In the past several years many consumers have adopted the notion of “eating clean”
and “buying local.”
See “Jackie’s Jersey Story” on Page 18 in the Spring Issue 2014 of Cowsmo
There has been an incredible rise in the amount of organic products that line grocery story shelves as consumers choose to eat more natural foods and less processed products. This market has not only changed for vegetable growers and grass-fed animal farmers, but also for dairy producers. The sale of raw, or unpasteurized milk, along with other natural dairy products has been on the rise, even though in many regions it is still met with adversity.
In Washington State, where the sale of raw milk is both legal and widely embraced,
producers Bill and Jackie DeGroot of Bellingham, have carved out themselves a
prominent place in this niche market.
A Solid Herd Foundation
Bill DeGroot started his Jersey farm, Windy Willow Jerseys, in 1983. He began with
a modest 50 cows, which later grew to 110, and farmed approximately 180 acres,
which included land at the neighbors who had sold out. Cows were all pastured as
many of months of the year as possible and milked in a flat barn with stanchions for
8 cows. In the early 1990’s the barn was upgraded and automatic take-off milking
units were installed, as well as grain feeders, self-locking stanchions and dividers for
the milking area. The cow numbers stayed consistent around 100 milking cows until
2007 when the bulk of the main milking herd was sold.
Coming from a dairy background herself, Jackie brought a handful of her herd
favorites to Windy Willow Jerseys when she and Bill were married in 1986. Included
in this group was Bakerview Top Brass Topsy EX-90%. Topsy produced 4 daughters
at Windy Willow including Windy Willow Berretta Topsy who scored EX-92%
at 9 years old! She left two Excellent daughters of her own as well as several EX
granddaughters and great daughters.
Another early herd favorite was R-Luck Duncan Lady Like EX-90%. She produced 5 daughters including Windy Willow Brook L
Lady Luck EX-90%. Although Lady Luck only had one Excellent daughter of her own, Windy Willow Berretta Luck Lady EX-91%, Lady produced 3 Excellent daughters of her own and have granddaughters and great granddaughters competing four and five generations of Excellent dams respectively. The maternal lines that trace back to these two foundation cows are still very much alive in the Windy Willow herd today, a herd that boasts a current classification of 15 EX and 15 VG.
The DeGroot’s and Windy Willow Jerseys have enjoyed many successes over the years. From 2000 to 2006 Windy Willow consistently had 1 or 2 cows in the Top 10 for living lifetime production in the US.
This is a testament to Bill’s breeding philosophy, “if you breed for type the cows will last and the milk will come.”For the past 6 years the herd has also been in the Top 3 for lowest Somatic Cell Count (SCC ) in Washington State, for herds of 25 cows or more.
One of their most impressive achievements has been Windy Willow Montana Jace.
Born in 1996, Jace was purchased by Select Sires when he was 18 months old. At his peak in 2004 Jace was the #2 JPI bull in the breed and was internationally recognized with semen selling worldwide. The same year, the US National Jersey Convention was held in Seattle, WA, which provided lots of traffic at Windy Willow, allowing them to showcase the oldest Jace daughters in the country. The DeGroot’s are still milking 6 Jace daughters in their herd, all of which are now approaching 10 year’s of age, proving the longevity the bull bred on to his daughters.
Not ironically, Jace was also the #1 teat placement bull in the breed for some time, one of the traits Bill puts a lot of emphasis on. “In a flat barn you don’t want to be fiddling with the milking unit all the time,” says Bill, “so I select predominately
for udder traits – teat placement is important, with a strong median suspensory
ligament and snug attachments.” Second, Bill selects for high components, which
is especially important in the raw milk business. Current sire selections include
Premier, Topeka, Eclipse, Impression and Grandiose.
The milking herd enjoys pasture living as many days of the year as possible. They
receive minimal grain, only during milking, that is high in protein with no soy. In the
winter cows are fed round bale haylage and some alfalfa, organic when it’s available.
Calves are fed colostrum immediately and then regular milk twice a day, weaning
at two months of age. They are also fed free choice grain and hay with this feeding
protocol continued right through breeding age.
The Transition to Processing
In September of 2005, the DeGroot’s found out that selling raw milk was going to
become legal in Washington State. Bill had already thought about getting into yogurt
production and was taking some classes about yogurt making at that time. During
one of the classes, a friend mentioned that he was going to start bottling his own
milk and urged Bill to do the same, but Bill’s first reaction was “no.”
Around that time Bill attended his first Weston Price meeting. The Weston A. Price
Foundation is a non-profit nutrition education foundation that is “dedicated to
restoring nutrient-dense foods to the human diet through education, research &
activism.” They support movements such as organic & biodynamic farming, pasture-
feeding livestock, community supported farms and honest, informative labeling.
“Their members were screaming for raw milk producers,” said Bill, “they firmly
believe in the product and the health benefits that raw milk has to offer.” Bill spent
the remainder of 2005 and the early part of 2006 doing more research on the
subject and traveling up and down the I-5 corridor talking to different food Co-Op
stores who specialized in natural and organic foods. The response to selling raw
milk in natural food stores was overwhelmingly positive and gave Bill and Jackie the
push they needed to dive head first into bottling their raw milk product.
Jackie’s Jersey Milk
In 2006, from the time they decided to go ahead with the venture in March until the time the first bottles were filled in July, Bill and Jackie were incredibly busy getting approval from the State for
the milk plant and other facilities
as well as coming up with labels
and a catchy name.
“I originally wanted to call the business ‘Jackie’s Jugs’,” laughs Jackie, “but I thought that might be a little too risqué for the industry.
We decided on Jackie’s Jersey Milk because it easily tells consumers what the
product is and who owns it.” One of the biggest challenges the DeGroot’s faced was
getting general liability insurance for the business, “most insurance company’s
won’t touch this kind of venture,” says Jackie, “the problems come when other
producers have had claims – it hurts those of us who haven’t.”
Insurance is still an ongoing challenge since one company in Washington insures almost all of the raw milk producers in the State. Jackie’s Jersey Milk carries $2 million in generally liability, something that thankfully they’ve never had to use.
The milk plant and cold storage for Jackie’s Jersey Milk is located just down the road
from the DeGroot’s home farm, along with the 30 head milking herd that provide the
milk for the business. Running both farms became a lot of extra work for them, so
when Jackie’s Jersey Milk became financially viable, Bill and Jackie decided to sell off
the main milking herd, keeping enough cows and replacements to operate the raw
milk business at a capacity they were comfortable with. “Downsizing allowed me to
get more involved in the raw milk business and more focused so I could to the best
possible job,” says Bill.
Milk is bottled and delivered 3 days a week. The product is now in over 10-15
stores in northwest Washington, mainly Co-Op’s and independently owned natural
food stores. Sold at a wholesale price the stores set their own individual milk
prices, usually ranging between $4.50 and $6.99 USD. Bill and Jackie bottle cream
in addition to the raw milk, which has also been successful. The cream is bottled in
quart-sized bottles (1.13 Liters) and the milk is bottled in half-gallon jugs (4 Liters).
Although they have had requests to deliver into Seattle, both Bill and Jackie agree
that staying small allows them to be more hands on, “we don’t want to have to hire
a whole bunch of people, and the size we are now is perfect for us.” The increase in
business from customers in Canada, a country where selling raw milk is illegal, has
also eliminated the need to go down to Seattle.
“Healthy Milk from Healthy Cows”
The slogan is printed on every one of the Jackie’s Jersey Milk labels and is a
guideline that Bill and Jackie stick to very carefully. The raw milk industry is very
closely monitored by State government and has strict guidelines for producers.
Every 5 months a State inspector comes to the farm and every 3 months the milk
plant is also inspected. Any cow that comes down with mastitis or anything else that
needs treatment is immediately taken back to the home farm to ensure that any
chance of antibiotics going into the milk is eliminated.
The State also tests the milk once per month for bacteria, antibiotics, pesticides and
“pretty much anything you can think of,” says Bill. In addition to this, by choice the
DeGroots use independent lab to test the milk every time it is bottled. Coliform and
bacteria level requirements from the State are in place. The bacteria count must be
less than 20,000 bacteria/mL and the coliform level must be no higher than 10. “We
strive for zero coliform,” says Bill, “a goal we reach regularly. Our bacteria count
typically runs between 80-160 bacteria/mL, far below the State requirements.” To
achieve these standards Bill has put more emphasis on having calm, content and
clean cows more than ever before. “I don’t want my cows to produce stressed milk,”
says Bill, “we want stress-free milk from stress-free cows for our customers.”
Bill and Jackie oversee all the day-to-day operations themselves, with the help of
two part-time employees who assist with the milking and some of the bottling. Bill
is responsible for planning the ration and feeding the cows, as well as feeding and
raising the young stock. He bottles 2 days a week and does the milk deliveries on
Wednesday’s and Thursday’s. Jackie’s main job is telling Bill where to go! “Jackie
is the brain’s of the operation,” says Bill, “she watches over all the details.” Jackie
bottles 2 days a week as well and then is in charge of keep the business records and
handling all the public relations, phone calls and emails about the mechanics of the
business and the cows. Jackie’s son Bret, a real estate agent, does all of Saturday
According to Bill and Jackie there is absolutely no doubt that the marketplace would
allow for substantial growth in this business. However, the availability of help and
the cost that would be involved in an expansion of the cow facilities and the milk
plant and cold storage is something that neither of them wants to shoulder at their
age. Bill, who turns 65 this year, says “we hope to sell this business in the next 5
years or so, it’s been good to us and we have no doubt that it will be profitable for
As the number of consumers that choose organic and natural foods continues to
rise, there is no doubt that food producers will need to continue to cater to the
marketplace to be profitable. Having already cemented a place for themselves in this
market with their “healthy milk from healthy cows,” for Bill and Jackie DeGroot of
Jackie’s Jersey Milk, its business as usual.