How to grow Aussie dairy: vertical and horizontal integration

In last week’s post about what it will take to encourage dairy farmers to grow, I promised to follow up with some ideas. The first is a guest post from Ian Macallan, a project strategist and business architect who has operated in the Asia Pacific for over 30 years across a number of industries including dairy.

Whilst 97 per cent of Australian dairy farms are family-owned, there are smatterings of “corporate farming” that bring together large parcels of land and cows.

If left unchecked, this type of pure farm aggregation could swing to the extreme of looking like feudal farming, leaving no capacity for family dairy farming. These corporate farms are also still vulnerable to milk price fluctuations.
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For our children

Have you seen this?

Yes, it’s by Unilever. Yes, you’re entitled to be cynical and yes, I love it.

The global manufacturer and ice-cream maker has just accredited Australian dairy production as meeting its Sustainable Agriculture Code – a huge accomplishment, which is also a world first. Of course it doesn’t mean Australian dairying is perfect and Dairy Australia has published a Sustainability Framework that will nudge us all to do better.

Here on the farm, our family does a bite-sized project for the environment every year. We have:

When I say “our family”, I have to stress that we haven’t been able to do all this without help. Grants from Landcare, Greening Australia and the Wellington Shire, work by the West Gippsland Catchment Management Authority, together with the hard yakka of volunteers from the Victorian Mobile Landcare Group and some of our friends have made the tree planting possible.

It just goes to show what we can do when everyone pulls together.

Goanna

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.

Plastic in the paddock

I may not be able to look my fellow farmers in the eye after publishing the next photo, especially those of the calibre of @Hoddlecows of Montrose Dairy, for I have committed a dairy farming sin.

Grass ready for ensiling

Not quite “the more the merrier”

If you ever needed proof that farmers are a hard lot to please, this is it: we want our grass to be lush but not this lush. It’s past its best and I should never have let it get so long. Now that it is this long, I should not be spending lots of money to have it cut, tedded, baled and wrapped in plastic to create that fermented delicacy called “silage”. It’s too crappy. Oh, the tut-tutting.

How did I get to this point? Well, the farm has been so wet that I simply wouldn’t have been able to get this paddock grazed without bogging a few bovines along the way, so I just looked the other way until we had this tiny window of almost-good-enough silage-making weather. I’m told it’s only me and one other farmer on the other side of town who have ventured into silage making around here so far this season.

“Fools rush in…etc, etc, etc.”

Thankfully, the team at Bowden’s Ag Contracting got it done for us, just in the nick of time. Even though it’s creating more mud and misery out there, it sure feels good listening to the rain on the roof tonight, knowing that it will be pattering on plastic in the paddock. So there!

How falling milk prices affect my dairy cows

When milk prices fall, the first ones to suffer are the members of dairy farming families – Alex, Zoe, Wayne and me. The second ones are the people who make an income from supplying dairy farmers: feed merchants, vets, milking machine mechanics, fertiliser suppliers, the local newsagent and so on – our friends and neighbours. The next ones to suffer are cows.

With the price we are paid for our milk falling below the cost of production this year, I have some tough decisions to make and they come down to this: sell milkers, sell young cows, try to produce even more to meet our fixed costs (like the mortgage) or feed the cows less. Feeding the cows equates to about 40% of our income, so that’s a pretty obvious target and so is selling young stock.

It costs a lot (say $1500) to feed a young cow for two years until she’s ready to calve but, at about 12 months, I can sell her for about $1000. That’s very handy money when milk alone won’t pay the bills. Yes, it equates to selling the silverware but at least we live to fight another day.

Here’s the catch: if I sell her locally, she’ll probably be slaughtered at a value of, say, $500. If I sell her to a Chinese dairy farmer, I get the $1000. I’m assured that, as precious breeding stock, she’ll have a wonderful trip on the air-conditioned boat and she’ll join a herd of up to 30,000 other cows, with feed that arrives on a conveyor belt at their noses and whose manure is carried away by another conveyor belt at their tails. A very different life to the free range pasture based one she’d have here in Australia.

What should I 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 @#$%”.

Climate change: the gazillion-dollar question

Nick Minchin doesn’t stand a chance of changing my mind – I accept the evidence that climate change is real, along with (apparently) 97% of scientists.

In our part of the world, the long term trend is “dry, dry and drier” and the CSIRO’s State of the Climate Report confirms what many farmers here are dealing with right now.

What local dairy farmers are doing to cope with climate variability
We’ve been holding meetings and farm days to discuss how we can adapt. Here are some of the things locals are doing to help their farms cope with increased climate variability:

  • Changing the time of year calves are born
    On our farm, we are moving the start of calving from winter to autumn – a shift of almost two months. This allows us to take advantage of extra grass during milder winters while reducing our exposure to longer, hotter, drier summers.
  • Planting trees
    Trees aren’t just good for wildlife – they offer our cows shelter from uncomfortable weather and help to protect pastures from searing summer winds.
  • Trialling new pasture types
    Rye grass is the mainstay of dairy farming pastures around here but it has shallow roots that are quite vulnerable to heat and pests (which are expected to become more problematic). We’ve been sowing cocksfoot and fescue in some of our less productive pastures. Both have deep root systems that can tap into moisture lower in the soil. Other farmers are trialling chicory, plantain and other herbs too.
  • Shade and sprinklers at the dairy
    Lots of us have installed sprinklers and shade sails over the dairy yards and fans in the shed to help keep the cows cool while they wait to be milked, minimising the risk of heat stress.
  • Increasing energy efficiency
    Farmers have been flocking to seminars about green cleaning and water heating technology. For us, it’s meant a thorough audit of our dairy’s refrigeration, milking machines and hot water system.

In other words, local farmers are reading the tea leaves and, for us, the gazillion-dollar question is not whether climate change is real (or whether it’s caused by people) but what we should do about it. Consider us your canaries.

Why would an average Aussie give farms a second thought?

What does the average Aussie think of Australian dairy farming? Apparently, not much. They’re happy that their milk and other dairy foods are exceptionally safe and high quality and that’s about it. They know they are blissfully ignorant and most are happy to keep it that way.

This was the message from Neilson’s Courtney Sullivan when she addressed the Australian Dairy Conference last week. She’d selected some drawings made by milk drinkers to give us an insight into their thinking. A cow with eight teats and two udders produced milk that somehow got to a factory, then a warehouse, then into a massive shopping trolley that finished up in a massive house.

So, why are you here reading a dairy farmer’s blog, dear reader? You are obviously an exception from the norm and I’m very pleased that you are so far from average (still, it is very rare to meet an average Australian, who shares a home with 1.6 others and one-third of a dog).

Apparently, the Australian Year of the Farmer believes that the average Canberran family gets excited about loyalty cards when they think of farmers. Victoria Taylor took her family to the Canberra Show last weekend and you’d be amazed to read her blog post about the experience and the lasting impression made by the Australian Year of the Farmer stand.

Love to hear your thoughts on what makes farming interesting to those not currently up to their boots in it!

Snakeoil and women in agriculture please pass the scones

When the local dairy expo advertised it would have a “Women’s Pavilion”, I pondered the possibilities. Striptease? Baby change tables and comfy armchairs for breastfeeding mothers? A new pseudonym for toilets? Surely not!

No, the Women’s Pavilion was chock-full of arts and crafts. Crochet, quilts, preserves. Delightful yet patronising to this farmer who happens to be female and is just as interested in cattle crushes as the next man.

Now I’ve heard on the grapevine that a very high profile ag event plans a nude calendar featuring hunky farming fellas while the women’s contribution will be…recipes. If it is true and I am asked to share my favourite recipe, let’s hope they catch me on a good day.

Speaking of recipes, I was stopped on the side of the road by a salesperson just the other day who had the “solution” for all my farming woes. His special mix will lift our milk solids (fat and protein for the uninitiated), get every single one of our cows in calf, halt mastitis in 48 hours and even cure any mistletoe in neighbouring trees. All I have to do is put 2.5kg of the magic powder in the water trough each day. Nothing else, he was keen to stress.

I asked what was in the magic powder. He would only say that it was humic and fulvic acids, probiotics trace elements and minerals and it was devised by a man in Holland. “It’s a secret recipe,” he explained when I questioned him further. When I quizzed him on the science, he got himself confused and pulled out an abstract of a “study” that I was welcome to read there on the roadside. Said I could Google it. Thanks.

He has no literature, no website and no farmer referees either but a lot of people around here are trying it, he says. What’s more, if it doesn’t cure all my woes, he will give me my money back.

Farm consultant John Mulvany often warns dairy farmers to be wary of spending money on “herbs and spices” for their feed but this takes the whole feed additive bandwagon to new lows.

Dairy farming is highly professional these days. Labs test the soils that grow our grass, the feed that sustains our cows and the milk that they produce for optimum environmental, animal and human wellbeing. So where does snake oil like this fit into that equation? I reckon it’s the agricultural equivalent of the Tattslotto ticket. We all want to dream.

Dairy farming a glamorous job?

At a social get-together today, someone said dairy farming was glamorous. Rewarding, challenging, interesting, in touch with nature, a great way to raise a family, yes. Glamorous? I’d never thought of it that way. My friend (not a farmer) pointed out that many urban professionals might envy the freedom and sense of purpose enjoyed by dairy farmers.

It’s all about perspective, I guess. My husband saw me engrossed in reading a farmer’s newsletter last night and said: “You really love your farming, don’t you?”. “Yes,” I said, “Look at this! Turns out the nitrogen in the first effluent pond is much less volatile and…”. Well, there’s nothing sexy about a primary effluent pond. Realising how ridiculous I sounded, all I could do was laugh at myself. I do love it – especially learning how all the natural systems that come together in a farm work – even though there are days when it’s a really hard, dirty and uncomfortable grind that’s anything but glamorous.

But how do other Australians see us? According to one 2010 poll, as trustworthy. I wonder how the milk wars have affected public perceptions.