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.
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’.
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 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.
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:
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.
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.
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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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’.
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.
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).
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.
take growing food and feeding our community very seriously. We love
doing it, but for all of us at the Co-Op one of the big reasons we got
into farming is because we believe that the industrial and global food
system is extremely fragile and when something like the coronavirus
happens, we can start to see the truth of that.
We take the health, safety and wellbeing of our community and ourselves
seriously and through this ever-evolving situation we are doing
everything we can to both continue to feed you and stay healthy
ourselves. Every week, from produce grown on our farm, we feed well over
200 local households. If we get sick, those people don’t get our
We are taking more stringent health and safety precautions both on farm
and at market (and everywhere in between) to make sure our produce gets
to you clean and safe. We will be trying out a new system at the markets
this week. It will be a little slower, but it’s the best we can come up
with at this point.
The current advice from government is that farmers markets are exempt
from the ‘no gatherings of over 500 people’ rule as outdoor food markets
are a vital part of keeping communities fed and healthy. Our weekly
market doesn’t have 500 people in attendance at any one time any way,
but we’re still being careful.
We will continue to adapt our systems, as we need to. But for this week this is how the market will look at our stall:
We will have a ‘number’ system (Deli style) to prevent people having to cue.
We will call out your number and personally serve you so that only our sanitized hands touch your produce.
Please bring a basket, bag or box to carry your produce home in.
We are encouraging everyone to pay by card where possible as handling cash can be unhygienic.
We will be sanitizing our hands frequently throughout the market.
Please make sure you also wash all produce before you eat it.
If you aren’t able to make it to the market or farm pick ups because you
are self isolating, please get in contact. We will deliver if needs be,
though it is definitely not our preference.
If you are unwell or have been around anyone who is unwell, please don’t
come to the market. Get in touch and we can work out an alternative so
you can still get produce. We need to stay well so we can keep feeding
It can be easy to let fear and paranoia take over. We are doing our very best to take a measured, clear and preventative approach to feeding the community.
Stay healthy and well, care for each other and don’t forget to check on
your neighbors and friends. In these times of increased ‘social
isolation’ lets all find ways to stay connected and strong.
The Harcourt Organic Farming Co-op team (Sas, Mel, Tess, Ant, Katie, Hugh and Merv)
Berta the cow really holds a very special place in our hearts. She was the first cow we bought and showed us just how amazing a good cow can be. She was also the first cow I had calve, she sailed through it like a pro and Iggy was born. We had naively planned to have the rest of the dairy up and running by the time she calved 21 months ago so it was unknown to me at the time that I would spend the next 18 months making cheese at home every night and we would have to keep to a strict daily cheese consumption quota.
I’m reflecting on this now as Berta is due to calve again this weekend. Her 8th calf, another Dairy Shorthorn, this time no night cheesemaking and I can actually sell her delicious milk!
Everyone on the farm is working like the dream team, milking is a breeze and with this amazing rain we’ve had I’m feeling great about the season. As Berta gets closer though I’m having more sleepless nights with worry. During her last lactation, one week after Oli’s accident when he lost a finger, Berta got mastitis. It was a very dark time for me, I had many moments of questioning if I was cut out for dairy farming.
Two factors lead to Berta’s mastitis. Firstly my mismanagement of the calves. It was my first lesson in always prioritising the cows health above all others. As she was feeding 2 calves and they had become boisterous in their feeding she had developed a bad cut on her teat. As soon as this happened I should have weaned the calves off her straight away, even if this meant extra time feeding calves and me having to milk twice a day and make more cheese. In the long run this still would have taken less time. I didn’t wean them though, and because of these cuts she contracted mastitis. She made an amazing recovery but it has left her udder in the high risk category for future mastitis particularly in the first few months after calving when she’s producing so much milk.
The second factor is her breeding. Berta is a high production cow, we’re talking 43ltrs a day at peak. She’s a big black bitsa, probably mainly Friesian. This has been a big influence on me to move away from these high production breeds. There is a reason the average dairy cow only makes it to 5 years old; when you breed an animal to be so productive in one form it leaves them vulnerable in others. Dairy animals are very vulnerable when compared to an animal breed for meat. A local Dairy Shorthorn farmer explained to me how before the war and the beginning of industrial agriculture, most farmers favoured dual purpose breeds such as the Shorthorn as small farms had to be financial resilience and this was only possible through making an income off all elements of the business; growing out the male calves for meat was a key part of this. So yes, many of these older breeds produce less butter fat than a jersey and less litres than a Friesian/Holstein, but with that comes a more resilient animal from what I’ve seen. Obviously within this every animal is an individual with there own weaknesses and then the way they are managed has a huge impact on their health and strength. However as we have seen with all heritage breeds vs single purpose breeds, whether it’s egg birds or meat birds, high production meat animals and dairy animals, when you breed for one particular trait you leave other traits lacking. The way they are managed over generations also impacts how they respond to conditions. So many of these older breeds will do well on what many would call ‘poorer’ quality feed. I question this ‘poorer’ as many of the dairy breeds respond better to high protein feeds and grain however cows as a species have evolved as grazers and the only grain they would naturally be eating is seed heads on grasses, not kilos at a time. So living in Central Victoria where the pastures are far from ‘high quality’, I need to be looking towards animals who do better on the feed we can grow. After calving, my Shorthorns haven’t skipped a beat and have stayed in beautiful condition, the Jersey and Berta however are much harder to keep condition on as they priorities their energy for milk production, sacrificing themselves.
So I’m feeling a little melancholy about Berta calving this time round. Will she get sick again due to past damage? Will I be able to keep her in such good condition that she will have the strength to fight for herself. In organic farming this is how you manage health, rather than fighting illness yourself, you are equipping the animal with everything you can to fight herself. I’m also feeling guilt, that our industry/culture/society has chased this cheap commodity food to a point where we have created super animals who are such a high risk to themselves. That’s really at the core of animal cruelty to me.
Learning is hard when working within animal systems. It often happens at the expense of an animal, so the key is to never make the mistake twice and to learn from others mistakes and knowledge as much as you possibly can.
So I watch with eagle eyes. This cow has brought me so much joy and wisdom, I hope to be able to do my best to ensure her health, minimal pain and treat her with the greatest respect for, hopefully, many years to come, even if this may be her last calving and she gets to retire.
Now that we are up and running I thought I would spend this post reflecting on the financial cost of setting up Sellar Farmhouse Creamery to date.
The back story is I spent the previous 10 years saving to either buy a property or start a business. Not needing to take out a loan to start the business meant as the build dragged on I did not have the added pressure of owing the bank and it gave us the freedom to stay true to our ethics. I must also add that I have not had to pay rent or household power bills while this build happened as we live off grid in a house Oli previously built.
So what did the build cost? Below is a break down of costs so far but a few explainer notes first.
I have included Oli’s hours which have not yet been paid. Paying him at only $30 an hour will add up to $70,000 so this is not to be over looked as many of the jobs he did I would have paid at least 3 times as much to have a contractor do. I haven’t counted my hours at all but my focus has been much more on running the farm than building. I’ve made note of a few other people who donated large amounts of time/labour, however I don’t think there is a single person who has been involved in this business so far who hasn’t gone above and beyond what was asked. As I always say, none of this would have been possible if not for the generosity of so many people. Words can’t express how grateful I am to them for helping me take this crazy dream and make it a reality!
I’ve added a column to show what was new and what was second hand, much of the materials were second hand which meant that sometimes we got a good deal, and sometimes that good deal was balanced out by the hours Oli spent fixing it up. But we believe very strongly in reusing materials so we wouldn’t change a thing.
The most difficult thing financial was that we hadn’t banked on running a farm for 18 months before selling any product. So while the build didn’t blow out to much, we did spent far more money than expected before some came back in and have put a few projects on hold until the business is up and running.
The repair of our Pasteurisation vat after it was blown up cost $8,607 which was covered in full by the professional’s insurance claim so we didn’t end up out of pocket, just more grey hairs.
So this is what it took beyond the blood, sweat and tears to start up. The next big projects to come are:
the yogurt making equipment
Butter and cream equipment
Solar photovoltaic panels to help reduce our dependency on grid electricity.
Biomass furnace: Oli is currently installing, with much excitement, the biomass furnace to heat the water in winter and to heat the water above the temperature which our flat plate solar thermal can take it in summer.
I’m sure you will hear a lot about this from us in future posts.
4/12/2013 – Start my internship at Sutton Grange Organic Farm (Holy Goat Cheese)
25/07/2016 – Decide to make the jump! Start putting the wheels in motion to start my own micro dairy.
8/08/2016 – Following the Bendigo Food Hubs Conference, I text Katie Finlay to ask if I can start my business on their farm.
15/04/2017 – Begin my 6 month sabbatical traveling up and down the east coast volunteering on dairy farms and factories. I visit 10 businesses whose generosity and knowledge gave me huge insight into running an organic, small, calf-at-foot dairy and processing milk, yogurt, butter and cream to sell direct to customers!
25/06/2017 – First meet Berta and fall in love. In late June I make an offer to buy her and I pick her up late October. Shit gets real.
26/2/2018 – Break ground at Harcourt, begin the long build.
8/5/2018 – Begin milking
7/8/2019 – Dairy Food Safety Victoria licences Sellar Farmhouse Creamery
1/11/2019 – We bottle our first batch
6/11/2019 WE START SELLING MILK!
Tomorrow marks the launch of the Castlemaine Farmers Market Weekly where we will be selling out first bottles of milk. We are so excited to have this weekly market as a sales avenue, offering a direct transaction between farmer and customer. We will have a very limited number of bottles (43) to sell tomorrow so come on down to get one along with all the other fantastic local produce.
While continuing to sell at the Farmers Market Weekly(CFMW) we will be launching our CSA in the next few weeks. The Community Supported Agriculture model connects customers directly with their farmer to share the joys and risks involved in farming. People will be able to purchase a subscription. They nominate the quantity of product they require on a weekly basis, where they would like to pick it up from (currently CFMW – Wed, farm shop – Fri, Fryerstown – Mon). A pre-payment will be required and customers get a reasonable discount for helping the farmer have security in their sales. Subscribers will also get access to the perks like farm tours, first option on extras and exclusive access to specialty products like butter. Subscription will be offered through the waiting list below so get your name down and we’ll let you know as soon as product becomes available to fill your orders.
On the farm we’ve had the birth of Stella, the first heifer for the year and the last calf I’ll have sired to Satellite, the remarkable bull. While her mother Luna has been very sick post calving, she’s making an excellent recovery. Next to calve is Quartz, so the milk supply will only build from here.
As always, thanks to everyone who’s helped make this all possible. From the farmers who’ve shared their knowledge and time to the people who’ve kept us fed and loved. Thanks.
While we are waiting for our vat to be fixed I thought I’d take the opportunity to introduce our mobile milking parlour!
I’ve been putting off my public rave about this until our license came through. To our knowledge this is the first licensed mobile milking parlour in the country and we weren’t sure how things would play out. But we were so pleased that DFSV could also see the benefits of this system and have been really supportive of it. yay!
Reason to challenge the norm.
Whenever you have large amounts of animals congregating in the same place regularly, it’s a given that you will end up with environmental problems. Concentration of manure creates high levels of nitrogen, the plants which then grow are usually considered weeds; cape weed, mallow, nettles etc. Severe animal impact results in dusty bare ground in summer; burning off any fertility in the soil and making a hard pack surface for water to run off. In winter a muddy pit which leads to dirty animals. As udders and teats get dirty the risk of mastitis increases and increased udder cleaning time. It’s also just not very pleasant working in mud every day, cow and human alike.
However, once you turn down the concentration dial, both these problems: fertility and impact, become incredibly valuable tools, if not vital, for restoring landscapes functions. If only you could have these elements spread out across the paddock rather than concentrated in holding yards, lane-ways and dairy parlours.
Enter the mobile milking parlour. This is certainly not a new concept. In Europe these are regularly used with smaller herds, particularly in grazing events such as the Alpage where animals spend summers moving up the mountain to take advantage of magnificent pastures. To bring the herd back down the mountain for milking daily would defeat the purpose completely. So we had many examples to offer inspiration when designing. While on my 6 month sabbatical up the east coast I spoke with many dairy farmers about this concept. It was at the dinner table at Elgaar farm in Tasmania that Joe started designing the basic trailer with me, what would work and what wouldn’t.
Oli and I spent lots of time looking at the mototecha model which comes out of Ukraine, as well as Taranaki’s take on this and decided on alterations to meet our needs.
1.) It seemed silly to do the wash down in the paddock which would require hot and cold water and cleaning chemicals. We already have all these at the factory, so why not have all the equipment based on the back of a ute which drives back to the factory with the milk.
2.) Many of the European models don’t have a floor but we decided for hygiene purposes we wanted a cleanable floor with good airflow, which means feet and milking equipment are always off the ground. It was suggested that expanded mesh as the floor could cause damage to cows hoofs over time, Oli had acquired some old mining trommel mesh which was super strong and smooth.
3.) We wanted the trailer as compact as possible for moving through gates and around paddocks. We did the calculations and with the way we milk discovered it wasn’t that much quicker to milk four than three. We then spun the stalls around so they come in one side and out the other.
4.) It has room to evolve. Currently our vacuum pump can only milk one at a time. So I milk from the middle bay, cow on left on the cups while I prep the cow on the right and visa versa, just like a micro herringbone dairy. Then if we expand to a bigger vacuum pump I can milk from the back under the verandah with cows in all 3 stalls.
5.) Calf pens. I’m running a calf at foot operation. So ideally I want all infrastructure in one. So at the back of the parlour is the pop out calf pen with roof. After a week the calves spend the nights here where they can still have contact with their mothers but can’t drink. The cow can come and go all night, checking on her calf and going out to graze. Then everyone’s near-by for milking in the morning and followed by letting the calves out for the day with their mother.
6.) The engineering of how the beast would be movable had a lot of shelved ideas. We ended up with hydraulic rams on two back wheels and a front foot which raise and lower the parlour to the ground. The only unavoidable downfall of the parlour is how top heavy it is. Driving through the paddocks must be slow and avoiding bumps and strong slopes where possible.
There is good reasons the standard for dairy is permanent infrastructure with holding yards and laneways. Animals get used to the the routine and it’s easy to train newbies as they follow the animal in front and the yards help to push them in.
So much of milking is habitual for animals. The famous Salers cow in France are milked in the fields with no restraint. Having a tame, calm herd is very important for training in a mobile milking system with no yards and lane-ways. So far it’s been successful. Within three days of training, all five cows have been correctly in the parlour on cups. I say correctly as often the first milking or two may involve them eating off the floor and having their back legs on the ground, reluctant to fully succumb to the stall. Some have been lead in with a halter for the first few months. As Joyce is not halter trained I use make-shift yards while she learns the ropes. But when habit kicks in along with the hunger for breakfast, they all seem to walk themselves in. But this all takes time and patience. Once trained they might be waiting for my arrival or I can call a name and they come over from grazing but its a significant investment.
In stationary dairies there is usually a concrete holding yard where cows wait to come in. This and the dairy must be cleaned out with water at the end of every milking. Basically your mixing excrement with water, significantly increasing the volume and boy do bacteria flourish a moist environment. This ‘problematic’ waste is then held in settling ponds; making sure it doesn’t leak into any water courses and then spread back out over the paddocks with machinery. Hmm actually we do the same with human waste. This is a huge water user, the average dairy milking 100 cows can use around 6000ltrs a day in washdown (this includes the milking lines). The advantage of milking in the paddock is I just move the parlour, preferably before there is noticeable build up of poo and bare ground. On the rare occasion that a cow poos in the parlour, I simply sweep it out and pour a bucket of water over until it’s clean. The water is quickly absorbed into the ground under the mesh flour in that case. Both the quantities of poo and water are much lower and the airflow over the mesh means it dries much quicker.
The second important factor which influenced us to build a mobile milking parlour is that we are leasing land. I need all my infrastructure to be portable so that when I move properties I can take all my investment with me. My business is not attached to land, as my situation changes it can come with me, or it can be sold to anyone anywhere in the country.
In all, the parlour itself has cost us $5200 in materials and 210hrs of Oli’s labour. We have made a few adjustments over time, with many versions of power and vacuum pump location until we finally installed the inline milking lines.
The parlour was the first bit of infrastructure we designed and Oli built. You would think that because of this, we would come across many problems and things we wish we’d done differently. But no, there is not a mornings milking that I don’t rejoice in how well it all works.
I look forward to sharing a video of the pack-up, move and set up when we finally get to making one. It’s exciting stuff!
Or that’s what I’d planned to say. And we have to a large degree, so lets celebrate that!
Our license has come through!
As you all know we’ve been working non-stop for the last 18 months to build this dairy. There’s been so many ups and downs. So much physical, mental and emotional support from so many people. There has definitely been blood, sweat and tears from both Oli and I on multiple occasions, and we got there.
We had a final race towards the inspection day, finally cleaning up the building site to be a space filled with pride. 21 months after I first applied to Dairy Food Safety Victoria, 18 months after writing the draft of my Food Safety Plan, 2 year’s after buying our pasteuriser vat and 3 Food Safety Officers later, we had our inspection.
We are now a licensed dairy farm and manufacturer! Yippee! What a celebration!
Things weren’t completely straight forward. To our knowledge we have the first licensed mobile milking parlour in Victoria (I’d love to know of others around the country if they exist). I can’t wait to fully launch this to the world in a future blog post. I’ve been milking with it for 15 months now and it has definitely been the most streamline part of the build. I’m so excited to be supported by DFSV (Dairy Food Safety Vic) to showcase this alternative model for milking. It has many benefits for land and animal health as well as being an affordable option for those who are not able to own the land they farm and invest in permanent infrastructure.
The Creamery is the factory of my dreams! It’s such a great space to work in. Oli and Sam have still been working round the clock to finalise the automation of the pasteuriser system and chasing leaks in the never ending pipework.
The mid year calving is over. Blue (Bluebell) is our constant source of happiness and has his mum Daisybell’s full attention as her years of prior udder damage omit her from being part of the milking herd. She is destined for retirement to the North East with her owner.
Olive mourned her still born boy but has been an absolute angel to teach the milking routeing to. She has opened my eyes to what ‘cream on top’ from a jersey really means!
We’ve bought what will, probably, be the last off-farm animal. Joyce, a 9 year old, certified organic, pure Illawarra Dairy-Shorthorn. Another old bag to join Berta at the head of the herd. She’s due to calve in 4 weeks.
We have confirmation that Berta is pregnant with another Dairy-Shorthorn calf, due in March.
AND IT SNOWED! ON FARM! ON COWS!
So we’ve had ups and downs but are both feeling really excited about how far we’ve come and how close we are to selling! As I mentioned in the last blog, we will start selling within our friends and family network while we fine-tune the system. Then hopefully by mid to late spring we can open orders to the larger community. You can secure your spot for milk subscriptions on this waiting list.
Then, just like a good soap opera, when you though ‘finally they’ve made it’, the cliff hanger. In testing the pasteuriser vat system, we discovered that the repair we had done 18 months ago had not actually been successful. Having to remove the pasteuriser from the factory and load it back on the ute to return it for the original repair to be redone was frustrating given how close things were to being operational. That was nothing compared to how we then felt when serious damage was done to it while off-sight getting repaired. Possibly irreparable.
So, yes we are licensed and ready in many ways, but the key component to the whole system has been taken out and we’re waiting to hear if it’s repairable or we need to get a new vat built. It’s been very frustrating getting this close and taking such a hit, but we’ll get there, it may just take a little longer.
In a place like this, with people and cow’s who warm my heart, magical snow and the smell of spring, life’s not too bad though.