Thursday, December 7, 2023

Raw milk goes down a treat

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When most people contemplate retirement they usually look at it as a chance to slow down after a lifetime of hard slog. Ross Nolly caught up with a Taranaki couple who did no such thing.
Reading Time: 4 minutes

When Pete and Marg Dalziel from Stratford retired in 2011 they didn’t turn their attention to gardening or settling on the front porch with a book. 

Instead of putting their feet up and taking it easy they started a new business, Dolly’s Fresh Real Milk, selling direct to the public.

Dolly’s Milk is a self-service operation using a vending machine to fill customers’ bottles with freshly produced milk. Their loyal and regular customers hold a Dolly’s Card that allows them to buy milk at a cheaper price.

Though they both had rural upbringings they had been living in Sydney. Pete worked in banking for 43 years and Marg managed a retail jewellery store. They always dreamed of returning to rural New Zealand in their semi-retirement. 

They bought their 43ha farm in 2004, sight unseen.

“We were still living in Sydney when we were alerted that the property was for sale,” Pete says.

“Our agent had told us that we needed to be quick and as we weren’t due home for another six weeks we signed up for it. We weren’t sure what we were going to do with the land.”

Pete was tired of the banking world and wanted another challenge away from the corporate world.

His interest in raw milk supply was piqued after friends Kevin and Cindy Death read an article about it. They were also interested so bought land at Bell Block, which is a separate business but under the Dolly’s Milk brand and market.

The more Pete studied it the more it seemed to be a viable business opportunity.

First, they researched the equipment needed to dispense 24/7 and file all the necessary paperwork to meet regulations. Dolly’s Milk now operates under a regulated control scheme issued by the Ministry for Primary Industries and is subject to an annual audit by Eurofins as well as an annual shed inspection.

They came up with the name Dolly’s Milk over dinner one night 

“We were having dinner with Kevin and Cindy and trying to think up names. We’d had a few wines and the creative juices started flowing when Kevin said what about Dolly’s? He was referring to Dolly Parton,” Marg says.

“Immediately, I visualised a glamourous looking cow standing there with beautiful eye-lashes and big udder.”

Pete had to learn the ropes so milked with Kevin for a few months. The couple say they had a lot to learn and even now they find that they are still continually learning. 

A year after buying the property they built a barn with a 90 square metres self-contained accommodation studio above it. They lived there while they moved a 120-year-old villa from Central Hawke’s Bay onto the property then had the idea of using it as a farmstay operation for another venture, Barberry Hill. Two years later the operation was expanded when they built another shed with upstairs accommodation.  

Barberry Hill is run by Marg who spoils her guests with a breakfast basket containing eggs, homemade muesli, bread and spreads, fruit and, of course, Dolly’s Milk. 

“The studios work in well with what we’re doing,” she says.

“Like Dolly’s it’s a boutique business. Each studio apartment is fully self-contained with a wood burner, washing machine and drive-in parking.” 

They say the property required a lot of development with fencing, gates and the water supply needing work. They have since sold part of the farm to bring it to its present size of 17.5ha. Over the last few years the farm has been subdivided into smaller paddocks. The original paddocks were too big and they seemed to be forever putting fences up when break feeding the cows.

The Dalziels run 30 cows with 15 to 20 milking at any given time. They are milked once-a-day in the morning through their 12-a-side herringbone cowshed. Individual cows are rotated into the herd throughout the year to replace those that are slowing down. 

Each day they spend a combined total of three hours in the shed. Marg cleans the shed while Pete cleans and sterilises the machines and fetches the cows. The cleaning is the most time-consuming task as they have to be very particular to meet the stringent raw milk hygiene standards.

The somatic cell count (SCC) can be difficult to manage in a small herd but each cow is checked a week after it enters the herd. If the cell count is acceptable she goes into the supply. 

“We test the entire herd every day or every second day depending on how the SCC is tracking. If we see any rise in the count, we paddle test and identify the cow straight away,” Marg says.

“That cow is removed from the supply until her count comes down. Our milk is lab-tested three times a month, which gives us a good overview.”

Each morning they remove the previous day’s milk from the vending machine and replace it with the fresh morning’s milk. Leftover milk is fed to their beef calves or given to other farmers for their stock.

Supply of fresh milk never runs out either with new cows entering the herd throughout the year.

“We’re ticking along nicely with the volume. Our best cows are producing about 25 litres per milking,” Marg says.

“We’ve got enough rotating Dollys to keep the supply steady.” 

They haven’t bought a dairy cow for a long time because they have bred most of their replacements. They plan to buy the occasional heifer when needed. They previously used AI, which proved difficult in a small herd. 

“When you milk once a day it’s difficult to determine when a cow is on heat. 

“We had a great technician who was happy to come out and do a single cow. But after he retired we switched to bulls,” Pete says. 

“We might get seven calves in a row and then have none for three or four weeks. We let the calves stay on the cows for two-days. We fatten them and then sell them when they are over 100kg.”

Their mating is staggered so they don’t get a flood of calves or cows coming into the shed. They need a steady stream of cows coming into their herd throughout the year so can often go up to five weeks without running the bull with the herd. 

Dolly’s Milk is not certified organic but does use organic principles. The Dollys are grass fed with supplemental silage and a grain extract during winter. 

“We want our customers to know how the Dollys have been treated and what they’ve been eating,” Pete says.

“We like knowing that our customers are buying safe milk. And they in turn tell us the amazing results they’ve had from drinking it.”

Customers tell Pete and Marg of the beneficial effects the raw milk has had for their acne, eczema and reflux but most of all they love the taste, that it is not processed and the bulk use glass bottles. They often hear stories about how much better their customers sleep after drinking the raw milk.

It is common for Marg to hear the words “Here’s Mrs Dolly, how are the cows?” when she is in town.

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