Care for animals and land produces exceptional flavour
Dairy farmer Col Cowan loves the whole ecosystem of producing milk.
He is the third generation of farmers to work the land on his 270 acres property at Johns River on the NSW Mid North Coast.
“I was coming to the dairy when I was a five or six years old and putting the cups on the cows.
“I guess the reason I left school to become a farmer is that passion for the cows since I was young.”
He doesn’t mind the very early morning starts, 5am seven days a week, because he enjoys the farming lifestyle and working with his cows.
“From the passion of cows, I soon grew a passion for growing pasture. I found that it was a nice, efficient, and profitable way to dairy.
“So, I love the whole system. Growing grass, getting it up to a nice height, and then putting the cows on it, and seeing the return in the vat. And I enjoy running a small business.”
Col runs a milking herd, 200 head of replacement cows and a Holstein stud.
He supplies milk for the Farmers’ Own brand and says it’s the best product in the fridge at Woolworths supermarkets.
Col Cowan With Farmers Own Milk
The Farmers Own Stroy
Farmers have a gift for ingenuity. When you work on a remote property, you need to be able to work around problems when they arise.
In 2011, when faced with downward pressure on the price of their product, a group of farmers, including Col, sought to sit down with supermarkets to get a better deal.
Two years later, the Farmers’ Own brand was on the shelves exclusively at Woolworths. A milk brand created by farmers to benefit farmers and consumers.
“We found that processors could pay whatever price they wanted, with no regard to the price paid to the farmers; they could drop the price as they liked.
“So Tim Bale, who’s a leader of our collective bargaining group, wrote letters to each of the Woolworths directors, documenting our plight. We got a sympathetic ear. They came up and met us on the farm, and we had lunch at the Hannam Vale shop, and it grew from there.”
Farmers’ Own labels feature the faces of the dairy farmers in the group. Unfortunately, you won’t find a bottle with Col’s face.
“They couldn’t fit my ears in the photo,” Col joked.
When the milk leaves the farm, the Farmers’ Own processor ensures its unique flavour characteristics are not lost in the treatment process. Cows produce milk of varying protein and fat content. In processing, milk is standardised to a certain percentage of fat which also standardises the flavour.
“Our milk meets strict hygiene standards, but it goes through minimal processing, so generally it has a higher cream content which gives it a great flavour.
“Most processors will skim off the cream to a minimum standard, and that’s what goes on the shelf. But our milk has whatever fat and protein content the cows are producing.
“It’s the closest thing on the supermarket shelf to what a dairy farmer has on the farm.”
Col Cowan Pictured Working In Dairy Farm Milking Shed
The welfare of animals and land
Col is proud of the product he and his cows produce.
He manages the whole system, from growing quality pastures to caring for each animal. This deep understanding and passion are evident in the milk vat each day.
Animal welfare is also part of farming which Col takes to heart. Excess Friesians are sold to other farmers. Male calves (bobby calves) born on the property, are surplus to the needs of dairy farmers.
“When we started Farmers’ Own we went to Woolworths with a voluntary plan about animal welfare.
“Dealing with bobby calves is a big issue. We rehome our calves. We rear them with milk until they can be sold and rehomed.
“Some people in the industry knock bobby calves on the head. This goes against everything in my instinct in regard to caring for aminals as I was raised to do.
“All the Farmers’ Own dairy farmers are qualified to put down a cow if needed humanely. We’ve done a euthanasia course.”
Each of the cows on Col’s dairy farm wears a smart device which analyses their physical activity and health.
At any time of the day, Col can log in and check on his herd remotely. The devices will send an alert to the farmer if a cow’s physical activity or health readings change. This minimises the length of time a cow may be unwell, in pain, and needing veterinary treatment.
Johns River is a great place to produce milk. The rich soil ranges from red on the hills to alluvial flats around creeks on Col’s property which has been in the family for one hundred years.
“My cows are grazing on green pastures; they’re not standing on concrete eating out of a trough.
“Once they’ve filled their bellies, they can go and lie down on green pasture. No dirt and dung is getting all over their udders, so they get less mastitis and a better quality product for us.
“Just look at this valley, how could it not produce beautiful milk?”
“Looking after your pasture is important; not overgrazing and not grazing before it’s ready. We leave a nice residual for the next grazing. Sometimes that involves bringing your cows off the strip at about 11am and giving them some hay. It just protects your pasture a lot better, and it recovers a lot better for the next grazing.
“We also make sure we raise pasture to conserve feed for silage.”
Feeding Dairy Cattle at Col Cowans Johns River Farm
Usually, there is high rainfall in the Camden Haven hinterland, ideal for dairy farming.
“Most years, we get around 1500mm. 2019 was quite horrific, as it was everywhere.
“We ended up with about 520 mm for the year, about a third of the yearly average.
“We were fortunate enough, we had about 700 bails of silage conserved from the previous spring, and that carried us through the season pretty well.
“But once we got to about mid-October, the little bits of showers we were getting here and there stopped, the temperatures soared, we had horrendous winds.
“It was about the same time the bushfires started. The bushfires did cross the highway from the wetlands, and this property starts 500 meters from the highway at Johns River, so it was pretty close.
“We were more affected by the smoke. We’ve lost three or four cows with respiratory problems in recent months. Some cows lost their pregnancies, and some of them never went back in calf. So yeah, some pretty expensive stud cows in that group, so that was probably our biggest losses.
“One of the big issues was sourcing quality fodder, like hay. There’s a lot of rivalry in the hay industry, and a lot of us were desperate to feed our cows. And there were some pretty ordinary stories about paying big money for poor quality hay. So, yeah, so we muddled along to middle of October, and then we’re running at a fairly drastic loss through November, December, and then mid-January, until the rain did come. And everything’s turned around since then.”
Dairy Cattle At Sunrise On Col Cowans Farm
After the fires, having a farm was a blessing during the Covid19 pandemic.
“With this COVID period we’ve just gone through, we weren’t affected at all. Very minimal, anyway, let’s put it that way.
“We still had jobs; people still needed food. We’ve had fantastic weather since late January. We’ve been able to produce a fantastic product.”
Providence, Col says, is important to many consumers and should drive their food-buying motivations.
“The dairy industry is still very crucial. Let’s face it, Australia is struggling for industries, and the dairy industry is one that’s been established for well over a hundred years. I’m not sure what the figures are off the top of my head, but I’m sure just the dairy industry would put a hundred million dollars into the economy. It creates jobs, a good atmosphere and lifestyle. People enjoy driving through the area and seeing the cows grazing on the paddock.
“When you buy food that’s produced here it’s a lot fresher. When we started selling milk to Woolworths, we made them aware that some of the milk on their shelves was coming from interstate. And they were quite horrified, because their key motto is, ‘We’re the fresh food people.’ So yeah, all milk that is procured from each state is produced and sold in that state.”
Col is proud that consumers are voting with their wallets and hearts, contributing to the Farmers’ Own success story.
“Since our product hit the shelves in 2013, we’ve been entering in fine food shows and royal shows like the Sydney show and Brisbane, and we’ve done quite well over the years.
“Our biggest win was last year in 2019 we won the Canstar Blue, which is a survey taken across all states by consumers.
“Our milk ranked number one. It got five stars in all four categories, which were overall satisfaction, taste, value for money and packaging design. We were extremely proud of that.
“It’s just confirmation that the idea that we had seven or eight years ago, with milk being minimally processed, is very popular with the consumer.”