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!

It’s late

The story of Cliffy Young has just finished on the tele but Wayne is still slogging through his own ultra-marathon at the dairy. It’s 10pm and it’s been a tough day that started at 5am.

As I was rattling the kids around the house in readiness for Nippers this morning, Wayne was having some youngster trouble of his own. A freshly-calved heifer simply sat down on the milking platform behind her neighbour. Now, if you’ve worked in or watched a herringbone dairy in action, you’ll say that doesn’t happen.

dairydisaster

It did.

The cows are lined up at right angles to the pit we stand in to position the cups, with their buttocks against a “bum rail” that’s designed to guide them into position for milking and prevent a cow from falling onto a milk maid.

It didn’t.

A cow spooked by her reclining sister leapt up and backwards, falling rear-first into the pit, brushing Wayne’s cheek with her hoof on the way down as a weld in the bum rail gave way under the strain of this 550kg crowd-surfer. Thankfully, Wayne and the two cows-a-leaping are fine but the machinery was not. With four machines out and the broken bum-rail, milking took hours longer than normal and the clean-up and repair job was a 6-hour undertaking.

I’m really grateful to Clarkie, who broke his long weekend to come and help wield a welding stick, feed the cows and round up at 6pm.

Wayne will up again at 5am tomorrow. It’s 10.30pm now and, finally, the dairy lights have gone out. What will tomorrow bring, I wonder?

At least one dairy farmer won’t mind the summer heat

Bogged on the first day of summer

Bogged on the first day of summer

Wayne has a reputation for getting stuck and he’s outdone himself this year by bogging a quad bike on the first day of summer. Worse, he left his helmet at the scene of the crime and by the time the kids and I came to the rescue, his gear had been given a beating by the local hoons.

Cows may be vegetarians but don’t for a minute think that this in itself bestows innocence. They are merciless with unattended vehicles. This time the helmet, fuel breather line and rubber boot for the brake assembly were squelched deep into the quagmire but I’ve seen much worse.

In fact, a local fencing guy swears one (or maybe a gang) of our “ladies” opened his ute door and took off with his cheese and Vegemite sandwiches, leaving only a trail of slobber on the gearstick and driver’s seat.

Moral of the story: never leave valuables in sight or your vehicle unlocked.

A shocking day

Yesterday was a shocker.

After getting Zoe off to school, it was time to do the annual “spring clean” of the fences. The event is triggered by the influx of youngsters into the herd. Every bit as adventurous and bullet-proof as your teenage son, these first-time calvers are new to the dairy side of the farm and love to explore far beyond the allocated paddock of the day.

The result: chaos. Sure, it only lasts a few weeks but, in that time, I could face divorce from a frustrated hubby sick and tired of chasing newbies around the farm. With all that in mind, I head off with the tester to gird the fences against the onslaught.

First stop is the all-important fence around the effluent pond. Nothing. “Not another #@$% battery.” Much muttering.

I’ve broken the farm’s electric fence system up into cells using a cadre of solar-powered energisers so that a single fault cannot bring the whole place to its knees and what I’ve discovered is that the batteries only last a season or two.

I wriggle the connections and ZAP! Well, at least I know it’s working. Test the blasted thing: 9 point bloody 6. No wonder I didn’t enjoy it. Pick up the clamp to attach it to the fence.

ZAP!

“AAAARGH”

“Need…new…clamp”

“What doing, Mama?” asks the little fellow in the Bobcat. “Never mind, Little Man”.

After a bit more spring cleaning, I discover a major fault down by the gully. Investigations reveal a blessed wombat has dug a perfectly good post right out of the ground, collapsing the fence and quite literally earthing it. A steel picket does the job nicely. And we’re up!

Job done, I roar the Bobcat through the gates, leap off and in a few paces find myself shrieking and dancing over a writhing red-bellied black snake.

Fellow dairy farmer, Nick Renyard (@farmer_nick_au) later described this snake as “pretty” but with ashen face, thumping heart and jellied limbs, that was not what sprang to mind a few moments later when the silence was again broken by Little Man.

“What doing, Mama?”

Back on the job and with a paddock selected, it’s time to bring the heavily pregnant youngsters across the road. We crossed that road a total of eight times (four return trips) over the course of an hour before conceding defeat. Young stock like to be driven by pedestrians rather than UTVs but I was tethered close to the machine by Little Man who understandably wanted to be part of the action.

We decided to take a breather (did I mention that low-stress stock handling techniques do not involve inter-spousal shouting sequences?) and let them settle for a couple of hours while we had a think.

In the end, it was Wayne’s brain-wave that saved the day: “Why not just let them run up the road?”.

A cunning plan indeed. Refusing to take the orthodox route along the track past the dairy, the rotters duly ran straight up the road and “escaped” through the road gate into the house paddock. Not there yet but across the road, yesssss!

There was much running, shouting and frantic arm-waving to get the mob of 50 trainees to run under the hot wire into their new home. All done wearing heavy rubber boots through deep mud. This morning, with aching hammies, I think of Cliff Young and marvel at not just the stamina but the ingenuity of the Legend.

How we nearly lost “Papa” this Father’s Day

Today started well with freshly-baked ginger biscuits and special gifts wrapped with far too much sticky tape but almost ended with tragedy.

Wayne was guiding a calf out from among the herd towards the shed when time stopped, or at least slowed. As the blow under his left arm pit hurled him two metres across the cow yard, he had time to think “I’ll pull my head down, I’m going to hit the fence” and then, “oh no, this is it, my hips are exploding”. Then, bang, onto the concrete.

With the footy blaring from the dairy radio, Wayne lay very still right where he’d landed for a long, long time – five minutes, he thinks – and wondered what to do next. There was pain in his ribs, neck, back and hips. A tiny bit of blood in his mouth but, yes, his teeth were all okay.

In the end, the only thing to do was try to get up and, thankfully, he did.

Wayne had no warning of the collision and we’ll never know for sure what happened down at the dairy this Father’s Day. Doped up on painkillers, swathed in Deep Heat and wrapped up in blankets, but he’s alive.

The sun is up and so is the sparky (or, the day began pear-shaped)

Dairy cows are rounded up before dawn but, today, they slept in. We had a bit of a disaster in the dairy last night that would have meant the girls missed breakfast. That certainly would not do, so while they waited for the sparky to weave his magic in the grain auger control box, this is how the cows enjoyed watching the sunrise.

Sleeping in

Sleeping in

Two hours later than normal, with steaming breath and swaddled in layers of clothes to ward off the still chilly air, the kids and I had the rare treat of a family morning round up.

Rounding up was noisier than usual, too!

Rounding up was noisier than usual, too!

The cows seemed to take it all in their stride but we are lucky this has happened late in the season when milk production is falling away. Farmers are so fastidious about rising early because a late morning milking means painfully-full udders and the risk of mastitis. Wayne took the opportunity to do a heap of other farm chores while the feed system was repaired and will milk the cows late tonight to help even things out for the cows again.

A big thank you to Dutchy the sparky for getting out of bed so early on a frosty Sunday morning. It turns out that, in dairy country, the cows rule the lives of farmers, their families and even the local electricians.

Cows having a sleep in

My paddock handbag

Look into a woman’s handbag and you see deep into her soul. Tucked into its folds, you’ll find clues about what makes her feel secure, competent and even sexy. Oh, and boring stuff like grocery lists.

That’s how I like to think of my paddock handbag. Escaped heifers, broken fence, tired kids on board? No problem – with my paddock handbag, I’m Superwoman. Compartment A (the glovebox) is kitted out with wipes, toys, snacks and drinks. Compartment B has just about every tool to deal with almost every agrarian contingency.

TailgateTools Ready for surgery

Toolbox top A good girl scout is always prepared…

The big guns

And if all else fails, the big guns

I guard my paddock handbag with my life. Yes, the fellas are allowed to borrow select items from time to time but must promise to return said item on pain of death. Call me a drama queen with control issues? Maybe so, but I dare you to return toddler on the verge of a meltdown to within cooee of home “just to grab another set of pliers” and then whisk him away again. It had better be an exciting agrarian emergency with helicopters (aka “copot”), trains and whooshing irrigators aplenty or we’ve already lost the battle.

On second thoughts, maybe I’ll get a padlock fitted to that paddock handbag.

So what should farmers be saying to other Aussies?

We’ve all been there: trapped by a bore who talks incessantly about him or herself without drawing breath. It starts off confusing, grows to be annoying until, finally, the desperation to get away and have a real conversation becomes overwhelming.

I think we farmers may be guilty of this social sin. Too often, we are presented as whingers who fail to appreciate that urban Aussies with equally as noble callings (from educating our children through to curing our cancers) can also do it tough.

In our defense, the media generally isn’t so interested in good news stories and the only time we have traditionally appeared on the 12-inch (no, make that 60-inch) screen is during a drought, flood, fire or pest-induced famine. Times when a cheery countenance would be both unlikely and ridiculous!

The face of farming throughout all the challenges was presented in a glorious Dodge Super Bowl ad the other day. In response to my post about it, farmer John Alexander, described it as, “…one of the best Ag ads out there (possibly ever), and I wish we could replicate it in Australia as soon as possible.”.

He’s not concerned that it might alienate city dwellers and neither are people like former career politician, @HenryPalaszczuk, who says, “Aussies have a quiet respect for our people on the land. This ad wold send a shiver down their backs.”.

I know that’s true of many Australians. But I want more. I want to see Australian farmers talk with non-farmers rather than at them and I hope we will learn to do it in a way that resonates for all.

The Dutch have had a go at exactly that. This ad for milk is not perfect (who wants farmers cast as peasants?) but it extends the hand of friendship to our city cousins in a way that “God made a farmer” cannot.

Love of animals, love of land, courage, humility, honesty, purity. These, the essence of Australian farming are values cherished by Australians everywhere. Isn’t it time we celebrated what unites us?

Who or what makes a farmer?

Yesterday, while rounding up the cows, Zoe announced: “When I grow up, I want to be a farmer and have two children.”.

“True? How come?”

“So I can be like you, Mama.”

It gets into the blood of farm kids early. Much earlier, I suspect, than the children of, say, accountants or writers. At six, our little girl knows when a paddock is ready to graze and has that sixth sense for when a cow seems not her normal self. Because she’s already a farmer.

Since I don’t have religious faith, I don’t believe any of this is God’s doing. Take a look at this ad, which just made its debut during the Superbowl.

This evangelical message has got farmers around the world twittering with delight. It’s nice to get a pat on the back once in a while. But I have a confession: it simultaneously makes me proud and embarrassed.

Why must we farmers talk so much about how hard we work? Yes, it is a farming fact of life but, no, it does not make us saints or martyrs. We do it because we want to.

And when I asked Zoe what she thought would be great about being just like me, it came down to this: “I can have fun with the cows every day!”. Perfect!

The tractor, the toddler and the ejector seat

The neighbours will think I have gone mad or won Tattslotto. The Macdonald farm is not known for gleaming machinery but, in the last few days, an updated tractor has arrived, followed by a new feedout cart.

The reality is that our ancient tractor was getting so tired I just had to trade it for a 6-year-old replacement. Then, in spectacular fashion, the geriatric feedout cart snapped a structural member and twisted itself into an irredeemable mangle. We’re currently feeding the cows 4 tonnes of hay and silage per day and, without it, the feeding regime would take at least an extra two hours that Wayne just doesn’t have.

The tractor may not be brand new but it’s seen barely any work in its former life as a parks and gardens curator and has gleaming paintwork teamed with dark tinted windows that instantly captures a milkmaid’s heart. Fortunately, there was urgent and important work to be done, so with toddler strapped to chest and dog in hot pursuit, I set off to christen the Green Machine and its pristine bucket.

And, oh, the experience was indeed rapturous! The new tractor was clearly designed by another child-wearing tractor driver. Alex cannot reach the forward-neutral-reverse lever on this model and a single, aptly-named joystick controls the front end loader’s up-down and tilt all at once, eliminating even more hazardous handholds!

Christening the Green Machine

Christening the Green Machine

The only thing that got me out of the tractor seat was the little man’s demands for food.

The next day, Wayne got his turn. Had to do some customisation. There was a cumbersome box to remove, the little spray tank that obscured the view, the radio key to re-enter, the steering wheel positioning and the ejector seat to adjust.

Me: (Distracted by toddler attempting to wear potty as a hat) “Hang on – what did you say?”

Him: “It was nearly impossible to squeeze in behind the steering wheel, so I had to get it up out of the way. You can see where the council blokes have been wearing the upholstery away trying to push their big…”

Me: (Hastily) “No swearing in front of Alex! What was that about the seat?”

Him: “Oh that…Yeah, well, I’d put the steering wheel up nice and high but that meant the seat was too low so I had to get it up too.”

“There’s a button between your legs to push and – can you believe it? – a little compressor starts up ‘brrrrrr’ and I’m being lifted up towards the roof! Problem is, the seat carries you away from the button and, pretty soon, you’ve got your head between your knees trying to keep your finger on the thing.”

“As you’ll no doubt remind me, my perfectly proportioned arms don’t reach all that far, so once I couldn’t touch the button any more, I let go and sat up to have a look. All I could see – right before my eyes – were the air-conditioning controls.”

Me: (Laughing) “Those ceiling-mounted knobs? Did you hit your head?”

Him: “Yep, it’s the world’s slowest ejector seat. Put that in your OHS manual.”