Fresh and raw

When Steve and Shelli Mears, and their daughter Katie, decided to give up sharemilking, buy their first farm and sell raw milk directly to consumers, it was for the cows.

They couldn’t leave some behind so the three, individually and separately, drew up a “non-negotiable” list. Their target was to take 40 cows with them. They ended up with 72.

“So we were a little overstocked that first year,” Shelli said.

Now, almost four years later, they have their planned 40 adult cows, 25 which are usually milking at any one time, and their brand Otago Fresh Milk is known throughout the region.

The 25-hectare, two paddocks wide farm nestled between State Highway One and the railway line, has the town of Palmerston at its southern end and a cropping farmer at the other. And besides a farm store on the busy road, they are only 45 minutes away from deliveries in Dunedin.

When working on their business plan they were told only 5% of people were prepared to make a change to their buying habits and pay a premium for what they considered a healthier or ethically better alternative.

“So we knew we needed to be near a large population like Dunedin.”

It took a year to organise their finances to buy the property and transition from 50:50 sharemilking 360 cows at Mokotua near Invercargill, and almost another year before they were supplying customers.

Steve and Shelli grew up on dairy farms and started sharemilking at Inch Clutha in 1998, at one time milking 750 cows.

They are the only raw fresh milk producers in Otago, although farms outside the province deliver in the region.

Steve and Shelli, Katie and her partner Connor run the farm together but Steve and Katie work full time off farm at the nearby OceanaGold mine and Shelli works 25 hours a week as a regional leader support manager for Dairy Women’s Network.

“Connor came down from Auckland before Christmas and we thought it would be him working off farm but instead he wants to learn everything,” Shelli said.

Their dairy is a single row with nine sets of cups which they mostly built themselves using parts from a dismantled herringbone from Southland. One pump does all the work, whether it’s the cooler water, washing the yard or water to the farm’s troughs.

The single row design is so people can stand next to the pit and watch them milk which Shelli said many of their customers do.

“Especially in the school holidays, people will bring their kids and the locals who have got their grandchildren staying.

Shelli and Steve Mears on their Palmerston farm.

“They can talk to us as we milk and we can explain what we’re doing and why.

“We love teaching people about where milk comes from. The biggest surprise is always that milk comes out of a cow warm, at 37 degrees, and the first thing a farmer has to do is cool it.”

With only 25 cows, milking still takes about two hours, partly because of the high volumes of once-a-day milking and also the cleaning of the teats that is required for raw milk production.

“And we’re not rushing the cows. They walk in and walk out, there’s no yelling. Happy cows, healthy milk.”

The saying is part of their branding and although Shelli said they have “grand expectations of being profitable” one day, for the moment it is all about giving their cows the best of lives. Testing and other regulations required for supplying raw milk cost them $20,000 a year.

“And that cost is the same whether we were producing one bottle of milk or thousands,” Steve said.

They use two labs, one in Rolleston near Christchurch and the other in Hamilton as no lab in New Zealand will do all the tests required. Every 10 days a sample of bulk milk is tested for Salmonella, Staph aureus, Campylobacter, inhibitory substances, E. coli and others, and every 15 days for total coliforms.

“The samples have to be packaged in a poly box with ice packs and I have to meet the courier in Palmerston,” Shelli said.

“The samples will get to Rolleston the same day but to get to Hamilton it’s usually the next day and if they are too warm by then we have to send them again.”

The results are emailed to them and to MPI and it’s why they have to know the names and contact details of everyone who consumes their milk.

They can’t sell to cafes or dairies, or even have a tasting stall at a food festival.

“If anything is wrong we have to contact everyone we have supplied that milk to.”

So far they’ve been okay except for some minor demerits.

“We’ve got to keep our somatic cell count (SCC) under 160 which is hard to do all year and coliforms at under 100.

“It means we have to keep on top of hygiene all of the time. There’s no room for error.”

They herd test every two months to identify cows with high SCCs and also to keep an eye on the fat and protein content of their milk so they can inform customers.

“Because it’s not homogenised it’s got a fuller, creamier mouth feel but in fact its fat content is 4.7% which is only about 1% higher than the blue top you buy in the supermarket.”

Their pint glass bottles are truly recycled – bought from a former milk delivery business in Christchurch.

However, foil tops are now banned so they went to JTech Plastics in Dunedin to make plastic lids. The lids proved too hard for some customers to get off so JTech made an opener to go with them.

“So every new customer gets bottles and an opener.”

They also supply milk in five-litre plastic pails which is popular with families and those who make their own cheese.

Deliveries are made in the evenings to Dunedin and Oamaru and people also pick up from the farm store.

“Our customers are mostly families with school-age children but we also have university students and elderly folks.

“Some people find the raw milk easier to digest and they like the fuller taste as well as knowing where their milk comes from.

“And they love the cream at the top of the bottle, that old fashioned fighting over who gets it for their porridge in the morning.”

Orders are made through email, text, Messenger and phone calls which keeps them busy so they don’t miss any.

Their cows are all named and are pedigree Jersey or Friesian, especially red factor, and Katie has added Brown Swiss as well. For years they have been travelling the southern A&P show circuit with many ribbons won along the way. BW is forgotten about and instead they breed for litres, a long lactation without too high a peak, low SCC and good conformation.

“Some of our big girls are 700kg but we also have Jerseys that are only 300kg.”

Steve and Shelli can both inseminate and bulls are only used for the yearlings after a first round of AI.

One of their Swiss Browns has given 14 litres every day from calving this season and Shelli is wondering how to dry her off in preparation for calving.

Their problem is often too much milk, especially over Christmas and New Year when people go on holiday and cancel their order for several weeks, but they pride themselves that none is wasted. Instead they raise all their calves and even yearlings will still drink the milk if offered.

Cows get a dairy grain mix while milking which is guaranteed free of palm kernel, as it’s what customers want, otherwise it’s grass with summer turnips when it gets dry and kale in the winter.

“We’re dryland farming here so they get balage when they need it as well.”

They keep the taste of the milk the same year round by only feeding crop for a couple of hours after milking and then moving the cows on to grass. With rigorous washing of the teats required, cows standing in mud is not an option.

“We do our own sense test on the milk so we make sure there is no taint or anything.

“And we drink it ourselves of course. We’ve been drinking raw milk all our lives.”