By ANNE LEE
Chris Falconer has been talking to potential customers for his farm’s milk and looking at how to practically operate with calves at foot for almost a year.
He will be one of the first farmers to adopt the Happy Cow Milk system over coming months and plans to “feel his way” into the system on the 350-cow, once-a-day milking, Waerenga farm where he and his wife Sheila have already gone bobby-free and moved away from synthetic fertiliser.
“I’ve been following Glen from when he began with Happy Cow Milk – I’ve always been interested in people doing things differently and how we can be paid for that, how we can capture extra value.
“The way we do milk in New Zealand – it’s so homogenous.
“The big companies take it and literally homogenise it but it’s also homogenous in the sense that they take milk from everyone’s systems and put it together.
“That’s not to say any one system is better than the other, but if you want to do something different – it’s been very difficult to get rewarded for that,” he says.
Glen’s new “milk factory in a box” processing system has overcome a lot of the issues commonly seen in getting your own milk to market and allows the farmer to get on with farming, albeit with some marketing and building relationships with consumers and retailers.
Chris has already been getting alongside cafés, retailers and schools to find out what their needs are and how delivering his pasteurised, whole milk to them could solve problems for them.
He’s spent a lot of time in cafés in Auckland – not an unpleasant way to do market research – and found the system using stainless steel vats coupled with the smart dispensing system will solve a big headache in terms of dealing with hundreds of plastic milk containers.
“That’s not to be under-estimated, they have crates and crates of them and there’s a growing move against plastic and a few concerns over recycling.”
He’d found cafés using as much plant-based milk as cows’ milk and based on discussions with baristas and café owners found it was often because of a “feel-good” factor in terms of addressing environmental or animal welfare concerns.
“If we can offer them solutions to their concerns, answer those concerns honestly, be transparent and authentic with the way we’re farming then why wouldn’t they go with this wholly natural product – with nothing added, not homogenised – just pasteurised.”
The key is communicating what’s going on at the farm level and in Chris and Sheila’s case if the concern is about bobby calves, they don’t have them.
All their calves are reared as beef animals with all replacement cows bought in.
If the concern is artificial fertiliser, they don’t use any.
“If the concern is palm kernel, we don’t use any of that either. If they want to talk about soil health or water quality, we can have a conversation with them on that too and talk about all the things we’re doing on the farm.”
In response to farmers feeling put down by Happy Cow Milk’s promotion of itself as being a more caring, kinder and fairer dairy, Chris says that when you look at the proportion of NZ’s milk production sold on the domestic market there shouldn’t be an issue.
“With so much of it exported you’re not standing on anyone else’s toes – you’re probably standing on a few egos, though.
“If you’re so confident and happy with your system, why are you worried about what someone else is doing?”
He’s quite open with the fact he’s always looking at “how to do things better” and says he’s been researching and trialing keeping calves on cows.
He’s spoken to animal behaviourists and systems designers and he’s concluded that giving calves choices at various points as cows are coming in for and during milking is the way to go.
He’s looked at setting up gates so they’re split horizontally, allowing calves to duck under the upper part while keeping cows where you want them.
“I think what we’ll see is some calves will come right in and some will choose to wait outside the yard, some might move right through and wait for their mums on the other side.
“As long as they feel they have a choice and we’re not forcing them to do something they’ll be calmer.”
He milks OAD at 6am and says he’ll start milking cows as usual on day one after calving but the colostrum cows will be close to the farm dairy to make sure the walk isn’t too much for the newborns.
By day five he expects calves will cope easily with the OAD walk from other paddocks across the farm.
He already uses split calving but will shift to calving three times a year to give a more even milk flow and to ensure more-consistent properties in the milk itself.
“It’s all been very informal research so far into how we’ll do this – it’s not something you can look up in the DairyNZ Facts and Figures book – there’s no handbook.
“We’ll feel our way along with it and get started using the smaller vats Glen’s been using to develop the system and then we’ll move into the 200-litre vats.
“I’m really confident that based on the research I’ve done out there with possible customers the milk we’re going to be producing is going to be highly valued and highly sought-after so we’re not obsessing about getting big volumes.”
His annual milk production under his current system is 320-330kg milksolids (MS)/cow. He’s been talking with schools, cafés and supermarkets and says the feedback has been very positive.
The way the dispensing system works makes it simple for him and customers to use.
“The way Glen’s got it working now, it’s very straight forward and something we’re looking forward to getting set up.”
Chris says he and Sheila are about to start selling beef and veal under their own, soon to be revealed brand and it’s likely the milk will be sold under the same brand with Happy Cow Milk brand underpinning it.