Save Rare Milk

I still remember the forearm strain of carrying four four-gallon jugs of milk in from the car when mum would get home from the supermarket. When we were little, we drank what Americans called ‘Vitamin D milk’, which was full cream. A bit older and we were moved along to ‘2%’, the equivalent of something like ‘Rev’ in Australia. When I started university, I switched to ‘skim milk’, or as we’d say here, ‘skinny milk’.

There was a short period in my adolescence when Dad insisted we drink a glass of raw goat’s milk every day to help boost our immunity against poison oak. We loathed it, and I reckon I contracted poison oak intentionally to demonstrate the futility of this daily torture before he gave up.

When I gave up skinny milk, I repudiated it with the scorn of a reformed smoker. Keep that thin blue liquid with the mouthfeel of vinegar away from me, thanks. Nowadays I like my milk raw, especially after a night in the fridge so that the first pour has globules of cream to tantalise the tongue as it dances through the skim milk underneath.

It’s illegal to sell raw milk in Australia. You can buy cigarettes, eggs from chickens that never knew a day outside a cage, and as much Coca Cola as you want, but not unpasteurised milk. I understand the health risks, just as I understand them about raw eggs and undercooked meat. But I won’t give up drinking raw milk any more than I’ll stop making mayonnaise and eating burgers made from freshly ground beef cooked so they’re still red in the middle.

What I don’t drink anymore is milk from the big processors, and goddess forbid someone should offer me private label milk from Coles or Woolies. According to Australian Dairy Farmers, some 30 dairy farmers have gone out of business in Queensland since January 2011, at least some due to the duopoly’s unscrupulous milk wars. I know who needs my business most, and it’s the independent dairies, preferably organic. And I’ll continue to defiantly drink raw milk when I can.

What about milk from rare and heritage breed dairy cattle? Where can I get some of that? Virtually nowhere, it seems. Thanks to Flavour Crusader, I know of Maleny Dairy in Queensland with Guernseys; and in addition to a Jersey herd, Mungalli Creek Dairy has Swiss Browns & Aussie Reds.

Holstein-Friesians produce 70% of Australian dairy, Jerseys another 10% of creamy goodness, and there’s a handful of Holstein/Jersey crosses around. If you want to try milk from Ayrshires or the critically endangered Australian Milking Zebu, I’m afraid you’re probably out of luck. Why? Because they don’t produce the quantity of milk as the Holstein-Friesians – never mind quality. And if farmers are still getting 1992 prices per litre, no wonder their focus is on getting as much milk as they can from the herd.

We’ve been steadily losing diversity in our livestock just as we have in fruit and vegetables for the past century, in which the language of high yields, transportability and storability have prevailed over those of flavour and nutrient diversity. Ever seen a Green Zebra or Black Russian tomato in ColeWorths? No, just as you won’t find Wessex Saddleback pork or Ayrshire milk there either.

The Ayrshires may soon be gone from Australia. Gone because we aren’t drinking their milk. Soon we may not have the chance to drink actual milk at all, if we follow in the powdery footsteps of our European counterparts. The vast majority of milk consumption in the EU is UHT. It’s more shelf stable and transportable, and the processors and supermarkets have so-called ‘value added’ to the extent that they’ve won the battle to have the most convenient foods possible on their shelves. I hear they’ve been working on packaging that allows them to stack items directly onto the shelves (including UHT milk, which needs no refrigeration until after it’s opened) to reduce the need for human labour to unpack crates and boxes first.

Eventually perhaps we won’t even have the ubiquitous Holstein-Friesians, because surely it will be easier and more consistent to create dairy-free ‘dairy’ products. Then nobody will have to worry about how much and what variety of grasses the cows ate that affected their productivity and the flavour of the milk. And we won’t have to worry about drying cows off over winter in preparation for calving again in spring. Nobody will have to bring the cows in for milking at all.

If consumers keep choosing the most highly processed and altered forms of basic foodstuffs like milk at the cheapest prices, these facsimiles are what we’ll get in the end. Perhaps we deserve it if we can’t manage to vote with our dollars for the real thing.

A version of this post was originally written for the April 2012 edition of the newsletter of the Rare Breeds Trust of Australia.

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Tammi Jonas

The infrequent and imperfect yet impassioned musings of a PhD candidate, mother, wife, sister, daughter, friend and would-be cultural commentator with a penchant for food and community...

10 thoughts on “Save Rare Milk”

  1. Thanks for supporting farmers, Tammi. I think it’s very noble of you. The sad reality is, though, that very few Australians feel the same way about the need for fair pricing. They just want low pricing.
    Not sure though, that Friesian milk is any lesser in quality than other breeds. It is lower in fat than some others but still nice and creamy!
    Fewer but better milking cows are actually kinder to the environment than cows that give less milk, too. A smaller environmental footprint is surely an important ethical consideration, don’t you think?

  2. Thanks for the comment, Marian. I wasn’t trying to suggest that Friesian was lower in quality, though for those who like a higher fat content, it won’t be their preference? We drink mostly Friesian, and I like it just fine, but I’m concerned about the lack of choice from commercial dairies (for commercial reasons which I well understand) and what this is doing to biodiversity in our livestock in Australia (and elsewhere). I also am a fan of very creamy milk when I get some…

    As for a smaller footprint – ‘fewer but better milking cows’ is also perhaps not the best representation, especially given how much dairy is exported from Australia, so domestic consumption is not the only driver, of course. Having said that, just as I’ve written about pork and any other meat or dairy, if people would eat a bit less generally, but pay properly for it, then farmers could still make a living and the planet wouldn’t have to bear such a burden. Our consumption habits in Australia are way out of whack with what we will be able to continue to produce in the coming decades.

    Finally, I’m planning to write more as I’m learning about the serious implications of reducing our genetic diversity in agriculture, because it’s something we haven’t taken seriously enough yet. And while Friesians may be very well suited to Victorian conditions, they’re proving a potentially famine-inducing disaster in parts of Africa, where they haven’t adapted to the local conditions. In those cases, higher production is *not* better for the people nor the environment more broadly, and we need to make better-informed decisions every time we’re choosing quantity of production over other factors.

  3. Nice story, Tammi. I grew up on a dairy farm in SA. My fav thing was to collect the milk from the vat after milking the girls at night. It was then my right to be first at the jug in the morning to have the thick cream that settled on top of the milk on my cornflakes. This raw milk did no harm to myself my brother nor our family. it is sad to think that small rural rd I grew up on which had 5 dairy farms now only has 1 left, a Jersey herd.
    if people don’t start paying the true value of what it cost’s farmers to produce, don’t complain when the only choice you have is a chemical pill to take instead of a glass of real milk!

  4. Hi Tammi Love your passion and committment My family had the largest herd of Ayrshires in Australia at the top of their popularity. One branch moved onto the “Illawarra” and the other to Holsteins. At the moment we have what would be called a liquorice allsorts herd with our new manager bringing his guernseys’ illawarra’s Aussi Reds, Brown Swiss and Jerseys. My husband was heartbroken when he wound down his Illawarra herd but we dont have the luxury of sentimentality. Australians want food at rock bottom prices and if we want to stay in business we have to produce for that market and that means breeding and feeding cows with and for high feed conversion efficiency

  5. Surely the best environmental outcome is not to squander our most precious and finite resources: land and water? If we were to consciously choose breeds that produce less goodness (in terms of milk and protein) for every hectare of fertile land, we would need to gobble up more and more land to feed fewer and fewer people.

    And are you saying that Victorian dairy farmers should choose other breeds than the ideally-suited Friesians so that Africans make suitable choices?

    How should an average Victorian dairy farmer respond?

    I also doubt very much that it is low food prices that permits Australians to enjoy dairy foods as much as we do.

    So long as we are prepared to pay for bottled water, Wii consoles and large plasma TVs, Aussies certainly have enough disposable income to eat as much dairy as they like and pay a more sustainable price for it.

  6. Thanks for the comments, everyone. Lynne, your story sounds all too common, not just for dairy, but for agriculture more broadly. Loss of biodiversity is an increasing problem – people used to only think of it in terms of native animals, but biodiversity is critical to sustainable agriculture too!

    Marian, I’m not sure I’ve been clear enough? First, I’m not suggesting we should stop farming Friesians, but I am suggesting that if every dairy farm went with just Friesians it would be a great loss to us in terms of genetic resources and nutrient diversity. I certainly see a place, however, of high yielding dairy cattle, just not at the expense of the loss of all the other breeds. Also, my point about reducing our consumption stands in terms of why/how we can farm more diverse breeds and support small-scale farming to boot.

    Of course I’m not suggesting Victorians should choose their breeds to enact change in Africa. My point was that we should choose breeds suitable to the environment they’re in. From what I’ve read, for example, the Australian Friesian Sahiwal and the Australian Milking Zebu were bred specifically for their suitability to tropical climates. Granted, the Australian dairy industry has less cause to grow cattle in the far north on any kind of large scale, but these breeds were intended to address the issues of doing so – tick resistance & greater capacity to sweat, is what I’ve read? And we have exported these breeds to countries that do need resilient dairy cattle, but I gather the AMZ is gone now?

    But back to Victorian conditions, why not grow more Jerseys, Illawarras and Ayrshires down here as well? Just as small pork producers are growing ‘less efficient’ breeds – that is, they grow more slowly & their fat profile is generally higher – there is a place for niche growers to feed a niche market of people prepared to pay for higher costs of production, if only to preserve these rare breeds. Why preserve rare breeds? Again, for the reasons I’ve been outlining here: genetic resources, flavour profiles, nutrient diversity, environmental suitability… I’m still learning, but I reckon those are reasons enough?

    I think I’ll need to do a pork post where I can write about a part of the sector that has seen a successful increase in rare breed livestock to demonstrate the benefits! In the meanwhile, I’ll keep supporting the many wonderful dairy farmers in Australia who are under increasing pressure from the duopoly to produce more milk from less breeds.

  7. Hi Tammi,
    You’ve got a great point about genetic diversity and there is a trend emerging with crossbreeding in dairy herds to address this very fact. I’m not sure about nutrient diversity when it comes to milk though.

    Jerseys were very common back in the 50s and 60s when farmers were primarily paid for cream content. Consumer preferences now dictate we are largely rewarded for protein content, which is why Jerseys (which produce high fat, lower protein milk) have become far less popular. We are just giving consumers what they want.

    In terms of consumption, the best way to help Australian dairy farmers is to have an extra glass or two of guilt-free, non-supermarket brand milk! We are not being stretched by the demands of the Australian consumer – only 9% of my farm’s milk ends up in the supermarket fridge.

  8. Excellent post Tammi. I was in Bellingen a year or so ago visiting friends when the “milkman” arrived with their black market unpasteurised milk in recycled orange juice bottles! “Put it on the tab, Fred” (name has been changed) my friend said. How i laughed. Then seriously thought about the ridiculousness of it all.
    Lucky you to have it on your doorstep. And thanks for inspiring us all to think beyond the home brands.

  9. Interesting post! I’m a Brown Swiss breeder and I hadn’t thought about promoting breed specific milk before. Some breeds do have different qualities to their milk, but it’s a matter of identifying them.

    It makes sense to be using breeds of animal more suited to the Australian environment, the Holstein is certainly not ideal particularly in regards to heat tolerance and skin cancer susceptibility, feet and leg composition and calving ease.

    At the end of the day, we have to use the type of animal that is going to make us money- these days we are mainly paid based upon kg’s of fat and kg’s of protein, too high literage is a negative.

    Worldwide Jersey is highest for % fat and % protein, but lowest for over all litres, Holstein is the opposite, and Brown Swiss is second for both.

    The reason breeds such as Aryshire, Guernsey and Illawarra are dissappearing is mainly because of lack of genetic variety. And the AMZ etc were just not suitable in temperament!! The Jersey, although popular in Australia is not far behind. You just can’t improve a breed if there’s not enough of them. Everyone’s milk pretty much goes into the same barrel, unless you are fortunate enough to be able to afford to process and sell your own brand.

    Brown Swiss although small in Australia, worldwide have a population 7x the size of all the other coloured breeds combined (14mill), and the Holstein has a population I think triple that. This gives these breeds to genetic scope to adjust accordingly as markets change.

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