Category Archives: Milk quality

Who deserves the cream of Australian dairy?

“When we have to go to four different stores or supermarkets and still can’t buy a single tin of what I need … start looking after Australian babies first before sending all of our stock overseas for a ridiculous profit. Money hungry f****.”
– Australian resident angered by infant formula shortages

Australians do not expect to see bare supermarket shelves but the unthinkable has happened. Infant formula is in short supply. Apparently, it’s all due to people sending tins of the stuff over to China where parents certainly don’t take abundant high-quality food for granted.

Australians have not only been surprised but outraged, as illustrated so delightfully by the opening quote from an anonymous news.com.au interviewee. Why, there have even been “semi-riots” at the checkouts!

The industry is struggling to increase supply, which isn’t easy as an article by Dairy Innovation Australia explains. A petition demanding the supermarkets ration infant formula has attracted around 4000 signatures and both Coles and Woolies have increasingly tightened restrictions.

Then, today, the Greens and the government agreed to make it harder for foreigners to buy Australian land and water. According to The Weekly Times, “the screening threshold for foreign buyers of agricultural land reduced from $252 million to $15 million, and down to $55 million for investment in agribusiness”.

It’s great to see that what we produce here on the farm is treasured by Australians but why isn’t it valued?

It seems milk is so cheap and abundant, it is worth less than water. Except when the farmer is offered a fair price for her land by someone who really appreciates its true value. How ironic that this the only time Australian food is too precious to leave to market forces.

 

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Filed under Dairy Products, Farm, Milk quality, supermarket war and $1 milk

How our milk is tested for antibiotics

Milk testing

Yesterday, I explained why and how we use antibiotics to treat a cow who falls ill in the herd, together with what we do to make sure no antibiotics get in the milk that leaves the farm.

In this post, Fonterra’s quality manager for milk supply, Sarah Carter, answered a few questions about how the milk is screened for antibiotics by the milk factory.

MMM: Why is it important to keep antibiotics out of milk?
SC: Customers, consumers and markets have very clear requirements that dairy products are to be free of antibiotic residues. The two main reasons for this are: the risk of causing allergic reactions in humans (e.g. from penicillin), and the concern about a build-up of antibiotic resistance as a result of consumption of dairy products containing low levels of antibiotics.

MMM: What does the law say about antibiotics in milk?
SC: In Australia, the Australian Pesticides & Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) assesses agricultural and veterinary chemicals, such as cattle antibiotics, as being suitable and safe for use. They set Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs) after undertaking a thorough evaluation, including a dietary exposure assessment. These MRLs apply to domestically-produced foods, and are set well below the level at which any residues would be harmful to human health. The MRLs are set at levels which are not likely to be exceeded if the approved label instructions on the antibiotic product are correctly followed.

MMM: How and when is the milk tested?
SC: Most, if not all, dairy companies test tankers of milk for antibiotics prior to unloading at the factory, to avoid any contaminated milk entering the supply chain.

A number of dairy companies will also have the individual farm milk samples randomly tested during each month to further discourage farmers from taking a risk and allowing a vat-load of milk to be collected where perhaps a treated cow had been accidentally milked.

At Fonterra, we have both these measures in places – we are very clear that to maintain and build the market relevance of our dairy products, dilution with milk from other farms in the tanker is not the solution.

MMM: How sensitive are the tests?
SC: There is quite a wide range of tests available to detect antibiotics in milk, and the detection limits for antibiotics vary between tests. All dairy companies have their antibiotic testing procedures audited by the relevant state dairy regulatory authority (such as Dairy Food Safety Victoria) to ensure that their chosen test method is suitable for purpose and based on a risk assessment.

Different test methods will have different sensitivities to the various active ingredients found in commonly-used antibiotics – there is a technical information note available on the DFSV website which lists the common tests and their detection limits.

MMM: What happens if antibiotic residues are detected?
SC: If antibiotics are detected at the tanker level (prior to unloading into the factory), the entire tanker load is rejected and the milk disposed of (e.g. via the factory environmental management system).

Traceback testing is undertaken on all farms on that tanker load, to identify the source of the issue. We then undertake an on-farm investigation to get to the root cause of the problem and put measures in place to ensure it doesn’t happen again. All antibiotic-positive tankers must be reported to the state dairy regulatory authority, and followed up with a report stating the findings of the on-farm investigation.

If antibiotics are detected on a random farm sample test, we again undertake the on-farm investigation to help the farmer identify what went wrong. We also undertake a trace-forward to check for any impacts to products manufactured from this milk.

Farmers receive a penalty for supplying antibiotic-contaminated milk, and this penalty increases significantly if it happens again – fortunately, repeat offenders are incredibly rare, which demonstrates that the investigation and corrective action process achieves what it’s meant to.

At Fonterra we also encourage our farmers to get in touch with our SupportCrew milk quality specialists, who can assist farmers with advice and support to minimise the risk of mastitis in the first place.

Thanks Sarah!

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Filed under Dairy Products, Fonterra, Milk quality

Mastitis, antibiotics and milk

Why do we use antibiotics on our farm? Very simply, because despite everything we do to look after their well being, cows, just like people, sometimes fall ill and need antibiotics to get better.

It’s very rare that any of our 260 milking cows become lame with an infection while digestive problems are almost unheard of here and, in any case, do not require antibiotics.

The number one illness we treat on our farm is mastitis. If you’ve breastfed a baby yourself, there’s a fair chance you’ve experienced mastitis. In both cows and women, the symptoms include swelling, warmth and redness for light cases. Nasty cases bring flu-like symptoms that, in cows, can progress to become extremely serious.

How we prevent mastitis
So, how do we reduce the incidence of mastitis on the farm? We begin even before the calf is conceived by selecting sires whose daughters show a naturally lower susceptibility to mastitis.

At the same time, we minimise the risk of infection by keeping the cows and their environment as clean as possible. Tracks are maintained so there’s less mud around to flick onto teats and cows are happy to walk straight to their grassy paddocks rather than spending their rest times on mucky surfaces.

Cows resting in the paddock

Cows resting in the paddock after milking

The cows are well fed with a carefully balanced diet that is mostly grass and we treat the cows with care to minimise stress. It’s a slow, gentle walk to the milking shed, there’s no shouting and if I see one of our cows run, there’d better be a good explanation!

The hygiene of the dairy is important, too. We clean any dirty teats before the milking machine cups go on and spray them afterwards with a mix of iodine and glycerine to disinfect and protect them. We also routinely test the milking machines to make sure they are gentle and effective.

And we’re vigilant. Not surprisingly, when you spend hours every day with the cows’ udders at face level, you notice a sore cow quite quickly. A sore cow is an unhappy cow and an unhappy cow is an unhappy milker, too. Everyone who milks in the dairy has been specially trained at a “Cups On, Cups Off” course to look for mastitis and put top priority on the comfort of our cows.

Sometimes, cows have sub-clinical infections that don’t show any symptoms, so every few weeks, we collect samples of milk from every cow and have them analysed at the local herd test centre lab.

It’s a lot of work but it’s important work. The comfort of the cows is our number one priority and there are implications for the quality of the milk, too. If there is too much mastitis in the herd, our milk has a shorter shelf life.

One thing we don’t do, however, is include antibiotics in the cows’ feed. Routine antibiotic use is not legal and would mean that none of our milk would be useable.

Treating mastitis
When we find a cow with mastitis, we don’t wait to see whether she goes downhill, we treat her immediately with the medicine prescribed by (and only available from) our vets to help her recover fast. Antibiotics help the cow feel better in a day and we keep on milking her so that her udder is well drained and kept as soft as possible.

Making sure milk is free from antibiotic residues
The milk we collect from a treated cow is tipped out until there is no risk of antibiotic residues in the milk. The antibiotics come with quite precise details of how long they remain in meat and milk. It’s critical information because nobody wants food laced with antibiotics, especially those with life-threatening allergies.

As precautionary measures, we:

  • paint the cow’s udder red as a warning to everyone in the dairy that she either needs more treatment or to have her milk disposed of,
  • write her treatment needs and the time her milk needs to be withheld from the vat on a whiteboard in the dairy for all to see, and
  • record all her treatment details in a quality and treatment register.

After she has finished a course of treatment, we check the cow again to be sure the infection has cleared up.

Testing for antibiotic residues
Even with all these protocols, it’s good to know that if milk contaminated with antibiotics somehow got into the vat, there are more safeguards in place. In the next post, a guest from milk processor, Fonterra, will explain how they test our milk for antibiotics.

The bottom line
Our cows live good, healthy lives and rarely fall ill but when they do get sick, we give them the best treatment available straight away. For people and animals alike, antibiotics are our last line of defence against misery and death, so we use them only when really needed and then with great care. And I don’t want to go back to a world without them.

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Filed under Animal Health and Welfare, Cows, Dairy Products, Farm, Milk quality

Farm meets laboratory

It takes a lot of science to make our dairy farm tick these days. Our place is no factory farm either. With around 250 free-range milking cows, it’s a very typical Australian dairy farm.
Yet, only today, I have been keeping four different labs busy:

Environmental lab: what’s in our water?

Sampling water from the farm dam

Don’t fall in!

We’re considering moving the water supply from the river to the dam but need to be sure the water is up to scratch first. While we don’t irrigate our farm, we need high quality water for the cows to drink and to keep the milking machinery hygienic and sparkling clean. We’re having it tested for minerals and nasty bugs like e-coli.

Animal health testing lab – looking for hand grenades in the grass

GrassClippingsOur farm has volunteered to be a ‘sentinel’ for the spores that cause the life-threatening condition of facial eczema. Collecting samples from a couple of paddocks only takes a few minutes but it could save hundreds of cows untold suffering.

Dairy nutrition lab – feeding the bugs that feed the cows

Yesterday, someone on Twitter asked Dr Karl how cows manage to get fat on grass while humans lose weight on veggies. The secret lies in four-chambered guts filled with life-giving bugs that do a lot of the work for the cows.

Our bovine ladies are athletes – each gives us around 7,000 litres of milk per year – and they and their bugs demand nothing short of perfection from us as chefs! Feed reports allow me to balance the cows’ diets with the right mix of fibre, energy and protein.

Soil nutrient lab – getting the dirt on our soils

Soil data allows me to apply the right fertiliser in the right amounts to the right places – lifting the productivity of our farm, reducing costs and preventing leaching into the river. I test the soils of all our paddocks every year. Some would regard that as wildly extravagant but a $110 test is nothing compared to the cost of a tonne of excess fertiliser.

Dairy farming is still the earthy, honest lifestyle it always has been but, these days, it pays to be a touch tech-savvy as well.

EDIT: Oh my goodness! Mike Russell (@mikerussell_) just pointed out that I forgot the bleeding obvious: the testing of our milk! It’s tested to an inch of its life – fat and protein content, sugars and cell counts are all tracked daily. Thanks Mike!

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Filed under Animal Health and Welfare, Cows, Environment, Milk quality, Pastures, Research

The dairy farmer’s calendar

Summer is the laziest time of year for a dairy farmer but when Wayne and I started writing a “to do” list yesterday, my head began to spin a little. Not satisfied with a mild head rush, I went on to draft a rough calendar:

The Annual Milk Maid’s To-Do List

Lazy Summer Days

  • Milk cows
  • Pay bills
  • Deal with crises (pump breakdowns are popular this season)
  • Begin drying cows off for their annual holiday
  • Make hay
  • Have we conserved enough fodder? Consider buying more
  • Begin feeding silage, crops and hay
  • Return cow effluent back to pastures
  • Spend a day changing rubberware in the dairy
  • Control blackberries
  • Vaccinations, drenching, branding, preg testing
  • Big maintenance projects (the stuff you put off the rest of the year)
  • Dream of the next Great Leap Forward

Autumn Anxieties

  • Milk cows
  • Pay bills
  • Deal with crises (milk quality issues popular this season)
  • Continue drying cows off for their annual holiday
  • Special feeding regime for expectant cows
  • Welcome and nurture new calves
  • Test soils for nutrient levels
  • Repair cow tracks
  • Sow new pastures
  • Fertilise pastures
  • Return cow effluent back to pastures
  • Chase revegetation grants and order trees
  • Maintenance
  • Still feeding silage and hay
  • Nude rain dancing in full swing

Winter Woes

  • Milk cows
  • Pay bills
  • Deal with crises (calving emergencies popular this season)
  • Welcome and nurture new calves
  • Fence and spray areas for revegetation
  • Spend a day changing rubberware in the dairy
  • Feed three groups of cows different rations
  • Mating program in full swing
  • Consider another drenching
  • Buy new gumboots and practise rain dancing in reverse
  • Redo budgets after milk factory announces opening price
  • Keep chin up

Supercharged Spring

  • Milk cows
  • Pay bills
  • Deal with crises (unpredictable weather popular this season)
  • Train the new members of the herd
  • Visit the accountant (and maybe the banker)
  • Fertilise, fertilise, fertilise
  • Vaccinate and wean calves
  • Thoroughly clean and disinfect the calf shed
  • Plant trees
  • Control thistles
  • Make silage
  • Sow summer crops
  • Make grass angels

I know I’ve missed stuff – lots of it – but it should give you an idea of what happens day-to-day and season-to-season on our very average Australian dairy farm. So, dear Reader, as we head into 2013, what do you want to know more about?

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Filed under Animal Health and Welfare, Calves, Climate, Cows, Environment, Farm, Machinery and equipment, Milk quality, Pastures

Will Curtis Stone come to the rescue of Aussie farmers and foodies?

Coles is pushing prices down, down, down to help the Aussie battler, right?

Actually, it appears the driving force behind Australia’s supermarket wars is something much more prosaic – supermarket ROI. According to the Sydney Morning Herald:

“A report released in March by the Merrill Lynch analyst David Errington warns that the big three retailers, Coles, Woolworths and Metcash, will need to boost their earnings by $1.3 billion in the next three years if they are to make an acceptable return on the billions of dollars of investments made on acquisitions and capital expenditure. This is on a total earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) pool of $4 billion for the retailers.”

“In the past year, the profit growth of the entire sector has shrunk. Errington’s report says that in the first half of this financial year, the three food retailers delivered a combined EBIT growth of $150 million, a far cry from the $400 million-a-year earnings growth required to make an acceptable return. It will be interesting to see what the full-year earnings will be when the sector reports in the next few weeks.

“If Coles, Woolworths and Metcash fail to generate suitable returns on capital in the next couple of years, investors’ patience will run out and the groups will suffer a significant de-rating.

“It goes a long way to explaining the intensifying price war among the supermarket chains as they try to snatch market share to justify their investments.”

Doesn’t sound like the hostilities will ease up any time soon, does it? In the meantime, we can expect more and more private-label products – especially dairy – to flood the shelves of Coles and Woolworths.

Research by IBIS World Australia reported in the International Business Times showed that, already, “Up to 68 per cent of butter sold in the two supermarkets is private label, while for sugar it is 67 per cent, 56 per cent for bread, 55 per cent for fresh milk and 53 per cent for eggs”.

Alarmingly, the researchers predicted that “by 2017, the share of such products would make up one-third of total supermarket sales”.

Why am I alert and alarmed? Because this is bad news for anyone who cares about good food. When price becomes the only differentiating factor, quality must suffer right along the food chain and the ones who will ultimately feel the pain will be the little people – the farmers who grow the food and the consumers who eat it.

So where does this leave the foodies of Australia? I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.

No need to worry, I guess. Celebrity chef Curtis Stone will save us all. His spin doctors, Thrive PR, say this:

“And don’t think that Curtis is just a face when it comes to his partners like Coles. He is an active contributor behind the scenes to their business and marketing function. Their success is his success.”

Then again, maybe he’s blissfully unaware of the damage to Australian food caused by “his success”. I intend to appeal for help by emailing him at contact@curtisstone.com and am sure he’d love to hear from you, too.

While you’re at it, don’t forget to sign Lisa Claessen’s petition to Coles CEO, Ian McLeod by visiting http://www.change.org/en-AU/petitions/coles-up-the-price-of-generic-brand-milk-to-a-sustainable-rate-of-return-for-all

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Filed under Community, Dairy Products, Milk quality

Design a warning label for cheap milk

The people who make milk and the people who drink it are on the same side. We all want safe, high quality food at a reasonable price without compromising the way we care for our animals or land. Put simply: sustainable food.

But when you stand in front of the supermarket fridge, there’s no way of telling what is sustainable. There’s nothing on the label that says: “WARNING: Buying milk at $1 per litre will mean your fresh milk will soon be flown to China“.

My advice is to keep it simple and steer clear of plain label milk. It’s looking after the interests of the big end of town and all the little people – milk producers and milk lovers – are the ones who will ultimately pay the price. It’s time for us all to make a stand – please tell everyone who will listen.

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Filed under Milk quality