By Tom Collins
AUSTRALIA — A Grey County woman who grew up milking 30 cows a tie-stall and now works on a 600-cow dairy farm in Australia says it would be too difficult for her to come back home and take over the family farm.
Leanne Hopkins grew up on her dad’s farm at Elmwood in Grey County before moving to Alberta to work at Rocky Mountain Holsteins. Through that farm, she arranged an exchange trip to Australia in 2012. She worked at six farms over a six-month period before deciding to stay as she fell in love with the coastal area, the culture and the people.
Hopkins is now applying for her permanent residency and has no plans to move back to Canada to take over her dad’s farm.
“When you take away the family farm and look at it business wise, my dad has a 50-acre farm and milks 40 cows in a 30-cow tie-stall,” she said. “For me to come home and take over that farm financially, it’s just impossible. The only way I could is to grow the farm and get more quota and honestly, that’s just a thing of the past. You don’t see a lot of 30-cow tie-stall farms anymore.”
Australia got out of the supply management system in 2000. It’s a long time since it’s been a hot-button issue and is no longer much of a conversation starter. Australian producers were given a transition package of AUS $1.75 billion (which was funded through a new tax of 11 cents per litre of fluid milk sales until 2010). But it was not good for everyone — a reported 25 per cent of producers left the industry from 1999 to 2004. Those who stayed expanded their herds. Bruce Muirhead, a professor at the University of Waterloo, who has argued in favour of supply management for years, visited Australia last year and spoke to many dairy farmers in Victoria. He said they rejected the thought of going back to supply management as 40 per cent of their milk is exported.
Hopkins has been working for Menzies Farm at Nowra, two hours south of Sydney near the ocean coast, for the past five years. The family-run farm milks 600 cows — 500 Jerseys and 100 Holsteins — and are part of an innovative project: Cold-pressed milk. Instead of heat pasteurization, the milk is poured into plastic bottles, put in a water chamber and pressurized to the equivalent of six times deeper than the deepest part of the ocean. This process kills the bacteria, and the milk is technically considered raw since it’s not heated.
The farm says it is the only company in the world producing the product, and a 750 ml bottle sells for almost AUS $6 (about CDN $5.92).
“They want people to buy it like a treat, like chocolate milk,” explained Hopkins. “It tastes like you got it right out of the tank. And I’ve grown up with drinking milk right out of the tank.”
Hopkins said the biggest differences between dairy farming in Australia and Canada are that there are no barns in Australia and cows are almost exclusively pasture-grazed. Hopkins works on a 1,000-acre farm.
“The barn only has two walls, so you’re basically working in the elements all the time,” said the 26-year-old. “We don’t get the extreme weather we get in Canada.”
On a rainy day, the cows stay on a feed pad so they can eat without having to walk too far to a field. Each cow could walk 2.5 kilometres to a field and back for milking on nice days. And there are no common predators.
The Menzies milk twice a day with a 50-stall rotary parlour, but it’s not unusual for larger farms to milk only once a day as it could take cows four hours to walk to a field and back. This is why feet and legs are very important when it comes to Australian breeding, said Hopkins.
A full-time farmhand in Australia can make anywhere from $18.39 to $22.88 per hour depending on his/her classification.
Her typical day is about 11 hours of work: She wakes up at 3:30 a.m. to start milking at 3:45 a.m. until 7:30, at which point everyone goes for breakfast. At 9 a.m., she starts chores, such as feeding calves and checking on pregnant cows, until around 12:30 p.m. Then there’s a two-hour break until the 2:30 p.m. milking. At 6 p.m., she is done for the day. She works five days on, two days off and receives four weeks paid holidays a year.
It didn’t take long for Hopkins to start speaking with an Australian accent. There was some initial confusion with terminology. For instance, in Australia a “Sheila” is a girl, a “paddock” is a field, “ta” means thank you, “avo” means the afternoon, “being crook” means being sick, “herring shed” is a milking parlour and “tea” means going for supper.
“I feel sorry for the farmers where I was at for the first couple of farms, because it looked like I had no idea what I was doing,” she laughed. “It was three or four months before I understood (the local slang) and what they were talking about.”