A community built on cheese

Meredith Dairy puts its sustainability to the test


Business Management
The Camerons milk 9000 goats a day at Meredith Dairy, Meredith, Victoria.

The Camerons milk 9000 goats a day at Meredith Dairy, Meredith, Victoria.

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Meredith Dairy, between Ballarat and Geelong in Victoria, milks 9000 goats and 1300 sheep a day.

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In April, a day after winning the 2019 Royal Agricultural Society of NSW President's Medal for their sheep and goat dairy and cheese business, Julie and Sandy Cameron suffered an horrific car accident that almost cost them their lives.

Their injuries put them totally out of action for at least seven weeks, and Julie is still not 100 per cent back on her feet.

Sandy and Julie Cameron with their President's Medal, awarded at this year's Sydney Royal Show. Photo: Andrew Norris. All other photos supplied by Meredith Dairy.

Sandy and Julie Cameron with their President's Medal, awarded at this year's Sydney Royal Show. Photo: Andrew Norris. All other photos supplied by Meredith Dairy.

Sheep at Meredith Dairy.

Sheep at Meredith Dairy.

The couple were on their way home from a staff event in Melbourne. It was 11.30pm when the collision occurred.

"I literally woke up, saw the tree, and bang!" Julie said, as she explained how she had fallen asleep at the wheel.

"It was exactly like in the ads - you wake up, and bang. We wrote the car off and nearly wrote ourselves off."

However, they were lucky. They are recovering and the hard yards they have put into developing their business and its people meant it also survived.

A big part of the President's Medal award criteria - awarded the night before their accident - is sustainability, including the practices that help the sustainability of the business itself.

NSW Department of Primary Industries executive director investment and agribusiness, Michael Bullen, also a competition judge, said many people could produce a quality product.

"But what we find on this journey through the President's Medal is what makes a difference to those businesses in the longer term," he said.

"How can they improve their community, how can they improve the environment, how can they improve their business over the longer term?"

Meredith Dairy, at Meredith between Ballarat and Geelong in Victoria, milks 9000 goats and 1300 sheep a day.

"The 9000 goats aren't all at one farm. These (are split between) family unit sized farms within the overall farm area (of 1700 hectares)," Julie said.

"They've each got their own milking sheds, tractors, managers and staff. They make their own income and handle their own wages... we call it enterprise fostering."

Each farm unit sold its milk to Meredith Dairy for processing. About 90pc of what Meredith Dairy produces is sold domestically, the remaining 10pc being marinated cheese into the US to supply a Costco California deal.

"It is going to be very exciting in the next three or more years what's going to happen with goats," Julie said.

Their factory processes 15,000 to 20,000 litres of milk a day, and production has grown at 10-30pc a year for 10 years.

"We had a big lift when we went into the corporate supermarkets (in 2015) and again when we went into Costco (in 2016)," she said.

The farms and cheese factory combined employ about 120 full time equivalents, 60pc of whom are in the factory.

The business kicked off soon after the abolition of the wool price guarantee in 1991 and the ensuing stockpile sell-off.

"Innovate or perish," Julie says as she recollects Meredith Dairy's formation. "If the wool price hadn't collapsed we possibly wouldn't have done what we're doing."

In the same year, the Camerons had left their professional careers in Melbourne, but with the wool crash, their dream of being full-time farmers was looking "a bit hairy".

By chance, they met Richard Thomas, a renowned cheese maker who suggested they try their hand at cheese making.

A portion of their flock was crossbred ewes, so they milked them and this yielded enough to make their first batch of a blue cheese they called Meredith Blue.

This was successful, but they couldn't compete against imported cheese on price, so they needed new products that couldn't easily be imported.

"So we made yoghurt and fresh cheeses like fetta," Julie said.

They also got into goats and started making fresh marinated cheeses.

"A lot of people in that era were turned off by the strong flavours in some goat cheeses, so we needed to make cheeses Australians would eat," she said.

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Yet, her and Sandy's cheeses and their farm business model were just part of their 2019 President's Medal win. In 2014, Meredith Dairy was beaten by Bulla Cream.

"I'm a very competitive sort of person and we went home (after their first attempt) and did a debriefing and I said 'right, this is not going to happen again," Julie said.

"We took on board the feedback from the judges and I must admit, it was almost a divorce, because at the interview on the farm I was asked 'do we have a breeding program and an animal improvement program?'.

"I said 'yes we do, we've been collecting data for 29 years' - and Sandy piped up and said 'no we don't'. And the judges' response was we're inconsistent... so we took on board what the judges said."

Along the way, they've also had to meet growing demand without the flock getting so large it became unmanageable.

"It was quite scary the amount of investment needed to keep going at 30pc (growth)," Julie said.

So rather than run more total livestock, they looked for more production per animal. They hired a statistician to comb through their data and, also using genomics, identified the top performers.

These animals became the basis of their genetic future and Julie said in three years they had lifted their production by 20pc.

They have also found gains in tying up loose ends.

"We made a commitment a couple of years ago that we were going to rear all of the male animals in the business, which for dairying is a real challenge," said Sandy, during the award's presentation dinner.

Because the Camerons were now hand rearing the male goats, and had the genomic assisted estimated breeding values, they found they were able to meet an existing demand for quality genetics in China.

They have developed a relationship with dairy goat farmers in China's Shaanxi Province, where its government is investing in a small-ruminant dairy industry.

Milking at one of the Meredith Dairy farm units.

Milking at one of the Meredith Dairy farm units.

Sandy observed how agriculture is done in China - "which is a bit of a taste of how things are going through the world, all very corporate, massive scale," he said. "And there's the way we do agriculture in Australia, it's a bit of a dying thing - the smaller businesses."

He said this was something to be treasured and he appreciated the way this was fostered in the President's Medal program.

Their male goats that didn't make breeders were raised and sold for meat, a handy value-add on the current market.

Sandy, also a vet, has eliminated numerous diseases, including caprine arthritis encephalitis, which reduces production by as much as 20pc/head. This boosted demand for their disease-free status genetics.

They also dry-sweep their milking shed, which saves water, and the manure is spread on their 1012ha of cropping country, saving on fertiliser.

Bluegum plantations use the dairy and factory water, and the resulting wood is used to fuel the factory's boiler to heat 20,000L of water a day to 85 degrees to clean the factory, and for cheese making.

Whey, a cheese by-product, is fed to bought-in male dairy calves grown to 600 kilograms and then sold over the hooks at the Midfield abattoir, Warrnambool, Vic.

This story first appeared on The Land

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