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.
This time I mean it when I say we’re nearly there, I promise!
It’s been a while since I updated you on our progress, we’ve been busy getting the factory ready and now we’re so close to calling the inspectors.
We’ve put the equipment in.
Factory water plumbing is finished.What a luxury to have hot flowing water from the tank!
The coolroom’s fully operational.
The the main thing to go before we can get licensed is the data logging and automation of the heating and cooling of the pasteuriser vat which Oli and Sam are busy nerding out on.
Then I make the call, get my Food Safety Plan signed off, have the factory and milking parlour inspected, make changes required, get licensed and start selling, well that’s the plan!
To begin with while milk is in small quantities and we are refining our systems we will be just selling bottled milk to patient friends and family, hopefully opening up to public sales in Spring. I will be selling through the farmers market for those who want ad hoc milk and for those more regular dairy consumers, sales will be via a CSA subscription model.
This will will require you to make an order via my Open Food Network online shop where you can choose your desired quantity and pick up location. When you begin, monthly prepayment will be required. To decrease the admin at my end this will increase to a 3 monthly payment once you’ve got a feel for the routine and how much you consume. If any of this is difficult to navigate or afford please contact me and I may be able to help. I want this to be as accessible as possible for people. If you would like to go onto the waiting list for orders, pop your name and email in the form below. I will keep you updated on when CSA subscriptions become available.
The other exciting, timely news will be the arrival of new calves. Daisybell is due today to be having her 6th and final calf, it will be her first pure jersey calf so I’ve got my fingers crossed for a heifer.
Olive, or boomba as she’s become known is having her first calf. Slightly overweight and 4 years old is not ideal to be having her first calf without problems, I’m watching like a hawk for any signs of milk fever or trouble calving, ready to jump in and assist if needed. Udders are bagging up, bellies are dropping, hips are widening and swags are slowing.
I can’t wait to start selling. Building took so much longer than planned but I must say it’s been so valuable to have this last year to focus on developing and improving herd and land systems, without which none of this is possible. Being slightly more confident in these areas I can now move some focus onto processing and customer systems.
As always, thanks for your patience! I can’t wait to share our liquid gold!
Our floor just went in. AHHHHH! Now it really feels like a factory! The list is definitely getting shorter, although I’m sure the list of still-to-do just keeps growing, hmmm. Install the doors, finish the little jobs such as door seals, install all equipment/sinks/benches, get equipment working, set up the refrigeration system for cold water storage, finish the hot water system, install solar hot water system, finish Food Safety Plan, GET LICENSED!
The big one we’ve been working on recently is the refrigeration systems. Oli wrote in a previous post about the reuse of refrigeration systems and the huge effect refrigerant gases have on exacerbating global warming. We’ve often mentioned Drawdown, an amazing research project proposing the 100 most effective ways to reduce global warming. Refrigerant Management is ranked as the #1 solution. When I first read this, with little knowledge of the subject, I imagined things like old fridges being dumped here in Australia or sent off to poorer countries who didn’t have the means of proper disposal. I certainly didn’t realise the extent to which poor disposal practices happens right here in Australia. We’ve heard so many stories recently of people, who certainly should know better, just cutting the pipes and releasing the gases and rubbish tips running over refrigerant system units with excavators instead of having the gas reclaimed for safe disposal. Everywhere in this country we are surrounded by refrigeration. Most homes, shops, offices and vehicles are equipped with one or more air conditioner, fridge or freezer. Almost all of which end up leaking their gases into the atmosphere due to poor maintenance and more often than not, don’t have the gas recovered when being decommissioned. Why? Mainly the cost of doing it and lack of awareness.
Then there is the practical element of how refrigeration effects our dairy. I’ll need a cool room, which we now have with a new refrigeration unit installed! woohoo! There is the chilling of the milk. Regulation requires that all raw milk be chilled and stored below 5°c within 3.5 hrs from the start of milking. Then, once pasteurised, the milk must once again be chilled and stored below 5°c. We are using a 200ltr jacketed vat for both the storing and pasteurising of the milk, which will then be bottled for fresh milk or transformed into yogurt. All these steps require a large amount (we’re aiming for 2300ltrs) of cold water (below 2°c) on hand. Another huge electricity user and refrigeration unit.
We’ve learnt many lessons on-the-job building this dairy. A big one was not having the old milk vats, which will store the cold process water, pressure tested before buying them. The first 2 we bought have leaks and wont hold refrigerant gas. We then set about finding some new ones, preferably with the refrigeration unit connected and operational, and this time taking our fridgy Graham with us!
This next part really stopped us in our tracks. We found an operational milk vat, 2 of them, with reconditioned compressors, and a new hot water service, hoses, heat exchanges, buckets, etc. We could have bought the whole dairy if we wanted. The dairy we bough from was being pulled apart as the dairy farmer had taken his life in January. Being in his dairy, hearing the stories of his life, young family, debt and death really hit us hard. Hearing about the training which milk tanker drivers receive as they are the ones who often find farmers in this situation was striking. I may have been angry in my last post but this just made it all too real, how common this story is…
It was difficult to feel positive about dairy farming on that farm, an old dairy farm which had been reconditioned and re-opened only 18 months ago. It will stay as a very strong reminder for us; every time we look at those vats. With the impending drought on our door step, how can we support those who grow our food to get through the hard times? What can we do differently? Hopefully paying out respects and sharing this story may help others to see the severity of this situation for many farming families.
So thank you all again for the generous support you have shown us. We will get there.
I grew up on a small hobby farm in North East Victoria. Thinking I was ‘to cool for the country’ I moved to Melbourne after high school where it didn’t take long before I found my passion in food politics and justice – access to quality food for all. I spent 8 years volunteering with Food not Bombs, working in and starting various food coops around the inner north and growing what I could in my backyard, but I knew my heart belonged to farming and set out to move back to the country and skill up.
Dairy became an obvious choice for me as I had to be working with animals and I wanted to see if it was possible to build a sustainable dairy industry.
Cost of food
I have always believed that access to nutritious food should not be a privilege reserved for the rich, however this should never come at the cost of someone else’s right to earn a living.
We are actually spending less on food now than we used to. Between 1960 and 2016 the percentage of income spent on food has dropped dramatically from 17% to 10% in America, Australia also sat at 10% in 2016.
What is food really worth? When shopping, we tend to make decisions based on a comparison, not absolute value assessment. Is this apple expensive compared to this other apple, rather than is this apple worth the price being asked.
There is one main factor which impacts the cost of food: the cost of labour. Care for people, care for animals and care for the land all take time. As produce gets cheaper, you can be sure that time invested in one, if not all, of these crucial elements has been sacrificed.
In the article mentioned above, they refer to a dairy farmer who calculated his hourly wage at $2.46. He was then quizzed by others how this was possible as they were making up to $10,000 loss a month! This is common across the agriculture industry. I would not think many are able to pay themselves minimum wage.
There are other factors at play here; farming has become industrialised, fewer and larger farmers, less owners and more staff, climate change, dependence on fossil fuel and environmentally problematic irrigation systems.
For most it’s become get big or get out, which always comes with a large infrastructure debt. However I also know that when humans get behind; financially, emotionally and physically, it becomes that much harder to ever get ahead. When your focus is on getting through the days, weeks, months ahead, it’s hard to think about the big picture of a more sustainable farming system which improves the land, animals and your life itself.
Agriculture may well be the biggest industry accelerating climate change and yet simultaneously represents some of the greatest opportunities to slow, and potentially reverse, the effects. I believe that if we are to support farmers to make changes on their farms which directly impact all our futures we need to start by valuing their work and not just financially.
Connection to food
Most of us humans don’t like to personally do wrong by people we know. It’s hard not to value food when you see how hard someone you know has worked to produce it. However the more we are disconnected from our food system, the more we make shopping choices based on what we feel like eating and price, without taking into consideration all the circumstances of people and land involved in the production. Participating in your food system gives value beyond a monetary exchange: regaining influence over how our land is managed, animals raised and ultimately the quality of the food you eat.
Quality vs quantity
This is a place I often come back to; why do we eat? Is it to nourish ourselves or to simply fill the space in our stomach? Unfortunately we live in a time where all apples are not created equal, our fruit and vegetables have seen “reliable declines in the amount of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin (vitamin B2) and vitamin C over the past half century.” This is largely due to soil depletion and breeding for size, growth rate, pest resistance and appearance. Supporting a farming movement which values soil above all and the diversity of that which grows above and below the ground is positively helping to improve the nutrient density of your food. So like with most things, the better the quality, the less you actually need.
The fact that you are reading this post means I’m probably preaching to the converted but ScoMo’s words really hit hard at the heart of our broken food system. So I dare him to look Berta in the eyes and tell her a litre of her milk is worth less than a minute of his time. I look forward to her throwing her head in the air and walking away. It sure took hours of time for people to raise her, grow and harvest feed for her, milk her, build and provide all the equipment for milking and bottling milk to sell to our community.
Thanks again to everyone who has been patiently waiting. We are still hoping for a late May/June launch and expecting to be selling milk at the market/farm-shop for $4.50/L and and pre-order subscriptions for $4/L. I intend to publish my income and expenditure when up and running for everyone to see the true costs of running a small scale farming enterprise.
For a long time I have been dreaming about all the ins and outs of how this ‘future dairy’ is going to operate, when things are a long way off it’s easy to think big picture. Then we started building and milking, since then we mainly think about what needs doing today and this week. We’ve been heads down getting this business off the ground but this last week I’ve started thinking of the big picture again. We can see the light at the end of the tunnel. As the year begun Oli decided that on his Birthday in May he want’s to sit back with the factory licensed, all systems go. The idea of telling the world so he’s accountable is starting to make him a little nervous as time progresses, but I think he’ll make it.
So this blog I’m going to give a photo update on how we’ve progressed. I know many people are ready and waiting for the milk to flow, soon, I promise!
The Harcourt Organic Farming Co-op received RDV Victorian Government funding which is supporting our shared infrastructure project and paid for the shinny, new, 110,000l water tank. Currently the farm all runs off irrigation water so having access to clean tank water is a necessity for the dairy factory.
We were very grateful to have Brendan working with us at a crucial time after Oli’s accident to keep things moving along; putting up a wall on the shed for weather protection and the back lean-to for protection for all the process water systems.
We had Phil back on his excavator to finish off the greywater system and offer much needed help with the factory plumbing!
Jacques helped Oli installed the solar thermal panels on the cooler days. In a previous post Oli outlines the reasons behind using mainly second hand materials and some of the obstacles they pose.
When Oli cut and fitted all the dirty insulation(coolroom) panels, the inside of the processing factory became real. We both could finally feel what it will be like to stand in the room bottling milk! However using second hand insulation panels proved a nightmare, we are now experts in sanding and why certain specialist food grade paints are not appropriate for air spraying and why you should just hire an airless sprayer from the beginning.
Marty spent hours sanding the panels back to remove rust and marks. This panel was out of the shipping container wall where we installed the windows, Marty had to remove the many thick layers of paint from the external wall.
We then removed all the walls for painting. Then reinstalled them, being very careful not to scratch all the work we’d just done. Oli has now been installing all the coving, it’s feeling closer and closer now!
Rowan has been crafting the front entrance, with a team sanding back the doors from the tip to create our beautiful entrance!
I’ve been busy on the farm; fencing and learning just how hot the star picket rammer gets when left in the sun.
And my growing herd have been excitedly hoeing into the 4ths from Gung Hoe Growers and Tellurian Fruit Gardens. Farming in a diverse co-op is blooming marvelous!
Thank you to all these people and more who have been such an integral part of getting this business up and running. We’re getting so close now I can smell it! Thank you all for waiting patiently.
I’ve unintentionally created a positive feedback loop.
There’s many reasons for starting this business, a big one of them is that I love spending my time with animals, cows in particular. My experience has been that farming’s hard: long hours, extreme climate exposure, and often not for a huge amount of appreciation or money. But within that it can be the most magnificent, humbling experience. We experience death, but in hand life is exploding around us. I’m driven by the moments your breath becomes grounded; walking through the paddock at sunrise and noticing the days getting shorter, watching a storm roll in, watching animals interact and more than anything being part of those interactions.
However this is one of the ways in which I fear modern agriculture has missed the point. We’ve done everything we can to control and separate ourselves from nature. Spending time simply enjoying your animals company and the land you’re on is not a privilege many farmers can afford. The focus moves to trading commodities rather than nourishing ourselves and our communities through working the land.
I’m aiming to keep a small herd; maximum of 10 milkers. This combined with having a portable milking parlour means I need my herd to be very tame. My herd is not regularly coming into yards where I can treat them, move them or easily train them for milking. I need them to come when called, follow me when moving and be lead on a rope when managed as individual animals. None of this is possible if you have not built a relationship of trust with your animals. So here’s the positive feedback loop. Future Tessa with her future herd saves time and benefits greatly from simply hanging out with her herd now. Which in turn forces me to slow down, take the time to do this and enjoy the key reason for choosing this career over another; my cows!
Animals have been proven time and time again to work as therapy for people recovering from trauma. They respond to our energy. A milker whose angry will have a very different dairy to one whose calm; there will quite possibly be a lot more poo to clean up, lower milk and more kicks. Stressed animals don’t like giving you their milk, simple.
I met an incredible lady; Winnie, who told me that temperament was one of the most important factors when buying a cow for a small herd, one bad egg can ruin all your good work. Directly following this conversation I bought my first cow Berta and without her patience, life would have been a whole lot more difficult. The first time we turned on the milking machine, she came over, stood and waited.
I’m attempting to halter train all of the calves, some with success, others will take more work. Most of the cows I can now comfortably put a halter on in the paddock and lead them to where I need, which may be straight onto a trailer for a visit to the bull. Like all animals though, once you loose you’re confidence, it’s very hard to get it back. Once on a halter Olive is a dream to lead, but getting that halter on, near impossible! She has beaten me one too many times and knows my confidence has wavered. Her training for milking will have to begin long before she calves.
Sometimes it’s hard to step back and let lord of the flies play out amongst the herd; the hierarchy, the bullying, the sibling squabbles. But then when you finally see the new cow being accepted and groomed by Queen Berta it can’t help but warm your heart from a distance.
After writing this post I spent a few days partaking in the familiar practice of crying over ones electric fencing. Summer in central Victoria leaves our ground bone dry. What was granite porridge in winter returns to concrete every summer. Putting portable electric fence post in results in many bent posts and with no moisture left in the ground the 2 live wires I’d been using no longer earth effectively. The heifers realised this before me of course. A live wire with good voltage no longer gives the slightest shock when earthed through the animal to the ground. So with no permanent fencing enclosure on the property we set out in the heat to build an electric fortress with live and earth wires. If we wanted to go home at night we had to re-train the heifers who were walking directly through the fence, wondering why we put rope in their way and heading directly for the orchard! We’ve been 3 days without a breakout now. Through all of this I’ve been so grateful for the halter training, while building the fence the only option was to have them tied to a tree in the shade with food and water and they were fine with this.
I am understanding the need for at least one permanent enclosure, boundary fences and earth wires within all my fencing systems. Fencing systems can very quickly dominate your day and leave you feeling like you’re just treading water (although lack of water is the problem). Trying to establish secure fencing systems by next summer is a must.
A key component to Sellar Farmhouse Creamery is to develop and manage silvopasture landscapes; an integrated system where trees and pasture are managed to raise livestock. This park-land system has always existed naturally where herbivorous range and under the management of humans is an ancient practice. With examples around the world such as the Dehesa in Spain.
Diversity is something which is lacking in the modern agriculture industry. For efficiency sake, we have moved towards large mono-cultures: why try and manage 10 different farming enterprises when you could just manage one. The problem with this is that it’s contrary to how nature works. Nature never puts all her eggs in one basket, so to speak.
Take our recent rain for example. Getting rain now is great for veggie growers such as Gung Hoe Growers here, but not so good for my lucerne hay grower who has had to turn all his hay into silage as it won’t have time to dry. Rain is always appreciated on this dry continent, but every time it rains it’s of benefit to one farming system and may destroy another. If you only have one farming system, you’re left particularly vulnerable to weather. Having diverse farming systems helps to build a resilient farming business. Enterprises such as livestock, forestry, nuts, fruit, mushrooms etc can all generate income from the same area of land in a silvopasture system.
Nature’s balance also depends on diversity. Many of our pest and diseases tip into a problem when they have access to feast on their favourite food, all laid out paddock after paddock with no predators to stop them. Having a diversity of plant heights, growth seasons, seeding seasons and palatability, builds mutually beneficial relationships. These increase the resilience of the vegetative cover in general to pests, diseases and fire and climatic extremes.
Ruminants, like humans are healthiest when living off a diverse diet. To be able to receive the full spectrum of vitamins, minerals, fats, proteins, carbohydrates etc from just a few feed products is near impossible. Supplementation is needed and in many industrial systems it leads to a short life. Cows are natural grazers, unlike their ruminant friend; the browsing goat, who does very well on fibrous trees and shrubs. A well managed, diverse pasture is a great thing for cows to have as their main feed source. However having access to trees and shrubs which have higher mineral contents in very important.
Cows fed mainly tree fodder may struggle to maintain condition. The high fiber and lignin content make for lower digestibility and energy conversion than grasses. However in dry seasons tree fodder can supplement protein and other nutrients to dry pasture. In Central Victoria this is crucial for our hot dry summers.
On a large pasture based system, tree fodder can be difficult to manage. Whether as self feeding; where animals graze directly from trees, often damaging the trees, or human cut-and-carry, both models can be labour intensive to feed a large mob of animals. Developing full property integrated systems take time to establish but have multiple benefits. Working at our scale of the planned herd of 10 milkers, this is very achievable.
When we first bought Berta, our queen cow, and tried to feed her willow she looked at us with disgust: ‘what am I meant to do with this?’ Having grown up on a conventional dairy the idea of eating trees was completely foreign to her. However once Daisy and Millie arrived, she watched them eat willow 2 days in a row, then on the third day she tried it, and since then she has been first in line to get to the willow pile.
According to the fantastic research project Drawdown: ‘the most comprehensive plan ever to reverse global warming’, Silvopasture is ranked #9 in the top 100 solutions to reversing global warming.
‘Research suggests silvopasture far outpaces any grassland technique for counteracting the methane emissions of livestock and sequestering carbon under-hoof. Pastures strewn or crisscrossed with trees sequester five to ten times as much carbon as those of the same size that are treeless, storing it in both biomass and soil.
Silvopasture averts and sequesters emissions, while protecting against changes that are now inevitable.’
We can also see more tangible effects of managing silvopasture; Shelter for animals, landscape stability by decreasing erosion from wind and water, increasing the cycling of water and nutrients and reducing requirements for cultivation.
On the farm
Here at the farm we are lucky to be riding on the back of existing systems. Currently the cows are grazing in the old plum block. This orchard is being removed as it’s no longer productive for the orcharding business. Rather than cut and burn the stored carbon and nutrients the cows have been absolutely demolishing the trees: very glad we didn’t experiment on the commercial orchard when in leaf! We will be pollarding the old plums to hopefully harvest new growth for years to come. With the arrival of fruit fly to the area managing wild fruit trees is crucial to the organic orchard.
When the orchard trees have no green growth we have had good success with grazing the cows between the fruit tree rows, mowing the grass and taking advantage of the soil which is already well watered and re-mineralised. In the future I’d love to find a system for cutting hay between the rows when the trees are green; the grass needs keeping low for the fruit season but the cows cannot graze in there.
We’ve been planting trees for future resilience. Salix Babylonica (weeping willow) below the leaky dam; the first and last of the willows to have leaves for the season, long soft branches making most of the biomass palatable (greater leaf to wood ratio), very easy to harvest, does not easily spread like its relative, crack willow, and the cows just devour it.
Black wattle is also a favourite among the cows. It’s high tannin content makes it not appropriate as a primary feed, but as a supplementary feed it’s high in protein and has compounds creating an anthelmintic effect; helping to maintain a healthy worm balance. Oak and tagasaste are among some of the other trees we are planning to plant with the intention of fodder harvesting in the future.
This is also a key benefit to the farming co-op model which we have here at Harcourt. Bringing together the old practice of diverse farming enterprises interacting on the one farm, whilst using the modern efficiency of specialisation.
Silvopasture is a long term investment, we may never reap the full rewards of the work on this leased land. But leaving it in an improved, more resilient state than we found it is a founding block for this business.