Inconvenient dairy truths

I am not a spokesperson for the dairy community. I’m simply an average dairy farmer who likes to write.

The way my family cares for our cows is very typical of what happens on farms right across Australia. It’s important that more of us share what we do, why we do it and why that matters with non-farming Australians because there is much to be proud of.

It’s equally important that average dairy farmers like me are constantly challenged to do better and that we, in turn, challenge others involved in dairy to improve the way we care for our land and cows.

I am ashamed when dairy spokespeople try to defend the indefensible actions of the minority of farmers who cling onto practices that the rest of us wouldn’t entertain. It’s embarrassing that I have done so little to try to influence them to represent (and lead) all of us.

Someone who has gone beyond the call in her role as Dairy Australia’s animal welfare manager is Bridget Peachey, who was never afraid to tell the good stories and work with farmers to lift our standards. Bridget leaves DA this week and I will miss her leadership, knowledge and sense of what really matters to farmers and the animals in our care.

Why Australians become vegans and why it matters to this farmer

According to 2010 Newspoll research sponsored by Voiceless, only 1% of Australians call themselves vegans, with vegetarians accounting for another 5%, but the reasons why people consider veganism reveal some very interesting things about our attitudes towards food.

Overall, 56% of Australians say there are one or more things that would encourage them to become vegan. These are:
• evidence that many farming practices cause stress and pain for millions of animals every year (36%)
• evidence they can be healthy on a vegan diet (35%)
• evidence that being vegan is better for the environment (31%)
• more vegan menu items in cafes or restaurants (25%)
• being vegan costing less than their current lifestyle (23%)
• family or friends that are vegan (20%)
• more vegans in general (17%)

The research also found that “47% of Australians think making cows pregnant every year and taking their calves from them to obtain milk is unacceptable”.

Veganism is the canary of the disconnect between farmers and other Australians. Those who choose to avoid eating the food we produce on the grounds of morality are telling us we are falling short. Some will have made their minds up but most Australians are quite receptive to the true story.

The good news is I don’t think there is a large gap between mainstream dairying practices and what most Australians perceive as “ethical” farming. I do think we can bridge it if we find a way to work with others who share our passion for animals. We must also learn to talk about it with confidence and pride.

Charlie Arnot of the US Center for Food Integrity wrote an excellent post on just this topic today, which includes this comment:

For far too long, many in this discussion have resorted to attacking those who don’t share their beliefs – an “us vs. them” mentality that limits the opportunity for meaningful discussion about complex food issues. This polarizing debate is unfortunate and unproductive. What would be far more beneficial is an informed discussion of food system issues that will allow us to meet the growing global demand for food, while decreasing our impact on the environment and assuring responsible farming.

Just as a balanced diet that includes a variety of foods is a sound strategy for good nutrition, a balanced discussion of the complex issues related to food is a sound strategy for making good decisions on food policy.

I learned a great deal from agricultural leaders in Australia and I look forward to learning more. The open exchange of ideas makes everyone better. I pledge to use that same approach to other issues in the coming year. The next time someone raises a concern about today’s food system I’m going to welcome the question, encourage a discussion and learn more about the issue. I’m going to reject the appeal of culinary colonialism and work to assure we all have the opportunity to make informed choices about our food.

Hear, hear, Charlie!

About UHT milk

Here’s an interesting AAP newswire story about UHT:

Despite the supermarket heavyweight’s price war on fresh milk, sales of UHT milk are on the rise and now account for nearly 10 per cent of total milk sales. However, statistics from Dairy Australia show that most Australians still prefer fresh milk on their cereal.

UHT milk sales increased eight per cent from 195 million litres to 211 million litres in 2009/2010 over the year before, accounting for 9.3 per cent of total milk sales for the same period.

Associate Professor Frank Zumbo of the University of NSW, said the rise of UHT milk sales was currently not a threat to the big supermarkets as the long life product was low maintenance and did not require refrigeration costs.

“If the trend continued, it would be troubling, but at the moment it’s clear consumers have a strong preference for fresh milk,” he said.

The number was off a low base, where UHT had traditionally had a very low percentage of the market, he told reporters on Friday.

“But we are seeing the owners of UHT brands trying to lift their profile through increased advertising.”

A survey of 2,500 milk drinkers by consumer research centre Canstar Blue found that out of all Australians who had purchased milk in the past six months, those drinking Devondale UHT milk said they were happier than consumers of other brands, based on overall satisfaction, taste, health benefits and packaging.

Canstar Blue manager Rebecca Logan said the results were surprising, given the attractive prices offered by major supermarkets on fresh milk.

“There’s no doubt long life milk has come a long way over the years and consumers are responding to its convenience and long shelf life,” Logan said in a statement on Friday.

The average Australian drinks 102 litres of milk a year, according to Australian Dairy Farmers.

So, what is UHT milk?

UHT stands for Ultra-High Temperature and refers to the pasteurisation process – the heating of milk to ensure it is free from nasty bugs. Rather than being heated at 74 degrees Celsius for about 15 seconds, it is heated at about 140 degrees Celsius for just two seconds.

There is little nutritional difference between “fresh” and “long life” milk and according to Curtin University scientists, UHT milk is more environmentally-friendly than “fresh” milk.

Which milk do we drink at the farm?

I’m often asked whether we drink milk straight from the vat. Well, no, actually we drink Devondale UHT milk, which is where some of our milk ends up, anyhow. It’s safer than raw milk and easier to get out of the pantry than out of a 17,500 litre vat!