A growing number of wild camels from central Australia are being turned into dairy cows, as interest in the camel milk industry builds.
The number of dairies has now risen to around 10 and more products are starting to appear on the market including fresh pasteurised camels’ milk, cheese, ice-cream, yoghurt, camel milk powder and skincare.
Chris Williams and his wife Megan are former dairy cattle farmers, who first encountered camels when they worked on a beef property in the outback, where the humped animals were seen as pests.
But when they decided to set up their own business at Kyabram in Victoria, Mr Williams said they “wanted something niche”, and gave camels a second look.
“We researched many different things… milking goats, buffalo, even miniature Herefords at one stage and then we heard you can milk camels,” he said.
The high retail price was also a drawcard.
Pasteurised camel milk sells for more than $20 per litre in some states.
Farmers say camel milk is expensive because the production costs are high and the yields are much lower than what dairy cattle produce.
“We couldn’t have budgeted for how much it was going to cost to just get a litre of milk from a camel, having been no major research or industry,” Ms Williams said.
“Even just last year, cost of production was up around $17 per litre just to produce it.”
One producer who is diversifying into new products is Lauren Brisbane who owns QCamel in the Sunshine Coast Hinterland.
“We have a real opportunity to develop this industry and be able to supply milk around the world if we all work together,” she said.
Ms Brisbane has been working with camels for 12 years and decided to start milking them a few years ago.
“I’m really passionate about them. They’re so intelligent, that’s what I love,” she said.
But she also warns it is a risky industry not a cash cow.
“If people are coming, looking at it and going oh we’re going to make all this money then don’t bother,” she said.
“There’s nothing quick about a camel, it takes time.”
That isn’t stopping a growing number of local and international companies from investing.
It’s understood Chinese investors are looking at setting up a camel milk business in South Australia.
And investors from the United Arab Emirates have already funded Camilk’s $8 million pilot farm at Rochester, north of Melbourne.
Then there’s The Australian Wild Camel Corporation at Harrisville, south-west of Brisbane, which has the country’s largest herd of 450 animals including 65 milkers.
The company, which is being funded by local investors, aims to build the milking herd to 1,000 over the next few years.
“Our main issue is to take it from that cottage industry,” chief operating officer Paul Martin said.
“We’ve got to jump that hurdle and get it into a commercial where we can sell the produce overseas on volume and start to get our efficiencies on farm.”
Like other farmers, Mr Martin is trying to get the public to see camels in a new light by producing cheese, ice-cream and skincare.
“In a land like Australia we’ve got this animal that can survive through pretty well anything mother nature can throw at it and we’re shooting it,” he said.
“And yet it produces meat, it produces milk, it produces fat products, hide leather. It’s an amazing animal.”