Time to turn out the lights, together

Farmers and environmentalists have finally come out of the closet, holding hands. As Landcarers, farmers have been practising “greenies” for decades, we’ve just never embraced the label.

Greenies are often seen as the enemy and, sometimes, some of them have been. We’ve been blamed for global warming, the blanching of the Great Barrier Reef and the land clearing sins of our forefathers; the rapists of the land.

But tonight, it’s the greenies themselves, WWF’s Earth Hour, who are showcasing Australian farming. Tune in to the Appetite for Change documentary on Channel 10 tonight or watch it online anytime.

The Earth Hour cookbook tells my family’s story and the stories of farmers around the country to inspire action. And it’s all constructive because Earth Hour understands that farmers, foodies and greenies belong on the same page.

We all need to eat, drink and breathe.

Nobody understands what the impact of a changing climate means better than farmers do. So embrace your inner greenie and turn off the lights tonight from 8.30 for Earth Hour.

After all, what’s the worst that could happen?

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Filed under Climate, Community, Environment

What climate change means at farm level

A photo by Heather Downing of the kids and me out on the farm for the Earth Hour cookbook, which appeared in The Age today

When journalist from The Age Liam Mannix asked me how climate change was affecting our farm, the answer was: in every possible way, beginning with the circle of life.

When I was a girl, we used to get the ute, the tractor and our gumboots bogged every winter. It rained and rained and rained and rained and…you get the picture. Well, not any more. With the odd exception, the winters are warmer and drier these days. Boggings are a rare novelty for my kids.

This has some real benefits. Warmer, drier winters are much easier on the cows, calves and the grass. Much easier on us, too (plugging through deep mud in horizontal rain is character-building stuff)! We can grow a lot more grass in winter and that’s fantastic.

Less than fantastic are the changing shoulders of the season – sprummer and autumn. Spring can come to an abrupt halt very early in November these days and we often wait much longer into autumn for rain.

Every rain-fed farmer like me tries to match the cow’s natural lactation curve with the grass’s growth. In fact, the amount of grass the cows harvest is the number one predictor of dairy farm profitability. So, looking at the new growth patterns, we took the plunge a few years ago and shifted the circle of life to match. Now, calves begin to arrive in early May rather than mid-July.

Our decision is backed by hard data. Dairy guru, Neil Lane, has researched local statistics and found that farms just 10 minutes away have seen falls in production of 1 tonne of dry matter per hectare and increasing risk around late spring and autumn. On our 200 hectare farm, that’s 200 tonnes every year valued at roughly $300 per tonne we lose. That’s a lot of ground to make up.

But all is not lost. Dairy farmers are adapting at break-neck speed. We are on the cusp of breeding cows that are more resilient to heat and, in the meantime, have a very well-practised regimen to protect our cows from heat stress.

We are growing different pasture species like cocksfoot, tall fescue and prairie grass with deep root systems to tap into subsoil moisture. Planting at least 1000 trees per year creates micro climates that shelter both our animals and our pastures.

All of this makes practical, business sense and it also helps me feel better about our children’s futures. We are doing something!

That’s why I agreed to talk to The Age for this article and why we were happy to be featured in the Earth Hour cookbook.
It’s thrilling to see the great stuff farmers across Australia are doing in response to climate change. Now, if we can communicate that to foodies and the animal welfare movement, just imagine the possibilities.

The Earth Hour cook book makes climate change matter to foodies

The Earth Hour cook book makes climate change matter to foodies

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Filed under Calves, Climate, Cows, Pastures

MG responds to questions about Devondale

Devondale logo

After the publication of yesterday’s post, Murray Goulburn’s Robert Poole has this afternoon responded to Milk Maid Marian’s questions following the Financial Review’s commentary on Devondale’s sales performance. They are included here in full.

Q1: Are the figures quoted in the Financial Review a fair representation of Devondale’s sales performance?
A: MG considers that the data represented in the Rear Window opinion piece in the Australian Financial Review is selective and as a result has the potential to be misleading to readers. MG does not consider that it is a fair representation of Devondale.

Q2: To quote from the Fin Review: “According to Murray Goulburn, a big upside of the Coles deal was that it would ‘drive significant growth in sales for [its] core Devondale milk and cheese brands in the years ahead’”
A: MG has consistently stated that the underlying basis for the Coles contract was to enter the private label daily pasteurised milk market. This statement was made on 10 April 2013 when MG announced its entry into the landmark 10 year contract and again on 3 July 2014 when announcing the commencement of supply to Coles under that agreement. MG launching the Devondale branded daily pasteurised milk and Devondale Cheese into Coles (after a nine year absence) was separate to the underlying business case of supplying private label daily pasteurised milk to Coles. The supply of Devondale daily pasteurised milk and supply of Cheese was not the basis for entering into the Coles contract.

Q3 How do actual Devondale sales figures compare to the budgets set when the plants were planned?
A: Sales are in line with business plans.

Q4: Does Murray Goulburn continue to enjoy “preferred supplier status” with Woolworths?
MG does not comment on its relationship with customers.

Q5: How have the Devondale sales at Woolworths compare with those at Coles?
A: This information is commercially confidential. MG is proud to be a supplier to total Grocery and Foodservice trade, and works with all customers to grow the business and maximise returns to farmers

Q6: Does MG plan to review its product mix or marketing strategy in light of Devondale’s sales performance?
A: MG has a balanced portfolio across international and domestic markets, ingredients, Private label and branded products. Like any strong business, MG is managing this portfolio to maximise the returns to Farmers, as evidenced by the current farmgate price.

Q7: How does Devondale’s sales performance compare with other areas of MG’s business?
A: In 2014/15 Devondale is one of the leading growth and profit divisions for MG

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Filed under Farm

The trouble with the MG and “Gary the Great” sideshow

Murray Goulburn’s colourful managing director, Gary Helou, is not universally loved and he’s become a bit of a target over the last year or so.

Some dairy farmers are nervous about his proposed transformation of the much-loved 100% farmer-owned co-operative into a “farmer-controlled” hybrid or are alienated by his brash, bullish style.

Some of his competitors hate him for driving up the price of raw milk (which is, of course, his mandate) and they also deeply resent this Devondale ad:

Given that Gary himself is a suit-wearing Sydney-sider who flies in weekly to MG’s Melbourne headquarters where a large corporate Mercedes Benz awaits him in the basement, he could be accused of a little hypocrisy.

So the acerbic commentary from the Financial Review directed at the so-called “Gary the Great” generates plenty of sniggers, including yesterday’s piece, which was republished outside the pay wall in The Land.

The article reveals a series of sales figures that suggest sales of MG’s Devondale branded products have tanked disastrously, followed by an observation that:

“When Helou locked Murray Goulburn into a decade of skinny margins supplying Coles with its $1 milk, his rationale was that it would lead to growth in his branded products and thus higher margins for his farmers.”

“But the growth has not transpired, which means the margins are on borrowed time – especially as Helou juggles significant debt covenants, tries to raise $500 million in new capital and wears major cost blowouts getting his new processing facilities online.”

Are the figures fair? I asked dairy industry analyst, Steve Spencer of Freshagenda, about the data quoted in the story.

“The figures are sourced from retail scan sales data reports, which are expensive and normally only purchased by some of the larger supermarket suppliers,” Steve explained.

“The figures supplied to the Financial Review are current and specific and certainly not publicly available, so the data was most likely leaked by a competitor. It’s unlikely that any of the figures were inaccurate but could have been used selectively to paint a certain picture or the columnist’s agenda.”

But if the article is fair, it’s worrying news for MG farmer shareholders. I invited MG’s Robert Poole to answer a series of questions to set the record straight:

  • Are the figures quoted in the Financial Review a fair representation of Devondale’s sales performance?
  • To quote from the Fin Review: “According to Murray Goulburn, a big upside of the Coles deal was that it would ‘drive significant growth in sales for [its] core Devondale milk and cheese brands in the years ahead’”. To what degree does the profitability of the Melbourne and Sydney plants rely on the sale of Devondale products?
  • How do actual Devondale sales figures compare to the budgets set when the plants were planned?
  • Does Murray Goulburn continue to enjoy “preferred supplier status” with Woolworths?
  • How have the Devondale sales at Woolworths compare with those at Coles?
  • Does MG plan to review its product mix or marketing strategy in light of Devondale’s sales performance?
  • How does Devondale’s sales performance compare with other areas of MG’s business?

Robert pointed me to a media release on MG’s website released later in the day. Unfortunately, it does not answer the questions. Instead, it plays the man rather than the ball, providing any genuinely concerned farmer shareholder little comfort.

Are the criticisms of Gary Helou and MG simply sour grapes or dirty competitive tactics? I hope so but it seems only time will tell. This is the tragedy of the “Gary the Great” sideshow: it all descends into an ugly bun-fight in which, ultimately, the farmer is the loser.

EDIT: I HAVE WOKEN TO AN EMAIL FROM ROBERT POOLE INDICATING THAT HE WILL BE PLEASED TO ANSWER THE QUESTIONS TODAY (20/02/2015).

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Filed under Dairy Products, Farm, Murray Goulburn

Valentine’s Day on the farm: what it means to love your animals

The sweet Jamie and Zoe

The sweet Jamie and Zoe

Meet my new love, Jamie. A “leopard Appaloosa”, he’s not the prettiest horse on the planet but he may well be the sweetest. At the ripe old age of just eight, he was the embodiment of freedom for some of our most vulnerable Australians as a Riding for the Disabled (RDA) mount.

Certainly, he has the calm, unflappable nature required but he got bored of walking gently around and around an arena. For Jamie is quite a character, smart enough to drink Coke from a can or juice from a box.

Farm life suits this inquisitive fellow down to the ground. There are always people coming and going, cows on the move and Jamie loves nothing better than a ride in the bush. We feed him carrots, brush his silky spotty coat until it gleams, take care of his health, smother him with affection and, in return, Jamie keeps me sane and more alive than I’ve felt in years. It’s a contract written in love.

Jamie wears his heart on his hide

Jamie wears his heart on his hide

I’ve always considered myself a horse rider even during the last seven years of being horseless. When Zoe was just a toddler and the grief from my father’s death was still raw, I had to put down my best friend, Mistral. No matter what the vet tried, she was in debilitating pain with arthritis.

Mistral

Mistral

Over the 22 years we were together, Mistral and I came to trust each other implicitly; we could face anything together. Her loss was devastating. But I owed it to her.

Anyone who cares for animals has to be courageous and selfless enough to put their well-being first. That’s what we aim for every day here on the farm when we are making decisions that affect their lives. And, let’s face it, nearly everything we do has an impact on the animals who share our home.

Farmers are accused of not talking about animal welfare enough. It’s difficult, just as raising the topic of child welfare would be, err, unpopular at a kindergarten barbeque. Nobody wants to have their parenting or animal care standards questioned – it’s insulting. But maybe it’s something we need to face with the same selflessness and courage we animal lovers expect of ourselves when it counts.

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Filed under Animal Health and Welfare

Work with me to look after our cows

I want to give every one of our cows a better life. It may sound grandiose but I think of myself as their guardian.

BoldHeiferLoRes

I am not a corporation, not a money-hungry investor looking to tear a quick buck off the backs of our cows. No, I am in this for the long-term, not five years or a decade but for the generations beyond mine. Every time I plant a new trailer-load of trees, I imagine the deep shade they will cast when my children reach middle age.

How we planted trees 40 years ago

How we planted trees 40 years ago

Every calf we rear is fed with enough colostrum to bless her with a long and healthy life, not just until market day. And the herd is scrupulously isolated from disease like BJD, not just for now, but for generations of cows to come.

No rest for the mother of twins

A perfect multi-tasking mother cow!

I’m not an aberration, not a monster, just a farmer doing her best. So don’t tell me I am cruel if you don’t understand – or approve of – the way I care for our animals. Sit alongside me in the paddocks and, together, perhaps we can work out a better way.

 

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Filed under Animal Health and Welfare

The freedom to be a cow

It’s not just Cheeky Girl who magically appears out of nowhere. I had to go down to the paddock after milking to check on the cows and found myself being stalked by a tall, dark stranger.

It’s a lot of fun just sitting, watching the cows. Real individuals, some are curious, some are timid, some haughty but, without exception, dignified.

There’s a fine balance in our interactions. Yes, we milk the cows but it is they who dictate the flow of our days, months and lives. Everything from wedding dates to annual holidays are chosen to avoid calving season, a time when all hands are focused on the safe arrival of the next generation.

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Filed under Animal Health and Welfare, Cows, Farm