How Now Kind Milk: The Leaders of Australia's Dairy Revolution
We were so lucky this week to be able to sit down with the incredible Cathy Palmer of How Now Dairy to chat all things ethical dairy.
Over the last few years, the discussion about ethics in Australia’s dairy industry has really come to the forefront. Cue the revolutionary ‘Kind Milk’ dairy farmers at How Now Milk - Cathy Palmer and Les Sandles. How Now Dairy promises and delivers the highest standard in ethical dairy - this means happy cows, mum and calf together (their calves are never sold into the veal industry, and they stay with their mums), and small herd farming to ensure they can know and meet all of their cows’ needs.
The story of How Now is a bit of a David and Goliath situation - How Now is a true little guy in an industry of huge dairy farms. Situated on a 50 acre farm (most dairy farms are more like 300 acres, Cathy tells us) just outside of Shepparton in Victoria, How Now is run by Cathy and her partner Les, a third generation farmer and a qualified animal nutritionist with a PhD in Dairy Cow Nutrition. There’s just five of them running the show - “there’s Jason, our new worker - he was a share farmer and dreams of having his own How Now farm with his partner, and their rescue greyhound. Then there’s Les and myself, and we’ve just employed a driver, Steve Smith - who we call The Captain (all the cricket peeps will get that one)!.”/p>
Cathy affectionately refers to her cows as “the Girls” - “there’s about 35 Girls in the milking herd, and we’ve got about 50 in total. There’s also about 15 calves at the moment of varying ages from two weeks to four months.”
As Cathy tells us, “all of our cows have names, they have to have numbers on their ear tags but I write their names on all of them - they’re not numbers, they’re individual beings with names.” At How Now, they are all about happy cows, and as such don’t allow working dogs or motorcycles on their farm, which can stress the cows out.
What makes How Now Milk different?
How Now’s animal welfare is second to none, so you already know why How Now is the best of the best from an ethical perspective, but maybe you’re wondering what the differences are between How Now Milk and conventional milk when it comes to taste too. We asked Cathy to give us the low-down on what makes How Now Milk different:
“A lot of people say that our milk doesn’t upset their tummies like conventional dairy and people ask me ‘is our milk A2?’ The answer is no we are not A2 however our Girls are mostly Jersey cows, and Jerseys naturally produce higher amounts of the A2 protein , so they have lower levels of A1 protein - which are the irritants for the gut.
Also our milk is very mildly processed - the processing can really upset people’s tummies.”
How Now chooses to keep their full cream milk unhomogenised, which is another big difference between How Now and conventional milk. Unhomogenised milk is basically un-messed-with milk, which means leaving the classic, delicious cream top as is - it’s still pasteurised to make it safe to drink, as per Australian law. Many Cannings customers refer to this as “the way milk used to be!”.
“You retain the integrity of the milk. We go to so much trouble to use certain pumps - centrifugal pumps - so they just slowly push the milk instead of slamming it through pipes. This preserves and protects the milk. With normal milk all the fat particles are smashed and when you homogenise it smashes it again, then it is heated up, which breaks every protein and fat particle down and blends it all the way through the milk. A lot of cafes do ask me for homogenised milk, but for me right now I don’t want to mess with it because the unhomogenised is what I believe in - keeping all the goodness intact.”
So to summarise what sets How Now milk apart:
- Gold standard animal welfare
- Higher levels of A2
- Gently processed, and as a result, more tummy friendly for many!
- As nature intended - fat and protein shifts seasonally - no artificial mixing
- Tends to have higher protein and higher fat than other milk
While we were chatting, Cathy revealed to us that Cannings was in fact her first official stockist, and we could not be prouder. Cathy told us that she actually started out as a customer of ours, and when she first embarked on her kind milk journey, Cannings was one of the first businesses that popped into her mind - “I thought How Now was in line with everything you already have in your store. I wrote a personal letter to Sam and passed it to the Kew store, and when Sam got it he just went “yep” and was willing to take a chance on us and it was pretty much overnight. That’s the great thing about Cannings - you can walk in and know that everything is high welfare. The hard work is already done for the customer, and you don’t have to read the fine print and wonder “is that really high welfare?” because you know that everything has been checked.”
A day in the life at the How Now Farm:
“Jason milks early in the morning, usually a 6 - 6:30am start. Ideally with dairy you want to have 10 hours between milking, which gives them a chance to ruminate properly and get a good feed.
The Girls will often just appear in the dairy. If you go down to the dairy and turn everything on you will turn around to see some cows standing there.
Some of the the bigger calves take nearly all the milk off mum but mum still comes through because that’s where they get their treat and they are creatures of habit. My partner, Dr. Les Sandles, is an animal nutritionist - he did his PhD in dairy cow nutrition and he makes all his own feed mixes, so he adjusts our Girls' diets for the different times of year to ensure the consistency of flavour and to keep it interesting for them.”
From here, the cows and calves both come into the milking area 5 at a time, where the calves usually just “hang out” in the yard and rest, or play with How Now’s new piglets.
The How Now tribe have a strong connection and respect for their herd, and this shows even in the little details of their milking routine. Cathy told us that in most large dairies “there are big platforms, milkers go down into a bunker and you’re at eye level with cows udders and the cow doesn’t see you. There’s no interaction and I hate that. Our Girls all walk in at eye level to us and usually you get licked or you get flicked by a tail and they don’t move along very quickly - always time to hang back for a scratch.” From here the Girls go out into the paddocks and “munch around”, wander, rest, and then they repeat the whole thing at night.
“Our human day is very different to that” Cathy told us, laughing, “after the milking is finished, every second day we put the milk from the vat into a refrigerated vehicle, bring it down to Melbourne and we process and bottle it here, and then it gets delivered out. Between that there’s irrigating, which Les usually does overnight, and then there’s pasture sowing and general farming.” Cathy handles all the daily ordering, invoicing and social media aspects of the business herself - “I try to reply to every person who messages us” she said, “every evening I sit down at the computer and I spend a couple of hours replying to all of them”, which she says she finds very rewarding, adding that "the personal messages we get always remind me we are on the right track".
Image: Les with Trina, Cathy and Les' favourite cow, who has been with them since the beginning
Throughout our conversation, the theme of letting the herd go at their own pace, as well as having the freedom to express their natural behaviours and individual personalities keeps coming up. “I always say, if you want to know something, ask the cows! If something is wrong, they will tell you and you need to listen. If a cow is kicking on the milking line, it’s not ‘just because’, it means something is wrong, whether it’s because she has a stone stuck in her foot or she is sore or whatever it is - you need to listen to her.”
According to Cathy, this approach produces some interesting results - “Jason (our farm worker) said to me that he’s never seen cows like ours - so relaxed and ok to just hang.” The How Now herd, as Cathy explains, have very sweet personalities and a strong bond both between the cows and farmers, as well as with each other. “We’re noticing all these behavioural habits that people said cows don’t have.” Cathy gave us an example of what sounds a lot like cow daycare. She said that although the Girls all need to graze, the calves will have their play time and "run around like crazy things but about 11o’clock they just all pass out for a long snooze, they’re so gorgeous” and the mums will head off to graze. However there will always be at least two of the mums who stay behind, and then they’ll swap. They’ll keep doing this all day until everyone’s had a feed and then they all just rest. They never will leave the calves alone.”
“Cows have very strong friendships. When we bought our first 15 cows, Les went to the farm and chose one whole social group of cows, so our Girls came to the farm already friends. Our cows always go places together. People think it’s weird but then I say to them “think about girls going to the bathroom together at a nightclub!”.”
How has the drought impacted you guys?
Like most Aussie farmers, How Now has been hit pretty hard by the drought, with one of the biggest drains being the skyrocketing cost of feed. To put this in perspective, Cathy shared with us that their projected feed costs for a year had been $50K, but their actual costs ended up being more like $120K. Obviously this is a huge difference, but as Cathy says, “you can’t pass this onto customers”. There is a silver lining in this though, because Cathy told us that she and her partner Les have been starting to work with different approaches to land management “For us farming starts with the soil that we nurture to provide the feed base for our Girls.”
One of the things that Cathy and Les are getting into that we were very excited to hear about is regenerative farming practices. As Cathy told us, How Now is using special soil tilling that means that when it does rain, much more water is absorbed and retained by the soil, which helps with drought resistance in the future. “We’re planting trees and other native plants to attract native bees , which will boost the ecosystem. We’ve already got worms which is so important. This was a biodynamic farm many years ago, so it’s never really had pesticides or nasties used and we don’t use them.”
This really speaks to How Now’s dedication to improving the entire model - they’re not content to just stop at free range, or keeping mum and calf together, or careful processing of their product - wherever the folks at How Now see an issue they work tirelessly to solve it and this is what makes us so proud to be able to support them.
In order to spread their kind milk revolution, Cathy and Les are currently running an equity crowd funding campaign (on their website), meaning you can own your very own little piece of How Now by purchasing shares in the company. Cathy explained to us that this is her way of giving back to potential donors, and that she couldn’t “think of anything better than to be able to give back to the people who were there from the beginning” as they grow.
Referring to the equity crowd funding, Cathy told us that with the funds raised they plan to bring their processing onto the farm and start doing other products - butter is high on her personal list! But there is a high demand for yoghurt and cream. They also have a strong desire to return to artisanal cheese making.
How Now is absolutely dedicated to animal welfare at any size - never losing the passion and the care that makes them special as they grow. “We will never have more than 100 cows on our farm. We would rather have 50 farms with 100 cows than 5 farms with 1000 cows. We have set our cap at 100, but we have 50 cows right now, and then we’ll go to 60, then 70, and if at any point we see that we’re losing the cows’ personalities, happiness and relaxed state, then we’ll say “no, that’s it, that’s too many” because happy cows are the most important thing.” Cathy explained to us that the dream is not to expand the How Now Farm until it can’t sustain what makes it special, but to spread a kind milk revolution and have other farmers join them and produce kind milk supplied under the How Now model.
Cathy and Les also hope to start their own How Now accreditation, which encompasses all of the ethical standards that are integral to the How Now way of doing things. Although certifications such as organic and biodynamic are a step in the right direction, Cathy feels that an accreditation focusing on animal welfare first is what’s missing in Australia’s dairy industry. A How Now accreditation is Cathy’s way of spreading the kind milk way of working, and one day if we all demand it, this will be the industry standard.
Cathy shared with us that she hopes to one day have a special place for her “retirement cows”. “Our original cows are around 7 years old now. An average dairy cow goes into the herd at around 2 years old, and is often dead by 5. Once their milk drops, if it stays low after a few months they’re sent to the abattoirs . With conventional dairy, many cows’ milk production drops prematurely (I believe) because of how unhappy most of them are and the artificial life they live devoid of any natural existence. Of course you will find dairy farmers who have their favourite cow that will be 15 years old, but this is definitely not the norm for dairy cows.”
The team at How Now firmly believe that kind milk, and the How Now way of farming, is the future of Australian dairy (and we agree!). According to Cathy, whilst the happiness and health of her herd is her highest priority, the happiness and health of the farmer is a huge priority for her too - and she believes this is something that should be more of a focus industry-wide. “As a farmer, you should be able to go and watch your kids’ play footy or a netball game on the weekend, - without having to work these crazy 14 hour days.” Small herd farming, Cathy says, can give struggling Aussie dairy farmers this freedom, but as she says “we have to be willing to pay for it, and I think people are willing, because there’s a story behind it. So if we want this, people have to vote with their wallets”.
If you’re interested in learning more about How Now’s equity crowd funding campaign you can click here to find out more.
If you’d like to shop for How Now Milk in the Cannings Online Store, click here...