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Palmer farm looks to learn lessons from milking musk oxen

Suzanna Caldwell

Believe it or not, musk ox milk is a real hit in coffee.

It's rich and fatty and not the least bit offensive in flavor, at least according to taste tests by managers at the Musk Ox Farm in Palmer.

Last week, cows started to wean their babies, and for the first time in two decades managers decided to try milking the musk oxen.

Turns out they can, with somewhat surprising results.

Musk Ox Farm executive director Mark Austin said historical records show mixed results when it comes to how much milk a musk ox can produce. The first known milking of musk oxen at the farm was done in the late 1980s, when the Palmer location first opened. Musk oxen don't produce much milk, but because of that it's rich with fat and protein. Austin said they thought musk oxen could generally produce about a cup of milk a day.

But as he stood in one of the farm's barns Thursday, holding a pint-sized jar filled to the brim with warm milk from one cow, it seemed that assessment might be up for debate.

"Looks like we're getting more efficient," he said.

Of seven lactating females in the herd, three have taken -- more or less -- to being milked. It's not the most natural situation for the musk oxen, whose teats are somewhat smaller and tucked farther toward the back legs than those of a cow or goat, according to herd manager Janelle Curtis.

Curtis and a team of interns started testing whether musk oxen could stand milking earlier this week. Some thrashed, others just lay down in the pen, while three seemed to like it, including Lola, a 4-year-old first-time mom to baby Topaz.

She's funny about milking, Curtis said. As they begin the milking process, Lola relaxes and her eyes roll back a bit, seemingly content. On Thursday she stayed still in the stanchion used to keep her steady while interns plunged their hands into her thick guard hair, carefully collecting small amounts of milk at time.

Alexis Daggett, an intern from Wisconsin, grew up with milking goats and quickly squirted powerful streams of milk from Lola's teats before having to pause because of hand cramps. She said it's not that different from milking goats or any other kind of herd animal. The biggest difference is the long guard hairs that cover the musk ox. You have to be cautious not to pull them, Daggett said.

"It'd be like reaching up and pulling the hair on someone's head," Daggett said.

Some of the milk will go toward feeding baby Pearl, who was born about a month after the rest of the calves in the herd. She's being weaned with the rest of her cohorts but she's a bit smaller, and staff hope the milk will help her more quickly catch up to the rest of the calves. They'll also freeze some of it for calves that might need it in the future.

The farm staff has already started experimenting with the milk, though it won't be available for public consumption. Ice cream seems the most exciting possibility, Curtis said, due to the high fat content of the milk.

Earlier this week, they used it to make chocolate fudge.

The verdict?

"It was delicious," Curtis said. "Really creamy."

And for workers at the farm, full of possibility.

 


By SUZANNA CALDWELL
Alaska Dispatch News