Diversifying dairy

Small on-farm dairies are at forefront of introducing milk with more easily-digested proteins

An Ontario dairy farm and processor is the first to bring A2 milk to Ontario customers.

Sheldon Creek Dairy at Loretto, Ont. launched its A2 milk venture earlier in 2019, becoming Ontario’s first and only the second dairy in Canada to sell this type of milk.

Why it matters: A2 milk was identified decades ago as more digestible, but it has taken years for the ability to genetically test cows inexpensively and technology to sort milk to catch up. It should give some farmers an added value for their milk.

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The den Haan family that owns Sheldon Creek is breeding all its cows at its Haanview Farm to A2 trait-dominant bulls, and designed its new robotic milking facility around being able to segregate milk from portions of its herd. The combination of control over the genetics of the herd and the flow of the milk allows the de Haans to make it work.

A2 comes from cows that naturally produce milk with the A2 version of beta-casein rather than A1, which can be harder for humans to digest. This makes A2 milk popular with people who have gastrointestinal sensitivities to the “regular” dairy milk on the market.

Emily den Haan first heard about A2 milk when she spent some time working on a dairy farm in Australia after university, and was intrigued by the potential it could present. When she came back to Canada, she shared her discovery with her parents, Bonnie and John, and her sister Marianne and brother-in-law Mike, all of whom are involved in the family business.

“For a cow to produce A2 milk, she has to get the A2 gene from the mother and the father – if the father is A2A2, he will pass along the A2 gene 100 per cent of the time; if the mother is A1A2, the A2 gene will be passed along 50 per cent of the time,” explained Emily, adding that things began at Haanview Farms with genomically testing all of their cows.

“About 35 per cent of our milking herd was A2A2, and when you breed them all to A2A2 bulls, all offspring are 100 per cent guaranteed to be A2 – so that kick-started it for us,” she said. Dairy genetics providers have been providing information on the beta casein status of their bulls for years, but it is only now becoming relevant in the market.

With an on-farm dairy already licensed and in production, what remained was the ability to keep their two streams of milk separate.

When the family built a state-of-the-art new dairy barn in late 2018 with capacity for 120 cows, they became the first farm in Canada to specifically add two distinctly separate milking lines flowing into two separate bulk tanks. Their milking robots identify the A2 animals and automatically direct their milk into the correct pipeline and tank.

“We now have the whole herd tested. We started with just the milk cows and we tested heifers this year – 70 per cent were A2A2,” Emily said. “Now we’re breeding A1 cows solely to A2A2 bulls.”

According to Bonnie, the herd is now closer to 40 per cent A2A2 and all A2A1 offspring go to their son’s dairy farm. As A1 cows get older, they will be removed from the herd, but this will be a gradual process with the family hoping to have an entirely A2A2 herd in about five years.

“We have an older herd – my parents were Master Breeders in 2017 so we have a lot of favourites we don’t want to get rid of,” said Emily, who manages the farm’s breeding program together with her father.

“When we started, our goal was 100 per cent A2, but we are not in a huge rush to get there. We’re still going to have our regular milk, but we will keep breeding A2, so we will get there,” she added. “You either go all in or you don’t.”

Although the milk is separated, there’s nothing else different about how the cows are managed at Haanview with all animals housed together in the same barn and receiving the same rations.

According to Emily, there’s been no hard evidence of any kind of difference with respect to things like production levels, longevity, reproduction or disease susceptibility either – in fact, without testing, it would be impossible to tell which animals produce the A2 milk.

For her, the most nerve-wracking part of the new venture has been making the switch to A2 breeding without losing out on type or being able to use the best bulls. Fortunately, though, there’s plenty of good A2A2 bulls to select from, she says.

Moving into the new barn and onto a robot system required some adjustment for both cows and people as well, and it was only after that was well in hand that the A2 line came into production.

“We wanted to wait until we got used to the robotics and the automation; there’s a bit of a learning curve there,” she said, adding that they’ve seen a
20 to 30 per cent increase in production since moving into the new facility, which was built using theories from famed animal welfare expert Temple Grandin.

Dairy Farmers of Ontario is starting to see some interest in A2 milk from other producers too, but will need accompanying processor demand to begin serious consideration around how to serve this market.

According to DFO research and market development manager Bita Farhang, demand and interest are likely to grow, particularly if research can more definitively prove health benefits around A2 milk.

“We believe there is some merit in the concept moving forward. DFO supports an environment that encourages innovation and growth in the manufacture of Canadian dairy products so if there are more demands from our processors, we will look at this as a niche market,” she stated.

The den Haans started their venture into on-farm milk processing in 2012, when they opened Sheldon Creek Dairy to turn the milk from their purebred Holsteins into a range of products that includes minimally processed whole milk, yogurt, kefir, and 45 per cent cream. And once their A2 production ramps up, they hope to expand their A2 line of dairy products as well.

“We know there is a market for minimally processed milk. We supply the market with milk that tastes just like raw, and every year we add new flavours and product lines,” Bonnie said.

Their products are sold in coffee shops in Toronto, Collingwood and Meaford, as well as higher end retail outlets like Whole Foods, Goodness Me, Pusateri’s and Vince’s in Newmarket.

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What is A2 milk?

Sheldon Creek Dairy’s A2 milk comes from their cows that naturally produce milk with the A2 version of beta-casein, rather than the A1 version of the protein, which can impact the digestive system.

A2 is cows’ milk that contains only the A2 type of beta-casein protein rather than the more common A1 protein found in a majority of milk.

A1 and A2 proteins affect the body differently. When A1 protein is digested in the small intestine, it produces a peptide called beta-casomorphin-7 (BCM-7). The intestines absorb BCM-7, and it then passes into the blood. The structure of A2 protein is more comparable to human breast milk, as well as milk from goats, sheep, and buffalo.

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