Category Archives: People

A cow more dangerous than a bull

1570lowres

The aggressive 1570 in the yards

1570 came roaring out of the dozen cows and calves, head lowered, eyes bulging. I had nothing. No dog, no stick and nowhere to run.

I’d been standing on the side of the road to shepherd the group across from the calving paddock to the dairy when she broke from the rear of the ambling mob.

She was as angry as an ambushed tiger mother and, as she lunged towards me, I knew I was in real trouble.

I’ve been there before. A couple of years ago, a cow we were attempting to treat for blood poisoning left me with a dislocated jaw and badly bruised ribs. That was a first-calving heifer but 1570 was a 650 kg fully-grown cow. A 6-year-old in her prime.

I meant to shout an intimidating bellow but, instead, out came the gurgling, shrieking, involuntary scream of a cave woman facing a sabre-tooth tiger.

And, then, with a whoosh, the quad bike appeared between us. Not exactly a white knight but close enough, thank you Wayne!

1570 and I met up again at the yards a few minutes later. Me safely on the other side of the fence. I wasn’t doing anything to threaten her – just standing quietly. Again, no dog, no stick, no history.

The reality is that some cows just go a bit bonkers when they calve. I wasn’t the only one – she was banging her head against other cows, too.

If she doesn’t settle within a day or two, we will sell her. Making the cows’ welfare top priority is ingrained in a dairy farmer’s psyche but this type of aggression can be both genetic and lethal. We simply can’t take the risk.

So, if you happen to be anywhere around cows and calves, don’t assume they’re simply gentle herbivores. Be careful.

Don’t have a dog with you. Be quiet and calm. Make sure there’s someone with you. Take a stick that can be used to make yourself look wider – or as a last resort – defend yourself.

EDIT: Having used hers to call for help after being trampled, fellow dairy farmer, Donna Edge, reminded me on Twitter that it’s also a good idea to bring your mobile phone and as Lauren Peterson suggests, download the http://emergencyapp.triplezero.gov.au app so the emergency services can find you.

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Filed under Calves, Cows, Farm, People, Safety

Planning for life at the end of the tunnel

eucolilores

It’s all been about survival for an exhaustingly long time but, now, I’m focused on life at the end of the tunnel.

Oddly enough, an hour of my time spent answering a researcher’s questions about the way we feed our cows was more valuable than any length of time spent on a red velvet couch. It reminded me of our goals, how far we have come and, most importantly, that I have not given up and we are still making progress. Even this year.

As much as my wheezing body will allow, I’m pounding away at the keyboard and in the paddocks working on survival but edging towards something far better. Although my old uni lecturers would decry the haziness of our goals they are crystal clear to me:

  • less stress
  • more time together

What’s needed?

  • greater profitability, so we are less tied to our work
  • greater resilience in the face of increasingly unpredictable seasons and milk price

We have a three-pronged strategy to achieve those lofty aims, all supported with specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely objectives neatly laid out in a proper business plan. It’s an invaluable little sheaf of papers that’s proven priceless in a year when it all seemed pointless.

I’ve learnt an important lesson: when you’ve got your head down, it’s more important than ever to look up and keep your eyes fixed on the horizon.

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A quad bike helmet that really, truly works for dairy farmers

HQHelmet

This new helmet for quad-bike-riding farmers will save lives because it works. Not just because it’s tough and protective but because it’s not the sort of helmet you rip off as soon as you’re out of sight of the boss.

Most farmers refuse to wear helmets and I can understand why. I’ve tried wearing a road bike helmet (in line with official expectations) to bring the cows home on a sweltering Sunday afternoon. A road bike protects your head alright – that is, for the few minutes before heat exhaustion sets in.

Road bike helmets are made for riding motor bikes on a road, fast. Not at 2km/hr behind 250 cows, each throwing out the same body heat as a 1500kW hair dryer (I’m not joking, they do).

As a result, we’d decided to wear equestrian helmets compliant with AS/NZS 3838. Designed to protect a rider from a nasty fall at speed, they provide more protection than a pushbike helmet and better ventilation than a motor bike helmet.

Why hadn’t we chosen a helmet rated for agricultural quad bike use, you ask? Because there wasn’t one. New Zealand has developed such a standard – NZS 8600 All Terrain Vehicle Helmets – but, for reasons I can’t fathom, Australia has not adopted it or chosen to follow suit. Australian inspectors will still expect you to wear a road bike helmet, unless you can prove you have done a proper risk assessment.

Despite it all, the Quadbar people have finally designed and made a helmet especially for Australian farmers, the HQ Stockman 2. We were sent a complimentary sample helmet to test on the farm. Suffice to say, Wayne’s old equestrian helmet is gathering dust and we’ll be buying another Stockman.

The helmet is light and comfortable enough to forget you’re wearing it and the ventilation is just as good as the equestrian helmets we’ve been using.

Equestrian helmet (left) vs Stockman (right)

Equestrian helmet (left) vs Stockman (right)

What it has over the equestrian helmets is added protection. The HQ Stockman 2 meets NZS 8600 standard as recommended by both the Queensland and NSW coroners.

The helmet is so strong, it passes the test used to gauge the protectiveness of road bike helmets, although only based on one impact, rather than two, as Quadbar’s Dave Robertson explains:

“The ‘Impact energy attenuation test’ is the same test for the Australian motorcycle (and USA DOT motorcycle) standards however the test is repeated a second time on each location on the helmet for motorcycle helmets,” Mr Robertson said.

“Helmet expert, Dr Terry Smith form California USA, at the Qld coroner’s inquest went to a lot of trouble to explain that the second test is to ensure protection in a case where the ‘head strikes twice in the same location’ and MUST not be interpreted as providing double the protection. The speed impact is the same on both tests and the protection must be below 300g. The level of protection of a motorcycle helmet is in the fact that it can withstand a second impact on the same location on the helmet which is more likely at higher speeds. It (motorcycle helmet) is not tested at a higher speed than NZS 8600 however will most likely withstand multiple impacts.”

If you’re riding a quad on the farm without a helmet, get a Stockman. It’s the sort of helmet you forget to take off and it might just save your neck.

EDIT: A helmet compliant with NZS 8600 called the AgHat came on the market a couple of years ago but we didn’t adopt it at our farm because it had no ventilation.

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The blueprint for NSW dairy

A week or two ago on Twitter, CEO of NSW dairy body Dairy Connect Mike Logan made an intriguing reference to a “blueprint for NSW dairy”. There’s only a limited amount you can learn from the 140 characters of a tweet, so I invited Mike to elaborate on Milk Maid Marian and here’s what he had to say:

Mike Logan, Dairy Connect CEO

Mike Logan, Dairy Connect CEO

In the NSW dairy industry the issue is that the value chain is not adding value at the farm gate. Since deregulation the farmers have descended from being strategic partners in the value chain, to an input that must be minimised.

Perhaps this is similar around the rest of Australia – I am not qualified to say. However, it is easy to assume that the dairy model in NSW is flawed as we watch our cousins across the ditch (dutch) grow their businesses, convert sheepmeat farms to dairy and build new kitchens. (The ‘New Kitchen Meter’ is a reasonable measure of success in agriculture.)

It is also easy for the NSW dairy industry to look at the New Zealand dairy industry and suggest we should emulate their model of ‘one big co-operative’. Without doubt that is the best model in the world at the moment. I call it the United Soviet Socialist Republic of Dairy (USSRD) and Barnaby Joyce says that Fonterra is a Maori word meaning ‘single desk’.

As much as we would like to, we shouldn’t emulate their model.

Firstly, because we can’t. The legislation required would make the current budget look easy. Between Clive Palmer and David Leyonhjelm it would be a nightmare.

Secondly, it is because we need to think about the next model after New Zealand. What is better than the USSRD?

Our current model of the value chain in NSW dairy seems to look a bit like this:
CurrentNSWdairymodel
Sort of messy eh?

The real problem with that value chain is that the farmer is held a long way from the representative of the consumer – otherwise known as the retailer. There are lots of ticket clippers, gatekeepers and a few value adders in the chain. There is not sufficient transparency and doubtful equity. The last person to make any money is the farmer.

So who is making the money?

Well, certainly the retailer. Here in Australia we have two of the three most profitable supermarkets in the world (Woolworths then Walmart then Coles/Wesfarmers).

Also the banks. The four most profitable banks in the Western world are right here. I needn’t name them. There are more profitable banks in China and Russia.

The distribution and transport sector is quite profitable. Linfox is not going out backwards.

Oddly, the processing sector in dairy is not making that much money. They are making more than the farm sector, but not an inordinate amount more. They only have about 25% of the capital invested when compared to the farm sector but they are mostly in control of the milk, its destiny and its value. They are the gatekeepers. The profit of the processors precedes the profit of the farmers.

So, what would a better model look like in NSW?

We suggest a value chain that is circular. We could call it a ‘value cycle’;

ValueCycle
The most important part of the value cycle is that the farmers and the retailers are side by side. The needs and values of the farmers and the supermarkets align. They align because the farmers have a secure supply of a high quality product and the supermarkets need a secure supply of a high quality product. Both want transparency and equity.

The first time I saw the value cycle work in NSW dairy was with the Woolworths Farmers’ Own brand and the group of seven dairy farmers in the Manning. The farmers were told by their processor that they couldn’t get any more money from the supermarkets for their fresh milk. They were told how tough it is dealing with the supermarkets. To their credit, the farmers took the challenge and decided to find out how tough it is to deal with the supermarkets.

The processor was half right. It is tough to deal with the supermarkets, but there was more money available. Both the supermarket and the farmers got what they needed because their values aligned. The system is transparent and equitable.

If that is right here in Australia, is it right in the export market?

Yes it is. Along with Norco and the logistics company Peloris Global Sourcing, the NSW dairy industry facilitated by Dairy Connect has developed contacts in the retail sector in China for the sale of fresh milk. Again, the milk is worth more with a direct deal with the consumers. The model does work.

It is easy to scoff at the volumes for fresh milk to China, I will tell you that they are small but they are invaluable.

If we can deliver albeit small volumes of fresh milk into the fastest growing dairy consumer market in the world at a profit by developing direct relationships with the supermarket sector in China, then what is next?

Can we develop those relationships to deliver other NSW dairy products without having to enter the export commodity circus that is mostly controlled by the USSRD?

Of course we can. The NSW dairy industry is actively seeking investment and partnerships with the Chinese retail sector to access the infant formula market. Again, the processors are right, it is tough. The farmers in the Manning too are right; it will bring value back to the farm gate.

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Filed under Community, People, supermarket war and $1 milk

Charged by a cow

It all happened in slow motion. I was walking across the paddock to offer our vet, Sarah, a light steel pigtail post for protection when the cow we were so desperately trying to save squared up to me, lowered her head and charged.

I managed to strafe her face once with the spring steel rod but it did nothing to deter her.  Collecting me under the chin with her neck, she effortlessly threw her pathetic matador into the air. Luckily, I was not trampled; as my head hit the ground I saw her white belly soar through the sky as she cantered off towards the distant corner of the paddock.

I stood up, sobbing, laughing and shaking. My jaw sat unnervingly askew and my head was already sore but I was still alive and walking.

After three x-rays and a CAT scan, I’m home again, neck in a brace and feeling chastened for the anxiety I caused my ashen-faced children, who witnessed the whole thing. So, what went wrong?

The cow was a terrified first-time calver (“heifer”) in big trouble. She’d been down for a couple of hours with a rotten calf inside and sprang up miraculously the moment Sarah arrived.

1. My instincts were right that she was cranky but I didn’t know her and should have been triply careful.

2. I got off the Bobcat and walked to the vet. Why oh why didn’t I drive to the vet?

3. The vet was on the ground instead of in the Bobcat. I’d already called for extra help on wheels and if we’d waited another five minutes, this would never have happened. A vet’s time is valuable but not more valuable than life itself.

In other words, I was in a rush and took unnecessary risks in the name of getting the job done even though I pride myself on being very safety-conscious. The latest WorkSafe statistics prove dairy farming is agriculture’s most dangerous job: please learn from my mistakes and take care out there.

 

 

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Filed under Cows, Farm, People, Safety

Just keep putting one foot in front of the other

I woke to the alarming smell of smoke this morning and immediately felt anxious.

But a gentle breeze stirs only the leaves of the eucalypts and there are no malevolent plumes on the horizon. We’re safe for now. The haze blanketing the farm most likely contains the ghosts of the great trees burning at Goongerah, far to our east. There, like here, it is tinder dry and just about everything is flammable.

All the same, the dry here is nothing compared to the drought conditions in New South Wales, where, judging by the news reports, there would be little left to burn.

Wayne shrank back in his seat last night as pictures of gaunt cattle hung on the screen and muttered, “Well, we’ve got nothing to complain about then”.

Just now, I came across an opinion piece titled Australian farmers should not be treated as a protected species and found it painful to read. A drought is like a fire that goes on and on and on and on, eating through a farmer’s soul over months and years. The economics of it – the main focus of the article – are like burns: the real hurt goes much deeper and lasts far longer. Buried in the comments that follow the story is this, from “Australian Pride”:

Well, speaking as a genuine Australian farmer, things couldn’t really get much worse right now.

The seasons have been poor for years now, the climate has gone to hell and it’s getting harder and harder to keep the soil nitrogenised. Morale is pretty bloody low to be honest.

I would think about packing it all in, but farming is all I know. Farming is hard, I lost my father Chaffey was crushed to death while he was fixing some equipment in November. I suppose I feel that I have to go on for him, but when do I say enough is enough eh? That cold beer at the end of the day doesn’t taste so good when you know that your crops are dying and the hand-outs are all you have to live on.

I have kids of my own. One of them watched their grandfather getting crushed in the machinery. How can I tell them that the farm is the best place for them? What kind of future are they going to have? Sometimes I despair. Maybe we should just give it all back to the aborigines?

I wish I had the heart to illustrate so eloquently what the story’s author could not see. But farmers do get through it, somehow. My Dad used simply to say: “You just keep putting one foot in front of the other, one foot in front of the other”.

Please, don’t say you no longer care.

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What inspires a young man to become a dairy farmer?

We received an unusual phone call the other week. A vet student with no family connections to dairy, Andrew Dallimore rang out of the blue saying he was keen to become a dairy farmer and wondered if he could ask us a few questions.

Well, what a series of questions! What were the challenges we faced becoming dairy farmers, why did we choose it, the ups and downs, where we look for knowledge and what are the pros and cons of raising children on a farm? At least, these are the ones I remember. And he took notes.

It felt like being at confessional, somehow. You have to be totally honest with someone so earnestly and diligently researching his future. Wayne and I were both immensely impressed, then gobsmacked when he offered to do a few hours work on the farm with the payment of just our thoughts and a banana!

Later, I had a look at the extraordinary “project” Andrew undertook last year and was impressed all over again. Andrew is a truly remarkable Australian so I was very pleased when he agreed to write a guest post about what inspires him to become a dairy farmer. Maybe we can learn a little about how to attract other young Aussies to follow in his footsteps. If you’re on Twitter, follow Andrew on @Farmer_vet.

Aspiring dairy farmer, Andrew Dallimore

Aspiring dairy farmer, Andrew Dallimore

I admit, that when Marian asked me if I would like to write a post for her blog that I was flattered, albeit worried. If you’ve read any of the content on here, you’ll realise that she is a bit of a bright spark (not that she’ll admit it). So hopefully I don’t kill too many of your brain cells (with my drivel) that you have spent so much time refining.

As a vet student at the University of Melbourne I have had the privilege to visit many different agricultural enterprises. Yet, dairy farmers and their families standout as some of the most inspiring people in Australia. It’s not their dashing flannelette shirts, crap splattered wellies, or even their everlasting pursuit to race the sun up every morning (and beat it!), but something else extraordinary.

Over the past 3 months I have been on a pilgrimage of sorts. I’ve been hunting down dairy farmers to hear about their pathway to farming. I feel inextricably drawn to dairy, and I’ve found these people are to be tough, dedicated, and generous beyond measure. Without knowing me from a bar of soap, dairy farmers have welcomed me into their homes, sat down and had targeted chinwags with me, and treated me as an equal while their kids watched telly, ate their tea, or just run amok.

Any question I had, as basic as it was, they answered and discussed enthusiastically. Eagerly, I listened to the trials and triumphs they went through to be successful while working, raising a family, settling into a completely different lifestyle, or turning a rundown farm into a thriving business and family home. From inherited farms, to sea-changers, and sharefarmers, they all shared similar traits. The stories were incredible.

For example, on a farm I visited up in northern Victoria I was completely blown away. A family of four milking about 300 cows on an inherited farm, with grins bigger than you can measure were some of the most astounding farmers I had met. It wasn’t the adults (who were the typical intelligent, driven, and happy dairy farmers), but the kids!

At the ripe old age of 14 their son had well over $10K in his bank from selling cow poo by the roadside, a part-time employee who helped him bag up the stuff (one of the kids from school, who unfortunately got the sack after his 3rd warning for not filling up the sacks properly), and a brilliant work ethic. His younger sister, at age 11, was being given orphaned merino lambs to her by farmers (otherwise the poor little buggers usually die in the paddock), was rearing them at home, and then selling them back to the farmers for a good profit.

These kids had impeccable manners, were bright, charismatic, and treated people as respectful equals.

Hearing and reading about people’s pathways to dairy farming has made me realise something incredible. Dairy farming isn’t just a way of life; it is life itself. It is survival by learning, adapting, producing, recycling, cooperating, and teaching on a day-to-day basis.

It is working with spectacular animals to feed the world sustainably, and support Australia. It is about raising a strong, healthy, intelligent, and generous family with humane ethics and values. There are few causes in our country that are greater than these.

Marian asked me what inspired to me start pursuing a life in dairy, and the answer is simple: Dairy farmers.

Marian also asked me what my dream is, and this answer more complex: I want to own and run my own rural veterinary practice; help run a dairy farm; heavily invest in the community I live with; and raise a strong, healthy, intelligent, and generous family on the land.

How I will get there on the other hand, is another question altogether… Hopefully with a large smile, a strong work ethic, good mentors, a little time, and plenty of elbow grease!

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