No fresh milk for Australians? Is UHT the next big thing?

It’s been an amazing week. First, milk processor Lion, came right out and said the unthinkable – that a milk price below the cost of production was “fair” and that there need to be fewer dairy farmers in Queensland and New South Wales.

Then, yesterday, Sue Neales (follow her @BushReporter on Twitter) of The Australian reported that “Desperate Australian dairy farmers are looking to fly fresh milk directly into Asia to deprive Coles and Woolworths of their unassailable market power.”.

In Sue Neales’ story, Dairy Connect farmers’ group president Adrian Drury said: “We are telling the supermarkets that they mightn’t always have easy access to fresh milk and that they take us for granted at their peril in their push to force milk prices down.”.

What does that mean for you, the milk drinker?

To put it bluntly, you might find yourself drinking UHT milk rather than fresh milk sooner than I expected. Rumours are rife in dairy-land that Coles is keen to shift you from the fridge to the aisles when it comes to picking up your milk. Coles has quite a contingent of European executives these days, where the move from fresh to UHT has been spectacularly successful for the supermarkets. According to Wikipedia, 7 out of 10 Europeans regularly drink UHT rather than fresh milk.

Why UHT? For supermarkets, the benefits of stocking UHT are huge. It lasts longer, it doesn’t need to be refrigerated and, best of all, it can be sourced from far away, increasing their range of supply.

What’s wrong with that, you may ask? After all, there’s evidence that UHT is greener (given it doesn’t need to be refrigerated) and it is still good for you (read more about UHT here, if you like). Question is, do you want to be able to choose?

PS: If The Australian won’t let you read Sue’s story, Google the headline Farmers’ bid to end duopoly milk run and you should be able to read the lot.

Would you like ethics with that?

A consultant once told me: “My services can be described as cheap, good and quick but you can only have two of the three at once.”

When it comes to milk, the choices are: cheap, good and ethical. Under the umbrella of “ethical” comes animal wellbeing, the environment and the welfare of farming families.

I don’t have any input on which pair wins out – you and the thousands of others who drink our milk or eat our cheese do. At the moment, with prices falling and consumers celebrating milk that’s cheaper than water, it seems “ethical” is the loser.

As someone who farms because she loves the land and her animals, this is very, very sad news. Currently, it is my family that is missing out rather than land or animal. Eventually though, we won’t be able to carry the burden and we will be the ones facing three choices:

1. Find a way to fund niche value adding for ethical products;
2. Industrialise our farming practices and see a fall in animal wellbeing and environmental outcomes; or
3. Leave farming.

Only time will tell.

With this in mind, it was interesting to read this comment in response to Lynne Strong’s point that consumers have a role to play in animal welfare standards following a story on The Conversation:

“Is it the case that, in buying a $5.00, 2L carton of milk in Australia, I can be assured that the product was sourced more ethically than the $2 Coles brand?”

Of course not but you can be sure that by purchasing unsustainably priced milk, you will be putting pressure on ethical standards right across the country.

Antibiotics in milk keeps us up at night

Yesterday I made a phone call that could cost our family thousands of dollars.

It had all started during the routine rounding up for the afternoon milking. I love rounding up. It’s a great time to chill out, enjoy the scenery, check the fences and troughs and admire the cows. I take my little red book and write down the numbers of any cows that need attention and have a look at the pastures to check the cows got the perfect amount of grass.

While scanning the herd, my eye rested on a young black cow with a ridiculously round belly and very little milk. I knew her. Only two weeks ago, I’d had her preg tested and sent on her annual holiday. On Sunday, I’d decided she was closer to calving than first thought and put her in the calving paddock.

But here she was with the milkers. After freezing in my tracks for a moment and taking a deep breath, I turned around and rushed to the house to start making phone calls. The first phone call was to our field officer at the co-op, Gregor.

“Gregor, I’ve just seen a cow in the herd who must have been milked this morning during her withhold period. What happens now?”

The problem was that this cow, 1216, had been treated with an antibiotic to cure and prevent mastitis during the critical calving period. That morning, Clarkie had found a lot of white “stuff” in one of the filters after milking. Now that I’d seen her, I knew it must have been teat seal – which is used to keep nasty bugs out of her teats, while holding in the antibiotics. The $64,000,000 question was: had the automatic cup removers taken the milking machines off in time to prevent antibiotics reaching the vat?

If there was even a trace of antibiotics in there, a whole day’s milk would have to be poured down the drain.

The only thing to do was take a sample from the vat into the local vet centre to be tested, a process which could take up to four hours. When I got back outside, Clarkie had taken over rounding up, wondering what on earth I was up to. Once I explained, he sent the cows back to the paddock while I shot off to town with a sick stomach and one of Zoe’s water bottles filled to the brim with milk.

On the way home after school, I explained to Zoe what it all meant, including the implications of pouring the milk down the drain and the implications of not being honest with Murray Goulburn about spotting the cow in the first place. It was a quiet trip and a long, long few hours while we waited to hear from vet Amy who’d stayed back late to test our sample. But our patience was finally rewarded with a negative result – four hours after normal milking time and at the end of an already very long working day, Clarkie fired up the machines again and topped up the vat with the day’s milk.

I am so appreciative of the support from Clarkie, Gregor and Amy during this crisis on old Macdonald’s farm. And, today, I am off to buy another electric fence unit that will be dedicated to the calving paddock.

The love drug

Cows and women both fall under the spell of an amazing love drug every time they produce milk: oxytocin. As a breastfeeding mother, I know the dreamy feeling that it brings first-hand and the cows might just enjoy the same sensation in the dairy.

Oxytocin triggers the “let down” reflex amongst other things (sexual arousal included!) but its action is pretty much blocked by stress hormone, adrenaline.

This is really obvious in the dairy. We make sure there aren’t too many people in the dairy, avoid shouting or having barking dogs nearby and even keep the radio on the same station. Upset the routine at all and the cows start to get jumpy. And that means lots of cow poo and golden showers plus a very slow milking coupled with less milk in the vat.

So, if you visit your local dairy farmer, try not to get too excited in the shed. Walk slowly and gently and, if you must make noise, make it a lullaby.

Have you seen a cow with blood all over her udder?

When Zoe’s city cousins came to visit the other day, they were horrified to see one of our cows with a crimson udder. “Oh my God, she’s bleeding!” cried one of the boys.

Painted Picasso Cow

Painted but not quite like this Picasso Cow (thanks to Libby Lambert for the pic!)

“No, it’s okay, she’s just painted,” laughed Zoe.

They were almost as astonished by Zoe’s reply as they were horrified by the thought of all the bleeding.

Why do dairy farmers paint cows?
We buy paint for cows in bulk. We use orange to denote a freshly calved cow still producing colostrum, blue when we want to keep an eye on a cow for some reason, red when she’s undergoing treatment and green once the treatment is complete.

The red paint is a warning to everyone who milks the cow – first, she needs treatment and, second, her milk must not enter the vat. Instead, it is collected in a separate bucket and discarded. Thankfully, Australia’s food safety regulations are very stringent and no trace of antibiotics may be present in milk.

You might also see cow’s backbones right near their tails painted different colours. But that’s a story for mating season.

Putting ourselves in the best position

In the lead up to the Australian Dairy Conference later this month, I’ve invited a few fellow speakers to do guest posts on Milk Maid Marian. One of them, Steve Spencer of the Freshlogic consultancy, issued this challenge to dairy farmers.

Steve Spencer

Steve Spencer

The world has changed in the last 5 years and with that so have the prospects for dairy producers. If you read the views of the global food gurus, we’re riding on the cusp of an ever-tightening world food shortage that puts the dairy industry in a great position. We’ll have plenty of competitors going after that future prize, and in the last decade dominated by the effects of drought, other exporters have emerged. But at the same time, decades of protectionism by major economies is steady evaporating, as governments admit they can’t afford to fund the high walls built around agriculture.

As we’ve seen in the past couple of years, the variables affecting our farmgate milk prices in Australia have become more complex, and the volatility in the future world that affects those prices, grain costs and weather will only increase.

As we step into the future, it has never been more important to make sure our industry is structured in the best possible way to make sure we optimise the flows from the market back onto farms. It isn’t something that we should steadily work on for a few years – this pressure now urgent!

I will be presenting a paper at the Australian Dairy Conference at Warragul, Vic (which is being held on 22-23 February) that will aim to stir up the debate on the agenda for getting that going. It will look at precisely what can be done to improve returns, and it should be no surprise to anyone to recognise that most of the things that can be done are within our own control.

So my paper will tour:
• How farmers do or can engage with the dairy market
• The value of the co-operative as a channel to that market
• How they perform in different industries
• What changes others are making and why
• What changes are most important in the Australian market
• How those can happen

We’ll discuss the elephant in the room. Murray Goulburn is the largest farmer-owned processor of milk in southern Australia, accountable to their shareholder-suppliers for performance through farmgate milk prices and dividends. In a highly competitive farmgate environment, prices paid by foreign-owned, privately owned or listed competitors will be set at or above MG’s price – others will only pay what they have to in order to get a secure milk flow. They are accountable to shareholders who may not be dairy farmers purely on their performance as a business.

It will be up to the co-op’s farmer shareholders to determine if the company is properly structured and managed to maximise performance, and the opportunities and risks of change.
Whether dairy farmers supply and own shares in MG or not and no matter where they farm, the performance of that largest co-op is an issue relevant to all Australian dairy farmers, as milk values are set by MG’s payment performance.

Like Australia’s competitors in the US and Europe will find as they embrace deregulation in the years to come, clinging to tradition is probably the worst thing farmers can do for the future of the industry.

I urge dairy farmers, their advisers and investors to attend the conference and get involved.

What do glue, paint, tablets and clag have in common?

Another fascinating snippet from the Gippsland Murray Goulburn newsletter:

“Casein accounts for about 80 per cent of the total protein in skim milk post the separation process. It is mostly associated with cheese-making but is harvested from the curd to be used in many products, including glue, pharmaceutical tablets and some paints. Many of us may remember Clag in artwork made from casein.”

Milk from the farm to the table

Ever wanted to know what happens to milk between the farm and your glass? This lightly edited story from the Gippsland Murray Goulburn newsletter explains it all really well.

Separation and standardisation
Separation of animal milk, be it goat, sheep or cow is a naturally occurring phenomenon, which has been observed and tinkered with by man for many centuries. Indeed, as recently as the mid-1900s, milk was separated on farm and consigned as cream in cans to the dairy processor, with the whey by-product being fed to the farm’s pigs (MMM note: We had cream cans until the early 1960s when power finally arrived here and a refrigerated vat took their place).

These days, separation of cream from skim milk is done via multi-level centrifugal force separators in a process refined in 1879…Cream, which is lighter than milk, is driven by centrifugal force (MMM note: the same “spinning” force that pushes water out of clothes during the spin cycle of your washing machine) to the surface of the milk and flows off to a holding vessel. Standardisation of milk involves the adjustment of the fat content by addition of cream or skim milk as appropriate.

Along with correct cooling, pasteurisation is one of the most important processes in the treatment of milk. If carried out correctly, this process will supply milk with a longer shelf life. Simply, the process of pasteurisation is to heat milk to 70-75 degrees C but for only five to seven seconds, upon which most bacteria will be killed.

Ultra High Temperature (UHT)
Like pasteurisation, UHT treatment is heat treating milk for a given time at a given temperature…UHT takes the temperature to 135-140 degrees C but only for five to seven seconds. Importantly, the UHT process for milk is a continuous, aseptic (fully enclosed and sterile) treatment and packaging process. Shelf life of six months or more can be obtained if the milk is of the highest quality.

Homogenisation is a process invented in 1899 to stabilise fat emulsion against gravity separation. Essentially, milk is forced through a small passage at great velocity, causing the fat globules to fracture into much smaller ones. The newly-created fat globules will stay free and more stable and be less likely to separate out. This process will also enhance whiteness, flavour and mouth-feel of the milk. The downside of homogenised milk is its restriction in other processes such as cheese making. Also, the product is more susceptible to light damage.

There’s a bit more to the article, including a discussion of ghee, milk powder, casein and yoghurt – topics for other days!

Gotta be quick to respond as Spring springs

Spring has pounced…at last and with a flourish!

Each week, I monitor the growth rate of our grass and by golly it’s shot away in seven days. This means we can offer the cows a larger slice of each paddock per day, knowing that we won’t run out of grass or punish the pastures. We treat our little ryegrass plants with TLC, you see.

To explain why, I’ll need to tell you a little bit about the ryegrass plant (only a speed-date style of introduction because I know you’re probably not as excited about watching grass grow as I am).

In most cases, rye grass only ever grows three leaves per plant before the oldest leaf dies off. It’s at its best when it has 2.5 to 3 leaves, which is also when it grows fastest because it has the most “solar panels” to generate sugar and sustain itself.

The grass draws on sugar reserves stored in its stem to produce the first leaf, the second is self-sufficient and the third offers about 50% more herbage than the first two combined.

If you let the cows chew the grass down too hard or bring them back when it’s just used up its sugar reserve to get the first leaf out, you do enormous damage to the plant. It may not recover and will certainly take a long time to get up and running again.

Because Australian milk is sold at such low prices, we have to be super efficient and that means grazing the pasture at its most productive rather than relying on lots of expensive grain. A DPI expert once told me that what farmers do in the 12 weeks of Spring dictates how profitable we are for the whole year, so I am extra vigilant at the moment.

With the warmer, drier weather of the last week, we’ve seen growth rates soar. Rather than taking about 14 days to emerge, the first leaf is out in seven or eight. I’ve asked Wayne to reduce the amount of grain we’re feeding the cows (just by half a kilo every four days so we don’t upset the bacteria in their finely tuned digestive systems) and I’ll ring the silage contractor tomorrow to give him the heads-up.

That same DPI guy also told me that it doesn’t cost anything to be on time but being late in farming could cost a year’s profit. I’d better get out there!