New development in Australian dairy makes my stomach churn

Ningbo Dairy Group vice-president Harry Wang, left, and owner Yin Chong Zhang inspect farms near Phillip Island. Picture: Aaron Francis, published in The Weekly Times.

This is the blog post I hesitated to write. Yes, we need foreign investment, absolutely yes, but an article about a particular Chinese investor’s plans written by Sue Neales makes my stomach churn.
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Farm meets laboratory

It takes a lot of science to make our dairy farm tick these days. Our place is no factory farm either. With around 250 free-range milking cows, it’s a very typical Australian dairy farm.
Yet, only today, I have been keeping four different labs busy:

Environmental lab: what’s in our water?

Sampling water from the farm dam

Don’t fall in!

We’re considering moving the water supply from the river to the dam but need to be sure the water is up to scratch first. While we don’t irrigate our farm, we need high quality water for the cows to drink and to keep the milking machinery hygienic and sparkling clean. We’re having it tested for minerals and nasty bugs like e-coli.

Animal health testing lab – looking for hand grenades in the grass

GrassClippingsOur farm has volunteered to be a ‘sentinel’ for the spores that cause the life-threatening condition of facial eczema. Collecting samples from a couple of paddocks only takes a few minutes but it could save hundreds of cows untold suffering.

Dairy nutrition lab – feeding the bugs that feed the cows

Yesterday, someone on Twitter asked Dr Karl how cows manage to get fat on grass while humans lose weight on veggies. The secret lies in four-chambered guts filled with life-giving bugs that do a lot of the work for the cows.

Our bovine ladies are athletes – each gives us around 7,000 litres of milk per year – and they and their bugs demand nothing short of perfection from us as chefs! Feed reports allow me to balance the cows’ diets with the right mix of fibre, energy and protein.

Soil nutrient lab – getting the dirt on our soils

Soil data allows me to apply the right fertiliser in the right amounts to the right places – lifting the productivity of our farm, reducing costs and preventing leaching into the river. I test the soils of all our paddocks every year. Some would regard that as wildly extravagant but a $110 test is nothing compared to the cost of a tonne of excess fertiliser.

Dairy farming is still the earthy, honest lifestyle it always has been but, these days, it pays to be a touch tech-savvy as well.

EDIT: Oh my goodness! Mike Russell (@mikerussell_) just pointed out that I forgot the bleeding obvious: the testing of our milk! It’s tested to an inch of its life – fat and protein content, sugars and cell counts are all tracked daily. Thanks Mike!

How big are Australian dairy farms? And what is a “mega dairy”?

There’s a lot of talk of factory farming at the moment. Animal activists use the phrase to shock us and judging by the comments in response to John Bunting’s Journal, average US dairy farmers are afraid of being overtaken by “mega dairies”.

While Australia’s dairy farms are getting bigger, I haven’t heard of anything on the scale discussed by our American counterparts, so I thought I’d ask the gurus at Dairy Australia for the official stats.

It turns out that the vast majority of Australian dairy farms are still family-owned. Only 2 per cent are corporate. This does not surprise me. As leading farm consultant John Mulvany points out, corporate investors demand higher returns on their assets than the meagre 1 or 2 per cent that most dairy farms achieve. Second, paid labour is both expensive and inflexible in this highly volatile industry. This bothers me because it assumes that farm families should not expect the same standard of living as their employees.

The average Australian dairy herd has 220 milkers and here is the breakdown of herds across the spectrum:

small

medium

large

x-large

xx-large

total

% farms

26%

38%

24%

6%

5%

100%

% milk

8%

27%

31%

13%

20%

100%

What’s perhaps even more interesting (and heartening) are the definitions of size.

Small: Herd size of less than 150

Medium: Herd size between 150 – 300

Large: Herd size between 301 – 500

X-large: Herd size between 501 – 700

XX-large: Herd size greater than 700

So, when the US talks of mega-dairies milking thousands and thousands of cows, Aussies talk of XXL dairies milking more than 700.

What is a factory farm?

Zoe with a seed drill from the 50s

Zoe with a seed drill from the 50s

When I was a teenager in the early 1980s, we bought the next-door neighbour’s farm and the one across the road to milk around 180 cows. At the time, it was an impressive herd.

Today, that’s quite small. The average Gippsland dairy farm now milks 265 cows on 130 hectares.

Turns out our farm is almost perfectly statistically average! Like many of our neighbours, we have a full-time employee and engage relief milkers to manage the workload. We no longer cultivate our own paddocks or cut our own hay because the job has just got too big. Instead, a specialist contractor with specialised, ultra-efficient machinery does it for us. Our very average farm of today would have been considered huge back then. Maybe even a factory farm.

Even so, the well-being of our animals has not diminished over time. We care just as much as we ever did and love of the land, the outdoors and our cows is why we farm. And now, thanks to the work of researchers, we are better equipped to keep them fit and healthy.

I don’t know what you’d classify as a factory farm these days but the low price of milk certainly puts us all under pressure to get bigger (and therefore better able to gain more efficiencies). Here in Australia, where cows are “free range” rather than housed and feed-lotted, big farms can be just as animal and environmentally-friendly as average farms like ours on one condition: the people who operate them still care.