Moonhill Dairy is reviving a Routt County tradition

A milk cow pokes its head out of door of a barn at the Moonhill Dairy in North Routt County. The dairy, which was established by John Weibel and Lisa Sadler in July 2010, is producing milk, and hopefully cheese someday, in Northwest Colorado.
John F. Russell

— Out of sight, in a remote corner of the Elk River Valley, 13 new arrivals from Missouri and Idaho are making a daily contribution to reviving Routt County’s dormant dairy industry.

John Weibel, who raises grass-fed beef under the Rockin J Pastures brand has added dairy cows to his operation at Moonhill Dairy. And he has cheese on his mind.

Weibel has introduced 13 Guernsey and brown Swiss dairy cows and one large bull to his ranch on Routt County Road 52E. Lisa Sadler, Weibel’s business partner, milks six to seven cows each morning in a historic barn on the original McDermott homestead.

“This has been done before,” Weibel said. “We’re just re-pioneering.”

Weibel is right. Early Routt County pioneers always had a dairy cow or two for personal consumption. Even Old Town Steamboat residents kept a dairy shed on the alley side of their backyards during the first half of the 20th century. And the earliest settlers of Pleasant Valley were Swiss people who relied heavily on dairy cows.

As recently as the late 1960s, Pleasant Valley Dairy delivered dairy products to local homes and businesses from its metal building at the corner of Yampa and 12th streets where Orange Peel Bicycle Service stands today.

Weibel hopes someday to produce and market cheese from the Elk River Valley. How does Sleeping Giant Parmesan or Moonhill brie sound?

“Ideally I’d like to have 40 to 50 cows come in for the summer and make cheese,” Weibel said. “The next step is to remodel that shed into a metal milking parlor where we could milk 12 cows at a time. Then we’d begin making cheese.”

At first, Weibel would produce a soft cheese like mozzarella, but ultimately he envisions a cheese cave where he would age Parmesan for three or four years.

Getting down to business

Every morning Sadler ushers each cow into a tight wooden stall, hand milks them just briefly to make the milk come down, then attaches a small automated milking system powered by a portable compressor.

She formerly spearheaded Deep Roots, the local organization advocating for food produced closer to home. Now she’s immersed in learning small-scale dairy production.

“I didn’t know how to milk cows before, but now I’m loving every minute of it,” Sadler said.

Dairy farmers measure the output of their herd in pounds, not gallons. The net result of Sadler’s milking chores each day allow her to deposit in the neighborhood of 120 pounds of milk — the equivalent of 15 gallons — into a refrigerated bulk tank. Weibel delivers a gallon of whole milk (cream included) weekly to a refrigerator in Steamboat for 30 customers who have purchased shares in the cows’ output. They put up a refundable $50 deposit and pay $9 weekly for the rich cow’s milk.

State regulations allow Weibel to deliver whole, unpasteurized milk under the business model of selling cow shares to his customers. He stores no more than three days of milk in his refrigerated tank at a time and hand delivers a sample of each batch to a lab in Fort Collins for testing at a weekly cost of $200. The lab looks for E. coli and coli form bacteria, listeria, salmonella and other pathogens.

Sadler said she has learned to be meticulous and disciplined in her approach to collecting the milk under sanitary conditions, and all of that trouble has paid off.

“The procedure for caring for the cows is spot-on,” Sadler said. “We test every batch so we know how we’re doing. Our coli form test always comes back zero.”

She and Weibel painstakingly wash all of the milking equipment before and after every session, using extra hot water and cleaning rags that have been sterilized by a local veterinary clinic in exchange for milk.

Sadler also washes each of the cows’ four teats before attaching the milking machine.

Different breeds, strengths

Most of the 2 percent and skim milk that people typically buy in a supermarket comes from the familiar black-and-white Holstein cows milked on farms. Modern farms milk more than 1,000 cows in several shifts a day at highly automated milking parlors.

Holsteins produce more pounds of milk per day than breeds like Guernseys, Jerseys and brown Swiss. But the latter give milk with the higher butter fat content prized by cheese makers.

And micro-dairies are popping up in farm country where abandoned cheese factories are being modernized to produce gourmet cheese — you guessed it — close to home. Even when home is the Elk River Valley.

— To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email

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