If you were to visit Dreaming Cow and meet the cows who produce the milk that turns into yogurt, you’d see 250 acres of gently rolling pasture, 550 milk cows and about 250 calves, pursuing what looks like a pretty good life. The cows are munching on grass – rye and clover in the winter, perennial grasses like Bermuda and Bahia in summer – and if you wandered in their midst, they would crowd close, as curious to see you as you are to see them. You’d feel like you were standing in the midst of what Carnation brand milk used to call “contented cows.”
On a beautiful spring day, it’s a charming sight. The pasture is surrounded by typical south Georgia plantings of stands of pine and, at this time of year, each nearby farm is awash in wildly blossoming azaleas. In mid-March, the pecan trees still haven’t budded so you know the temperatures may be warm, but spring has not yet truly arrived. It’s farming country for sure with huge pieces of farm equipment rolling by on tires so tall you wonder how anyone can ever get up into the cab.
These cows are, as Kyle Wehner of Dreaming Cow likes to say, “barn free 365 days a year.” He says it’s a pretty good life since these dairy cows feeding on grass and living on pasture generally live five times longer than conventionally raised dairy cows, and sometimes much longer than that.
Wehner and his employees at Dreaming Cow use that milk to make yogurt - cup-set yogurt in 6- and 32-ounce sizes and LUSH, a drinkable yogurt with a full serving of vegetables in each 12-ounce bottle. Each morning at 5 a.m., the cows walk over to the open air milking pavilion. They’ll be back again at the end of the day. Their rich grass-fed milk is piped 20 feet to a series of tall unmarked metal buildings where the alchemy of turning raw milk into yogurt happens.
A huge array of stainless steel equipment inside pasteurizes and then cools 700 gallons of milk per hour. Live cultures and probiotics and active cultures are introduced as the milk moves to storage tanks. If the yogurt is destined to be Blueberry Cardamom, Strawberry Pomegranate or one of the other five flavors of Dreaming Cow cup-set yogurt (there’s also plain yogurt), the fruit juices and spices are added and the milk is warmed again so the cultures can begin their work. More stainless steel equipment pipes the yogurt into cups - 200 cups a minute for the 6-ounce cups, 20 cups a minute for the 32-ounce cups - and the cups go into a warm incubator room where the yogurt sets over the course of 6 hours. Set yogurt goes into a cooler where it drops down to 34 degrees in a matter of hours. And then it’s ready to eat.
The yogurt isn’t made with the gelatin, pectin or starches that are sometimes used to thicken the yogurt you buy at the store. And since the milk was never homogenized, the cream rises to the top as the yogurt sets.
The cows are part of Jumping Gully Dairy, one of three family-owned, grass-based, New Zealand-style rotational grazing dairies in the Wehner family.
“My parents, Desiree and Al Wehner, were very successful managing a really big confinement dairy farm outside Monticello, Florida. But in 1993, when I was 9, they went off to do their own thing. They decided to give New Zealand-style rotational grazing a shot,” says Wehner.
The family went from milking 1,100 Holsteins three times a day in Monticello to building Green Hill Dairy (now farmed by son Clay and his wife Amanda and called Buddha Belly Dairy) in Quitman, Georgia, then Grassy Flats Dairy north of Quitman and finally Jumping Gully Dairy in Pavo.
The Wehners took played out cotton fields and turned them into pasture. They built up what Kyle Wehner calls a “mutt herd,” breeding Jersey cows that produce milk with a high butterfat content, especially when they’re raised on pasture. But what to do with that milk?
One offshoot of the family dairy business is Sweet Grass Dairy, a farmstead cheese operation just north of Thomasville, owned by Wehner daughter Jessica and her husband Jeremy Little that uses only milk from the family dairy farms.
The other is Dreaming Cow, begun when Wehner and his wife Janelle, who met when Wehner attended school in New Zealand, moved back to the United States.
“When we got engaged, we bought a defunct yogurt factory out of Wisconsin. The machines could produce 12 cups a minute and produced our first batch of yogurt in fall 2009. It was a disaster. Nothing worked right. But we learned and have built the factory we have now almost entirely ourselves. For the first two years we sold at farmers markets, figuring out what would sell and how to differentiate ourselves in the hypercompetitive yogurt market. We were very, very broke for a very, very long time.”
Part of differentiating themselves involved educating their customers on the benefits of full fat yogurt made from grass-fed milk in a world where the customer was looking for low-fat or non-fat yogurt.
“When we started, Chobani and their Greek yogurt was just coming on the stage. I think of Chobani as the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs. We’re like the mammals that came out of the ground after the asteroid hit. Grocery store category managers saw the opportunity to provide different products and that’s where we fit. We were making full fat, low sugar yogurt before any of that was cool. It was pretty neat to be on the forefront of the revolution in our little category.”
Dreaming Cow started in farmers markets but is now available across the country from West coast to East, sold in 3,000 stores with LUSH coming to 1,000 Walmart stores in April. The introduction of LUSH last year was another way to distinguish themselves in the market.
“When we started, my parents told us we could take the storage barn they were using for tractors and start our business there. Janelle and I were hungry for it to be successful and we believed in what we were doing, creating the highest quality dairy company in America. I think that’s what drives entrepreneurs to do what they do, the belief they can be successful. My parents gave us space and proximity to our milk supply. Now it’s up to us to produce a high quality product at a price people are willing to pay.”