Crushed nut juice

Sorry if that headline created a word picture you’d rather forget but it wasn’t mine. It’s the phrase used by a farmer describing almond “milk” that caught Twitter’s attention yesterday.

“Crushed nut juice” hit the news as NSW dairy body, Dairy Connect, launched a campaign to have soy, rice, almond and other plant-based extracts relabeled without the word “milk”.

Dairy Connect CEO Shaughn Morgan said there was a constantly evolving range of so-called “milk” products vying for consumer attention.

“We have seen a rise in the number of dairy-imitations made from plants,” Shaughn said.

“We believe that this has been the source of confusion among consumers, some of whom equate the great nutritional benefits of cows’ milk with the plant drink alternatives.”

Can’t imagine how people could confuse the nutrition of dairy milk and something like rice milk? Tragically, the news is sprinkled with the cases of infant deaths due to just that mistake.

They’re all white, they all work well on your Weeties but these cute little explainers from Dairy Australia make it pretty obvious there’s no comparison between the real thing and the imitations.

If you’d rather go natural, go for real milk

ingredients

Perhaps the most surprising difference between real milk and the imitations is the amount of processing and added ingredients. Wow!

The nutrients
main nutrients

Real milk is a naturally good source of protein and calcium but the imitations must be fortified with artificial ingredients to come close.

more nutrients

Truth in labeling is important to me, both as a dairy farmer and a mum. Families at the supermarket deserve to know exactly what they’re buying, so I’ve added my signature to Dairy Connect’s petition. Do you think it’s time to take a stand for real milk, too?

https://www.change.org/p/taking-a-stand-for-real-milk?recruiter=17154510&utm_source=share_petition&utm_medium=copylink&utm_campaign=share_petition&utm_term=autopublish.guest_form_reduction

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.

Australian dairy: does it matter if it’s sold to China?

Worth saving?

Worth saving?

Does Australian milk matter? We have to decide.

It seems two of Australia’s milk processors, United Dairy Power and Warrnambool Cheese and Butter, are about to be sold to China. Firms backed by the Chinese government are having unofficial talks that would put the price of WCB at a staggering $10 per share.  Meanwhile, the ruthless but charming Canadians continue to acquire a bigger stake of WCB.

Here, close to home, another Chinese firm has already purchased a formerly decommissioned factory and is repackaging milk powder to send back to China. (It’s been a debacle, with outraged and distraught workers regularly featured in the local papers desperate to be paid.)

It’s not limited to the dairy processing sector, either. The Chinese have been buying up our breeding stock for years and now, they want our farms, as Brett Cole reports in the Business Spectator:

“For more than a year, China Investment Corporation has contemplated acquiring Van Diemen’s Land Co, which owns and operates 25 dairy farms with 30,000 dairy stock. Other Chinese companies have moved decisively amid concerns about their nation’s safety standards.”

All this while our Australian farmer co-op, currently the highest bidder for WCB, languishes in the competition tribunal as it ponders – for months – whether we are allowed to bid at all.

Do you care? If you’re a dairy farmer, hell yes, you should. No foreign company cares about your future like you do or your co-op does. Perhaps worse still, once these assets are sold, the fragmentation and inefficiency of our processing sector is locked in, forever limiting the price farmers are paid for our milk.

If you’re not a farmer but an Aussie, there’s an awful lot to be lost. These international companies and governments so keen to pay more than twice the value of WCB are not irrational. They want control of their food. Does that matter to you?

Is Woolies the dairy farmer’s white knight?

Woolworths has announced it plans to contract dairy farmers directly, with the promise of better farm gate returns. While a first for Australian dairy, this is not new in the UK where many of our supermarket executives earned their stripes. On a study tour of the UK, prominent Victorian dairy farmer Roma Britnell spoke to many English farmers about their experiences, so I was delighted when she agreed to answer a few questions for Milk Maid Marian.

Roma Britnell

Roma Britnell


MMM: What are the supermarkets proposing?
Roma: The supermarkets are thinking about setting up direct supply contracts with a select group of farmers in response to the public’s concerns that they are hurting farmers.

I saw a really good example of this in England after coops failed and processing companies became dominant. The supply contract I looked at was with Waitrose, a boutique up-market supermarket. Only a small number of farmers had the opportunity and got a few cents more than the rest of the English dairy farmers. They have to have a very flat supply and the quality standards are very demanding.

When I first explored this concept, the farmers were not too unhappy. Now, the supermarket’s demands are getting too difficult to accommodate. A lot depends on the relationship between the negotiators of the group and the company manager but because the group is small, the farmers are at a disadvantage.

MMM: Is this common overseas?
Roma: I didn’t see this anywhere other than in the UK. What I did see and look for were ways the farmer could maintain influence up the supply chain. I found the answer was simply to own as much of the supply chain as possible so long as this was managed efficiently and monitored carefully.

This is what has traditionally gone wrong, and the “co-op” model is wrongly blamed as the reason instead of the inefficiency and lack of the owners (farmers) making sure the business performed.

Co operation comes in many forms and I looked at companies like Glambia that are part co-op and part company.

I found many good businesses that were going well operating as a co-op, including Arla. Neither co ops or companies are immune from failure. The management rather than the structure is key. On the other hand, the farmers that sit on co op boards need to be highly skilled business operators at an international level.

MMM: What do you expect will be the opportunities and threats for dairy farmers who contract directly with the supermarkets?
Roma: The farmers who have a direct supply contract will earn more than the rest of Australia’s dairy farmers. Eventually, however, the increased costs are likely to match the added reward.

Consumers will buy the milk believing they are doing the “right thing” by dairy farmers but the reality is that direct supermarket contracts are rarely truly in the farmer’s favour. As with all things, the ones in early will initially get some benefits short-term but long-term it’s unlikely to be the case.

Such a small group of farmers has little chance of negotiating on an equal footing – brute strength is needed to deal with giants the size of Australia’s supermarkets.

MMM: What are the opportunities and threats for Australian dairy farming as a whole?
Roma: This opportunity for a favoured few poses enormous threats to Australian dairy. If the English experience is repeated here, the often unrealistic demands supermarkets impose on their contracted farmers will become the norm over time. They will say its customer driven. Its supermarket driven; to get the edge on their competitor and in turn the long-term costs to the industry are too large to keep the industry viable. Do we need more of this?

There are many other threats that take a long-term view of the situation to consider.
However the principle remains that dairy farmers are individual businesses who seem to struggle to work as a team. If we did, we would have the clout to position ourselves ready for the oncoming food boom. It has been a long time since the demand for food was greater than the supply. Dairy industries around the world are positioning themselves in readiness for this. Us …well I don’t think we are going to be in a position ready to pounce. Sad really to miss opportunity but a good strong group of focused farmers would be the way to achieve success.

My last comment to demonstrate my findings is cemented from my experience just this week whilst in New Zealand. The country has a minimal domestic market with a strong, well organised cooperative that exports a large amount of milk. So very like Australia in that respect. Yet they have the highest domestic milk price of any country in the world. Go figure!

The smoking gun: the numbers reveal Coles’ dairy damage

Please, just read this article by dairy analysts, xCheque, on the damage caused by the supermarket war. Some excerpts for you:

“The supermarket’s pricing strategy has squeezed the processors to near death and they have responded in the only way they can – attack their single largest cost of production – the milk price. In turn, the dairy farmers of northeast Australia have turned off the tap.”

“It is undeniable that Central & Northern NSW and Queensland milk production has dropped dramatically in the past two years.

“It is also undeniable that the southern exporting states are seeing no such effect – this is despite seeing a downturn in the global dairy industry over the last year.

“It is also undeniable that we haven’t seen a production drop like this since the period after dairy deregulation more than a decade ago.”

“Stop and think what you are doing Colesworths. You have taken a very blunt axe to the Australian dairy supply chain. In our view you are definitely in denial if you think that you and your shareholders have no responsibility for the long term social health and economic wealth of Australian agriculture.

“Editor’s note: Apart from the confirmation in milk production data, not much is new in this debate. Our subeditor (and all of us) were however particularly incensed at the most recent example of ignorance and insensitivity by Wesfarmer’s boss Richard Goyder. Clearly denial of responsibility goes right to the top of that organisation and there are no remaining traces of empathy with the company origins.”

How does it feel?

The sideshow continues: Coles claiming farmers are lucky to see milk sacrificed, animal activists making uninformed allegations of cruelty, vegans banging on about growth hormones (which are illegal here anyway).

Sitting in the stifling heat of the office and reading it all in one hit on one page tortured with anger, confusion and deceit, it is as if the world is against you.

So, with the kids asleep and only the crickets to keep you company, you step outside to fill your lungs with fresh, cool twilight air. And it feels like the world is yours.

My reality

My reality

No wonder so few farmers have an appetite to take their dairy lives beyond the farm gate.

The totem of $1 milk

Two years ago today, Coles offered up milk as a sacrifice in the name of market share. It’s now become totemic in Victoria.

The reality is that about two-thirds of Australia’s milk comes from Victoria’s cows but not a lot of my farm’s milk ends up in the supermarket fridge.

We supply the Murray Goulburn Co-op, which processes about one-third of Australia’s milk and has the technology to make a huge variety of dairy foods and ingredients. It sells to the highest bidder, so the percentage that gets exported depends on how well global commodity prices compare with local dairy markets. In 2011/12, 49 per cent was exported, which is pretty typical.

But Victorian farmers are demoralised. Many are in desperate financial positions. The effects of the collapse in global commodity prices, skyrocketing energy prices, high feed costs and the high Australian dollar are clear but shrouded in secrecy is the impact of the supermarket war.

While $1 milk gets all the attention, other dairy products like butter and cheese have also been hit by the supermarket price war. Murray Goulburn has invested heavily in relaunching its supermarket brands and CEO Gary Helou infamously got all hot under the collar last month about Coles’ refusal to stock MG’s Devondale cheese. But nobody can talk about how Coles and MG negotiate our livelihoods behind the tinted windows of “Darth Vader’s Castle” as the Coles HQ is fondly nicknamed by its suppliers.

We’ll probably never know just what the damage has been – only that our situation is very different from that in states like NSW and Queensland where there is pretty much total reliance on fresh milk sales.

But what those claiming to be “the voice of reason” dismiss is the effect ‘milk that’s cheaper than water’ has on the psyche. It signals to farmers that a fair go no longer matters. And that’s what hurts the most on Australia Day.