Sustainable dairy farming

Sustainability isn’t about the environment, animal welfare, profitability, business succession or manageability. For me, the definition of sustainability is all of them.

Australia’s dairy farmers are good at environmental sustainability – we are the front line environmentalists behind the Landcare movement. I like to think we are also exceptional when it comes to caring for our animals too. Profitability, not so good. Business succession, woeful. Manageability, well that’s debatable.

City friends think I live an idyllic life, frolicking among the cows but this lifestyle can bring stressors urban Australians would never imagine. According to the University of South Australia:

UniSA Psychology PhD student Alison Wallis knows what can drive a dairy farmer to cry over spilt milk.
For the past four years Wallis has been investigating the work stress of South Australia’s dairy farmers.
It’s a group she says at the time of the research had one of the highest incidences of work-related stress in the nation.
“There hasn’t been a lot of research done on the stress levels of those who are self-employed,” Wallis said.
“But we found that dairy farming produced some of the highest distress scores of many Australian occupations.”

Reading Tom Phillips’ excellent dairy blog, Pasture to Profit, I discovered we are not the only ones. Our trans-Tasman counterparts are also studying dairy farmer burnout.

It’s all amplified in times like these – when the rain won’t stop falling here in the south and when the prices won’t stop falling up there in New South Wales and Queensland – and so much of your success or failure seems to be in the laps of the gods (whether Thor or Coles).

On the other hand, it’s times like these that faith in human nature is restored by the generosity of people who care. People like Queensland ag teacher, Lisa Claessen, who, seeing the distress of her students, has taken to social media to petition the Coles CEO for a sustainable milk price. If you would rather not have UHT on your cornflakes, please add your name to her cause.

The negatives of being a dairy farmer

It’s time to balance yesterday’s post about the five upsides of being a dairy farmer with the three big downsides. I’m not whingeing – I have consciously chosen to be a dairy farmer – but nor am I going to beat about the bush because the issues are too serious to sweep under the carpet.

Piggy Bank

Sadly, almost all of the negatives about dairy farming come down to money.

Financial stress
Dairy farmers are finding it harder and harder to make ends meet. When I was a teen, it was far easier as the terms of trade chart below shows.

Terms of Trade for Victorian dairy farmers

Not a pretty picture for dairy farmers

Basically, our standard of living has been cut by a third since the 1980s despite skyrocketing productivity.

High workload
Dairy cows are milked twice a day, seven days per week, and if you can’t afford to employ people, you need to work seven days per week, too. You start before dawn and generally finish after sunset.

Unless you have the money to pay someone to look after the farm, you also miss out on holidays.

A dangerous place to work
The many tasks and unpredictability of animals make farms among Australia’s most hazardous workplaces. Because they are also homes, farm injuries and deaths tragically include children. If you don’t have enough money to pay for assistance, again, you’re more likely to attempt jobs that should be left to skilled people with the right gear.

Aside from the risk of physical injury, the stress of farming with low incomes and at the mercy of Mother Nature can be pyschologically devastating. Farmers are around twice as likely to end their own lives with suicide than other Australians. Farmers are resilient but we are human.