Why I’m signing the Farmer’s Letter about climate change

The view from the house after the fire

The view from the house after the fire

Will you help me? Apparently, just before Australia goes to the Paris climate summit, proof is needed that real, live, everyday farmers want the government to do something about climate change.

According to today’s Sydney Morning Herald:

“A cabal of regional and rural Liberal members, centred in Western Australia and supported by a number of conservative MPs, will force a vote at Saturday’s federal council meeting in Melbourne on whether Parliament should “examine the evidence” around climate change before agreeing to any post-2020 emissions cuts.”

“Liberal sources told Fairfax Media that Environment Minister Greg Hunt is likely to be forced to step in and fight off the motion on Saturday by asserting the Abbott government accepts climate change is real and is willing to work with other nations to combat its effects.”

So, to show that farmers who want action are more than a figment of a latte-sipping lefty’s imagination, I’ve signed The Farmers’ Letter, which says simply:

“Aussie farmers are on the front line of rising temperatures and more extreme weather, so global warming is a priority issue for rural, regional and remote Australia. An ambitious target to cut carbon pollution, a transition plan away from coal and gas towards renewable energy, and a strong deal at the UN climate talks in Paris this December are all in the interests of Aussie farmers and our families.”

Dozens of farmers from across the country are joining me and I hope you will too, so that, like the Whos from Whoville, we can prove that we exist.

Noise

Perhaps climate change shifts are especially obvious to dairy farmers because these days, everything on a dairy farm is measured to the nth degree. We can tell you how many days it took for the cows to get in calf, how much grass we grew this week and how many litres of milk were made in the last 12 hours.

It’s a fact that less milk is made from listless cows in a heatwave and the cost of a litre of milk skyrockets during drought, fire or flood. And the locals are worried. Just as Alex was about to be born, I joined a meeting of dairy farmers in town to discuss what we could do to adapt to climate change.

I can’t tell you how impressed I was that individual farmers were already doing so much and were so hungry for more information. Four years on and I think it’s all become just another part of the way we farm around here.

But if we are really going to pass the farm on to the kids in a better state than we found it, we’d better make sure we are heard on climate change. Please, if the thought of doing nothing doesn’t sit well with you, visit www.farmerletter.org and show them you’re for real.

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The ethics of profiting from animal welfare

Lino Saputo (pic: ABC)

Earlier this week, dairy processing giant Saputo announced it was getting tough on animal welfare. Well, more precisely, it was getting tough on the dairy farmers supplying it milk.

Saputo toughens stance on animal welfare @ABCRural.

The announcement was greeted by farmers on Twitter, both in Saputo’s native Canada and here in Australia where it owns Warrnambool Cheese & Butter, with a degree of skepticism.

The common theme of the discussion was that farmers were already meeting the standards trumpeted by Saputo. The exercise was simply one of a processor profiteering off the backs of dairy farmers, yet again. But it’s worth remembering that Saputo’s move followed a case of a farmer doing the wrong thing as Lino Saputo told the ABC:

Mr Saputo said an incident in Canada motivated the work behind this new policy.

“One of the farms that was supplying us milk had a recorded incident of animal abuse. Here in Canada we are buying milk from the milk marketing board, and typically we don’t know where that milk is coming from,” he said.

“As it turns out, the milk from that farm that had some abuse was being delivered to our plant. “We tried to rally with the dairy industry to have some stronger practices in place, but quite frankly we found ourselves alone in this process and we felt like we needed to take a leadership role.”

Saputo is not on its own. Fonterra has quietly begun animal welfare audits on the farms of its suppliers. Perhaps coincidentally, its own customer, Nestle, threw its considerable global weight around earlier this year, demanding a set of welfare standards from suppliers that has already seen scores of Australian dairy farms whose milk eventually reaches Nestle inspected.

I’d be willing to bet the farm that Saputo, Fonterra and Nestle are the tip of the iceberg. As farmer Shelby Anderson (@cupslinga) tweeted, “it’s society, not a foreign Co” that is demanding transparency and rigour around the way we farmers care for our cows.

The RSPCA is already considering accrediting milk for animal welfare, as it does with eggs. The idea is rejected by peak dairy body, the Australian Dairy Farmers, because it fears the RSPCA marketing will imply most dairy farming is not up to scratch. It’s a fair point that leaves me feeling conflicted because, on the other hand, it’s great to put a value on good animal care (err, beyond having healthy, productive animals and being able to sleep at night).

Just as the quality of Australian milk is taken for granted by Australian shoppers, they expect the cows to be treated well. I for one am pleased that Saputo and Fonterra have been proactive to protect that reputation for kindness.

I only hope that the way we care for animals is marketed with the same sensitivity. A ghastly adversarial marketing campaign might make a quick buck but would leave everyone a loser.

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The kangaroos are winning but the Milkmaid is not ready to retreat

Triumphant return from border patrol

Triumphant return from border patrol

Can you see the triumph on the faces of the kids as the Bobcat pulled into the garage on Wednesday night? We’d been on our evening patrol of the new kangaroo fence and hadn’t seen a single kangaroo on the farm at dusk.

We have been pushing back the roos and wallabies in earnest now since Easter, training the mob of 300 or so that ravage our pastures to look elsewhere. It’s been an epic battle. I fill in a spot they’ve dug under the fence with a big log, they find a new path. I fill that in, they flatten themselves out a little more and squeeze in alongside the log.

The roos just extended their underpass after the first blockade

The roos just extended their underpass after the first blockade

More than three kilometres of The Roo Fence separates farm from forest and I’ve spent an average of an hour a day maintaining security.

It was with a warm inner glow of satisfaction that I embraced the chilly air at dusk on Thursday, finding the paddocks gloriously empty of roos and wallabies once more. A single roo hopped along the forest side of The Roo Fence looking for a way in, only to disappear again into the darkness of the forest.

And then, I turned the corner and was presented with a sickening sight. In the front paddock, closest to the road, the roos had discovered The End. The Roo Fence secures the farm on three sides and wraps around a little further onto the fourth, in a convincing show of its impregnable, endless nature. Or not.

Plucking up more courage than I thought possible, the roos had hopped right up to our neighbour’s house and simply turned the corner back into the farm. I counted 50 in one bunch and saw another two mobs equally as impressive, along with a small cluster brazenly grazing right at The End itself. At least 150 in the small front paddock, maybe more.

The light of day revealed a sorry picture. A clear track complete with roo fur on the wires confirmed that no amount of fence tweaking will do the trick. Only a Roo Fence visible from space will stop them now. Fear not, dear Reader, we will prevail!

At The End. See the track under the fence?

At The End. See the track under the fence?

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The hardest part of being a dairy farmer

When we saw her lying flat out from a distance, we hoped that she was just in the midst of calving. She was, too, only the calf wasn’t coming out the right way. Instead of seemingly diving out into the big world, toes first and nose second, the calf had his legs crossed underneath him. We must have missed him by moments because, although he did not stir, his tongue was still pink, wide eyes still glossy.

I called for Wayne straight away because I’m simply not strong enough to deal with something like this on my own. I decided to leave her lying down – Wayne was already on his way and I reckoned access to the big milk vein that runs under the cow might be a good idea, just in case.

While we were waiting, something very touching happened. Watch and see for yourself.

As soon as the calf was out, she sat up bright and feisty – tossing her head defiantly at Wayne as he tried to give her a friendly scratch. We chatted happily as we gave her two bags of glucose, calcium and minerals to help her recover. We’d saved her. The kids and I returned with a bucket of water in a rubber tyre and feed, which she gobbled up greedily.

Moments after her labour

Moments after her labour

But that night, she still wasn’t up and wouldn’t get up despite our urgings. We brought the tractor and lifted her to her feet to maximise her circulation and encourage her to take a few steps. She wouldn’t.

Next morning, her ears drooped a little and she seemed to enjoy a scratch. She was eating but refused to drink the water the kids and I had carted from the paddock trough. Now we knew she was in trouble. So-called “downer cows” that go downhill and aren’t up in 48 hours rarely recover. Still, we gave her some more medicine and lifted her again with the tractor but she simply seemed to hang limply from the hip clamp and chest strap.

During the next few visits that day, we could see she had lost the will to live. There was no fight left and even little Alex could see she wasn’t going to make it. We shifted the other cows from the paddock and, while the kids and I rounded up the milkers for the evening milking, Wayne ended her suffering.

This is the ugly side of dairy farming that you don’t see in the ads. It’s the part that farmers hate, too.

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Filed under Animal Health and Welfare, Cows

The fragility and strength of a calf

I was out on a routine tour of the farm measuring pasture growth when I saw an unfamiliar white rectangle in the distance. It turned out to be a calf all alone in the milker’s overnight paddock, rump turned towards the icy rain you get in snow weather. It was two-thirty in the afternoon and, somehow, a cow that should not have been anywhere near ready to calve, had calved during the night and been brought in for the morning’s milking leaving her newborn in the paddock.

This can happen. Pregnancy testing is not perfect. Maternal instincts vary. Calves hidden in the grass are almost impossible to see at the 5.30am roundup. All so excusable but face-to-face with the abandoned newborn, unforgivable, too.

The calf was a strong, snowy-white heifer who seemed relieved to see me and stood quietly as I gathered her in my arms, staggering under her 40kg weight. There was about a kilometre’s travel along the track to the warmth of sheds, so the only option was to hold Snowy tight on my lap as I drove. I say “on my lap” a little loosely. The gangly calf had her rear trotters on the floor by my right foot and her neck pinned under my left elbow.

All went remarkably well until I took my foot off the accelerator as we reached an electric rope stretched across the track and Snowy decided to seize control, stomping on the pedal hard, sending us careering into the rope at high revs. A few moments later and me feeling a little less casual about my copilot’s role in the journey, we were on our way again. As we rounded the knoll, the sun broke out and I saw the first arrivals for the afternoon milking clustered at the yard entrance.

Would Snowy’s mother be there? Urging Snowy under the wire towards the cows, I hoped for a miracle and out of the group marched a mostly white cow freshly painted with question marks. There are lots of signs, some of them quite subtle, when a cow is ready to calve and Wayne had spotted some changes in Snowy’s mother that morning.

Snowy's mother claims her.

Snowy’s mother claims her.

Watch here as Snowy briefly follows an aunt before being tucked back in again for a drink by her mother.

Snowy and her mother spent the evening together and both are now doing really well. Calves are resilient little creatures but they really do need extra TLC in their first few days to set them up for long, healthy lives.

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The great Aussie family dairy farm vs the corporate 10 bagger

MorningWorkersLoRes
With all the gorgeous artworks blu-tacked in pride of place and treats devoured, the kids and I spent much of Mother’s Day together in the great outdoors maintaining fences. They rode their bikes through the puddles while I launched an all-out attack on the tangles of blackberry canes shorting out the hot wires.

Not that any of that is unusual: right across Australia, there would have been kids helping to get in the cows, feed the poddies or hose the yard. In fact, 98% of Australian dairy farms are family affairs and everyone gets their hands dirty.

The other 2% of farms are corporate-owned and this group seems to be growing fast. Everyone from Gina to the Chinese see dairy as the new white gold and investment dollars are flowing in fast.

Investors want control and they only want to invest their big wads of cash in big operations, not in average farms like mine. They boast that consolidating farms, achieving economies of scale and enhanced bargaining power with the processors will turn dairy farms into lucrative “ten baggers“.

On the other hand, large corporate farms are not always appealing to their prospective neighbours. They have large footprints in small communities fearful of increasing numbers of trucks growling up and down quiet country roads, massive effluent ponds and, perhaps most controversially, large sheds housing large herds.

The new Chinese owners at Kernot in Gippsland, for example, must be wondering whether their investment really is welcome. Opposition to the proposed largely housed dairy operation from Kernot locals has been furious.

The concerns of Kernot residents has been amplified by the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance, which says “dairy intensification is not the way to a fair food future” and took a stand against the farm on April 17 in commemoration of:

“April 17th, the International Day of Peasant and Family Farmer Struggle is an occasion to recognise the negative impacts of the industrialised food system on small-scale agriculture, and to remember those who have died fighting for their right to food and the freedom to produce it.”

“Died fighting”? Should I rage against intensification and, emulating French farmers, demand some form of protection so that I may remain a peasant?

Source: Daily Mail

That’s not really the style of Aussie farmers. We get cranky at local discussion groups and carry on milking. Why? I think it’s partly because there is no real solution. We can’t have tariffs because we rely on free trade for a fair go in international markets, we don’t have cheap labour or the lax laws of many competitors (and would rightly rail against that anyhow) and even a superpower co-operative cannot offer enough protection for exposed farmers when bitterly cold trade winds blow.

The difficulty is that we produce a commodity that is traded on now dizzyingly volatile international markets. Surviving and thriving on the rollercoaster demands the ability to keep costs low in tough times. Ironically, that hits corporates particularly hard, who must keep paying wages no matter what and whose investors tend to have less patience to ride out the bumps.

Unless the big corporates have access to especially favourable and stable markets, like the A2 Milk phenomenon that underpins the huge sheds of cows owned by the Perich empire, there are interesting times ahead for all of us – big and small.

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How Gallipoli put Grandpa on the land

Grandpa is the little boy in the gateway

Grandpa is the little boy in the gateway

My grandfather, Harry, first saw Melbourne on his way to Gallipoli. I imagine it felt like a ticket to a new life after a childhood framed by tragedy.

When his mother died giving birth to his brother, little Harry was left in the care of his Irish grandmother. He worked her hillside farm hard and, at one stage, never left the property for the good part of a year. The stories my own father passed down to me spoke of a Harry abandoned by his father and shown little pity.

When war came, Harry became an ANZAC light horseman and carried water to the front line. My aunt Heather says dysentery “saved him” from the Western front and nearly a year later, he was home and regarded as a man.

In 1917, Harry applied to secure a parcel of land under the soldier settlement scheme. The inspector recommended against it and his report forewarns of a battle too great for a returned soldier.

GrandpaSoldierSettler4cropLoRes

Mr Dermody’s advice made sense. I’ve been there many times and tried to imagine how it must have been 100 years ago. The valley is sweet but the property, known as Yosemite, does indeed reach up “precipitous” faces lined with cattle track terraces. Impossible country to farm with a tractor, nigh-on impossible with a fern hook and crosscut saw.

Although still recovering from dysentery and the psychological damage of war that he called “neurasthenia“, Harry’s ambition is palpable in his own submission.

GrandpaSoldierSettler6crop

Against the odds, Harry made it. And after his first two children were born around 15 years later, he built a new house with his bride, Pearlie, in the foothills down the valley.That is the place I remember when I think of Grandpa. Heather recalls her father wanting to sign up again in 1939 only to be told farmers were to remain on the land. So, she says, he resolved to buy the land we farm now in order to “do his duty and grow more food”. A notion almost incomprehensible in this era of plenty.

It’s to that lonely boy’s courage in the face of battle – both on the shores of Gallipoli and later in the hills of Gippsland – that I owe this farm. I will not forget.

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