“Chefs will go out to see their beef, to hand pick their sheep, and complain if there is a bite mark from a dog,” Cathy Palmer told The Fifth Estate. “All these measures are carried out, and then they turn around and say ‘oh, and give me 1000 litres of milk’ as they walk out.”
Ms Palmer runs an ethical micro-dairy in northern Victoria that has just been recognised in the small business category of the 2019 Banksia Sustainability Awards.
The dairy industry is not typically acknowledged in the sustainability world, but this three person, 45-cow farm is doing something a little differently.
In traditional dairy practice, keeping the calf around is not necessary for the mothers to continue producing milk, so all males and around one quarter of female calves are taken away within the first 30 days.
These calves, known as bobby cows, are considered surplus and are generally sent to slaughter.
This is the difference between How Now and the traditional dairy industry, Ms Palmer explained.
“In the traditional dairy industry a cow will give birth to its first calf by two, hit peak milk production around three, and generally be dead by five,” she said.
“But our calves are all raised with their mums, and we start weaning them off mum’s milk at around the three month mark. We wait later for first calf as well, and give them holidays before they have their next one.
“I’ve never doubted that farmers love their cows, but it’s a lazy industry that needs a shake up,” Ms Palmer said. “Most dairy farmers don’t like me because I have this attitude, and because I’m not a dairy farmer by trade.”
Her business partner, Dr Les Sandles, is the one with the experience. He is a third generation dairy farmer with a PHD in dairy farming and cattle nutrition.
“He’s the one that told me about the horrors of dairy three and a half years ago,” Ms Palmer said.
Two of their heifers – “our girls”, as she calls them – have gone full circle and are now mums themselves. Ms Palmer explains that they are far happier going into the dairy than cattle traditionally are.
“Everything bad that happens to a cow happens in the dairy,” she said, “so we’ve made sure that it’s the exact opposite on our farm. When our girls come into the dairy they get food and attention, and if they’re sick they get better.”
At $7 a litre, however, this ethical method of producing milk is not cheap.
“It’s not just about the wealthier people or the cool vegans,” Ms Palmer said. “Demand comes from all over. Quite a few of my customers are Indian – they chose our ‘kinder’ milk for religious ethical reasons.”
Since incorporating in 2016, Ms Palmer said the demand for ethical milk has grown quickly.
“I think it will only get faster as well, before we’re even ready, actually,” she said. “It’s coming in thick and fast.”
The company conducted some crowd funding earlier this year and hopes to use the money to build a plant where they can one day make additional products such as cheeses and yoghurt.
“I think there are a lot of people looking for sustainable investments these days, and we’ve shown that what extra you spend looking after the cows together you make up in the lower vet bills, not having to feed calves yourself, and better quality milk.”
Organic needs more inclusions
Ms Palmer added that she does not support the organic or biodynamics certifications because they do not make requirements about animal welfare.
“As long as you feed your cows organic feed and have them on an organic farm you can do whatever you like with them,” she said. “It’s draconian, and I think we have to reset that and rewrite the rulebook.”
This micro dairy also fails the organic test because it artificially inseminates its herd to ensure there are no surplus males, a practice excluded under organic certification.