Beautifully produced single source milk
For what seems a long time, the dairy farming industry has been in the headlines for mostly all the wrong reasons. The shopping centre price wars and drought have made the notoriously difficult business of dairying even harder.
However it’s not all doom and gloom, you may have noticed on your morning coffee run a bottle of milk in the cafes fridge by the name of The Little Big Dairy Co (TLBDC). Located in Dubbo and owned by the Chesworth family, the business is bucking the trend creating a niche market for themselves recently expanding distribution in their own trucks thanks to the demand of all you lovely Newcastle people who enjoy drinking beautifully produced single source milk.
Emma and Duncan are the brother and sister team mostly leading the dairy farm and manufacturing business today, and on our visit to Dubbo we dropped into the farm to get a little taste, literally, of what dairy farming life is really like.
Lovely to meet you Emma, thank you for inviting us to The Little Big Dairy Co., dairying has been in your family for over 100 years, is that right?
Yes, my brother Duncan is about an 8th generation Dairy farmer, our family has been dairy farmers as far back as we can trace, on both my mum and dad's side. It’s more than work for our family, it’s a passion.
Has the farm always been called TLBDC?
No, before we started TLBDC in 2013 we were a regular dairy farming family who was milking and selling at the farm gate to a multinational processor. When I finished uni it was at the same time that Duncan was returning to work on the farm, he had also finished his trade, basically we needed to diversify and make room for both of us to work in the family business and create a sustainable model to continue as a dairy farming family. That’s when we conceived the idea to bottle our own milk and that’s how TLBDC brand came about. We built an on-farm factory (that my husband Jim and I operate) where we process, bottle, market and distribute the milk produced on the farm and my parents and brother operate a 1,000 cow Holstein stud.
How big is TLBDC today?
With 1000 cows there’s lots of milk here! At the moment we bottle 30% under the LBDC brand however, the aim is to put all the milk through the factory which is the sustainable model because we can control everything that happens right through from the farm to the bottle and our customers. It also our way of ensuring that the integrity and quality are kept intact and the farm is receiving a fair price for the product.
One of the unique aspects of your business is your Single Source process? Can you explain what this means and how it affects the taste of your products?
Big picture is that most dairies send their milk in a tanker, along with three or four other farms in the same tanker to a factory where it gets mixed in with hundreds of dairies milk. We know from our experience that different dairy farms have different standards for the quality of their milk, we’re driven to have exceptionally clean beautiful milk, so what single source means is that the milk is only from our farm.
Basically this means we have traceability which guarantees the integrity and quality of the product which really speaks to the meaning behind TLBDC, we pay attention to all the little things throughout the process which adds up to something big, and that is amazing quality milk, which is something quite special.
You have 800 gorgeous Holstein cattle, for someone like myself who is not across the cattle industry, is this particular breed of cattle used for a reason? Taste-wise does it make a difference what cattle you work with?
Holstein is the breed our family prefers, it’s like what type of dog or car you prefer I guess. Each of the cattle is registered, it is a cattle stud, all of our cows have papers which means their pedigree is publicly listed and they each have their own names. It’s a costly exercise to register them individually but the purpose behind it is that you have this traceability which improves the breeding and ultimately helps with the quality of the milk.
My Dad, Steve, and Duncan have a passion for dairy cows, they know all the cows by name, and are 100% committed to doing everything properly. So whilst the animals graze on pasture every day, it’s their main food source, we also hand feed them. Part of that hand feeding is making sure their diet is really balanced, they’re treated almost like athletes in terms of getting the max output from them, and what inputs are required to make that happen.
You’ve won a lot of awards over the years, most recent being the 2018 Australian Grand Dairy Awards with your Pure Double Cream being named Champion Cream. What's the secret to success?
I think it’s just making sure that every little aspect of the process is done properly, which amounts to something big. The Australian Grand Dairy Awards is like the Grand Final of all awards so you have to have won a gold medal throughout the year to enter and it’s then rejudged in Melbourne, which was all very exciting.
The drought is obviously a massive issue for you and farmers in general, how is the drought affecting your property in Dubbo currently?
One of the things we love about Dubbo for dairying is that we have really secure underground water, we have 2,000 acres of irrigation pastures under centre pivots which were set up by our family. I grew up on dairy farms around Denman, in the Upper Hunter, until I was 14 and the reason we moved to Dubbo was because of the secure underground water and the opportunity to grow and the proximity to the fodder farms.
Because our farm relies on so many purchase feed inputs like grain and hay and silage, the shortage of availability has increased feed costs so now there is pressure on us to grow more of the feed ourselves and invest further into being more sustainable. Which why it is again, so important that the price of milk fairly represents a sustainable price. A price that allows us to invest in things that help us cope as a producer without compromising the integrity and quality of the milk we produce, our animal welfare or environmental impact. I think this is so important for consumers to understand.
In February this year there was a lot of noise in the media about the price of milk, how have you navigated this as a business?
Traditionally dairy farmers are the ones with the product but always seem to be the price taker, so it’s certainly challenging, this is why TLBDC has been really lovely and rewarding to actually make the decision to sell less but for the right price.
Also being able to take control of the future and be sustainable, as Dairy Farmers we believe there should be enough margin to plant trees and invest in new technology and improve our relationship with our environment and community. Since deregulation, there has really been no margin allowed for those things.
Farming life looks like bloody hard work, what would a typical day look like for you, when do you wake up? and when does your head finally hit the pillow?
I am a little bit different because I’ve had babies so I get a free pass on the early mornings, but on a family level the first-morning milking starts at 3 am, so the guys are up at 2:30 am having breakfast and then going out to get the cows in. Our factory starts at 5 am, it’s split shifts on the farm so they come in for brekky and lunch then go back out again, but then they’re not back home until about 7 pm that night.
They are pretty long days, and I think that’s worth noting that Dairy farming, in particular, is a lot more intensive than any other agriculture, it’s so full-on, it can’t just be turned on or off because the cows need to be milked, if they’re not milked they’ll get sick with mastitis and the flow on from that is huge.
Just in the same way, you can’t suddenly double your output straight away without planning for increased young stock, breeding, and calving, so it’s long term getting to where you’re going which is why dairy farmers are the perfect target in regards to the supermarket price wars.
Cows must be milked and fed, milk needs refrigerated storage and to be manufactured soon after milking, which is why it is a hard decision between taking what you can get for the milk since you have already invested in the lead up and producing the milk, and not realistically being able to store the milk on farm.
For many dairy farmers it is either tip it down the drain or accept the low payments while you navigate an exit plan. Which is what we are seeing now across Australia with national milk production forecast to reduce by a further 5% this year.
You don’t provide an organic milk option can you explain why you don’t?
We used to do lots of farmers markets and we would often get asked why we aren’t organic, and we explain it by saying we’re sustainable as we believe in medicine and vaccinations for our animals, just like we like we do for ourselves. When you ask a mum if they got mastitis and didn’t treat it, what would happen? and you just watch their faces, even their husband’s faces, and they’re like 'no give them the penicillin, don’t be organic'.
A lot of cafes and restaurants throughout Newcastle stock your product, would you say you are stocked extensively throughout NSW/Australia or does Newcastle have a particular soft spot for you?
For a long time cafes have been talking about the provenance of their beans, and my bacon's from here, my eggs are from here, but milk is one of the major inputs into a coffee, for most coffee drinkers. Because of the quality of the milk due to the way our family farms, our milk is consistent in its milk components year round. Which is super favourable for baristas, they get the same quality and workability, micro bubbles etc with each bottle every day of the year.
We didn’t actually plan to enter into the Newcastle market, but to further our distribution in Sydney. When we started working on Sydney we started getting all these enquiries from Newcastle cafes which has just been amazing and super easy. We love working with business owners who share our values for ethically and sustainable produce and the café owners we work with in Newcastle really align well with us in this respect. We love Newcastle and working with all the café owners there.
It’s great for consumers to start thinking about where their milk actually comes from so I think that’s pretty cool that Café owners in Newcastle are talking to this, as well as benefiting from having the consistent quality milk which makes a great coffee.
Most businesses today need to evolve in some way, would you say this is the case for TLBDC, or what goals do you have for the business?
We’ve set ourselves some pretty high targets around how much milk we want to sell from our farm, because that’s more sustainable for us to continue dairying for another generation. In terms of evolving though we would love to make butter, that would be the ideal product line to introduce, I work really closely with my mum brainstorming on the product and marketing side of the business. We’re also aiming to create an educational facility for school groups to come along to, which would be so great. There are so many things to do. There’ so many directions we can take the business which is really exciting.
This question seems obvious now, having spoken to you and seen your passion first hand, but is farming what you see yourself doing forever, and do you hope your children continue the family business?
Yes I think so, I mean I don’t want to force them as their destiny, we think of us being landholders like a stewardship role, we’re only here for a little while and we need to be conscious of that and be able to have a sustainable business model as a family that will enable the next generation to actually be in dairy. Devastatingly we’re seeing more often the families we grew up with aren’t in dairy anymore, it wasn’t even an option for them or their kids. Secondary to this is if your readers' children will know an Australian dairy industry or drink long life milk imported from Asia.
We are just really happy to have the opportunity to be dairying and share the milk from our family dairy to the general public and now those in the Newcastle area who so far have been so on board and in line with the values TLBDC stands for.