Origin Earth Cheese & Yoghurt

August 2011

An owner-operated dairy company is producing artisan cheeses for the local market

Origin Earth is a Hawkes Bay based and owner operated company taking milk from a local dairy farm and turning it into cheese, yoghurt and bottled milk.

In Hawkes Bay there are around 45,000 dairy cows. But nearly all the milk those cows produce leaves the province for processing.

Richard and Joanie Williams saw an opportunity to process local milk for the local market. The two main selling points are the fact that it is local and secondly that it comes from a dairy farm using a biological farm system.

Joanie’s background is as a dairy farmer and then in the dairy service sector – ultimately ending up working for PGGW for 12 years in their dairy team. Part of her work there was studying future trends in the dairy sector which included environmental issues.

Early in the morning, two (possibly three) times a week, Joanie picks up milk from the farm and returns to the factory where the milk is put through a pasteurizer. They currently do pick ups with a trailer using 20 litre containers but are building a mini milk tank trailer.

In terms of processing, the pasteurizing is about all they do but the setting up, including rules and regulations, certification, hygiene etc has been a big ask for a small company of two.

The Origin Earth website proudly says their milk products are not standardized, homogenised, stabilised or separated. They have no emulsifiers, thickeners or milk powders added. What you purchase are products made from milk straight from the cow.

In the past there was probably no point in pointing that out but these days shoppers are a lot more savvy about what goes into the food – and that includes milk products.

Joanie can tell you about the learning curve of cheese making and processing but she can also tell you that the hygiene side of the processing is not such a challenge since it is similar to the processes she was used to when she was dairy farming. Many of the food safety requirements have been turned into positives and have been built into their traceability and sustainability story.

The factory is a large space with basically two food processing grade rooms inside it. Outside those two spaces is work and storage space and Richard’s pride and joy the glycol cooler.

Aside from pasteurized milk, they do pot set yoghurt which is basically adding the culture to the milk and then controlling the temperature to get the yoghurt.

Richard and Joanie have also been producing fresh cheeses – feta and camembert. That has been challenging but they’ve started to get some really good feedback on the cheese from local restaurateurs and even an international cheese judge. In a recent Dominion Post article, a local restaurant owner who is originally from Milan was singing the praises of the camembert. Their products are named as Origin Earth on his menus.

Joanie and Richard have a fair chunk of their week geared around the Farmers Market. They take their products to two markets – one in Napier and the famous Farmers Market at the Hastings showgrounds.

Like many others who started out food businesses, they’ve found the Farmers Market the ideal way to test their products on consumers and get some sense of how their venture would go without the big investment in marketing and retail space etc.

From the sound of things the feedback has been great. Many weekends they sell out. It has also proven the success of a formula which focuses on “quality” and “local”. What it does mean however is long weeks and disrupted weekends.

Joanie will deflect too much praise about the cheese and yoghurt making preferring to focus attention on the quality of the milk.

The milk comes from Kevin Davidson’s cows at Onga Onga. There are some practical advantages in going to Kevin – he’s split calving so that means they can get year round supply. There’s also the fact that there was a relationship there already.

Both Joanie and Richard are big fans of Kevin’s farming system which can be described as a “biological” method.

We’ve seen this farm system already on Rural Delivery on Neil Armitage’s diary farm (also in Hawkes Bay). Basically biologics is farming that focuses on looking after the soil’s microbial life, ensuring plants receive a balance of nutrients and trace elements.

It is similar to organics, but fans of this system say that organics is about what you can’t use – they are more interested in looking at what the soil needs and if that includes manufactured fertilizer – so be it. However, like organics, it blames excessive use of urea, superphosphate, herbicides and insecticides for producing unhealthy soils.

Kevin Davidson’s main aim on his Plantation Road dairy is to farm as well as he can while improving the environment.

He has 12 staff milking 1800 cows on almost 500 irrigated hectares, with an extra 230ha growing support crops and young stock.

In the 2010/2011 season, the farm will produce close to one million kilograms of milk solids. That’s about 560kg of milk solids a cow – which is well above the national average of 320kg.

They have been farming biologically for four years, ever since Kevin heard American agronomist and medical doctor Arden Andersen speaking about the link between plant nutrients and human health.

He has since seen his animal health stabilise and milk production rise 10 per cent, although he says this is also due to other changes to his cows’ diet.

The appearance of his farm has changed. The grass is more luxuriant and greener, with a waxy coat to the leaves. The grass sugar content has more than quadrupled, making it more palatable to cows and resistant to pests.

He uses Dannevirke fertiliser company Outgro, founded by helicopter pilot Jim McMillan. The fertiliser is a blend of lime, serpentine rock, guano phosphate, humates and other vitamins and minerals, ground fine and mixed with seawater into a slurry to be sprayed on to pastures.

It is a regimen dismissed by many soil scientists as unproven, expensive and unlikely to do more for soil and pasture health than conventional fertiliser.

He says regular herbage analysis shows his pastures are healthy, less than 0.5 per cent of the cows had to be assisted at calving and he hasn’t had to drench young stock for four years.

A sign that the soil is healthier is in the number of worms found in a spade cube, now more than 20 worms from the six to eight found originally. The worms are the proverbial canaries in the mine.

Kevin reckons many farmers are unhappy with their reliance on chemicals and want alternatives.

Plantation Road Dairies was an obvious biological farm to go to for milk. Kevin’s farm is less than an hour’s drive away.

He has in-shed-milk monitoring and electronic identification that allow him to trace what each cow has been fed and a fertiliser and grazing history for each paddock.

Joanie says that that is a good marketing tool when they are selling their products – and she says he’s rapt to be able to plug in more directly to the consumer.

Biological Farming is a programme, not just adding a single product and hoping for a miracle.

To be successful in the long run, you must use an approach where you are working with and utilising nature’s biological systems. An Outgro Biological Programme is about working in harmony with nature to re-establish mineral balance and introduce and enhance beneficial microbiology in the soil.

Biological Farming uses conventional and organic techniques, plus a combination of chemistry, physics and biology to produce sustainable, nutritious pasture and crops.

Three important parts to your soil are:

• The organic particles that serve as a reservoir of plant foods

• The soil minerals

• The living bio mass, consisting of bacteria, fungi, algae and larger organisms such as earth worms

Work with them, because the productivity of your farm is in direct proportion to the number, activity and balance of soil organisms. The value in a biological programme is that it helps to maximize crop production, with maintained soil fertility levels, while minimizing weed, disease and insect pressure.

Balance is the key, not only for economic but biological reasons also. It is essential to provide all elements to your crops and soil organisms in the proper balance. An excess in some nutrients can be as limiting as deficiencies of others. Soil scientists have written that at least 15 elements are needed to grow healthy plants. The productivity of a soil can never be greater than the plant food element in least supply.

You need to make these nutrients ‘exchangeable’ or ‘available’ to the plant. Because nutrients can interact, an excess of some elements can cause a shortage of others, even though it appears there is enough on a soil test. Managing your soil and crops to produce a larger root system that will recover the nutrients, plus working with soil organisms so they make nutrients available and exchangeable can make farming fun and profitable. The appropriate balance will lead to a healthier soil which produces nutritious pasture, which in turn leads to healthy productive stock and a healthy bottom line.

Farmers who are using an Outgro Biological Programme have reported some of the following changes:

• Healthier stock

• Increase in milk production

• Increased carcass yields

• Increase in clover content and vigour

• Increased nutrient cycling

• Increased natural nitrogen fixation

• Increased soil/water holding capacity

• Increased water infiltration

• Increase in earth worms

• Reduction in insect and weed pressure

We believe NZ farmers as food producers have tremendous opportunity moving forward. We need to recognise that the world is changing place and that our customers (the consumer) have increasing demands on how food is produced. If the NZ farmer can lead the way in adopting more sustainable farming practices, produce more nutrient dense food and provide a greater level of traceability, we will be in a position to command premium prices for our produce. If those of us involved with the agricultural sector during the 21st century can embrace sustainable farming, maybe we can also be part of leaving the land in better shape for the next generation.

Profile of Kevin Davidson (from Outgrow webpage)

Kevin and Linda Davidson were originally farming in Orini in the Waikato where they ran a sound conventional system. Around 9-10 years ago, they had the opportunity to be part of an equity partnership in the Hawkes Bay. They converted and developed Plantation Dairies which was originally 365ha but in the last couple of years they have purchased more land which has now been incorporated into the whole property.

Kevin and Linda are typical of early adopters in the industry. Being one of the original conversions in the Hawkes Bay, exploring new ideas is nothing new to this couple in order to achieve the best outcomes. For the first 7-8 years of the Hawkes Bay conversion, they ran a conventional high-input system achieving high levels of production both per hectare and per cow. On a 328ha milking platform they were bringing in around 50% of the diet as other feeds; both from the support land and in by-products. Production was around 520kg MS per cow in 2007, and it was apparent that this system was managed well, as the return on dairy assets in 07-08 was well up with the top 10% for the region.

Considerable expansion of the milking and support areas occurred 2-4 years ago and it was at this time that Kevin was looking for more assistance in fine-tuning the cows, the soils and the pastures. The continual reliance on more and more Nitrogen into the system was of concern to him, and it was almost by default that Kevin and Linda decided to explore the Biological Farming pathway.

Around 4-5 years ago they became concerned that the soil was showing signs of stress. When under irrigation, there was ponding occurring and it appeared that the soil was not responding well to the high stocking rate, watering and high levels of N inputs. When Kevin sought advice he found that three different fertiliser companies gave him three different ways to tackle the problem and so Kevin began to look and think outside the square for answers. Kevin looked at ways he could use less Nitrogen and began fine particle applications using less nutrients, more frequently. At the same time, he attended the Arden Anderson course in the Hawkes Bay and it became very clear that treating the soil with just a chemical approach was short sighted, and that gaining an understanding of the biology and the physics of the soil was just as important as meeting the plants chemical requirements.

Kevin operates the farm at a high level and has good information from specialist advisors feeding into the whole farm system – there is a nutritionist for the herd, a biological agronomist to monitor and manage the soil and pasture, and a team of 11 conscientious staff, run by a manager who reports to Kevin.

Two to three years ago Kevin wanted better health performance from the cows, which needed fine tuning. Continuous use of N at rates above 200 units/ha to grow more grass did not seem to be the answer and a steady decline in soil structure and porosity was becoming a problem. The farm already had good Olsen P levels of 35 and fertility was not limiting, however the soils did not seem to be responding. Once Kevin became aware of the principles behind the biological approach, he elected to work with a coach to give it a go. There was a change in approach and they started applying fine particle suspensions of fine lime, fish emulsion, RPR, humates and trace minerals. “With the help of a biological coach for the first 6 months, I found the farm beginning to change. In fact, within 6-12 months; we could see a noticeable difference. We started to really use the visual soil assessment approach, and with this as a baseline we began to make changes. Initially we started with only 6-8 worms per spade test. We are now up to 20 worms on each test. This meant there was a huge change in what is happening in the world beneath us”.

Over the year of 2007-08, there was a noticeable change in the pasture on the farm. It became more palatable for the cows with a change in what seemed to be either dry matter production or energy produced per tonne of feed grown. The herd’s milk production lifted by around 25% with no real other change to the inputs after a year of altering the approach. The Brix test, which is used as a direct and ready energy measure, indicated a change from 3-4% under the conventional system to a level of 12-16% which is where the farm operates at now. Kevin estimates the farm is harvesting around 13-14T DM/ha per annum.

This is a high input farm. Around 35% of the diet is from forage crops grown on the support land of 230ha, with around 10% of the diet being from by-products that are brought in. The herd of 1800 split calving cows run in three herds: the fresh cows, on auto ID feeding for 30 litres, the mid lactation cows on

The other feature of this system is that the farm never operates on a short grazing rotation. The cows are going into around 3500-4000kg DM per ha of pre-grazing cover. The residual is around 1600kg DM. Cows graze evenly across the paddock. The rotation runs between 35 and 52 days on the milking platform, the cows are monitored to ensure that they are fully fed, and health issues are now running at a low level. Transition (pre calving) cow management is finely tuned with anionic salts, with 30% of the pre calving diet as grass, 30% as by-products, and 30% cereal silage. Urine pH is monitored. Calcium, salt and magnesium sulphates and chlorides are fed before calving, and cows calve with very few issues. Less than 0.5% of cows had to be assisted at calving or needed metabolic treatment, and in less than a month, the cows are hitting their straps at 2.4 kg MS/cow/day. This farm aims to have both a clear vision on where it is heading, and this system is a reflection of how that vision is being achieved.

Plantation Dairies’ goals are :

Productivity : 1,000,000 MS from around 1800 – 1900 cows

Financial : Keep the overall return on dairy assets above the cost of capital

Environmental : Continue to explore how we can generate more with a lower impact. There is still a lot we can learn. “We are producers of food first and farmers second. We have a responsibility to feed the world and we need to get a lot better about what we do. Our foods need to improve better nutrient density. Food production needs to be sustainable for soils, animals, humans and the environment in a lower impact. There is still a lot we can learn.

“We are producers of food first and farmers second. We have a responsibility to feed the world and we need to get a lot better about what we do. Our foods need to improve better nutrient density. Food production needs to be sustainable for soils, animals, humans and the environment in general.” – Kevin Davidson