Mabel Howard is credited with the observation that there’s only one good job on a dairy farm and the bull’s got it. It was delivered during a parliamentary debate on the sorry lot of farm workers, but many sheep farmers have quoted her words to prove the superiority of their calling.
At least they used to, but as we’ve watched returns for meat and wool fall while milk prices stayed stable then rose, more than few of us reconsidered our opinion of dairying. Thirty years ago the Lower Waitaki Valley supported 10,000 sheep, today more than 40,000 dairy cows graze the same paddocks. My farmer was among those long established North Otago sheep and beef men who watched the invasion and began to wonder if there was more to life than meat and wool.
The calculator came out, experts were consulted, discussions took place, options were investigated, heads were scratched, conclusions were drawn and the decision was made: we’d stick to sheep. Time passed, more calculations were made, other options were investigated, experts were consulted again, further discussions took place, different conclusions were drawn and the decision was revised: we’d convert part of our farm to dairying.
That was the start of a very steep learning curve and one of the first things I learnt was that the bull’s job is no longer as important on a modern dairy farm, at least not in person (or should that be in animal?). Instead of putting the bull out and letting nature take its course, farmers now choose their sires from a catalogue and order straws of semen. This means the relationship between the cow and her mate is at arm’s length – the arm in this case being that of the artificial insemination technician.
The next thing I learnt was that building a diary shed is similar to building a house in that it always takes longer and inevitably costs more than expected. The site was supposed to be cleared in January but work didn’t start until April. Soon there were men everywhere – digging holes, delivering concrete, building and upgrading farm tracks to the standard the diary company demands for its tankers, and all needing to be paid.
In the middle of all these men was my farmer, writing cheques and wondering what he’d let himself in for while I kept strictly to my role of uninformed observer because the most important thing I learnt about dairy farming was just how demanding a life it was. Wool doesn’t go off if it’s not shorn today and, crisis situations like droughts excepted, there’s usually some leeway when sending lambs away; but cows have to be milked twice a day, every day from August to late May.
It didn’t help that the shed wasn’t finished when the first calves were born and while monthly milk payments made a pleasant change from the once or twice yearly cheques from meat and wool, the money coming in didn’t stretch to cover the bills that followed. Conversion is an expensive business and the costs didn’t stop there. Our advisors suggested the dairy unit would be more economic if we increased our herd from the initial 400 cows to 600. That in turn meant we needed more irrigation which necessitated building a dam.
Then we got tuberculosis and had to slaughter any cow which reacted to tests in case she was infected. The Animal Health Board pays for the cows but there is no compensation for the lost production. The tests aren’t 100 percent reliable and the cow carrying the disease which was infecting our herd was only discovered by accident a couple of years later when she dried herself off and was sent to the freezing works where they found her lungs riddled with the disease.
We regained our TB-free status but then struck a drought and ran out of water for irrigation so had to dry the cows off early. This spurred us to increase the irrigation which cost more and the increased herd numbers necessitated a second dairy shed and more staff which in turn led to the need for more accommodation. A further boost in cow numbers last year required more labour and another new house.
But at least this season the increase is production was rewarded by an increase in the payout. Not surprisingly that was followed by an increase in costs as the price of fertiliser, fuel, power, calf feed, silage, and wages went up too. However, in spite of all that it looks like, after 13 seasons, this will at last be the year when the really good job on the dairy farm is banking the money.