Tinker-Belle, Thandi and Tiny Tim are having a terrific time on Tatsfield Farm. Linda Martin is thoroughly enjoying herself too. “My husband, Derek, once worked in an abattoir and was horrified at the panic he saw when the animals arrived. On our farm we are determined to make life as nice as possible for our little herd. Cows have feelings and distinct personalities, they are not machines that just stand there munching.”
So while commercial dairy farmers might consider Linda pretty crazy, she makes sure that the babies stay with their mums as long as possible and that the calves all live together once they are weaned. “It rips into my heart to know some calves live in individual pens, fed by a machine with teats. They should be gambolling in the sun with the wind in their tails.”
This is all very well, but what to do with all the boy calves that are no use as dairy cows? I hate asking this question, because as long as I prefer my tea with milk, I know I am adding to the suffering. Linda has a surprising answer. “I buy sexed semem. That means I know I am only getting female calves.” It costs a bit more, but she feels is definitely worth it so that there are just a couple of boy calves around to keep the herd normal. These will one day be killed (as quietly and quickly as possible) and eaten (not by Linda and Derek who are vegetarian). The cows get vitamin supplements before and after calving and most ailments are treated with tissue salts.
When the cows are about to give birth, they sleep near the house with the donkeys who fiercely protect them from any predators in search of an easy meal. The new-borns stay with their mom for a month, then they sleep with some other young friends in a cosy hay filled stable. “They do cry on the first night – it’s a bit like the first day at school. As long as they have friends, they are ok.”
Naturally, a happy, healthy life means they produce great quality milk. Each morning, the eight girls (some Brown Swiss and some Jersey) arrive of their own accord, to lie about in the herb garden (Tiffany prefers chasing the chickens) until it is milking time. They are looking forward to the snack they have while being milked. The chickens and ducks pitch up too to clean up leftovers.
First their udders are washed with warm water before the milkers get to work. “I love hearing the guys chatting away to the cows as they work,” laughs Linda. Just in case anything has blown into the milking shed from the farmyard, the milk is strained into big old fashioned urns and set to cool.
At Tatsfield much of the milk is turned into delicious yoghurt, made in the simple century’s old method of heating and cooling, adding culture, keeping warm overnight, before straining off the excess liquid. Interesting flavours are then added. There is homemade apricot jam with flaked almonds, and daughter, Abbey’s, Turkish Delight, coloured with organic beetroot juice rather than artificial colourants. The honey comes from a neighbour and the vanilla is real.
“It’s a pity there are no small co-ops to sell this kindly produced milk to” says Linda as Toffee sidles up to nibble Abbey’s hair, “but I wouldn’t change a thing. I like the gentle rhythms of small scale farming.” Thalita and Treasure couldn’t agree more.
Tatsfield products (including soft cheeses and milk) are available at Dovehouse in Howick and Abundant Wholefoods in ‘Maritzburg.