They’re known as ships of the desert, but for more than 200 camels, the Victorian town of Rochester is where they’ve called home for the past two years.
The milking camels belong to Camilk, a camel milking business that operates across the world and produces hundreds of litres of milk every day at its Australian farm. But despite overseas success, the milk is not to everyone’s taste.
Assistant manager Dominique Von Hagen said that for camel milk to take off in Australia, people’s opinions of camels needed to change.
‘‘First thing anyone thinks of camels is, ‘Oh gross, they’re pests, they spit, they bite and they smell’ — Which is absolutely the furthest thing from the truth,’’ she said.
‘‘It’s just changing people’s mindsets of the animal.
‘‘I mean the Bedouins have been drinking this milk for thousands of years, it’s got to have some benefit to them for them to be drinking it.’’
There have been a number of controversies surrounding camels’ milk, especially following claims by some people that it can cure autism.
Ms Von Hagen said those claims were false.
‘‘You’re absolutely crazy if you think something is going to cure autism or cancer. It’s not going to help cure it, it hasn’t got any little magic thing in there,’’ she said.
‘‘We sell it as a superfood. We are selling it as going back to your natural goodness of your milk. ‘‘Camels’ milk itself has higher protein and less fat in it [than cows’ milk], which is a bonus for anybody.’’
Yet despite the health claims, Ms Von Hagen said camels’ milk was still facing the same challenges other milks had faced in the past.
‘‘A few years ago no-one wanted to drink soy milk and they turned their nose up at soy milk, and now it’s the alternative, the other option to cows’ milk.
‘‘Hopefully in three or four years’ time it’ll be camels’ milk.’’
The company has only been licensed to sell milk in the past six weeks, and has been working to find suppliers, focusing in regions around Craigieburn, but Ms Von Hagen admits it’s tough going.
‘‘We’re still struggling to get an income source that’s constant, because it is all so new,’’ Ms Von Hagen said.
‘‘There’s other companies out there like Camel Milk Victoria who have been working for the past year and they’ve got their set stockists, and so they’ve started the hard work of getting the camel milk name out there, so we just have to let people know ‘there’s more out there, come and get it’.’’
For some however it’s a luxury they cannot afford, with one litre of camels’ milk selling for at least $10 online.
The whole process is done completely on-farm, after a processing plant was built in October.
‘‘We do everything. We milk harvest, we pasteurise, process, bottle, label, package, everything in site. Paddock to plate,’’ Ms Von Hagen said.
Although the business is still finding its feet in the Australian market, it is planning a foray into milk powders as it tries to grow the brand and encourage everyday people to change their milk drinking habits.
Tough to meet demand
While an average Victorian dairy cow can produce upwards of 15 litres of milk a day, a camel produces anywhere from three to 10 litres — quite a stark difference between the humble cow and the exotic camel.
Ms Von Hagen said there was a bit of a learning curve when it came to determining which camels would produce the most milk.
‘‘We don’t know the history of that camel, we don’t know whether her mum was a good milker, whether her mum was a bad milker, whether she was damaged in the left quarter from a previous calf,’’ she said.
‘‘Because we’ve picked them out of the wild, feral, we have to assess every single camel as to how she’s going to milk for us.’’
When it comes to working with the camels, Ms Von Hagen said it was about understanding them.
‘‘They can be scared and frightened and that’s when they do lash out. So you’ve just got to work and not put too much pressure on them to get the best out of them,’’ she said.
‘‘You always work them until you win, and then you finish the day.’’
With a gestation period of between 12 and 14 months, the calving season has a tendency to drag on, depending on how quickly the bulls can service the females.
‘‘We started calving season in June last year, and we had (one of) our last calves on Australia Day, but we still have a couple to go,’’ she said.
As national and international demand begins to grow, Ms Von Hagen said the business expected demand to outstrip its ability to naturally reproduce enough camels to fill it.
‘‘The more people that try it, the more people that know about it and the more people that want the product,’’ she said.
‘‘I don’t think we’re ever going to be able to keep up with the demand ... for the milk or the milk powder, especially overseas. They are screaming for it.’’