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Grass converters

What a magnificent Spring to be a dairy farmer in Central Victoria. The grass is vibrant, the sun is out, the soils moist and the cows couldn’t be happier.

Picnic Gully Nov 2020

I thought I’d take this opportunity to tell you a little about what the cows eat to create their beautiful milk. I think it’s magic that they can convert grass into milk and while I’m sure there is a little magic in there, mostly it is an equation of inputs = outputs. This is why I always say that to have great milk you must follow the chain back. Nutritious milk comes from healthy cows, who have a healthy gut function, who eat nutrient dense feed which comes from a well balanced soil. Once again we come back to this long known, often forgotten fact, that human health is completely dependent on soil health.

For about two months every Spring, milk costs about 1/3 to produce as it does the rest of the year in Central Victoria. Not known as a dairy region, for much of the year the pasture feed quality is too low to support dairy cattle and supplementation is needed. Often you may look at a paddock and think ‘there’s grass there, can’t they eat that’ and for any non lactating animal you may be right. You may think my girls are just spoilt and fussy; however if you push a dairy cow to eat something because she has nothing else to eat, the supply and quality of her milk will drop, which is counterproductive to the whole operation.

Summer 2019

We practise holistic/managed grazing here on the farm. The mobile milking parlour gives us the flexibility to be always on the move following the grass, then giving it plenty of time to recover. More on this to come in a future blog. The seasons are constantly changing: Summer pasture rotation is often more about avoiding bare ground than it is providing growing feed. With an early Autumn break we often get in one quick rotation of the short green pick before the ground gets cold and growth really slows down over the winter months. Then Spring comes, grass regrowth/recovery can be a matter of days and we fly around the property trying to get the most out of pastures before they bolt to seed.

All of the different feed stock effects the milk and we are constantly trying to balance their grazing feed with supplementation to have a constant product. Short green grass is high in sugars and often protein giving a sweet milk, rich in flavour. But at certain times there might be undesirable flavours present in the milk. We have one plant growing in some areas which is an allium grass which has a strong garlic smell. When you walk up to a cow grazing this grass the stench is intense. While this can actually be a good thing for the animals to flush any parasite out of their system, it does taint the milk. I know where the big patches of this grass are on the farm and reserve them for the dry animals, however there will always be a few plants the milkers eat and sometimes in winter you may notice a slight garlic smell, strongest in the cream. This plant is a bulb, growing in and breaking up compacted ground, a wet summer will knock it out as the bulbs rot.

Alluim grass

Many say capeweed taints the milk, however I’ve not had this experience. The cows actually milk very well off capeweed but it can very quickly give them metabolic problems, which in a ruminant leads to many other ailments such as feet problems, mastitis, milk fever, bloat etc. Capeweed is also a sign of bare ground over summer, nature doing the quickest thing it can to cover the ground. Unfortunately though, when it dies off in summer it then leaves a big bare patch again. Over this last 12 months we’ve seen the capeweed dramatically reduce on the farm and be replaced with clover. Now clover really does produce a good milk, but once again, too much of anything can be problematic.

Clover

The annual grasses are all starting to go to seed at the moment. The big change I notice is the brome grass. The cows love it when its growing but the second it grows a seed head they won’t touch it. You can see in this photo that they have eaten the clover to the ground and avoided the patches of brome.

Clover eaten, brome avoided/brome forming seed heads

I also thought I’d share with you some numbers around the cost of feed v milk produced throughout the year.

You can see here the cost difference in producing milk in Summer (Feb $1.25 ltr) vs Spring (Oct 34c ltr). Keeping in mind this is just the cost of feeding the animal, not the cost of labour, running the factory, farm and sales. The long term aim is to be on a property which could grow much more of our feed, reducing this cost. Currently we are reliant on the rich volcanic soils at Wombat Forest Organics for our hay, the cropping landscapes of Burrum Biodynamics for our grains and pulses, Waltanna farms for the linseed mix, oaten hay from Rathscar, Laucke for our bran and storm harvested kelp from Marrawah in Tassie. Everything certified organic from inspiring farmers working to regenerate out landscapes. As I write this though I realise that the production of every bottle of milk is much more a group effort, with the various contributors working as a community rather than me in isolation.

Oli unloading the pulses and the hay arriving (a semi twice a year)

Our aim here is to be constantly building diversity of feed stocks for the animals so they are able to get all the nutrition they need to look after themselves and produce nutrient dense, delicious milk. When I close my eyes and dream of my farming future, it involves meadows with 100+ species of forbs and grasses, paddocks lined with tree fodder crops, sparkling clear water and of course, my lovely herd.

Losing Stella

Well it’s been a while since I’ve done any farm updates and to be honest it’s been a pretty rough winter.

It was always going to be a hectic winter with four calving, pushing my system, which is designed for two calves at a time, to the limits.

Pluto

As you may remember, I was most concerned about Luna as she was very sick in her previous calving. However, this time she didn’t skip a beat. When Pluto was born he had 48hrs where he couldn’t stand or drink without me for some reason, but from then on you wouldn’t know he’d had a rough start.

Selenite aka Sellarnights aka Falcor

Then came Quartz with Selenite, born one wet and cold morning, the most perfect little heifer of all time. She’s my first pure Dairy Shorthorn calf, sharing her paternal lineage with Pluto. She’s had no need for a halter as she happily goes into the pen at night on her own and I’m filled with joy that this little nugget will be a future milker.

Selenite, Pluto, Quartz

Nancy was next with her mini-me bull calf; Billy Button. As my new cow, Nancy is an older girl who started her life as a milker but had spent the last two years raising calves. Things didn’t go so well for Nancy. A retained placenta pushed her immune system to it’s limits and the moment she came into milk I had doubts that she’d ever be a milker. For 6 weeks we managed her mastitis. A rock hard udder which tested Staph positive in three quarters. These test results made the decision for me that I couldn’t keep her. She went on antibiotics to, at least, allow her to recover. Which gave this beautiful natured cow and her gorgeous little boy the chance to leave the farm happy and healthy last week to return to where I bought her from.

Nancy (early) and Billy Button

For full transparency here, I have really just outsourced something which I felt uncomfortable about. Nancy’s fate will quite possibly be culling. The chance of her getting sicker if allowed to calve again is very high. I had the opportunity to send her back which I was grateful for. I had to make the hard decision that I need to focus my energy on the rest of my herd and my business. I spent a lot of time, emotional energy and money on Nancy to not be able to use a drop of her milk. This is not fair on the rest of my animals.

And Iggy, of course she had to steal the spotlight on my birthday by calving with Marianne (Faithful). Another completely bonkers heifer from a break-in with the neighbours bull. I wont keep Marianne as a milker so she’ll be looking for a home in a beef herd once weaned. The main question my nephews and nieces had when Iggy calved was did she lose any weight and the question is no, she is still the size of a bus.

Iggy and Marianne

I love winter, my English heritage is strong. We’ve had double the average rainfall in July, the soil is at capacity, dams full, 200 trees planted, growth everywhere with the lead into Spring looking fantastic. However the other side of the scales is moisture brings bacteria and feet problems. Daylight hours lead to a race against the light most days. Farm access becomes very limited so as not to get bogged or damage soils.

So what lessons have I learnt. DON’T calve in winter! If there are any problems, it’s a miserable time to be sick and I don’t need to increase my workload when the daylight hours are so limited. I also need to look very hard at my feed and minerals; what excess’s and deficiencies might be going on, how can cows enter calving with the best possible chance. Lastly, don’t buy cows which have already lactated, you just never quite know what going on in that udder, Nancy was the 4th cows I’ve had to let go for this reason.

As Spring starts, it’s easy to feel better about everything. This started a couple of weeks ago. I got a shiatsu, sat by the Loddon on my day off, meditating and thinking about the things in my life which give and those that take. I came back into my body. But as I drove into the farm that Friday afternoon I just had this feeling in the pit of my stomach that I had one last hurdle to cross.

My beautiful Stella, daughter of Luna had reached breeding age. She spent a week with the bull. When I picked her up she was sore and miserable. Then 5 days later I found her dead. No sign of a struggle, in fact I think she died in her sleep. No external signs to indicate what happened. I do know however that when a bull broke in with her when she was young she had a similar (but non-fatal) response, thus I thought she would be fine. I would have liked to have been in a position to autopsy her but late on a Saturday evening was not the time, so my best assumption is that she had some kind of internal damage, either from birth or from the previous mating. Which does mean that things where set in motion long before and for her to have gotten in calf could have been much worse.

Luna and Stella

It hit me hard, harder than I expected. I’d been preparing myself for losing my first cow, but not like this. I’d assumed it would be around calving, particularly a vulnerable cow like Berta or Luna. Not Stella, a heifer, in prime condition, after a trip to the bull. I was in shock. She was such a beautiful cow, with the same wacky energy as her mum, I was really looking forward to her joining my herd. The universe seems set on me not increasing my milking herd, first Olive, then Nancy and now Stella!

watching her grow

So the days following this I really did feel like what’s the bloody point, ‘we do all this just for a few litres of milk, are you serious!’

Like with all relationships in life, the better they are, the stronger the loss is felt. To have life filled with love is, I believe, what makes this crazy existence worth living. So I choose to maintain my love for these ladies, even if it will make it harder to say goodbye to them all eventually.

Luna and Stella last summer

The light at the end of the tunnel though was my customers, community and wider networks. To witness what it means to people to have connection with the land, people and animals where their food comes from makes it all worth while. It’s highlighted for me the importance of direct customer contact for small scale agriculture.

Dropping her off at the bull.

Thank you all for going on this journey with me.

R.I.P Stella Bella

Calf at foot

Life is very hard for Blue and his dam Daisybell

Here at Sellar Farmhouse Creamery we run a calf-at-foot practice where calves spend their first three months nursing from their dam.

We’re currently gearing up for four cows calving over the next three months so I thought this was as good a time as any to talk about the pros and cons to running our system.

The modern dairy cow produces far more milk than required to raise her calf so sharing that milk when done fairly isn’t detrimental to the calf. There are many factors to keep in mind when deciding how to raise dairy calves; whether practicing immediate removal, through to cows nursing until they next calve, every dairy farmer has a system which works best for their situation.

Quartz and Onxy

Time

Raising healthy calves takes time however you choose to do it in a dairy system. Removing calves young means you then have to invest the time in bottle feeding them. Running calf at foot means you have to spend time training, separating and weaning cows and calves. If the calf has no need for humans to feed them, building a relationship of trust takes much longer.

Health

This is a very complicated debate. At it’s core, I don’t think many would argue that calves allowed to nurse from their mothers grow up to be healthier more resilient animals. They also tend to be healthier calves as their dam will change her milk to the needs of her calf. If a calf gets scours the dam will lick it’s bottom, create the antibodies needed and pass them back to the calf in her milk, incredible. The overall protein structure of healthy milk, feed fresh, at body temperature is also the most digestible feed source for a young calf. To be cost effective, some dairy’s feed the mastitic milk to calves which then can lead to gut problems due to degraded protein structures and bacterial overload. So when breeding for future milkers, cows raised on their dam tend to be more resilient. In many ways a cow is little more than a rumen on legs, thus healthy gut = healthy cow.

Monte and Carlo feeding from Ginger

There are risks though from raising calf-at-foot. If you’ve ever watched a calf feed you’ll know they are not gentle. Unlike the consistent, smooth milking cups, a calf can be very violent when feeding, often creating cuts, bruising, pulling and once the milks all out they will continue to suck until mum kicks them in the head and walks off. This increases the risk of a damaged udder which can lead to infections and mastitis. The flip side of this is that the best thing for an infected udder to be regularly milked out which the calf can help with.

Johne’s disease is another key reason for removing calves young. A chronic wasting disease caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium avium subsp. paratuberculosis. It invariably leads to the death of the animal. One of the key ways it is spread is through milk and thus an infected cow will infect her calf if left to nurse. Different states have different restrictions surrounding Johne’s disease and how serious it is taken. But for many dairy’s who test positive, removing calves is a obvious measure to eventually breed the disease out of their herd.

Physiological

This is the ongoing ethical debate which is always problematic as we humans try to anthropomorphise animals. Some will argue it’s better to do it quickly at the start before a bond is formed as it’s more traumatic later on, others will argue that it’s cruel to remove a calf while it’s still nursing. I think probably all arguments have some merit. There is also the case that all animals are individuals and particularly in the breeds which have been breed specifically for dairy, many of the maternal instincts have been lost. Meaning that there are cows out there who don’t give a stuff about their calf, while others will destroy you if you try to come between them.

All I can talk to is the experience I’ve had which is that that first week after calving my cows are super hormone charged, then things settle down a bit. They are also highly vulnerable in those first couple of months and thus for me, the less stress I can put on the cow the better. My priority will always be the health of the cow, what she needs she gets. If her calf is far too violent and damaging her udder then I need to restrict the time they spend together, I learnt this the hard way with Berta.

The bond shared between cow and calf is a beauty to watch, even when reunited as adults it remains strong.

Berta is incredibly maternal, Iggy and her bond is just as strong 3 years on.

Cost

If raising calves separate to there mother you are either paying for milk powder or using the milk you’ve just milked out of the cows.

There are wages to calculate from having to prepare milk, feed calves and clean equipment, plus in my experience there are significant hours spent treating sick calves, mostly from scours. However with the calf-at-foot program, while I still have the hours of training, separating and weaning calves, I believe this comes in as less hours. There is beauty in reuniting dam and calf in the morning after milking and often tears (mine) in the evening as I chase calves around the paddock trying to catch them.

cheeky monkey gets creative

However the main reason people separate calves is that we are in the business of selling milk, not raising calves. So you’re aiming to raise a calf for less cost that you can get for it’s mothers milk. This may be by selling calves young and letting someone else pay to raise them, using lower quality milk which you wouldn’t sell anyway, buying cheaper milk powder, feeding less and in many set ups, culling the boys very early. If dairy calves where valued for meat as they should be then there would be far more incentive to raise them. The other factor is that if we moved back towards dual purpose breeds such as the Dairy Shorthorn then their bull calves would carry the same value as beef animal, thus the incentive to grow them out.

So what do we do?

At Sellar Farmhouse Creamery, calves live an average of 3 months with their mother depending on when the cow is ready to drop to once a day milking. Calves have the day and evening milk while I take the morning.

Our average process for weaning calves:

week 1 – stay with mother all the time

week 2-3 – Calves spend the night in a pen attached to the milking parlour, while they cannot put their heads through the fence to drink the cow can reach into the pen to groom and have contact with the calf. This allows her the ability to go out and graze, then return to check on the calf. After morning milking the calf is reunited with the cow who will have milk left for feeding her calf.

week 4-12 – Calves gradually spend longer on their own, in the pen to begin with and then separated by an electric wire. They begin to live independently to their mothers and visa versa. The aim is to always have two cows calving together so calves are never left on their own and have a buddy.

week 12 onwards – eventually the calves are only let back in with their dam for a quick evening drink and eventually this stops completely when the cow is considered good to be milked only once a day.

Doris awaiting release

A fantastic resource for running calf-at-foot which helped me work through many of the obstacles is Smiling Tree farm in the UK.

Next up is Luna, due to calve on the 17th of May. She’s the only one from this batch I’m worried about, last time she went down with milk fever and due to bad udder odeama and low immune system she lost the use of one quarter. Thankfully she’s first so I’ll have time to really focus on preventative treatment and giving her lots of support.

Then we have Quartz in June. Both her and Luna were with a handsome white Dairy Shorthorn bull. The new lady Nancy is due any time from mid June and Iggy the tart who prefers the neighbours bull (not my choice!) is due mid July.

These calvings will increase my milking herd to 8 and allow me to finally open up some more CSA subscriptions. So if you’re on the waiting list keep an eye on your inbox (and often junk mail) over this period as you may get instructions for subscribing.

Lets hope for a smooth run!

Luna (left) with her last calf Stella. Their bond remains very strong.

Life and Death

I was sure Olive was about to calve here on day 18.

Waiting, waiting, waiting. I feel like there’s been a lot of waiting for the past 6 weeks. Waiting for Olive to calve and as a result; waiting for more milk so I can a). meet my CSA orders and b). sell some milk at the market, waiting to write a blog post about it, waiting to move two of my nearly dry cows out of the milking herd, waiting to know if Olive was going to have a heifer or a bull, waiting to know if she was going to have an easy birth or a hard one like last time, waiting for her to bloody calve!

So we waited and we waited. She was due on the 27th of Dec but showed no signs of calving or bagging up (udder growing/filling), other than being enormous. After 8 days I had a feel, there was definitely something in there! I was sure she was loosening up in preparation. We waited. Day 23 I had another feel, yep no question, there is definitely something like a small head in the pipeline. All this time Olive showed no sign of being sick and so we were happy to let her do it her way. Then 24 days after her due date we got a organics derogation to induce her. Our amazing vet Nadia came out and had a feel before planning to inject her. She then pulled out the small remains of a calf which had probably died a few months ago. All that was left was possibly the neck, a couple of feet and some ribs. Olive had shed the rest herself without me noticing and all without showing the slightest sign of something being wrong.

All that remained

So I have a healthy cow, tick, no difficult birth, tick, no need to induce, tick, however, my most consistent milkers is not in milk or in calf. A bad place to be as a dairy cow! I’ve been told many times to put her on a truck, however I’m going to give Olive another go. In a month she should be good to go back with the bull and then we wait, nine long months!

As a result of this I’ve put in my order for a new pregnant milker. Another Illawara dairy shorthorn who we’ll need to have on the property for six months for her milk to be certified organic.

Then we have Joyce. Dream cow! Calving extraordinaire.

Joyce and Willow

Two days before she’s due I drive up the driveway to see Joyce with her perfect little heifer. This cow never skips a beat. Joyce is the Buffy family line so Willow is the obvious choice for a red head. Joyce was back on the line this morning, no training required and one massive bag of colostrum which Willow has hardly made a dint on.

First day back in the milking parlour.

The first 5 days of lactation, the milk is kept out of the vat until it settles into straight milk not colostrum. As of Friday this week we will have a decent amount more milk going into the vat and out to our customers. Hopefully with the cooler weather this next week the other milkers will also increase their yield. They’ve had a drop over these hot few days, putting their energy into staying cool under the trees and not being super excited about eating.

Thank you everyone for being patient and understanding while our supply is low. Working with such a small herd leaves me very vulnerable to drops in milk. Thanks for supporting small scale dairy!

Flow rate

Norma Jean and Doris Day just finished milking.

There’s a lot to consider when planning to have a steady milk flow all year round. Particularly when you are working with such a small herd, one cow can completely throw out your predictions. The coming couple of months are going to be very tights for milk supply at Sellar Farmhouse Creamery so I thought I’d take the opportunity to share some of the contributing factors which lead to this.

People often ask if I get more milk in the spring. When comparing seasons then yes you probably would get more milk for the input in spring, however there are many other factors which have a stronger influence; no. 1 being how recently she calved.

It’s been a spectacular season for growing grass

The standard milk graph for a cow would see her increase each week after calving, peak at around 3 months and then decrease as she is gets close to having her next calf. Most commercial dairies, breed every 12 months. This insures that all cows have a profitable milk supply and helps to maintain clean fresh milk with a low cell count.

When calving every 12 months it’s hard to know how long a cow would naturally milk through for as she never gets the chance. To begin with, all cows are individuals. Then we add several influencing factors which will determine her milk production and how long she will milk for. Breed, family genetics, age, health history, how stressful calving was, the season, how long she was dry in the lead up to calving, what she’s eating all play a role.

My previous experience was with goats, some of whom had kidded once in their 9 year milking life and were still huge producers. I’d also heard stories of other dairies and house cows who would milk through without calving on a yearly basis. I like the idea of this as I’m in the business of milk not meat so the fewer calves I have the more energy and feed I have for the milkers. I also know that the three months after calving puts a huge strain on the cow, many health problems occur in this vulnerable period and in my books, the fewer times she has to do this the better.

As I said though, each cow is an individual (don’t they like to remind you of this!) and until I’ve worked with them all through their first lactation I have no idea who will milk through and who wont. So it’s been a learning curve and trying to manage a steady milk flow has been difficult. For example Olive has been milking now for 15 months, still has the most beautiful clean milk, producing 11ltrs a day consistently for 10 months and I’m now having to force her to dry off as she’s due to calve on boxing day. She is definitely a cow that I don’t need to breed annually. However, Joyce on the other hand calved in Sept, went from 16ltrs a day in Feb to 6ltrs in May and down to 2 in July. As I only got her in calf again in April she certainly hasn’t been paying her way for a while. This may be her breed, or her as an individual or that this was her 6th lactation and previously she’d been bread every 12 months so maybe her body was use to it, who knows. But she will definitely need breeding every 12-14 months to stay in milk production. I learnt this the hard way.

Sellar Farmhouse Creamery milking herd production Oct 2020

Most cow’s reach their peak production at around five years old, or their third lactation, so having a diverse range of ages in my herd is very important. I’ve got Berta, Joyce and Ginger between their 5th and 8th lactation’s while the rest are still in their first. Currently Berta and Ginger are producing a third of my milk each. At the other end Quartz and Norma have both started off with small udders and low production. However they will increase in future lactation’s and as they have both been a dream to calve and train they are certainly welcome in my herd.

Norma day 1 on cups

Then there is the calf-at-foot practice which I run. For the first 3 months, calves run with their dam. The first full week they spend together and then I begin to separate the calves at night in a pen attached to the parlour. This way mum can come a check in during the night, she can touch her calf but not feed it. In the morning I take 3/4 of the milk and leave one for the calf who then spends the day with thier mum. The time they spend apart gradually increases until one day the afternoon feed stops and they are weaned. So during this high production period I’m taking between 1/4-3/4 of the milk produced depending on the cow. I’ll leave the details of calf-at-foot dairying for a future blog but it’s worth mentioning here as it has a big impact on planning my milk production.

Ginger feeding Monte and Carlo after I’ve taken the front two quarters.

There is also feed at play, milk is directly a result of what the cow eats the 24hrs before hand. All milkers get a consistent feed ration at night and while milking however misjudging the quantity/quality of pasture in a paddock can impact the following days milk total by up to 15%.

These are some of the main factors I’m balancing up when trying to plan the year ahead to have a consistent milk supply. Cow’s are pregnant for 9 months so planning needs to happen a long time in advance. I aim to always have two calve at the same time so calves have a buddy, although sometimes cows (Iggy) have their own plans. This is why my sales structure is based on having 3/4 of my milk sold through CSA subscription and 1/4 through farmers market sales. The farmers market acts as a buffer, meaning that if something was to happen to a cow, or the season, then I can decrease the amount I sell, or increase if production is high, without it impacting my CSA sales.

Norma Jean calved 3 weeks ago with Doris Day. She is the first planned calving of a heifer I raised, it’s been really beautiful to watch it come full circle (Iggy broke in with the neighbours bull and had a teen pregnancy so that wasn’t my planning!). Norma has been such a super star milker, not a single kick or poo in the stall and coming in on her own after a week of leading in.

Norma Jean and Iggy at 3 weeks old May 2018
Iggy and Norma milking together Oct 2020

Next to calve is Olive on Boxing day so this is why my milk supply may drop over the next two months. Olive is a very good, consistent milker who I must dry her off now before she calves. Norma is not up for replacing her in milk quantity due to being smaller and having a calf-at-foot. Joyce is also dry now until Feb and Luna and Quartz only give me their two cents worth. The more I work with my herd and get to know them as individuals the better I will get at planning for a consistent supply. Then nature will remind me I cannot control her, throw chaos to the plan and the whole process will start again!

It’s always hard to know what’s fat and whats calf with Olive, she’s not known as Boomba for nothing!

Yoghurt systems go!

Sellar Farmhouse Creamery is very excited to finally launch our yoghurt!

Similar to our milk, the yoghurt comes in a 1ltr returnable jar.

It is yoghurt in it’s purest form, no additives, milk powders or thickeners. Just our beautiful herds milk, probiotic culture and pot set. You’ll notice the good thick layer of cream on our yoghurt which many have come to love with the milk. I scrap this off and use it as sour cream, however I know many people fight to be the person to open the jar; so they can take all the cream for themselves.

Our yoghurt is mild in flavour which makes it more versatile for sweet and savoury combinations. I often strain some in a cheese cloth for an even thicker yogurt to use as cream cheese or the base for dips and cake icing.

Available through the Castlemaine Farmers Market Weekly on Wednesday afternoons and for those luck enough to be on CSA subscriptions you can add it to your next milk order.

Yoghurt prices will be $10 per ltr from the farmers market and $9 for CSA customers. The standard $1 jar deposit will apply. Currently I’m only turning one days worth of milk into yoghurt so you’ll need to get in fast.

Ginger with the twins (Monte in the front and you can just see Carlos bum in the background)

From the spectacular foot hills of Leanganook, where we are so blessed to farm, the ladies and I thank you for all your support!

Reusable packaging

Sellar Farmhouse Creamery 1L Milk returnable glass bottle

Here at Sellar Farmhouse Creamery we were never interested in selling milk in single use packaging. However there’s much more to it than you might think.

Every week when we return from market and unload creates of returned milk bottles for reuse, it blows my mind to think that these would normally be going in the bin. To then think how teeny tiny our part of the liquid milk market is really hits me as to just how much single use packaging goes into landfill.

So far, in the 7 months we have been operational, we have bottled some 8000 litres of milk. In that same time I have brought 1650 new bottles into the system most of which are still part of the fleet I have on rotation. Each week on average I bring 10-20 new bottles into the system which I think is a pretty amazing return rate! So thank you to all the people who regularly return their bottles. A minimum waste dairy system ONLY works when people take part.

Returned bottles waiting for cleaning.

Funnily enough, the old milk bottle return system was well thought through. For starters they were thicker glass. Currently I break about 2 bottles a week due to rushed movements and thin glass bottles. The quality of my new CSA bottles which I had to get in from Italy, once my original Australian made bottles ceased production, is far worse. We’ve had far more of these import bottles break in transit.

These modern bottles that have the threaded lid system are convenient in some ways but are more difficult to clean. The old-school milk bottles had no thread for screwing a lid on(instead having a press-on foil lid), which allowed for much easier cleaning. Ensuring there are no caked on bits stuck in threads is the most time consuming part for me.

The screw-on lids seem to contain a lot more invested energy than a foil lid and yet only last me about 3 uses before they become too damaged for use.

Another page from my favourite reference pamphlet ‘The milky way’

The scale I’m at, it would not be economical to get custom bottles made in this style. My dream would be that one day there are enough of us out there wanting this product that an Australian glass factory might be open to making the old milk bottle again.

So to keep the system rolling I thought I’d just answer a few questions regarding returns.

Thanks for helping us to provide a minimum waste, fresh, local dairy system!

How clean do the bottles need to be?

Clean. Having a returnable bottle system is awesome! I do however spend up to 10 hours a week cleaning bottles and dirty bottles take a lot longer to clean. I’ll always be giving bottles a quick check, clean and sterilise at my end but I do require you to clean then out at your end.
I can not accept returned bottles which still have milk in them. This is a hygiene hazard to bring into my factory.
Please do not use SFC milk bottles for other purposes and return them.
Please only return intact SFC bottles.

How to wash milk bottles to avoid milk protein build ups?

Prewash
As soon as you have finished your milk, rinse with warm water to remove the residue. Washing bottles immediately in water which is too hot actually cooks the proteins onto the glass, making it much harder to remove. Cold water sets the fat, warm is the way to go.

Main wash and dry.

  1. Wash bottle with hot detergent water with a bottle brush if by hand or a dishwasher, taking care to remove all residue from the rim of the bottle.
  2. Rinse all detergent residue off the bottles and leave upside down to air dry. Avoid putting lids back on while still wet.

What about lids?

Lids have a much shorter life than bottles. While I do reuse them, only if there is no visible damage or discolouration. So if you lose one that’s fine. The flip side of this is that I always have a large supply of lids which would be fine for home preserving but not bottling milk so let me know if you ever are in need.

Do I need to return bottles regularly?

Yes! Every time you don’t return them, this means I need another fleet of bottles to cover the milk bottling. The more bottles I have to own, the greater the expense.

Sentimental beings

Well it’s no secret that Oli and I are both quite sentimental people, particularly when it comes to our vehicles. A few weeks ago we took a trip up to my family farm to pick up a tractor, but it’s a little more than just that.
Growing up just outside Chiltern in North East Vic, I was a bit of a farm kid and spent a lot of time following dad around the paddocks. My father died suddenly when I was 9 and mum, with 4 daughters under 21 and a full time job took over running the farm. Yeah we think she’s a pretty amazing woman too! Unfortunately for her I soon became a bit of a moody teenager who had no interest in helping her out on the farm. Mum tells me now that she knew from when I was very young that I’d be a farmer. Turns out she knew me much better than I did and after a few years in Melbourne, I discovered this for my self.

Me aged 10 with Lucky the orphaned calf who mum and I raised.


There is no denying that another huge reason I farm now is to maintain a connection with Dad, even if we are from pretty different sides of the chemAG/organic farming coin, it brings me a great sense of place and meaning in the world.
So this tractor isn’t just any old tractor to me. On the back of this photo it reads ‘Ian with his new tractor’ circa 1981ish.

As Oli drove it out mums gate for the last time to load onto the truck, mum reflected on how her father had been out from England when Dad’s first tractor arrived. Papa Reuben, a market gardener himself, said in a Yorkshire accent, ‘I know how proud you feel to get your own first tractor’.

Mum (Wendy) and I, May 2020

So my tractor flew along the highway at 100km/h and now resides in Harcourt. It may not have air-conditioning and all the comforts of a modern tractor, or the utility of a front end loader. But it does what we need it to do, runs like a dream and when I’m driving along with a bale on the back I look in the corner where I used to stand as a little kid, watching the road move past under the cab and it definitely brings a smile to my face. To have come so far yet ended up back at the beginning in a way.
We’ve named the tractor Ernie (Mum tells me there is a song about Ernie the horse who pulls a milk cart) to join Bert, our 1968 Toyota Stout, who runs our milking parlour and has become a bit of an icon of Sellar Farmhouse Creamery.

We own 6 Stouts between two generations. Oli’s love for the Stout started with his Dad’s 1972 model which he grew up with and learnt to drive in (still on the road).

Oli with the Stout age 9.

Oli and I have Vera, our 1978 green road one, a very old one, three for parts and we bought Bert specifically as the milking ute. With a bit of initial fixing up, it’s been extremely reliable, heading out to milk every morning and moving that heavy parlour through the paddocks.
Stouts were often used as milk delivery trucks due to their low gearing. Our most recent acquisition is for parts for Bert which was the original milk truck for Woodend and has been parked in a paddock ever since. It came with all the original receipts in the glovebox from when Mr Parker of High St Woodend took delivery in 1969.
Oli and I are both so grateful for the opportunities which were given to us by our parents. While we both believe very strongly in maintaining and reusing old equipment rather than buying new, for sustainability reasons. We believe that by building connection and meaning to all that surrounds us, we are more likely to value and look after our possessions, while feeling more satisfaction and enjoyment through their use.
It means a lot to me to be farming on the family farm of Katie and her father, Merv. It feels like we’re part of something far greater and enduring. Oli has a dream of restoring Merv’s old truck to become our market truck one day.

So that’s a little of where we’ve come from, which has all directly led us to where we are now. Running our little herd of milkers up on a spectacular mountain in Harcourt. We give thanks to all those who have come before us.

Milk comes from cows.

Things are ticking along smoothly at Sellar Farmhouse Creamery at the moment. It’s a dairy farmers dream season with this early autumn break. Getting the rain while there is still a bit of heat and the soil is still warm may give me an extra few months worth of grazing feed.

I had been waiting to see if Berta had a heifer to make the decision on buying a new cow but as she had a bull calf, Otis, I decided to buy another Illawara Dairy Shorthorn who we’ve named Ginger. She’ll be calving in mid May which hopefully should tide me over the winter months with milk supply until Norma calves at the end of October.

Now, with a close to full herd, I thought I’d do proper introductions, as they are at the core of SFC. Running such a small herd means that the individual characteristics of each cow’s milk is very noticeable in the flavour. Cow’s are named by family lines so in future years it’s easy to recognise who is related to who.

Firstly a quick intro about the two main breeds I have in the herd which together create our delicious milk:

Jersey

A small to average sized, classic dairy cow. Caramel colour often having a darker winter coat with black areas on face, neck, tail and feet. Black colour pigment: visible around eyes and nose. The Jersey cow has the highest butter fat content of the mainstream milking breeds in Australia. She is the best converter of feed into fat and her milk has a yellow appearance when on pasture. A very rich, simple and sweet flavour. Being a higher production cow they have a habit of producing milk first and then looking after themselves which can lead to higher risks of milk fever, weaker immune systems and struggling to keep weight on after calving.

Dairy Shorthorn

I have two types of Dairy Shorthorns in my herd; the classic English dairy shorthorn and the Illawara dairy shorthorn which is an Australian Breed created by breeding a small amount of Ayrshire and Devon blood into the classic shorthorn. The Illawara is considered to be a straight dairy breed as opposed to the traditional dual purpose Dairy Shorthorn. Both animals are known for their roan markings, they can range from pure white to pure red and everything in between. Red or white colour pigment around the eyes and nose. A medium size animal who is far beefier than a modern dairy cow; looking after herself at the same time as producing milk means they are known for easy calving, resilience, strong mothering instincts, fertility, grazing efficiency and calves which can be raised for meat. Their milk is white with a savory, complex flavour. While there are very few purebred herds of either left in Australia, they were previously one of the most popular breeds.

Jersey (Olive) left, Shorthorn (Quartz) right

Berta

Named by her previous owner after Roberta Flack, she was our first cow and the start of the singer family line. Now in her 8th lactation she is about 10 years old. Berta is a mix breed, most likely a large percentage Holstein meaning she has a large boney build and definitely produces milk before looking after herself. Reaching 43ltrs a day at peak she has one massive udder which can leave her quite vulnerable. Her milk is similar to the shorhorn in flavour. Berta is the most beautiful creature to behold; calm, affectionate with very strong mothering instincts. She was the matriarch but seems to be dominated by Joyce and Olive currently. At the moment she is feeding Otis during the day. Berta is one of the few cows who comes to her name when called.

Olive

Olive is a classic Jersey. Born and raised on the corner of Danns rd, daughter of the infertile Daisy, she will be the start of the edible tree family line. 5 years old and hopefully 6 weeks pregnant with her second calf. A very good milker who held condition after calving and is still producing 12ltrs in the morning after 10 months in lactation. A very rich yellow milk which sometimes you could mistake for straight cream. Olive is very cheeky, she loves to steal food and sneak into areas she shouldn’t. She’s known as boomba as she was so fat before calving. Currently Olive is dominated by Quartz and Iggy. Olive has a very husky jazz moo.

Joyce

Joyce arrived last August and has been a complete no fuse cow to work with, even if she is the grumpiest old bag. Joyce is the beginning of the Buffy line. She’s a 9 year old Illawara dairy shorthorn who came from a certified organic dairy nearby. True to her breed she had an easy calving with Rupert and once she understood that her milking routine would now happen in a mobile parlour in the paddock she has been a dream to work with, often putting herself back in the stall after milking if I leave the gate open. Her breed combined with her age means her milk is very complex and savory. Last weekend Joyce had a trip to a beef shorthorn bull, so fingers crossed she holds. Joyce doesn’t moo, she yells.

Luna

Luna arrived from Guildford as an 18 month pure A2 jersey heifer. Shortly after her arrival, we got her in calf to Satellite and she had Stella last October continuing the Astronomy line. Both Luna and Stella are a little mad, with a quirky energy, but very affectionate. When Luna arrived she’d had very little person contact and I couldn’t touch her, she now is the first cow to come to you for a scratch and comes to her name for milking. They both love a head and brisket scratch, are darker colouring in winter and have a very dainty build. Luna had milk fever after calving and serve edema which led to her losing the use of one quarter of her udder. She has made an incredible recovery and is my best producer, per quarter, now with a classic rich and creamy jersey milk. Luna will probably remain my most vulnerable cow around calving.

Quartz

Quartz also came from Guildford last year, as an 18 month pure dairy shorthorn heifer. We chose the mineral line as her registered breeding line was Molly and we made a very loose connection to molybdenum. She had a straight forward calving with Onxy last December. Quartz wouldn’t let me near her when she arrived and prior to calving I didn’t know how I would ever tame this cow. Both her and Onxy have a very different energy to the rest, she often does her own thing, can be a little vague and get left behind a bit. She has a very gentle soft nature and loves a good butt scratch. At times she has come into milking by calling her name, currently she just looks up and decides not to, but is easily lead in. Her breed and age makes her milk very simple, clean and savory. Quartz can get picked on a lot however she dominates Olive so theirs always someone to steal from.

Iggy

Iggy has recently joined the milking herd. The first calf I had on the property, born to Berta with a dairy shorthorn sire. A combination of following the singer line and my fathers nickname being IG. Iggy was a teenage tart who broke in with the neighbours bull, Patti was born 6 weeks ago. Iggy has been my first experience of working with an animal I raised and so far so good, although she can have the attitude of a spoilt brat at times. She lead easily into the stall on day one of milking and while she’s a bit of a kicker, she’s actually doing really well. She hasn’t lost condition at all and had such an easy calving I didn’t know it was happening an hour before hand. She’s currently giving me 8 ltrs from 3/4 in the morning, Patti has the other quarter and the day milk which like quartz is clean, simple and savory. Iggy is quite bossy and dominates everyone except her mother who puts her in her place.

Ginger

Ginger arrived a week ago as a 5 year old Certified Organic Illawara dairy shorthorn. Finally I have a roan shorthorn and she even has a love heart on her schnoz! So far she seems perky, if still a little weary of me. Her and Joyce seemed to remember each other and hang out together. She will calve in mid May so we still have a few weeks to build trust. This morning we had first contact when she let me give her a good butt scratch, I think she’s starting to see the point in being friends.

Norma

Norma Jean was our adopted jersey calf who Berta raised along side Iggy. Marilyn Monroe was also adopted and while she did sing she mainly acted so Norma will split off into a film star line. She arrived as a 24hr old angel who has certainly learnt to hold her own. She lets you know how unhappy she is about not being with Iggy currently and having to baby sit all the young weaned animals. She has a very high pitched moo which adds to her demanding nature. She is 3 months pregnant and I can’t wait for her to join the milking herd.

This is definitely the short version! My herd have become family to me and following on from years of breakfast conversations about the herd at Holy Goat, I could talk about them all day!

These ladies make me so happy, sometimes grumpy, sometimes sad but always full of love for what I do. I wish everyone could experience the feeling of building a relationship of trust with an animal who could very easily dominate you if they pleased. It is a beautiful and humbling experience. The year before I left Melbourne on this journey, a lady said to me ‘if everyone milked a cow in the morning, the world would be a much more peaceful place’.

Food Safety

Breath. Its something I think we all need to remind ourselves currently. What an unknown time we are in. The reason our little crew of farmers up at HOFC chose this career path was to help build a more resilient food system and to provide our community with local, nutrient dense food. It’s long hours for far below minimum wage but it’s become part of who we are and has some very great perks; this mornings milking with my little herd, in my favorite paddock had me feeling more fulfillment and love than I could ever ask for.

But s**t got real! It’s no longer a sexy tag line of community resilience, it’s time to stand up and prove it’s worth. Every week at the farmers market it gets a little slower, more pre-orders, stricter rules, new locations and space set up, but our customers seem to get it more than ever. From the Coop here we are providing food to at least 200 households within the Castlemaine region as well as offering employment to 6+ casual staff. We take our role very seriously.

For industries like dairy processing many of these strict hygiene protocols are an everyday undertaking already. Our factories are always on lockdown from the outside, invisible, potentially fatal risks. Good food safety is not about ticking boxes for compliance, it’s about understanding risks and mitigating them.

My 77 page Food Safety Program is a rather dry document that sets out the rules which together Dairy Food Safety Victoria and I have created for my business.

The first section is the HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) plan for each product. Going through the steps involved: collection/receival of raw milk, pasteurisation, chill, packaging, refrigerated storage and the dispatch/transport/sales, we break apart all the potential risks and their severity to the food safety of the product. We then work through responses to make sure they are all risks are recognised and rectified before the customer opens that bottle. Being able to foresee problems and avoid them is probably a key to all successful businesses.

A section taken from the bottled milk HACCP

The second section is the SOP’s (Standard Operating Procedures) for the running of the dairy. This helps in training staff and making sure everyone is on the same page as to what is required and in what order. I have 16 SOP’s for the factory side of the business, from general hygiene, bottle and equipment washing, to food recalls and microbial testing schedules. Then there are 9 SOP’s for the farm side of the business, from the dairy milking to animal traceability. It has been invaluable writing these SOP’s for me to really think through best practice and efficient hand overs.

In the bottled milk world my two main risks are baterial; E.Coli – which is found in the lower intestine of warm-blooded organism, which surrounds me outside in cow manure, and Listeria monocytogenes which can be found in soil, water, vegetation and the faeces of some animals and loves moist environments such as drains when introduced. The latter is the reason pregnant women are advised against eating cheeses with a high moisture content.

Entering this time of the Coronaviris pandemic, I have been able to adapt many of my dairy production protocols for the outside world. Where possible, opening doors with my little finger or elbow. I play a game of interrogation with my hands; ‘and where have you been between scratching the cows and opening the door’. I keep a mental record of everything I’ve touched and what may have touched that before. I wash my hands before starting or recommencing handling of food or clean packaging or equipment intended for food. I treat gloves as hands when it comes to hand washing and I catagorise things as clean or dirty.

Back on the farm things are going well. My version of panic buying has been pallets of bottles and semi loads of hay. I now should be set for most supplies for 6 months if I need to bunker down.

We had a rough few weeks after Berta calved with Otis (Reading). Then 4 weeks later Berta became a grandmother with Iggy having a very non eventful calving 10 days early with Patti (Smith).

Iggy and Patti

I’m now milking 6 and so grateful that I get to spend these difficult times hanging out with these girls, with ample space, clean air, water and access to food produced by people who farm for reasons far beyond a job.

Iggy and Berta in the milking parlour together for the first time.