a whole new meaning as I watched that cheese coagulate right before my eyes.

Affectionate Athena

As soon as McKnight finished her cheese demonstration, Michael and David, two helpers, led Athena over. Athena is a beautiful Jersey, as are all the cows at Chapel Hill Creamery. When asked why they chose Jerseys, McKnight first mentioned their beautiful eyes, before explaining that “Jerseys produce rich, creamy milk and can handle the hot North Carolina summers.”

Athena is nicknamed “Lovebug,” and she lives up to that name. Thanks to her kind nature, I was able to learn firsthand about the rumen. Chapel Hill owns 26 acres of pasture, and the farmers are currently growing curled millet and cowpea. Sturgill explained that cows are ruminants, and instead of having one stomach chamber, they have four. Of the four, the rumen is the largest, and it’s where the forage is digested. She pointed out the location of the rumen on the lower back portion of Athena’s left flank. “It’s like a 49-gallon container that contracts every 20 or 30 seconds,” she explained. She then offered to let us listen to the sound of Athena’s digestion. I jumped at the opportunity, and she handed me a stethoscope. Athena was patient as I pressed the instrument to her abdomen. If you’ve never listened to a cow’s digestion, it sounds like waves crashing on a beach.

Chapel Hill owns about 60 head of cattle, including dry cows and calves, with about 30 cows producing milk. Athena was born in 2000, and she’s in her fifth lactation period. She’d recently given birth to a bull calf. Cows need to be bred to produce milk. Sturgill explained that the cows are bred by artificial insemination each year after they’re 15 months old.

Living the Good Life

Chapel Hill’s cows are kept much like family dairy animals were in the 19th century. There are no commercial farming practices at Chapel Hill. Instead, sustainability is the focus. McKnight told us they try to keep the cows for as long as possible and treat them well. The oldest cow they had was 11 years old and had nine calves. “We try to give them a good life,” Sturgill added. Chapel Hill is an Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) farm, which means they maintain the AWA standards, set by A Greener World, including the requirement that animals are raised on pasture or range. AWA farms must also be independent farms.

At Chapel Hill Creamery, a large barn with fans and hay awaits the cows when they return from the pasture on scorching summer days. The calves stay in clean pens for protection, but the cows spend a lot of time in the open pasture. McKnight, Hawley, and Sturgill buy wood shavings and sawdust for bedding, which are high in carbon. Then, when the cows are in the pens, they add nitrogen and moisture in the form of urine and dung. On a daily basis, the farmers turn the bedding and add wood shavings. With this combination of carbon, nitrogen, air, and moisture, the farm gets compost for the pasture. A few times a year, the farmers rake out the bedding and spread it in the pasture as soil amendment. Of course, when the cows are in the pasture, they make this chore unnecessary by adding fertilizer directly to the soil.

While Chapel Hill doesn’t keep bulls on the farm, the creamery does have an ox. “An ox is not a breed, but is a bovine trained to work,” Sturgill explained. It was easy to see that the ox, Fryer, and Sturgill have a special relationship. He weighs well over 1,000 pounds, but nevertheless, he allows her to harness him and obeys her every command. We watched Sturgill put Fryer through his paces as he pulled a small disc tiller around a field.

In addition to the farmhouse cheeses, Chapel Hill Creamery raises a few hogs and produces delicious sausage. We got to meet the happy hogs and sample the sausage. Always thinking sustainably, the farmers raise heritage breeds and feed them whey, a byproduct of their cheese-making operation, rather than carelessly toss it in the trash.

To learn more about Chapel Hill, or to order one of its farmhouse cheeses or whey-raised pork.

Kathleen Walls is a writer for American Roads and Global Highways.

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