Of course our cows are sentient

Heifers and Zoe reach out

“You can trust me”

Any dairy farmer who does not know her cows are capable of feeling pain and suffering, or pleasure and comfort, should be stripped of her licence.

Yet this simple concept, called sentience, has created one hell of a ruckus after the Victorian government released its Animal Welfare Action Plan this month. All sorts of farm leaders have railed against the use of the term, calling it a “slippery slope” and claiming it could actually hurt animals.

“…the introduction of sentience will cause adverse welfare outcomes for animals as production systems are thrown into chaos. It will render some farm businesses unviable, causing job losses and untold economic damage to regional communities and cripple the supply chains that rely on these businesses.” – VFF media release, January 5, 2018

As a farmer who works with cows every day, I have no idea what’s prompted this outrage but I do know it’s got nothing to do with whether cows are sentient or not. Of course they are.

Farmers are animal practivists: we balance what’s best for the welfare of our cows all the time. How long do we keep treating that downer cow or should we euthanase now? And the big one: should we rear the calves with the herd or away from their mothers?

I get the feeling that our agripoliticians are on the offensive because they’re worried what the animal activists rather than practivists out there will do with the inclusion of sentience in welfare law.

The problem is that everybody knows cows are sentient. To deny it makes farmers look either cruel or willing to say anything at all to avoid being accountable. How we achieve the best outcomes is certainly very debateable but the need to consider cow comfort is not.

The importance of cow comfort is already well accepted in dairy circles. Cows and farmers do better when animal health and wellbeing is a priority. Goodness, it’s practically a science of its own! A quick Google reveals dozens of research papers on the subject.

The minister is being very courageous. It’s about time our leaders were, too.


Plain English guide to the dairy concessional loans in Victoria


Like just about everything else involving the dairy debacle, the facts surrounding the Commonwealth concessional loans for dairy farmers and their roll-out in Victoria has been clouded in confusion.
A big thank you to the office of Minister for Agriculture and Regional Development, Jaala Pulford, for answering Milk Maid Marian’s questions.

  1.        Who can apply?

The Commonwealth Government has indicated the loans will be available to farm businesses that supplied milk to Murray Goulburn and/or Fonterra in 2015-16. Evidence of a milk supply contract and/or statement in 2015-16  to Murray Goulburn and/ or Fonterra will be required to prove eligibility.  The Victorian Government has sought changes to eligibility requirements to enable suppliers of other processors to access the scheme. Changes have also been sought to ensure share farmers and young farmers can access loan arrangements. The Commonwealth has not made the requested changes.

  1.       $30 million is available while the Federal government is in caretaker mode. This won’t cover many farms. Why must the rest wait until after October?

The Commonwealth Government’s Dairy Support package includes $55 million in Dairy Recovery Concessional Loans until 31 October 2016.  The Commonwealth has offered loan amounts of $30 million to Victoria; $10 million to New South Wales; $10 million to Tasmania; $5 million to South Australia.

Victoria has sought advice from the Commonwealth on loans available after 31 October 2016 arguing that Victoria’s allocation of the total $550 million pool should reflect that 70% of Australian dairy farms are located here. The Commonwealth have not provided advice on future allocations.

  1.        How much can individual farmers access? Originally, media reported that half a farmer’s debt up to $1 million  could be borrowed but recent media reports indicate a cap of $200,000.

The Commonwealth Government has determined loan amounts will be up to 50 per cent of total eligible debt to a maximum of $1 million. Eligible debt means debt that has been established upon commercial interest rates, terms and conditions and/ or debt to a dairy processor.

  1.        What is the interest rate and is it fixed or variable?

The interest rate is variable and set by the Commonwealth Government.  As at 1 June 2016 the rate is 2.71 per cent.

The Commonwealth Government variable interest rate will be calculated based on the average of the daily 10 year Commonwealth bond rate over a specified six month period. The concessional interest rate will be reviewed and revised if necessary in accordance with material changes to the Commonwealth 10 year bond rate, where a material change is taken to be a movement of 10 basis points (0.1 per cent). The rate will be published on Rural Finance’s website.

Victoria has sought changes to the scheme so that farmers can access lower interest rates available under the Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Concessional Loans scheme. This scheme provided rates of 1.67% to storm affected farmers in the Sunraysia in 2014. The Commonwealth has not made the requested changes.

  1.        What if banks hold land titles as security for loans and don’t want to relinquish it to Rural Finance?

Based on previous experience with other Commonwealth Government Concessional Loans scheme, this scenario is rare.

  1.        Many farmers are reluctant to apply for drought loans because the process and criteria are too difficult. Have you been able to make it simpler for farmers to apply for these concessional dairy loans? If so, how will they be different and are the criteria publicly available?

The Commonwealth Government determines the eligibility and requirements for the Dairy Recovery Concessional Loans. Victoria has sought a number of changes to improve eligibility criteria but the Commonwealth has not made the requested changes.

  1.        Minister Pulford quoted as saying only 70 farms will access the loans. What is the basis for that figure?

The estimate is based on the experience of other previous and current Commonwealth Government concessional loans schemes in Victoria. The figure assumes full subscription and the average loan amount of previous comparable schemes being around $450,000.

NOTE from Milk Maid Marian: At the time of writing, Rural Finance was taking registrations of interest for the concessional loans. Call 1800 260 425.

I love the land, so it’s time to stand up for our national parks

Inspiration for a green farmer

Inspiration for a green farmer

There’s a special spot high up on the hill through the forest at the back of our place. It’s a scene that inspires me to be a better custodian of our own land.

You can see right across Corner Inlet all the way to Wilson’s Prom. Under the water lie swaying seaweed forests that sustain life in the irreplaceable bird breeding grounds of this Ramsar-listed site. A little while back, the Catchment Management Authority even arranged a canoe tour to ever-so-gently ram the message home to landholders along the river: we are responsible for these delicate forests and everything that depends on them.

Stepping up to the plate, we’ve been planting trees as environmental buffers, reducing the risk of fertiliser leaching into the river and improving our effluent management. It’s a huge commitment that we’ve made because we treasure our beautiful landscape and its creatures.

The jewel in the centre of all this is Wilson’s Promontory National Park, a magical wilderness studded with granite peaks. Amazingly, its conservation values were recognised by government in the 1800s – a time when land-clearing was the priority. According to Parks Victoria:

“Following campaigns by the Field Naturalists Club of Victoria, and lobbying by the Royal Society of Victoria, the Victorian government temporarily reserved most of the Promontory as a national park in 1898. Permanent reservation followed in 1908, although the Yanakie area north of the Darby River was not added until the 1960s.”

Remarkably, it seems the 2013 Victorian government does not share the foresight of those who occupied their honorable seats in 1898. Rather than protecting the Prom, it plans to offer private developers leases of up to 99 years. I asked our local member and leader of the Victorian National Party, Peter Ryan, why the government had chosen this course. Among the material emailed by his office was this explanation:

“The government is keen to attract more international visitors to Victoria. There is growing demand for nature-based tourism and Victoria is keen to compete with other states to meet this demand. The guidelines provide certainty of process for unsolicited projects.”

“The move makes Victoria more competitive with other states in Australia, by supporting sensible and sensitive investment in national parks that complements environmental, heritage and other values and generates a net public benefit.”

To its credit, the government plans to control development in national parks to ensure that it is “sensitive” but lots of other issues bother me:

  • Where will the new buildings go? The Tidal River settlement is already very crowded. Will it be enlarged to encroach further onto the park or will it nudge out the low-cost camping that has made the Prom so accessible for generations of Victorian families?
  • It opens the door. Remember that multi-storey luxury hotel overlooking the beach Jeff Kennett wanted for the Prom back in the ’90s?
  • Why not simply enhance development outside the Park boundary? There’s plenty of tourist accommodation minutes from the park offered by small business owners who deserve the support of the government rather than competition from it.

The Tidal River Strategic Directions Plan 2010-2015  recognises that Wilsons Promontory National Park is already making a huge contribution to the economy of the surrounding region and the state as a whole.

“A 2003 study estimated that in relation to employment and business development it generated economic benefits of about $50 million per year for the region and the state.
“The Prom receives around 400,000 visits each year, most of them between November and April with peaks during the January and Easter holidays. Visitor facilities and services are concentrated at Tidal River, the largest visitor accommodation centre in a Victorian national park. It provides for a maximum of 4,000 overnight visitors at any one time.”

Why would we risk killing the goose that laid the golden egg?

Tidal River

Tidal River

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.

Who are these billabong refugees and what are they doing?

The job had got to that point where you have to stop for a minute and stare at it, just to ‘process’ its sheer enormity. Before me was a truly terrifying tangle of high tensile wire that had pleased the contractor by wrapping itself around the ploughing discs.

The knot was about the same size as the Bobcat and, without safety glasses for little Alex (do they make safety glasses for toddlers?), I had to accept that the wretched thing was going to beat me.

With the dawning realisation of defeat came the sound of something equally beyond the realms of reality: a babbling waterfall coming from the gully billabong. A very nice and very timely distraction.

The fish had gaping golden lips and flashy golden bellies to match. Each seemed about 2-feet long and oh-so-muscular. I may be a piscean but I know nothing about fish. Perhaps this group of half a dozen or so monsters are the dreaded carp, washed into the gully during one of this year’s floods. And what are they doing? Breathing or breeding?

Carp are considered the lowest of all fish around here: categorised as “noxious fish” by the Department of Primary Industries for the environmental damage they cause while being pilloried by cooks and anglers for their muddy taste.

But perhaps Charlie Carp deserves better. The big fish make excellent organic fertiliser and, according to one account on ABC Radio, might be alright on the menu if we Aussies learned the secret to eating carp.

Anyhow, the whole fishy dancing performance went on for five minutes and would have lasted longer if not for Patch. Yes, our most accident prone pooch had to investigate and was so intrigued, he forgot he couldn’t walk on water. Turns out he’s not that good at swimming, either. Crazy dog!

Patch had to come and take a look

Shame I missed the “after” pic. The memory card was full of fish video and photos. Patch isn’t the only silly one.

I’m not afraid of La Nina

So, she’s on her way back, is she? La Nina wreaked havoc across Australia last season and forecasts predicting her return this summer have hit the headlines. But I’m not scared of her. In my region, La Nina is no grand dame.

In fact, the Bureau of Meteorology’s analysis of 12 La Nina years shows average rainfall in our region of south-east Victoria.

I had no idea this was the case until I subscribed to the fascinating and very informative Victorian DPI program, Milking the Weather. A more realistic seasonal outlook means we need to look at a whole series of climate drivers that Milking the Weather nicknames “Climate Dogs”. In their September newsletter, the DPI’s Bree Walsh and Zita Ritchie say:

“It is easy to look to the sky, irrigation dams and soil moisture levels and think the good old days of plenty of rain have returned. However, based on history an average outlook could mean rainfall could go either way, as rainfall events rely on a good moisture feed from the Pacific and/or Indian oceans.”

With this in mind, the smart money is not on building an ark or buying in vast quantities of fodder just yet. As Bree and Zita conclude:

“In summary, 2011 looks unlikely to mimic 2010, taking into account the current climatic indicators and model predictions. When comparing the seasonal outlook from year to year, it is important to keep risk in the back of you mind. Many factors affect our weather, with each region having their own specific risks which need to be considered in the context of the broader model forecasts. Managing climatic risk is complex, one of the hardest management decisions is around how all of these outlooks come together and affect your farm.”