Don’t call me a “female farmer”

I’m just a farmer. Not an “invisible farmer”, not a “woman in ag”, just a farmer. Being able to prime a pump and drain a sump does not make me exceptional either. Just another farmer.

I’m not sure, really, why there are so many women-in-ag groups. Their existence suggests the female form is somehow a problem when it comes to twisting wire into a figure 8 knot or developing a new plot. It’s not.

All my life, I’ve watched women farmers at work. My grandmother, mother, neighbours and friends. There’s nothing new – or second-rate – about female farmers.

Nor does being capable with my hands make me any less of a woman. I can totter in stillettos and slosh around in Skellerups. Big deal. So do thousands of other farmers.

Yet today is the International Day of Rural Women and, this week, the Melbourne Museum opened a display it says is the first official documentation of women’s contribution to Australian agriculture.

What am I missing? Why do women flock to special female-only groups and why do so few of us turn up to broader industry events?

What do you think? Are female-only ag forums important to make women feel comfortable expressing ourselves or do they simply reinforce a perception that we’re somehow not able to perform in mixed company?

I’m just not sure.

The Butcherbird: the backyard bird horror motion picture

All this week, it’s been the same, terrible ordeal. I scurry from tree to tree, cowering under the spreading canopies of the golden ash flanking the driveway. And, every time, the Butcherbird comes.

As the folk at Birdlife Australia note:

“With its lovely, lilting song, the Grey Butcherbird may not seem to be a particularly intimidating species.”

“However, with its strong, hooked beak and its fierce stare, the Grey Butcherbird is not a bird to be messed with.

“When a nest or newly fledged chick is around, if you venture too close, a butcherbird will swoop by flying straight at your face, sometimes striking with enough force to draw blood, and each swoop is accompanied by a loud, maniacal cackle.”
Birdlife Australia

They’re not joking. Watch the video but don’t show the kids before bed.

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The Grey Butcherbird. Pic credit: Birdlife Australia

An aggressive hunter, the Butcherbird gets its name from a grisly habit of impaling or hanging prey in the fork of a tree. Add that to your list of scary Australian native animals!

There might just be one of those maniacal cacklers in your backyard, too. It’s one of the species that regularly makes the charts in the Aussie Backyard Bird Count, which runs from October 23 to 29.

Last year, the Rainbow Lorikeet, Noisy Miner and Australian Magpie topped the list of Australia’s most counted birds.

Of course, a farm is the biggest back yard of all. Thanks to a grant from the Norman Wettenhall Foundation the birds that visit our Land for Wildlife dam are regularly documented by local Landcarers.

It’s a fantastic list for one small part of the farm:

  Australasian Grebe   Australasian Shoveller   Australian Magpie
  Australian Pelican   Australian Shelduck Duck   Australian Wood Duck
  Black Swan   Black-fronted Plover   Blue-billed Duck
  Brown Thornbill   Cattle Egret   Chestnut Teal Duck
  Common Blackbird   Common Starling   Crimson Rosella
  Dusky Moorhen   Eastern Rosella   Eastern Yellow Robin
  Eurasian Coot   European Goldfinch   European Skylark
  Galah   Golden-headed Cisticole   Great (black) Cormorant
  Great Egret   Grey Butcherbird   Grey Fantail
  Grey Shrike-thrush   Grey Teal Duck   Hardhead (White-eyed) Duck
  Hoary-headed Grebe   Laughing Kookaburra   Little Black Cormorant
  Little Corella   Little Raven   Little Raven
  Magpie-lark   Masked Lapwing Plover   Musk Duck
  New Holland Honeyeater   Pacific (White-necked) Heron   Pacific Black Duck
  Purple Swamphen   Red Wattlebird   Red-browed Firetail
  Richard’s Pipit   Scarlet Robin   Silvereye
  Spotted Turtle Dove   Striated Pardalote   Sulphur-crested Cockatoo
  Superb Fairy-wren   Tree Martin   Welcome Swallow
  White-eared Honeyeater   White-faced Heron   Willie Wagtail
  Yellow-faced Honeyeater

Dam

You can get involved too!

The new, updated Aussie Bird Count app lets you get involved and track birds anywhere—not just in your backyard but on the farm, at the park or the beach.

Join the count at aussiebirdcount.org.au.

The national total will be updated in real time and the app allows you to see which species are being seen in your local area.

 

Predator to save farm dam from wombat

Meet the farm’s apex predator, Mimi.

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The face might not inspire shock and awe but I’m staking a hell of a lot on her fearsome faeces.

Earlier this week, I was dismayed to discover a wascally wombat is making a tunnel through the dam wall.

WombatHoleTrack

This is no ordinary dam. It’s a full-to-the-brim, 6-metre-high wall of water. The equivalent of 16 Olympic swimming pools, this is pretty much the only water you’ll find falling on the farm from New Year until Autumn. It’s the makings of the cows’ summer supper.

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So, with no time to spare, we need to convince Wally Wombat that this is a very poor location for his new holiday home.

I rang wombat rescue groups but none would take him away seeing as he’s not injured but all said the same thing: wombats are fussy. They don’t like wet burrows, stinky burrows or ones that might be visited by meat eaters.

So, armed with some fresh evidence of meat eating kindly donated by Mimi the monster, we bucketed in a predator’s calling card or two, followed by a few sloshings of muddy water for good measure.

Wombathole

Fingers crossed, Wally moves out of town before we need to call in the Sheriff.

WorkSafe Vic to get tough on quad bikes

It sounded like a threat from WorkSafe.

“I think you’ll see us getting quite radical in the new year….  So prosecuting farmers has not been an area that we’ve particularly been in but we think we may need to be in that space.”
– Marnie Williams,
Executive Director, Health and Safety at WorkSafe – Victoria

That was the response to questions from Kevin Jones, the author of Australia’s top independent OHS blog, Safety At Work, about how the regulator would attack Victoria’s stubbornly high number of quadbike-related deaths.

Ms Williams also told Safety At Work that WorkSafe plans to send inspectors to 25 per cent more farms next year. One in 10 can now expect a knock at the door.

So, what exactly does WorkSafe have in mind for Victorian dairy farms? Milk Maid Marian invited Marnie Williams to write a guest post and I am very grateful for her explanation. Thank you, Marnie.

Why WorkSafe is getting tougher on quadbike safety – and how you can help

Marnie

Marnie Williams, executive director of Health and Safety at WorkSafe Victoria

Bad news arrives by text message at WorkSafe.

Usually, the fact that the phone of everyone around me beeps simultaneously provides a few seconds of warning, but this never quite prepares me for the details on the screen.

Inevitably the message is a Code Yellow, notification to senior WorkSafe staff that someone has been seriously injured, or worse, killed, at a workplace in Victoria.

As WorkSafe’s inspectors and investigators swing into action, my mind goes to the scene and to the thought of families being given the heartbreaking news that something has happened to someone they love.

Sadly – and all too often – these families are on farms, perhaps just a few hundred metres from where the incident has occurred.

And frustratingly for everyone at WorkSafe, too many Code Yellows contain the words “quad bike”.

Make no mistake, quad bikes are the most dangerous piece of machinery on Australian farms.  SafeWork Australia data shows that 115 people have died as a result of quad bike incidents in Australia since 2011, 24 of these in Victoria alone.  Even more tragically, some were young children.  Not all of these people were using a quad bike for work at the time of their incident, but we know from our own research that many of the circumstances remain stubbornly the same.

Helmets not worn, operator protection devices (OPDs) not installed, quad bikes poorly maintained, being used to perform tasks they weren’t designed for or travelling over ground they were not built for.  Operators not trained to ride them and children, physically incapable of handling such machines safely, allowed to ride them.

Despite the media focus, the academic studies, the recommendations of numerous coronial inquests and the pleas from medical professionals who see the trauma caused by quad bike accidents first-hand, the deaths have kept coming.

The reluctance of quad bike owners to fit OPDs, take up training and wear helmets has been of particular frustration to WorkSafe.  Considering that more than half of the quad bike deaths recorded by Safe Work Australia involved a rollover incident, and that quad bikes often weigh 300-350kg, it confounds us.

That is why, early last year WorkSafe decided that enough was enough.  It decided to put OPDs on the list of risk control measures formally recognised for quad bikes (helmets were already there).  This means that if a quad bike is being used in a workplace – and there is a risk of rollover – the employer must fit the bike with an OPD.

Since that time we have been working hard to educate the farm community about the safety benefits of an OPD.  Together with the State Government, we have implemented a $6 million rebate scheme – administered by the VFF – to help farmers pay to fit OPDs on existing quad bikes, or to help pay for the purchase of safer side-by-side vehicles.

We have also been driving home the message to Victorian farm owners that enforcement activity will soon begin.

This means that when WorkSafe inspectors see a quad bike that is at risk of rolling over due to the task it is performing or the terrain it is being operated on, they won’t be waiting for an incident to occur. An improvement notice will be issued on the spot, requiring the employer to fit an OPD or remove the bike from the risky environment.

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Ignoring a WorkSafe improvement notice may lead to charges for breaching the Occupational Health and Safety Act. In cases where a quad bike without an OPD has rolled over and caused death or injury, the owner can expect to be prosecuted through the courts.

These are not measures WorkSafe takes lightly, but the number of quad bike deaths and serious injuries demands action.

However, WorkSafe’s new approach on OPDs doesn’t mean that other quad bike safety measures can be ignored.

Employers need to make sure that anyone operating a quad bike wears a helmet and is properly trained to ride.

The bike needs to be maintained according to the manufacturer’s instructions and only used for the purpose for which it was designed.

Passengers are a no go – this can upset the balance of the bike – and children under the age of 16 should never operate an adult-size quad bike.

So if you see your neighbour riding across a steep hill on a quad bike that has no OPD, or riding down to get the cows in thongs, a tank top and no helmet, or letting their 10-year-old who can barely reach the brakes ride the bike down the paddock, call it out.

Ask them why they haven’t taken up the rebate for OPDs, or whether they have heard the stories about kids who have been crushed under a quad bike, or suffered a serious injury after it has rolled.

That one moment of awkward conversation for you may mean one less heartbreak for someone you know, and one less Code Yellow for us to dread.

# Marnie Williams is the executive director of Health Safety at WorkSafe Victoria
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Biosecurity dairy debacle: what farmers need to know

Forget mad cows, this time last week, the milk maid was practically frothing at the mouth. The MLA had told me there were new rules but – not to worry – just go ahead and break them.

Every time farmers sell cattle, we need to accompany them with National Vendor Declaration (NVD) forms. From October, those forms will include new sections on biosecurity and animal welfare.

We’re going to be selling cows again soon so I figured it was a good idea to get everything in order. I checked the NVD website auspiced by Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) and did the education segments but still couldn’t work out what else I needed to do. So I rang the MLA’s helpline.

What a mistake that was. To cut a long story short, I was referred to the Animal Health Australia biosecurity plan template. Jeepers. Among the dozens of requirements appears to be the tracking of all movements across the property and decontamination of vehicles as they move from one “zone” to another.

Despite bearing the Australian Dairy Farmers logo, it’s totally impractical for most dairy farms. Implementing it in the two weeks before it came into force? Absolutely impossible.

When I asked what the implications were of failing to take the recommended actions, I was told that I didn’t need to prove I’d done any of it – after all, the chances I’d be audited were pretty remote, David, the MLA man added. Just tick the box declaring I had.  Righto. All fixed. Not.

When I rang last week, Dairy Australia said it was still working on a solution for dairy farmers. Now, thankfully, Dairy Australia’s manager of sustainability including food safety and integrity, Helen Dornom, has pulled off a minor miracle with this:

“Dairy farmers have been deemed to be LPA equivalent based on the dairy QA programs currently in place and underpinned by dairy licences and a legislated requirement for on-farm food safety programs.”

“As well, the dairy industry is developing a biosecurity app to provide dairy farmers with an easy to use program that will deliver a personalised biosecurity plan for each dairy farm. The LPA module provides a template for biosecurity plans, as does Animal Health Australia. 

“The LPA template is based on the AHA template – and designed to help all livestock producers provide evidence of implementing the biosecurity requirements. The dairy app will be more customised to individual dairy farms.

“The industry is also developing a monitoring program for Animal Health and Welfare practices and has provided all dairy farmers with a copy of the Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines for dairy farmers – distributed through dairy companies at the end of 2014.”

“The key message for dairy farmers is that they are exempt from the need to undertake the LPA modules (although they can do them if they want to) – and short-term, do not need to take any action as they are deemed to be LPA accredited. Dairy farmers will also be exempt from LPA audits once the dairy farmer’s PIC is linked to his/her current dairy licence number.”

So, in other words, don’t call MLA when the time comes to send your cows to market. Don’t worry about the big pack of info on its way to your mailbox right now. Don’t bother going to any of those biosecurity sessions around the country. It’s all been rather like a scene from ABC’s Utopia.

Of course, if you have beef cattle on your property, too, then that’s another matter. Panic.

UPDATE 22/09/17: A series of emergency meetings has yielded this clarification for dairy farmers by the MLA: https://www.mla.com.au/meat-safety-and-traceability/red-meat-integrity-system/red-meat-integrity-systems-newsletter/what-the-changes-mean-for-dairy-farmers/

 

The change has only just begun: Rabo

Buckle up. That’s the message threaded right through a report on Australia’s dairy supply chain by Rabobank‘s Michael Harvey released today.

While so many of us are aching for some stability, for things to just settle down a bit, the report crystallizes fears that change has only just begun.

Michael’s report cites three causes for continuing change:

  1. Down by 800 million litres in southern Australia, milk production is at its lowest in two decades
  2. Australia’s largest processor, MG, has “stumbled and remains under pressure”
  3. The lower price farmers are paid for milk has triggered a boom in stainless steel investment and aggressive recruitment

The scale of the shake up is huge

RaboProcShare

p. 2, Harvey M., (2017), The Australian Dairy Supply Chain

While Rabobank’s chart illustrates just how much milk MG has hemorrhaged, it also shows that MG continues to be a critical player in the whole industry’s fortunes. As does Fonterra, now more than ever.

Fonterra is abandoning the Bonlac Supply Agreement, which used the MG price as a guaranteed baseline, for something yet to be announced.

MG, the Rabobank report concludes, has suffered “structural damage” that will, if it can recover, take years to repair before the co-op can resume the role of price setter.

So, here is the kicker in Michael Harvey’s own words:

“The reality is that the old system of price discovery for raw milk has broken down and a new method of price discovery will need to emerge, meaning that, in the future, dairy farm operators will be operating in a more commercially oriented and flexible market for their milk.”
– p. 4, Harvey M., (2017), The Australian Dairy Supply Chain

Is it a warning? Perhaps. Change is often difficult but it brings fresh opportunities, too.

Competition will drive farmgate milk prices for a while
Rabobank notes that while milk supply has fallen by 800 million litres, enough new stainless steel is coming on line this year to process another 700 million litres, with more expansion planned. It expects competition to drive milk prices in the medium term.

Milk flowing beyond borders
According to the report, there is an increasing appetite for milk processors to spread supply risk beyond their traditional collection areas.

We’ve seen this locally, with Warrnambool Cheese & Butter, for example, recruiting milk in Gippsland.

A rethink of the current price system
Michael Harvey devotes a significant portion of the report considering the impact of the production decline on Australia’s status as a preferred supplier. “Alarm bells are ringing for international customers,” he writes.

In this context, Mr Harvey also discusses the tension between the need for flat milk supply versus the lowest cost of milk production – on one hand processors can’t manage a very “peaky” supply and, on the other, the discounting of Spring milk has forced up the cost of production for farmers, stifling growth.

Let’s just hope that out of this crisis comes a fresh start.

RUOK day and the SSM test for people like me

SSM

I tweeted yesterday that I had voted “yes” for same sex marriage because who others love is none of my business.

I am sure of that but I made the mistake of thinking the same sex marriage survey was all about LGTBI people. A call from another Gippsland dairy farmer set me straight. It’s about us.

Like gay and lesbian couples, dairy farmers are a minority group. When $1 milk arrived in 2011, I started this blog, frustrated that few Australians seemed to understand why it mattered; why we deserved a fair go.

But there is a difference. The bullying, abuse and vicious attacks LGBTI people often endure is foreign to me. On the contrary, ordinary Australians with no connection to farming whatsoever put their hands in their pockets to buy branded milk during the dairy crisis. Because they understood that everyone deserves a fair go.

The impact of the dairy crisis lingers but, today on RUOK Day, yes, I am okay. And, for that, I owe something to the support of everyday Australians who showed they cared.

The SSM survey cannot test the validity of anyone’s love. It is a test for ordinary Australians like me who expect a fair go. Will we rise to the challenge and return same the respect and tolerance for others that we demand for ourselves?