How to rescue dairy – from the nutty to the tricky

Dairy farmers gathered in their hundreds in south-west Victoria last night for a crisis meeting. What makes it a crisis? Very simply, dairy farmers are working seven days a week for free and petrified of losing our shirts.

Local agribusiness bankers tell me they are busy refinancing and arranging extra debt but land sales are at a standstill around here. Reporting on last night’s dairy crisis meeting, Simone Smith of The Weekly Times, described a “dire picture”:

“Warrnambool-based Coffey Hunt farm accounting specialist Garry Smith said across his client-base, farmers milking mostly between 450-500 cows, average feed costs were up 15 per cent – a $150,000 rise – with the cost of power for the first quarter of the year up 50 per cent.”

“He estimated across his client-base earnings would be 10 per cent down on last year with a combination of cash-flow and income down $260,000.

“Charles Stewart real estate agent Nick Adamson said better quality farms had dropped in value between 8-15 per cent, while others were up to 45 per cent down on peaks of several years ago.”

None of this is pretty and astonishingly, Peter Reith decided to appear on ABC’s The Drum website with a six-point plan that, at first, I thought was a spoof. Take a look and make up your own mind.

It’s not as simple as cutting petrol taxes and municipal rates. It’s tricky because of this conundrum: milk and dairy foods are considered so important that nobody wants to pay what they are worth to produce.

Every day I read comments on Twitter that go something like this: “My kids drink three litres of milk every two days, so I can only afford to buy $1 milk”. I know first-hand how tough it is to feed a family when you’re on struggle street, so I have a lot of sympathy for people in this predicament and it’s impossible to respond with anything other than compassion.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that there is no political appetite for an increased milk price. But the truth is this: dairy farmers should not and cannot fund an ersatz Australian welfare system by subsidising the cost of food. Welfare is the role of government.

So, while my dander is up, here’s a simple list of five tricky things that would make a big difference to this dairy farmer:

1. Deal with the supermarket duopoly
Down, Down, Down is not about you, dear milk drinker. The real reasons for the supermarket war are expressed in corporate ROIs rather than family budgets. At the end of the day, it will be the little people with the least market power – you, the shopper, and me, the farmer – who will pay.

2. Level the global playing field
Julia Gillard announced that Australia would be Asia’s food bowl but guess what? Unlike the world’s most powerful dairy exporters, the Kiwis, we do not have a free trade agreement with China, putting Australian dairy at an immediate 15% disadvantage. Nor do we receive the government subsidies that support our European and North American competitors.

3. Assist with the impact of the carbon tax
Australian dairy farmers are suffering a double whammy under the carbon tax. First, processors are passing the extra cost onto us in the form of lower farm gate prices (because the consumer won’t pay extra and nor will global commodity markets), reducing our incomes by around $5,000 each per year. At the same time, our costs – especially electricity and refrigerants – are rising in quantum leaps each quarter.

4. Support smart farming
Long exposed to the blow-torch of global export markets without subsidisation, Australia’s dairy farmers are among the most efficient in the world, according to research body, Dairy Australia. We can produce very high quality milk at a very low cost because we have invested in research and development. No longer. We are spending less and less on R&D and the Victorian government has just made massive staff cuts to our brains trust, the Department of Primary Industries.

5. Remember, I am the goose that lays the golden egg
I will not be able to continue to deliver high quality milk at such a low price while enhancing the environment and caring for our cows without sacrificing the basic wellbeing of my family and that, I refuse to do.

Warning: perfectionist in the paddocks

In a deep and meaningful conversation with our farm consultant, he told me I think too much and he’s right. Like my father before me and his before him, I was born to worry and my way of dealing with that trait is to really know my material. This can be very useful when you’re in a business like dairy farming that typically makes a 1 to 2 percent return.

It can also be a very destructive trait, however, if it boils over into a perfectionistic control-freak manifestation. There is no place for a control freak in Australian dairy farming – you are at the mercy of the weather, everything else Mother Nature can throw at you, international commodity prices and exchange rates.

You have to resign yourself to your fate to a degree and then (if you’re a worrier like I am) start researching your way out of trouble.

The great thing about dairy farming is that we are very good at sharing our ideas. I’ve walked around countless farms on field days, soaking up the freely-offered knowledge of farmers and technical experts. Farmers often are happy to tell you as much about their failures as their triumphs.

Feeling alone while under real physical and emotional pressure can be dangerous: another great reason to attend all those field days, where the unsaid but crucial take-home message could well be “thank goodness I’m not the only idiot dealing with this @#$%”.

US dairy woman moves to Aus and a whole new way of dairying

Penny Cooper’s story of her life in dairy in the US and now Australia, shows just how different dairy is around the world and I’m delighted she agreed to write a guest post for Milk Maid Marian. Penny, who now trims cows’ hoofs for a living, will be running a lameness workshop in Toora on March 19. If you’re interested in attending, visit or connect with Penny on Twitter at @allstatetrim.

Penny celebrates Halloween in the dairy with her Grandad

Halloween in the dairy parlor with Grandad

I was raised on a 240 acre dairy farm in the heart of dairy country, Wisconsin USA. No one would imagine I would make it to South Gippsland, Australia, in the pursuit of helping lame cows. The differences between dairying in sometimes frozen tundra to the harsh Aussie summer are huge!

Growing up, we milked our cows in stantions and moved our milking units down the line, kneeling down to milk in between cows. Which was always made it fun when you had a particularly sassy heifer!!

We only had 80 cows, just like most other family farms in the area, but on a cold winter night when temperatures dropped to sometimes -20C it was plenty!! The cows usually heated the barn a bit but it was not unheard of to have to stop milking, run to the milk house get a bucket of hot water and pour it over the milk line because it had frozen solid before hitting the bulk tank!! In early 1999 we became quite “advanced”, installing a homemade step up/walk through parlor!

Making the change to rotational grazing brought about a new set of issues like frozen teats when the cows were sleeping with 4 feet of snow on the ground. People thought we were crazy and maybe we were but that’s okay too.

One thing that is constant, no matter where I travel in the dairy industry, is the kindness of the people and the amazing work ethic that is passed down from generation to generation. My Grandpa taught me that the Farm comes first no matter what, that I could do whatever I wanted on Friday night but I better be there to get cows on Saturday morning and to be proud of the job knowing that farming is the backbone to a great nation. I am so lucky to be involved in this great profession still today!