Maffra Cheese Co, in the heart of lush dairying country in Gippsland in Victoria, is a paddock-to-plate success story for hard-working pharmaceutical chemist, dairy farmer and cheese maker Ferial Zekiman OAM.
Before moving to the Maffra district, Ms Zekiman operated two pharmacies in Melbourne and a farm at St Arnaud, where she raised lambs for export.
Her commitment to building a value-added dairy agribusiness at Tinamba, Vic, employing up to 22 people throughout the year, was rewarded by the local community, who nominated her some years ago for an OAM.
She aims to keep the award-winning cheeses identifiable by province Dargo walnuts are used in the cheddar that goes by the same name.
After building an initial following through farmers' markets, ongoing sales are built through word of mouth.
Maffra Cheese products are used in the food service sector for events catering, served by Qantas, sold through supermarkets, specialty retailers and providores and are exported to Malaysia.
The self-replacing split-calving 300 milkers run on 100 hectares of prime irrigated dairy country at Tinamba, adjacent to the cheese factory. The herd is mainly Holstein-Friesian cows, with infusions of Aussie Red and Normande genetics. This is the third season with Normande infusions, in an ongoing bid to ensure the year-round fat content of the milk is suitable for cheese making.
Pastures are predominantly clover and ryegrass. Irrigation is through the Macalister Irrigation District (MID) fed by Glenmaggie Weir and is supplemented by re-use dams to extend the irrigation season.
Any fodder fed to the milking herd is bought-in; as are concentrated pellets, fed at a rate of 6.2 kilograms/cow daily. The production system relies heavily on grazing to make milk, with an average intake of 16-18kg dry matter pasture daily per cow, in the paddock.
"We cut silage but we don't feed it to the milking herd, we feed it to replacement heifers and dry cows," Ms Zekiman said.
"There are clostridia spores in our silage and we don't want to risk it in the milk and cheese.
"The milk goes through a pasteuriser, but clostridia spores are heat resistant. They really spoil the cheese it takes until about nine months after you've processed it, then there's a build up of gas and the cheese goes off."
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Ms Zekiman completed a dairy farm management course but, recognising her expertise and interest was more in the cheese-making side of the business, sought a full-time farm manager for the dairy. She said completing the course enabled her to know what needed to be done on the farm and informed her strategic planning.
"The course, because it was based on running a dairy farm in the MID, gave me an understanding so I know what needs to be done. But I can't milk cows, I can't drive a tractor," Ms Zekiman said.
"Because I'm better at making cheese than running the dairy, I needed someone who knew what they were doing. Sometimes you've got to say, this is as much as I can do and I can't do any more."
She said the farm manager is paid bonuses for production. On top of a wage and allowance for a labour unit, the farm manager was paid a tractor allowance and three incentive bonuses per month.
"He needs to keep the somatic cell count below 250," she said.
"He's got to keep the dairy plant clean, keep the bacto scan less than 44,000 MFUs (Modified Fishman Units) and the thermoduric bacteria levels less than 2000 MFUs.
The herd has a fertility of 65 per cent conception rate. There are two AI joinings, then Angus bulls are used to mop up.
"With that conception rate which the vet said was quite normal for the district we need to have a lot of replacements coming through. We sell all bull calves and keep the heifers as replacements," Ms Zekiman said.
Farm to factory
The herd produces two million litres annually, all of which is used in the cheese company.
"I only use milk from cows off my farm," Ms Zekiman said. "It's easier to manage supply and quality by restricting it to one farm."
Cheese is handmade at least four days in the week. There is 10pc yield of cheese on the volume of milk processed.
"We need to put two days of milk through the tanks to make cheddar," Ms Zekiman said.
Ms Zekiman's Cyprian grandmother made haloumi and she, herself, understood the science of it.
"My farm consultant worked out that I was earning $0.03/litre for the milk; so I had to do this [make cheese] there was no other option," she said.
"I'd studied biochemistry and pharmaceutical chemistry, to it wasn't a big leap to food chemistry."
Ms Zekiman undertook the Gilbert Chandler Institute's cheese course and built a processing factory; initially with second-hand equipment from a closed factory at Trafalgar. She made her first cheddar in 1997 which needed storing for nine-12 months before it was ready for sale. The turnaround time from processing to sale of soft cheeses is closer to an immediate cash turnaround.
"Then we made the English territorials, like Wensleydale, red Leicester, Cheshire; a sage Derby; then we did a peppercorn cheddar; and a red Leicester with walnuts just to get a variation in the range," Ms Zekiman said.
"Obviously the milk composition and quality are important. The Holstein-Friesian cow doesn't produce a lot of fat, which is terrific for cheddar because it doesn't require a lot of fat.
"The fat:protein ratio is ideally 1.18 per cent, which is quite good for us. When the fat level goes up, the protein level goes up as well, so it maintains that ratio for us."
Seasonal variations occur during lactation, but as the fat level increases, so does the protein. Flavours differ depending on the herbage the cows are grazing.
"The herbage is very important. We have a lot of clover and ryegrass here, because it's cool climate the climate is good for the cows and for producing milk," Ms Zekiman said.
"It's a regional taste. You can use the same recipe up in the northern irrigation district and you'll probably get a different taste altogether. It'll still be a nice cheese, but it won't be the taste from here because the herbage is different.
"The soft cheeses could do with a bit more fat, but we don't add anything, we just use our normal milk."
She buys in an Australian-produced fermented non-animal rennet to add to the cheese-making process.
"A lot of people don't want animal products, so our cheeses are considered to be a vegetarian recipe," Ms Zekiman said.
Efficiency and waste
Co-operating locally has been part of the Maffra Cheese Co business ethos from the start. As she set up and established the factory, Ms Zekiman was mentored initially by a local retired cheesemaker.
Many of the staff are long-term employees Vicki Binding, the factory manager, has been working alongside Ms Zekiman since she started, first in cheese making and delivery. Many of the remaining 22 staff have worked with the company for 10-12 years.
"Everyone working here has been trained here and are British Retail Consortium certified," Ms Zekiman said.
Ms Binding is also a qualified cheese maker. The only waste product out of the cheese making process is whey, which is sold to a pig farmer at nearby Woodside. In the past, whey has also been used to feed calves.
Salted whey is collected by Maffra Waste Co.
"But if I could use reverse osmosis to process the whey, I could probably use it to make more cheese," Ms Zekiman said. "But we haven't got the volume to make the investment worthwhile."
She has invested in renewable energy. There are solar panels on the factory roof, with a diesel generator as backup.
At the dairy platform, solar panels heat hot water, with another generator as power backup.
"I'm also looking at battery storage at the factory, to reduce the power bill. The cool rooms run all day, every day, year round, as they need to," Ms Zekiman said.
"With the solar panels, it's still costing $5000/month in winter and $3500/month in summer."
As well as the dams the catch irrigation water for re-use, the dairy and factory water is captured in a constructed billabong and re-used to irrigate paddocks.
This story first appeared on Australian Dairyfarmer