Milk Supply Chains With Dairy Farmer Mark Peterson

June 07, 2015

Image via WikiMedia.

In the first two installments of my milk series, we covered milk science and how to figure out the precise breakdown of components in milky coffee drinks. This week I’m taking a step back and letting Mark Peterson—the best dairy farmer I know—share some of his knowledge. I spent an hour on the phone with Mark this week to pick his brains about biodynamic farming, what to look for when buying milk and engaging with farmers, and the effects of the seasons on production and consistency.

Mark Peterson and his wife Lynn live 3 hours north of Melbourne in North Central Victoria. Together, they make the most delicious milk I’ve ever tasted. Their farm is certified biodynamic according to Demeter standards, and the Jersey and Friesians on their farm are some of the luckiest cows in the world. For full disclosure, some within the scientific community view Demeter's biodynamic approach to be pseudo-science—especially some of the more mystically-derived components—but an attention to inputs and overall holistic systems thinking seems to have won biodynamics many fans in the culinary world.

At St Ali and Sensory Lab, we’ve been using Mark’s milk for 4 years. It’s about twice as expensive as conventional milks and we experience obvious seasonal variation (more on that later) but we wouldn’t change a thing. Straight out of the bottle, Mark’s milk tastes a bit like liquid vanilla ice cream, and mixed with coffee it’s an absolute delight. It’s the best we can find; consistently winning every blind taste test we can throw at it. Put simply, there isn’t a dairy farmer I’d rather learn from.

Back in 2013 I worked closely with Mark for my World Barista Championships routine. He altered the diet of a few cows to change the flavour of their milk, feeding them pure clover for a day to yield milk that tasted like green tea ice cream. It was an incredibly eye-opening process, and I wish more people could have experienced it with us. This relationship I have with Mark is wonderful, and I hope this article inspires other baristas and cafe owners to find their own Mark Peterson to learn and grow with as well.

The following is a selection of Mark’s words from our conversation, interspersed with my questions and contributions.

Can you compare for us biodynamic to organic or conventional production?

Biodynamic is really taking it to the top-end of organics, except we run more of a closed system. An organic farm replaces chemical fertilizers with “allowable inputs” like natural chicken manure. Biodynamics is more about being self-sufficient. We consider the whole organisation of the farm; focusing on minimal inputs like catalysts to start things off and get the microbes going in the soil. We work on a biological level.

When you talk to organic farmers about biodynamic, you usually hear them say “Oh, Biodynamic? That’s where I want to be one day”. They see organic as a stepping stone to becoming biodynamic. Organic is a great feeder program that gives people a good understanding of how they can shift from chemicals and fertilizer based farming to a more natural way of doing it.

Biodynamics is really enhancing the biology of the soil and making it work for the plants. Getting the balance right, getting the whole farm working in one direction.

I know it’s a bit out there, but it’s not until you actually practise it that you can see the difference. One thing I love to do when people visit the farm is to grab a shovel and we go have a dig and look at some soil. We look at the life, how much air is in there. That’s the big difference.

And your neighbours don’t have that soil quality?

No. We can jump over the fence and show you quite stark, dead soil and a thin film on top with no activity. People say “well, if your neighbour’s farm is like this, why don’t they copy what you’re doing?”. But look, he sees it, but he doesn’t get it. I can’t change the way he thinks.

Apart from that wonderful soil, what is the main advantage to biodynamic farming?

The main advantage is cost. When the soil is right, you get a healthier system and a healthier animal that doesn’t need treatment for parasites and things. The animal can look after itself from an internal point of view; as long as they’re getting a balanced diet. No need to add medicines and treatments. One thing other farmers are amazed at is that we don’t have any problems with worms and liver fluke and other parasitic problems. They can’t believe it. We’ve been doing this for 25+ years—the guys at the abattoir are amazed that our animals have never been drenched yet they’re parasite free.

It’s important to note that we’ve spent those 25 years breeding an animal that can survive these conditions [on the farm]. There are cows that don’t survive, and we remove them from the farm and the breeding pool.

Our cows aren’t high producing. If production size is the aim, there’s farms that can blow us out of the water. There’s farms around here that are managing double the production of our cows. But our cows are doing it without the costs and health issues they have.

When we do a financial comparison with conventional dairy farms, the bottom line is that our farms are way above everyone else’s in that room. I keep thinking that the other farmers in the district will see my numbers and start biodynamic farming. They don’t.

My aim is not to be the richest farmer in the district. It’s to produce the best milk in the district, and the country. I see biodynamic farming as a challenge. How can we overcome a problem in a natural way? How can the animals overcome the problem rather than relying on a medicine or a treatment. It’s prevention rather than cure.

I hear the first few years after a conversion are pretty hard. Then once the system develops and matures it becomes much easier?

Moving from conventional farming to what we do, it’s almost like a drug addiction. You have to wean the drugs off slowly. You won’t see a change in a month. You have to get the farm working for you.

When we started, we stopped drenching our cows straight away and they were overwhelmed by parasites. We had to wean them off slowly, until we stopped using any at all. The biggest hurdle for people coming over to biodynamic is that journey from conventional to biodynamic. I think the government should step in and support the farmers. For years they can’t call their product bio, so they’re not getting paid more for it, but they’re still struggling to change the farm over.

Do you see any parallels between this system and the increasing focus humans have now towards considering their own gut biome and microflora?

You’ll remember this when we changed the cow’s diet for your barista competition; when we fed them straight clover for a day the bugs in their gut didn’t have time to adapt to the food and we saw a change in flavour. Normally I’ll change their diet gradually to give those bugs time to adapt.

When we’re thinking of diet, we’re always thinking about the gut.

In the coffee community, we’re heavily focused on supply chain transparency and sustainability for our coffee, but not necessarily for our milk. Are there any pain points in the supply chain?

The biggest cost in our milk comes from the milk tanker. If we produce 1 or 27,000 litres of milk, getting that truck to pick it up costs the same. We only use a 3rd of the tanker, so there’s economies of scale we don’t have that eat into the profits.

Another spot is at the bottling plant. Because our milk is biodynamic, it needs to be fed through the plant first, before the conventional milks. The trouble with that is we lose 400 liters of milk in that startup phase. They warm it up with water, feed milk through and then need to make sure there’s no water left.

Recently there’s been a lot of press about the large supermarkets pressing milk prices down. What’s the best way for coffee professionals to buy milk, or to engage with a farmer?

If you can buy a milk, and actually call the farmer—the same farmer that puts the cups on the cows—then you’ve got a pretty close link with where that milk comes from. Some of the co-operatives will say that they’re Australian owned and look after their farmers. If you ring them up and say “let me talk to the farmer that puts the milk in the carton” they’ll say no. They don’t know where it comes from because it’s a large district or area. If you ring Biodynamic Marketing and say “I want to have a talk with the farmer”—I get a call every few weeks from an interested or concerned customer—I can have a chat. They’re also welcome to visit the farm. We have that link with the consumer of our product, but we don’t do farmers markets or marketing. [Our customs] tell our story for us.

Try and get an organic or biodynamic milk. Biodynamic is ideal. Try and have a link to the farmer. There’s also some good conventional farmers that have really good quality. The farmer that sells his own milk understand that it has to be good quality, or it won’t sell. The farmer who is supplying a big company or cooperative is still being paid for quality, but they’re not as particular. They don’t know why the quality is different.

Seasonality is embraced for coffee, but not necessarily for milk. How do the seasons affect the quality and taste of milk?

Seasonality is accepted for wines and other fine foods. Because milk is such a homogenised and mixed product, you get a blend and don’t see variations. An individual farm that’s bottling their own milk sees those changes. And these days, more people are understanding that. They go “alright, so we’re gonna have a change in autumn. We’re also gonna see a change in spring time, with all those spring grasses kicking off and we’ll get some nice flavours. A bit sweeter. A bit nicer.” And they look forward to it.

It’s not a bad thing, it’s just an understanding we need to communicate with the customer.

Sweetness comes with Spring grass when there’s minimal supplementary feed. It’s 95% fresh grass.

Late summer/early autumn means higher fat content. Cows that are calving will produce 3.8% fat, then when she’s ready to dry off it’ll go up to 5.5-5.8%. When she’s weaning the calf off the milk, it’s drinking less but it’s still getting nutrition from that extra fat.

We do a monthly herd test, checking every cow for fat and protein. And somatic cell count. Its a count of white blood cells that increase when a cow is fighting infection, or is stressed by heat, wet weather or noisy and strange situations. It tells us the health of the udder, and really signifies shelf life. With a lower cell count, you know the cow is healthy.

What are some other good and bad things to look for in a milk supply chain? Should we engage directly with farmers? Is there a prefered middleman like Biodynamic Marketing or Devondale?

It has really come from consumer demand. We were supplying Parmalat [ed: a large Australian milk company] with biodynamic milk in the mid 90’s. There was a severe drought in 2000, and at that point we had 4 biodynamic farms. One of those dropped off and our production halved. We couldn’t buy the grain from other farms - we had to sell animals instead of not feeding them. The milk bottling factory wanted to mix our milk in with the organic producers, but still pay us for biodynamic. But the customers at the stores were complaining that the organic milk wasn’t as good.

We didn’t have millions of dollars for a biodynamic factory so BD [Biodynamic Marketing] became our factory under contract. What it’s giving us is certainty in price—we don’t take any price dips. Other farmers’ prices go up and down all the time. But the downside is we’ve had to keep quality high and produce a consistent volume all year round.  A cow might be milked for 10 months of the year because she has a dry period for 2 months during heavy pregnancy. To reduce the effect of this we’ve had to share calving across the two farms. I take Autumn and Spring calving, while Greg [the other Biodynamic farmer who supplies BD] does Summer and Winter. At any time of year we have fresh cows coming in, older cows going out, and that gives us a pretty consistent supply and quality of milk.

How do breeds affect flavour, fat and sugar? What’s the best tasting breed?

Generally we have a pretty mixed herd between Jersey and Friesian. Recently we’ve started bringing in some Ayrshire cows, just because we’re trying to keep a better balanced animal that can survive our system. They’re naturally low in somatic cell count.

Friesians are high-volume, low-fat. Jerseys are high-fat, low-volume. The only complaint I’ve ever heard about our milk is that sometimes it’s too creamy. [Matt: This never came from me] So we’ve been leaning towards having a few more Friesians in the herd to bring the fat down to 4.5%. Our fat was always over 5% and now it’s at about 4.8%.

We don’t get paid on fat, but most others get paid on fat and protein. Liter in, liter out. No standardisation like regular milk. It usually gets stripped out, and then reintroduced to keep the milk at a consistent level of 3.5% fat. We’ll vary between 5% and 4% fat.

Do you remembers the breeds of the cows you fed clover back in 2013?

Freckles was a cross-breed. Blossom was ¾ Friesian. Daisy was pure Jersey.

I’d never thought of sampling individual cows. The differences were amazing to me!

There was one milk you didn’t like. You said it was a bit “barnyard-y”. I went back and had a look at her results—she had a high somatic cell count. It was interesting that you picked it up in the flavour. I had no idea until we tested, but you picked it up right away in the flavour.

How do you balance pasture health and milk quality?

If the cows need more food, we can always supplement with other food. The main aim is to not overgraze the grass. If we cut the diet back, the cows will overgraze and production will drop. You don’t want them wasting feed, but you also need to supply their needs.

We talk in kg’s of dry food per day. 25kg per day will make 20-25L milk per day. The first 15kg is for general living, the last 10kg makes the milk. Now you might think that if you give the cow an extra kg of feed you’ll get another liter of milk. It’s not always that simple. You fill them up to a point, then any more they just put it on their backside. It’s a constant battle between wasting feed and meeting production. Though most importantly, we need to meet the needs of the cows.

Luckily we’ve found a market that wants to pay more for quality and less for volume.

What’s the best glass of milk you’ve ever had?

It depends on the company, the mood of the moment. It was when I bought my Jersey herd from friends of mine who were going into retirement. They didn’t want to split the herd of 50 into different farms. Standing in the kitchen, we had a glass of milk. It was the richness and smoothness of the Jersey herd. That, and knowing they wanted me to have their herd over any other farmer.

Any last words or advice for baristas and cafe owners who buy and consume a lot of milk every week?

With any small producer you’re going to see variations. If you’re not sure—get on the phone with the farmer. Ask what you should be looking forward to. Embrace the variations. Unfortunately, cafes want to make milk drinks in the wintertime when cows are normally drier. This leads to complications, because we have to keep milking them all year round.

Biodynamic Marketing gives us a good price and certainty of supply. They’re not out to make money out of the milk. They’re a not-for-profit. We’re happy knowing that there’s a good product out there.

When it’s really cold, frost everywhere and I’d rather be sitting next to the fire, but 5am in the morning, what gets me out of bed is knowing that in two days time you’re going to be pouring a cup of coffee at St Ali to someone who goes “Ahh. That’s a really nice cup of coffee” and I think that’s something that most farmers don’t get. That feedback. We love talking to guys like you that appreciate what we do and how we do it. And the quality we can make. That recognition is very subtle and it’s a great thing.

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