What is a factory farm?

Zoe with a seed drill from the 50s

Zoe with a seed drill from the 50s

When I was a teenager in the early 1980s, we bought the next-door neighbour’s farm and the one across the road to milk around 180 cows. At the time, it was an impressive herd.

Today, that’s quite small. The average Gippsland dairy farm now milks 265 cows on 130 hectares.

Turns out our farm is almost perfectly statistically average! Like many of our neighbours, we have a full-time employee and engage relief milkers to manage the workload. We no longer cultivate our own paddocks or cut our own hay because the job has just got too big. Instead, a specialist contractor with specialised, ultra-efficient machinery does it for us. Our very average farm of today would have been considered huge back then. Maybe even a factory farm.

Even so, the well-being of our animals has not diminished over time. We care just as much as we ever did and love of the land, the outdoors and our cows is why we farm. And now, thanks to the work of researchers, we are better equipped to keep them fit and healthy.

I don’t know what you’d classify as a factory farm these days but the low price of milk certainly puts us all under pressure to get bigger (and therefore better able to gain more efficiencies). Here in Australia, where cows are “free range” rather than housed and feed-lotted, big farms can be just as animal and environmentally-friendly as average farms like ours on one condition: the people who operate them still care.

4 thoughts on “What is a factory farm?

  1. Hi Marian
    Dinki here, the dairy farmer from South Africa. I am fascinated to know: how do you get all the work done with so few people? We milk 84 cows and raise 280 dairy heifers, and we employ 12 (yes TWELVE) people. My husband works off the farm pretty much full-time, but we work in a very labour-intensive manner as labour is pretty cheap. But most of our employees are barely literate and alcohol abuse is rife and a huge problem! Please tell us more about your labour-saving equipment and devices.

    • Hi Dinki,

      Twelve? The average farm here has one full-time person (paid or unpaid) per 99 milkers but we don’t raise 280 heifers for every 84 cows – the ratio is usually about 25%! Labour is extremely costly here (many farm workers in our state actually earn more than the farmers who employ them), so we try to do a lot of the work ourselves, despite Wayne and I both working off-farm as well.

      Our dairy is pretty efficient. It’s a double-up 16-aside herringbone that allows one person to milk 280 cows in under three hours (but twice a day). Having said that, all I want for Christmas is a hydrant wash, because it currently takes about 90 minutes to hose the yard once a day and a hydrant would get it done in less than 10 minutes.

      We don’t do any cultivation or harvesting ourselves – this is done by trusted contractors with incredibly big and efficient gear that we could never afford to buy. We feed out silage and hay in large rolls using a tractor and special trailer that unwinds it in the paddock.

      There’s still a lot of manual work. We normally work 12 hour days each and it’s not unusual to put in 16 hours. Gut-busting stuff but it’s worth it. I worked out that, yesterday, I lifted 520kg of milk and grain, plus mucked out four calf pens and refilled one with sawdust. I also lifted three new calves in and out of a trailer and coaxed 10 youngsters with no idea where they should be heading out of pens and into their new paddock.

      Even with all our labour saving devices, dairy farming is very hard but immensely satisfying work. Keeps us fit, too 🙂

      • Hi Marian,

        I run a conscious restaurant and we basically source all our meat from farms we can guarantee – we attempt to visit occasionally to ensure the animals are well cared for. I was dismayed recently to have a customer tell me yesterday that she was the calf rearing officer at a major dairy farm outside if Penrith and the practices were akin to factory farming. I’ve always had concerns a out calf welfare and transport times but I assumed the dairy cows were well cared for here unlike the US. But she maintained cows were milked 3 times a day and lived in large sheds with dirt grounds. She said it was a horrible life and this milk was destined for the A2 brand. She was a vegetarian and was working to try and cut out dairy because of her experience. Is this typical? I’m now leaning towards only supplying our dairy with farmers markets products

        • Hi John,
          Thanks very much for checking this out. I can’t tell you about your customer’s experience, except to say that the arrangement she described is almost unheard of here in Australia, where free range grazing is the norm (I have never personally even seen a housed herd). So no, to answer your question, it is anything but typical.

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