Help for our dairy farmers and their cows

There certainly is light at the end of the financial tunnel for dairy farmers but many are still finding the going incredibly difficult.

I’m a tough old stick but there have been times in the last few months where things unravelled a bit before I could piece myself together again, so I know how it feels first-hand. For me, the saving grace has been to get help from our expert farm consultant, Neil, and build an action plan to insulate the cows from the fodder shortage.

It’s gone beyond that for some farmers who are in desperate positions. I asked Dairy Australia’s issues manager, Julie Iommi, what the dairy farming representative bodies are doing to help.

1. Anyone wishing to donate fodder or funds to buy fodder – please contact the UDV/VFF on 1300 882 833. Want to help but have no hay of your own? Farmer mental health dynamo, Alison Fairleigh, has linked her handy blog to “Buy a Bale“, an initiative of Aussie Helpers, where anyone can donate time or money for fodder to go to people who are in dire straits.

2. VFF, supported by ADF, is pushing the state government to immediately review the resourcing to the Rural Financial Counselling network to ensure they have the capacity to deal with current demand.

3. VFF, supported by ADF, has asked the state and federal governments to introduce the low interest loan support program immediately.

4. The state and federal governments have also been requested to review other forms of emergency support immediately.

5. VFF and ADF are also pushing the state and federal agriculture Ministers to meet the bank sector to encourage them to continue to take the long-term view when assessing their support of farm businesses.

Dairy Australia is promoting the Taking Stock program, which can help dairy farmers review their individual situations and create their own action plans – Julie says there are still around 50 spots available.

DA also has good info on its site about coping with fodder shortages.

Last of all, if you know someone who might be battling to stay afloat, why not drop them a line, phone or do the good old-fashioned thing and turn up with a cake? It might be just the lifeline they need without you ever knowing it.

Never say die

When analysts talk about softening milk supply, there’s a whole other layer that’s anything but soft. It’s uncomfortable chats in the dairy about next week’s roster, sleepless nights worrying about where the next load of hay is going to come from, and long, long hours.

He spends more time in the tractor, she spends more time off-farm to pay the bills. The office is a mess, the kids watch a little more TV than usual and the mummy guilt rises with it. They all get snappy.

He comes in from the chilly night air long after the children have gone to bed. She’s in the office doing the books. Farms are not selling. There is no light at the end of the tunnel and there’s no way out, either.

Then one afternoon, the farm consultant brings a welcome dose of encouragement: the place is in great shape, poised to take advantage of any recovery, and the gossip around the traps is that an upbeat announcement from the co-op is imminent.

That night, as she takes her little boy out to check on the maternity paddock, the farmer is drawn by a ruckus at the dam. A moorhen hangs about a metre above the water, caught by one leg in a twist of wire and flapping its glossy blue-black wings desperately even though there’s clearly no hope of escape.

The farmer cannot stand and watch any more than she can walk away. With toddler on her shoulders and Blundstones squelching through the shallows, she wades towards the struggling bird. There is blood on the wire but with a deft spinning wrench, the fence springs back to shape, releasing the bird which, to the farmer’s astonishment, paddles away seemingly unhurt.

In the morning, the most anticipated email of the year arrives. To the farmer’s astonishment, the milk price will open 24 per cent higher than last year and the co-op has a little rescue package in the shape of a pre-payment for those prepared to pledge their loyalty. She reads the email twice more, just to be sure.

Never say die.

Modern farming and nostalgia

Although I was just a tween during the 82/83 drought, I remember it vividly. That was the year the school bus was overwhelmed by a dust storm and the year my parents cancelled the newspaper deliveries just so they could be sure they’d saved every dollar they could.

It was also the first year we fed our cows grain and, gosh, it taught us a lot. Cleaning up, I stumbled across some notes written by my father’s farm consultant (and even a farm consultant was a new concept) that December:

“Feed grain, increasing slowly to 4kg, watching carefully for signs of grain poisoning.”

Grain poisoning is not funny but that little sentence make me laugh out loud. These days, cows start the season on 4kg, which is seen as pretty much a minimum supplement level, even in the flush of spring. No risk of grain poisoning there.

We manage dry spells so much better now than we did then and the cows, the farmers and even the environment are the winners. No longer are paddocks stripped bare, exposing the topsoil and all the life in it to the cruelties of the Australian summer. We graze just enough to keep the grass from becoming stalky.

This modern way of farming also means the pastures are quicker to respond to the rains when they do come. Just look at it.

Just add water...

Just add water…

Modern farming attracts plenty of critics but I think that, in many ways, the way we farm now would make our early environmentalists very proud indeed.

Dining on data is good for the bottom (line)

Farm planning meeting

Farm management meeting


Depending on how you look at it, dairy farmers are very trusting, natural exhibitionists or visionaries. I say this because I have always been amazed by how readily we share the most confidential of our information with our counterparts – right down to the profitability of our farms per litre, hectare and even per cow.

I have just joined the ranks of these exhibitionists by submitting our farm’s data to Frank Tyndall, who oversees a project called Tracker that benchmarks dairy farms across all sorts of productivity measures.

The results offer an incredible amount of information that require some very thoughtful interpretation. Great fodder for discussion with our farm consultant, Matt Harms.

Unsurprisingly, we have achieved a lowly rank. Our dryland (or “rain-fed” if you’re feeling optimistic) farm is being compared to those in the Macallister Irrigation District (MID), where water when you need it is pretty much assured. We have just come out of an impossibly wet year that has depressed production in the growing season and, now, the dry has set in.

We may end up winning the wooden spoon but I’m not concerned. The race here is to a greater discipline when it comes to farm management, which should reap efficiency dividends and make our farm more resilient.