WHEN Luke and Meaghan Cleary saw a small window of opportunity to increase profits on their Wauchope, NSW, dairy farm, they jumped at it.
The Cleary’s 120-hectare property “Hastings Park” is one of a small number of farms now supplying Norco with A2 milk.
Milk marketed as A2 milk comes from cows that only produce the A2 protein in their milk, rather than the other main protein, A1, or a mixture of A1 and A2.
“We saw an opportunity and there was only a small window to get in, because they were only looking for a few farms,” Mr Cleary said.
“If we didn’t do it then, we possibly wouldn’t have the chance again and we are always looking for ways to value add to our product, and that was one way to do it.”
The Cleary’s converted their 300-head herd of predominantly Holsteins that produced both A1 and A2 protein to those tested and confirmed A2 producing cows.
Making the move to A2 a year ago, they currently milk 260 cows, but will shortly be back up to their original numbers of 300 head with the purchase of a mob of A2-tested heifers.
“Production last year was 2.2 million litres. Once we increase numbers we plan to get back up to our previous levels of two-and-a-half million,” Mr Cleary said.
“When converting completely to A2 we had to test all the cows, sell off the ones that weren’t A2 and replace them with tested A2 cows.”
After dairying at “Hastings Park” for about 20 years, Mr Cleary, a fifth generation dairy farmer who farms with his parents Sue and
Leo Cleary, was looking for a way to get more for their product.
“There’s a slight bonus pay per litre and we had an excess of heifers, so we thought we could test and, without too much trouble, replace our current stock with A2 cattle,” Mr Cleary said.
“A2 Corporation was looking for people and we were looking to value add to our product. Once the dust settled and the testing and changeover of stock finished, there wasn’t any more work involved than before, but we were receiving more for the end product.”
The Clearys receive a premium from Norco, and that looks to continue, despite the criticism from dairy bodies, including Dairy Australia, that A2 milk is no different than any other.
“They are taking all our milk and using it as A2 as far as I know, and they have indicated they want us to get back to the production level we were at,” Mr Cleary said.
From what they have been saying sales are on the up, so there is demand out there.”
“Product itself seems to have taken off a bit with sales increasing so that is a good sign from this side.
“We do think there is some benefit to drinking A2 and we suggest people try it.
“Norco suppliers see it as another avenue to supply the co-op, and another product they are able to offer, making them a stronger company.
“The cows look exactly the same and behave exactly the same, they still need to be milked twice a day and looked after the same as they always have been.”
The “Hastings Park” herd has remained predominantly Holstein despite the changeover in stock.
One of the largest hurdles the Clearys found when looking to purchase A2-producing cattle was finding a herd big enough to facilitate the large scale testing that was required.
They were lucky, however, an above average percentage of their own milkers tested positive to producing A2 milk, limiting the number they had to source from elsewhere.
“We were fortunate when we looked back at the bulls we were using there were a lot of A2 bulls in our semen tank by fluke – our herd had one of the highest test results Norco had seen, with upwards of 45 per cent already A2,” Mr Cleary said.
“The trouble was finding enough cattle that were for sale to test – we were looking for 100 head, and to get that number you are looking to test a mob of about 250 head.
Milking in a 24-a-side rapid exit herringbone dairy, production levels have been maintained at the Clearys previous rate since the A2 changeover, except when stock numbers were lower.
Mr Cleary said there had also been no difference in their herd’s fat, protein or cell counts, with the new herd continuing to produce figures of above four per cent in fat, above three-and-a-half per cent in protein and a cell count of about 120 parts to the million, putting their milk supply in the “premium” bracket.
As the herd grows to their previous number of 300 head, the Clearys hope to have enough heifers to meet their own replacement needs.
“Most of the herd are either first calvers or only on their second to third lactation, with a majority less than five years old, which has meant the herd is a lot younger now and we don’t expect to have to replace as many in the next few years,” Mr Cleary said.
“We can maintain our levels with our own breeding and shouldn’t have to buy many more.”
Having a straight A2 herd could open up another market for the Clearys’ excess heifers when numbers return to their capacity at “Hastings Park”.
Rocky start for Wauchope producers
WHILE Luke and Meaghan Cleary are now enjoying the benefits from transferring to a completely A2 herd, the changeover wasn’t without its hiccups.
Purchasing stock from another region and moving them to the tick-prone North Coast caused animal health problems on farm that were a major setback.
The introduced cows picked up Theileria – a disease caused by a parasite infecting the bloodstream when cattle are bitten by ticks – killing some and making others sick, putting them out of production.
“Calves naturally build up immunity to it if born in the area because there is exposure from the start... that’s the trouble with bringing cattle in from another area,” said Mr Cleary.
“Because they (the introduced cattle) were springing ready to calve, it is the worst time to get it.”
Of the 90 head purchased in a particular transaction, 35 died and 12 were retired from production for the year, but will return next year to be milked.
“It was just a matter of sitting and waiting, there is nothing you can do,” Mr Cleary said.
“Of course we can never go back, once the decision was made you get those sort of hurdles.”
Mr Cleary said they would definitely do it all again, but they would do things a bit differently.
“We purchased more cows from the same farm after it happened, but we got the breeder to calve them there and to minimise the risk of the disease,” he said.
“So far we’ve had the last lot here for six weeks and we haven’t seen any sign of it.”