Cows are endearing animals. I honestly believe that it is impossible to dislike them — and only the cold hearted would not feel affection for them when looking into their ponderous eyes. I first started thinking about dairy cattle while reading the ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ series of books about a British vet. Now, as a cow enthusiast, I realise that it is strange that it has taken me this long to write down some notes about the dairy industry!

This topic is so broad that I have tried to stick to the origins of dairy, looking at both the farm and processing in order to define what makes a quality product. In recent years, the coffee industry has followed a path that is similar to that of other primary producing industries (most recently, chocolate). With coffee, we started with ‘secret’ blends made of ‘Arabica’, with the exotic product being its own selling point. We then moved on to single origins, before discovering the important influence of post-harvest processing on flavour. Now we have more traceability than ever when it comes to consuming coffee; we know about altitude, region, soil, farmer’s names and tree varietals — and yet, with all of this information and work, I still hear comments like ‘Milk is milk. It all just comes from a cow.’ Given that this product is potentially going to be mixed with coffee in around 95% of the drinks made in a café, perhaps we should pay it a little more attention! So what defines quality in milk anyway? And will the milk industry start to go down the traceable line that coffee has been through over the last decade?

Let’s start by agreeing that it’s hard to move forward without acknowledging where you have been! Unsurprisingly, dairy cows aren’t native to this country. The first seven cows and two bulls arrived in New South Wales on the First Fleet. They unfortunately escaped into the bush where they managed to survive. After six years, those nine animals had multiplied to become a herd of 61. By 1800 this number had grown exponentially, as there were close to 1000 bulls and cows in Australia. The process of producing milk is actually very simple; cows produce a calf and are then able to be milked. The milk is then taken to be pasteurized, and in most cases, homogenised as well, before it is sold to the consumer.

Most people are familiar with the Holsten Fresian breed of cows. They are the black and white cows pictured on the label of most milk cartons and are high volume milk producers, giving up to 60L of milk per day. Obviously, in order to sustain that high production, the quality of milk can drop. Sue Daubney, from specialist dairy Bannister Downs, explains that they expect lower volumes from their cows in order to maintain quality. ‘Our cows average about 18-20 litres per day — this is low for the State (and probably national) average, which is more like 30-35 litres per day. However, we find that our cows are not under a lot of stress as they are not in a high production system, and their milk quality is very good as a result (as they are not pumping out milk beyond their normal thresholds)’.

Other breeds which are popular in Australia include the Jersey, Aussie Red, Illawarra, Brown Swiss, Guernsey and Ayrshire as well as cross breeds. Two other breeds which are of particular mention are the Jersey and Guernsey. They are smaller cows with a lower than average output of milk, and they require less grazing space; yet they produce a consistent product with a high butterfat content. Knowledge of cow breeds and traceability hasn’t been emphasised greatly previously. That is beginning to change in WA with the emergence of a few brands who are starting to sort milk by breed and sell it independently. Harvey Fresh, for example, is selling ‘Jersey Girl’, which is produced from Jersey and Jersey hybrid herds in the Harvey region south of Perth.

Like coffee though, it is the ’post-harvest processing which seriously influences the quality of the product. In this case, post-harvest processing refers to pasteurization. Pasteurization is a legal requirement in Australia for milk that is sold to be consumed. Raw, unpasteurized milk is still available (although it is rare!) but it is sold as bath milk and not intended to be consumed. Pasteurisation, a process first invented by Louis Pasteur as a way of preserving beer, is the process of heating the milk to kill the organisms responsible for such diseases as E.coli, Salmonella, listeria, typhoid fever, tuberculosis, diphtheria, and brucellosis.

The techniques used to pasteurise vary slightly, but also go a long way towards defining the end quality of the milk. Sue Daubney believes that it the largest single contributing factor to the final quality of the product. A high production dairy will expose the milk to a heat plate at 72C for 15 seconds before immediately cooling in a process called High Temperature Short Time or HTST. In contrast, Vat or Batch pasteurisation is much slower and happens at a lower temperature, so it is not appropriate for high volume dairies. The milk is kept at 63.5C for 30 minutes, to protect a lot of milk proteins (which denature at around 68C), resulting in a more stable product.

After pasteurisation, the milk is homogenised (which is not a legal requirement in Australia). Homogenisation suspends the fat in the water in order to make one, uniform product. Without homogenisation, the milk solids separate out and float on the surface of the water. The process is easy, the milk is forced though a screen with small holes which breaks up the fat globules and suspends them in the water.

Really though, the two basic rules for producing great milk are to make sure the cows aren’t over producing (particularly when pastures start to dry out), and to choose milk that is Vat pasteurised. Traceability by breed is something that is coming up more often in our market and it is interesting to see that dairies are starting to experiment with different products!

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