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.

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.

IMG_8016

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
WorkSafe-Caldermeade-29062017-1615

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.