Author Archives: milkmaidmarian

About milkmaidmarian

Our family (me, my husband, little girl and boy) have a medium-sized farm in Gippsland, Victoria. Our farm is rain-fed rather than irrigated and has been in the family for generations. We love our farm and cows. We hope our blog, Milk Maid Marian We hope this blog helps other Aussies get a taste of life on the land.

Who deserves the cream of Australian dairy?

“When we have to go to four different stores or supermarkets and still can’t buy a single tin of what I need … start looking after Australian babies first before sending all of our stock overseas for a ridiculous profit. Money hungry f****.”
– Australian resident angered by infant formula shortages

Australians do not expect to see bare supermarket shelves but the unthinkable has happened. Infant formula is in short supply. Apparently, it’s all due to people sending tins of the stuff over to China where parents certainly don’t take abundant high-quality food for granted.

Australians have not only been surprised but outraged, as illustrated so delightfully by the opening quote from an anonymous interviewee. Why, there have even been “semi-riots” at the checkouts!

The industry is struggling to increase supply, which isn’t easy as an article by Dairy Innovation Australia explains. A petition demanding the supermarkets ration infant formula has attracted around 4000 signatures and both Coles and Woolies have increasingly tightened restrictions.

Then, today, the Greens and the government agreed to make it harder for foreigners to buy Australian land and water. According to The Weekly Times, “the screening threshold for foreign buyers of agricultural land reduced from $252 million to $15 million, and down to $55 million for investment in agribusiness”.

It’s great to see that what we produce here on the farm is treasured by Australians but why isn’t it valued?

It seems milk is so cheap and abundant, it is worth less than water. Except when the farmer is offered a fair price for her land by someone who really appreciates its true value. How ironic that this the only time Australian food is too precious to leave to market forces.



Filed under Dairy Products, Farm, Milk quality, supermarket war and $1 milk

The new golden child in Australian dairy: corporate farming


Australian dairy farmers have long been compared to our Kiwi big sisters.

You might imagine the comparisons would highlight the resilience of Aussie farmers who cope with much tougher climates (three weeks with scant rainfall is considered a drought in NZ) and less bountiful soils. But, sadly, no, it’s generally been along the lines of a disappointed parent.

“If only Australian dairy farmers were more like the Kiwis”.

But, as the cost of producing a litre of milk in the naturally blessed New Zealand has risen close to that of Australia, big sister has lost some of her charm. The new golden child is Big Brother: the corporate farmer.

The corporate farm is very attractive to everyone who describes themselves as “in agribusiness”. It borrows big, spends big, supplies big and is built on the promise of rivers of white gold that can be tapped by anyone with a spare dollar (whether or not they have an aversion to muddy boots). Freed from the constraints of traditional farming, they push the system hard for maximum shareholder return.

And, if it crashes, well, what the heck? It was worth a crack. The carcass is licked clean, everyone dusts themselves off and goes back to what they were doing before, digging up iron ore or whatever it takes to fund a spin on the roulette wheel.

Should we be concerned? Honestly, I’m not sure. If large dairy farms are held by patient investors, they can tick all the right boxes, since cow care, environmental responsibility and the welfare of workers all make business sense in the long term.

I just hope those lured by all the hype remember that dairy farming is a complex, volatile business and the returns may be neither instant or constant for, if it’s all about turning a quick buck, things can turn ugly very quickly indeed.


Filed under Community, Farm

Fingerprinting a dairy cow

I hate paperwork with a passion but a little ink drawing on one archived oversize envelope had me leaning back in my chair, smiling. And here it is.


You see, there was a time when my Dad didn’t pay much heed to details like ear tags. Every herd member was known by the spots on her hide. There was “Lipstick” and “Lipstick’s Daughter”, later joined by “Lipstick’s Granddaughter”. There was “Milk Jug” and, most infamously, even “Sicking Monster”.

And if there wasn’t a name for the cow, he seemed perpetually blessed with inspiration for a fresh christening. It was such a logical, foolproof identification system that Dad was always mystified when a family member failed to understand which cow needed to be drafted from the mob. “Sicking Monster”, for example, was obviously the young cow sporting a large irregular C-shaped black blob with another smaller blob near the opening of the C.

The day Dad drew Cameo began with a decree that dutiful daughter should retrieve three cows from the paddock. Following his post-milking nap, Dad was appalled to find only two cows in the yard. “What about Cameo?”

I’d spent a good half an hour trudging around the herd of 200 cows looking for an obvious Cameo and failed. What you see here is the documentary evidence of on-the-job training.

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Filed under Cows, Family and parenting, Farm

Fried pastures fry a farmer’s brain

The 5 o'clock swill

Feeding the cows will be a challenge this summer

The fear that steals alongside a horrifyingly dry season robs this farmer of more than dollars. Confusion as deep and disorienting as a thick Edinburgh fog sets in. I knew it was going to be dry, but this? This can’t happen. The brain moves into the basic fight or flight mode, making it harder than ever to manage the complexities of cow, climate, cashflow and crops.

In counterattack, I create spreadsheet after spreadsheet, recreating a standard season, adding a “drought factor” and checking, checking, checking.

Still, I find myself lying in the midnight darkness, chest tight, heart pounding loud over the silence of a sleeping household. Rolling numbers over in a head spinning with scenarios and doubts. Then scolding myself for my lack of serenity and self control, knowing that smart decisions can only be made on the back of a good night’s sleep. Deep breaths, think of our children’s sweet faces. Sink back into slumber.

The antidote is a committed plan. A meeting with the bank manager and a handshake with the hay man put me back on a more even keel. Once I’d said it all out loud, ordered an inconceivable amount of hay and arranged the extra mortgage, the fog began to lift. Yes, it will put us back eight years but the kids will barely notice. They won’t be sleeping rough or missing out on school excursions. We’re lucky, really, I tell myself.

I’ve drawn heavily on everything we’ve built over the past few years: the equity we’d slowly clawed back plus networks of farmer friends, advisors and financial whizzes. But a lot of people down here are not so well supported, including one young farmer who called today feeling overwhelmed and isolated. He takes some comfort when I tell him of my own sleepless nights.

Our silage contractor, Wayne Bowden, goes on ABC Radio a couple of days ago, explaining the situation. We’ve had about a tenth of our normal rainfall all spring and only 4 in 10 farmers are making any silage. Hay simply won’t happen. In the days since his interview, he’s been stopped in the street by several farmers grateful to hear that it’s not just them and to know that, at last, someone’s telling it as it is.

Dairy Australia’s Neil Lane says talking about the situation is critical.

“You need to answer two big questions: how much feed to I need to source and can I afford it?,” he says. “But don’t try to manage it all on your own,” he counsels. “Get onto Taking Stock, chat to people you trust like other farmers, factory field staff, consultants, agronomists, feed suppliers and go to your local discussion group.”

Still looking for more resources? Try the:
Australian Centre for Agricultural Health and Safety (AgHealth Australia)
The National Centre for Farmer Health
Sustainable Farm Families
National Hay and Grain Report
Cool Cows


Filed under Climate, Farm

When Spring doesn’t spring

Spring is the time of plenty and everything here is timed to match it.

Young, innocent magpies sit for young scientists

Young, innocent magpies sit for young scientists

Landcare swings into action on the farm

Landcare swings into action on the farm

And the grass grows like a weed, which we turn into silage for the cows to eat over summer and winter.

But what happens when Mother Nature turns off the tap?


The sea of red shows just how dry it has become. Soil moisture levels are at historic lows in our part of Gippsland and farmers around here are struggling to get even small fractions of the normal silage yield tucked away for summer and next winter. We normally get around 800 rolls of silage to sustain the cows over summer and winter but may get 10% of that this year.

The man who cuts our Spring harvest describes the season as “bleak”, while our agronomist says most locals without irrigation “don’t know what to do” and are pinning their hopes on a November flood.

To be fair, we didn’t get so far into the red overnight. I saw it coming. We have been at rainfall decile 1 (out of 10) right through winter and it’s barely rained since. The blasts of heat we’ve had in the last couple of weeks were just the icing on the cake. It feels like drought. It measures up like drought, too.

Coping with El Nino
What have I done to prepare? First, we regretfully sold a lot of cows so there are fewer mouths to feed. Next, we planted turnips extra early on the river flats so they could get their roots down deep while there was still some moisture to support the seedlings.

Crops are sown so the cows will have lush green feed in summer

Crops sown so the cows will have some lush green feed in summer

Aside from this, I’ve been hammering the phone calling every man and his dog about securing large quantities of hay before it’s all gone while harassing pump, pipe and sprinkler people to get a little irrigation system up and going. If I have to talk about head, pressures and flow rates any longer, I think my own head will explode!

The system will mix water from our dam with the manure we collect from the dairy yard together to water a small crop of millet and chicory. It’s a great way to recycle the nutrients from the farm, protect our river and ocean, make the farm more resilient to climate change, offer the cows something green to eat and keep the milk flowing.

I haven’t done it all on my own because getting through a season like this demands a lot of expertise. I’ve been very lucky to have help from DEDTJR feed planning expert, Greg O’Brien, to model different scenarios and their financial impact on the farm as part of the Feeding Impact program.

The program provides a great framework for getting proactive about feeding decisions and brings farmers together to learn from each other. It’s great to know I’m not the only one in this position and I always marvel at just how generous groups of farmers can be with their moral support and advice.

Our nutrition consultant, Peter De Garis, and feed supplier, Jess May, have helped me create a balanced diet for the cows with not too much protein, too little energy and just the right amount of fibre.

Agronomist Scott Travers has offered his advice on the right type and timing of crops to keep feed up to the cows for the next few months. Fonterra irrigation and nutrient distribution advisor, John Kane, has kept me sane when assessing everything to do with pumps and pipes.

Farms like mine are small but very complex businesses. If I walk past you down the street looking a little distant and perplexed, you’ll know why.

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Filed under Climate, Cows, Environment, Farm, Fonterra

Fonterra’s Judith Swales explains Theo’s thoughts on Aussie dairy farmers

Theo Spierings Fonterra chief executive Theo Spierings. Photo: Pat Scala, Sydney Morning Herald

Fonterra is one of the world’s biggest dairy companies with a glittering history. A cooperative in New Zealand, Fonterra is also Australia’s second-largest processor.

Just last year, Fonterra delivered a stellar Kiwi farmgate price far better than anything ever enjoyed by Aussie dairy farmers. Analysts enjoyed debating why Australia could not emulate its success. Today, the co-op is under intense scrutiny from its shareholders.

As I mentioned in the previous post, farmers in New Zealand are doing it very tough this year and Fonterra Australia chalked up losses last year.

Then, last week, Fonterra’s chief executive Theo Spierings​, was quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald  in a story headlined Aussie farmers being overpaid amid global dairy rout, says Fonterra boss.

After quoting Mr Spierings as saying the current price of $5.60kg MS could not be supported, the Sydney Morning Herald reported:

Mr Spierings said the method on how Australian farmers were paid needed to change so it wasn’t based just on the farm-gate price and matched other processors.

“It’s loyalty and skin in the game that can lead to an upside. You can call it a dividend, or whatever, a bonus per kilogram milk solids,” he said.

“But we need to have the conversation now about what the endgame looks like. What is the value being created – what’s the size of the cake? Then we need to have a good debate with farmers … about how are we going to share – how are we going to cut the cake?

The comments raised a lot of questions for a Fonterra Australia supplier like me, especially in respect to the “Bonlac Agreement”, which extends until 2019 and commits Fonterra to paying its Australian suppliers a price that equals or betters the dominant processor.

I put some of those questions to Fonterra Australia and am grateful to managing director, Judith Swales, for answering them.

Judith Swales, Fonterra Australia managing director. Pic source: Australian Dairy Farmer

MMM: Why has Theo chosen to telegraph a change in Fonterra’s dealings with Australian farmers via the media rather than by opening a conversation with farmers?
JS: Theo was commenting on the global dairy situation and its impacts for Australia. He was putting a voice to issues that many in the industry are well aware of. These are difficult issues and shouldn’t be shied away from, and as an industry we need to address them.

MMM: Are there any inaccuracies in the article you would like to correct?
JS: The headline was unfortunate. The main issue to point out is that the problem is not around Australians dairy farmers being overpaid – as stated in the headline – but rather the impact global volatility is having on the sustainability of current dairy pricing in Australia. What’s important, is that we’re sending the right price signals to our farmers to avoid any surprises and so that they can budget for various scenarios.

MMM: Theo appears to cast doubt on the Bonlac agreement that ensures farmgate prices match or better the dominant competitor. Will Fonterra honour that agreement this year?
JS: We remain fully committed to honouring the Bonlac agreement. We are focussed on giving our farmers line of sight to the price we can pay this year as quickly and accurately as we can. The price we pay this year must be sustainable. We do not want to sacrifice investment in our long term strategy, which aims to deliver returns above the Benchmark price, in response to short term, tactical pricing pressures.

MMM: Does Fonterra remain committed to the Bonlac agreement in the medium to long term?
JS: We view the BSC Milk Supply Agreement as a baseline. We always strive to aspire to more – whether it be with our SupportCrew services, price risk management tools or our suppliers receiving the highest milk price (as found in an independent report by Ian Gibb for the 2013/14 season). We expect our relationship with our suppliers to continue to evolve over time.

MMM: “It’s loyalty and skin in the game that can lead to an upside. You can call it a dividend, or whatever, a bonus per kilogram milk solids,” says Theo. Does this mean special pricing that favours long-term contracts and large farms?
JS: Achieving a mechanism for determining milk price that drives behaviours that support the success of Fonterra’s strategy for all suppliers is our aim. This work is always evolving and we will continue work with BSC on this.

MMM: Farmers who supply milk to Fonterra Australia are suppliers rather than shareholders. What does Theo mean by “sharing the cake”?
JS: We have always said that the best dairy industry model is the one where everyone can get a sustainable return. Farmers need to be able to make money, processors need to make money and so do customers, like retailers. And that’s what he means by sharing the cake.

MMM: Does Fonterra continue to have a long term commitment to Australia?

JS: Absolutely we are committed long term to Australia; and our Board continues to voice this commitment. Australia is one of our four key strategic markets for Fonterra. It is a key plank to our global multi-hub strategy, which complements our Retail and Foodservice business. We continue to invest: we are progressing our Beingmate partnership; we have plans to rebuild our cheese plant in Stanhope; and only this week we commissioned a multi-million dollar Beverages plant in Cobden.

Thank you very much, Judith Swales!


Filed under Dairy Products, Farm, Fonterra

The calm before the perfect storm for one nervous dairy farmer

A perfect storm is brewing. Collapsing global dairy markets, a fodder shortage, and a strengthening El Nino.

Milk price uncertainty

Just across the ditch, NZ dairy farmers are drowning in despair after the dominant Kiwi milk processor, Fonterra, this week cut its farmgate price forecast to $3.85 per kilogram of milk solids, down from $5.25. The announcement followed hot on the heels of yet another set of disastrous Global Dairy Trade auction figures.

The Global Dairy Trade auction results of 4 August

The Global Dairy Trade auction results of 4 August


Most NZ milk is sold via the Global Dairy Trade auction and an article from neatly explains the situation for NZ dairy farmers:

DairyNZ chief executive Tim Mackle said the news was grim, but not unexpected and many farmers would now be in survival mode.

The drop in milk price would result in $2.5 billion dropping out of rural economies, Mackle said. 

“Milk price is now half what it was in 2013/14. We calculate around nine out of 10 farmers will need to take on extra debt to keep going through some major operating losses,” Mackle said. 

“For the average farmer you are looking at covering a business loss of $260,000 to 280,000 this season but for many it will be a lot more than that.”

It would have a big impact on rural servicing businesses. Drops like this had a cascading effect through rural economies, Mackle said.

DairyNZ analysis showed the average farmer now needed a milk price of $5.40 to break even.

Just a few months ago, dairy industry analysts were forecasting a return to better international commodity prices at the end of this year but opinions seem to be changing, suggesting that there will be not one but two years of pain ahead.

What does this mean for Australian dairy farmers like me? Well, the largest processor of Australian milk, Murray Goulburn, forecast a closing (or end of year) price to farmers of $6.05kg of milk solids just before its partial ASX float. It hasn’t yet revised that closing price but its biggest competitor, Fonterra Australia, says it will announce the results of its own July price review this week.

The big difference between NZ dairy and Australian dairy is this: NZ exports 95% of the milk it produces, while Australia exports just 38% of its milk.  The Australian domestic milk market is much more stable than international commodity prices, so we don’t get the dramatic highs and lows of Kiwi farmgate milk prices. At least, that’s how it’s meant to work.

I’m certainly relieved to have locked in a bottom to the price we are paid for 70% of the farm’s milk. We now supply Fonterra Australia, which accepted our bid to join “The Range” risk management program that sees our price bob about between an upper and lower pair of prices. If the milk price does collapse, we’ll go backwards at a rate of knots but will still be farming next year.

El Nino: more feed needed and less to go round

Sadly, I can’t lock in even a portion of our rainfall. With a strengthening El Nino predicted to persist into next year, the Bureau of Meteorology calculates just a 30 to 35 per cent chance of at least average rainfall for our region from August to October. That means we’re likely to have less surplus Spring grass to conserve as hay and silage. It’s a double whammy because the El Nino also suggests we’re likely to need more fodder than normal over summer and autumn.

To top it off, hay prices are already unaffordable and quality hay is scarce.

The perfect storm

In other words, we’ll need more conserved feed than normal with less than usual to make ourselves and, very likely, starved of cash flow to pay for extra loads from far flung places.

A milk maid’s survival plan

So, what do we do? We’ve already begun adapting by selling off our less productive cows to limit our demand for feed. Thankfully, cattle prices are high right now and the sale of those 13 cows will feed the rest of the herd for three weeks. I’m also spending more time hunched in front of the computer looking for any opportunities to cut costs and keeping an eagle eye on our budget.

A brainstorming and planning session with agronomist, Scott Travers, has helped us plan for extra on-farm cropping with brassicas over summer.

Cows grazing forage rape

The cows will be grazing more brassicas this summer

We’ll be planting several types of brassicas (which belong to the same family as broccoli and cabbage) that mature at different times in a bid to have leafy greens available for the cows throughout summer. The big risk, however, is that the weather will be too tough, even for summer crops.

To deal with this, we are planning another infrastructure project inside the bounds of our new kangaroo fence. Water from our freshwater dam will be mixed with effluent from the dairy yard and pumped over the crop paddocks. It will help the brassicas survive a dry sprummer and summer then help re-establish pasture during an unreliable autumn.

This modest irrigation system will cost money but it will slash the cost of spreading the effluent and should pay for itself quite quickly during a year when visits from the hay truck could spell the difference between make or break.

A perfect storm is brewing and, here on the farm, we are trimming our sails to suit.



Filed under Climate, Farm