A silver tanker passes going in the opposite direction. It’s June, the verges are soft, both vehicles stay as close to the centre of the road as possible. A milk churn mailbox and a “Lock the Gate” sign mark the entrance to Caleb and Shiona Berry’s property. Their track, carved into the hillside, follows a sweeping bend around a small dam.
The Bass Coast Land Care Network recently recognised Caleb and Shiona for their commitment to productivity through sustainable agriculture innovation. Their property has undergone many changes in the 100-plus years since Caleb’s great-grandfather bought the property next door. His grandfather started this farm. Now there are 880 acres (350 hectares). The original 1890s house has been extended several times. Modern renovations are nearly complete.
“Driving around in an old truck with hay hanging from your lips is the picture the public have of dairy farming,” Caleb tells me. “Awards such as this are a way to publicise what we’re doing.” Liaising with MPs can lead to more funding for Landcare. Caleb and Shiona’s artificial insemination innovations have been reported in the Sydney Morning Herald.
Replanting is one aspect covered by the award. All the waterways on the property have been fenced and replanted. The steepest hills have been planted as well. Direct seeding seems to be the most effective method; teams of volunteers collect seeds in the wild which are planted into the ground rather than pots. The plants have a better chance to spread their roots during germination. In this steep country, landslips can make large chunks of paddock unusable. Caleb has replanted the steepest hills to try to avoid this.
Dairy farms began with families who owned a few cows and milked by hand in “walk-through” dairies. Milk travelled in churns on horse-drawn carts. Cows had names and the whole family was part of the business. Continuous improvement of the land and technology brought larger dairies and bigger herds. A decade ago, Caleb and Shiona started with 220 cows and a herringbone dairy. The tanker track ran close to the house.
Asked about the noise of tankers passing in the night, Caleb smiles. “It’s surprising what you can sleep through.” Especially when you start work before dawn; it’s nearing lunch time now, he’s been up since four o’clock, but there’s no hint of that as he talks about sustainability strategies.
“Although it’s a family business we separate the farm from the family.” They rerouted the tanker track when they built the rotary dairy. Their home faces away from the dairy and the area around it is a no-go zone for machinery. This is better for the kids and better for the farmers: “In a tractor you can’t see what’s immediately around you. It’s safer. The farm’s a workplace.”
Their children still interact with animals. Having a pet cow, such as Freckles, is important but there isn’t a roster of chores. Instead, raising a family on a farm gives him the opportunity to be with his family. Once the morning schedule is ticked off, he makes time for them through the day. If the children aren’t at school they share lunch. Their youngest one watches Playschool as we step outside.
The family has a very friendly “guard” dog, Hensch. He is the only canine on the property. Caleb won’t use farm dogs because they can unintentionally cause injury to cattle. Left alone, a cow’s back hooves hit the ground on the same spot as the front ones. If they are rushed by a dog their gait is thrown out and the back hooves are liable to encounter unseen irregularities. This can damage the soft parts, making the beast lame.
Having around 850 cows enables Caleb and Shiona to employ four people on the farm. Although they still do much of the “hands on” work themselves, this enables them to manage the farm as a business. There’s more planning and less crisis management. Caleb regrets that dairy farming in Australia isn’t respected as a career path. A dairy is a multi-million dollar business that requires an extensive skill set to control effectively. In other countries this is more formally recognised through tertiary training and industry organisations.
One aspect of sustainability that Shiona and Caleb focus on is maintaining a healthy work life balance. As well as ensuring their employees’ rosters include adequate breaks, they schedule time away from the farm for the family. Given the unpredictable nature of dairy farming, how do they manage that? “Non-refundable deposits!” Caleb laughs as he tells me. “Once we’ve booked we have to work toward that date.”
This farm has many technological innovations. Milk production is more efficient with electronic tagging to monitor individual output. The amount of feed is tailored to match and fluctuation in quantity is treated as an early indicator of health issues.
Separation of the home and business means the farm has few visitors. Friends and family go the house; farm animals don’t. This allows disease protocols to limit the chance of cross contamination of the herd. A good example is Shiona's calf rearing process.
Every year she raises more than 250 calves. Anyone who has worked on a dairy remembers calf rearing as a daily struggle, carting buckets of milk through old sheds to pens, fighting off hungry calves, trying to make sure they all get a share of red milk and checking for scours. Then walking around the rest of the day with back ache and wet clothes, wondering why some thrive and some die.
This farm has a robotic calf facility. No buckets here, and nothing but calves. Once the new-borns receive a tube of colostrum milk, they are tagged and put into covered pens with access to pasture. A central feeder uses a scanner to recognise the calf and allocate a certain amount per day. Unlimited access allows them to drink at their own pace. The calf machine won’t let them drink the entire feed in one sitting, it splits it, so they drink in two sittings. Or some calves drink up to six sittings, as they drink little and often. The computer prevents overfeeding and reports underfeeding.
To cart calf milk, Caleb and Shiona bolted a redundant coffin lid milk vat onto an old ute. They use pumps to transfer the milk so there’s minimal wastage and no physical toll on the operator. The milker herd never ventures into this area and visitors are kept to a minimum to reduce the risk of disease.
Cost effective and sustainable, this calf-rearing regime helps maintain the survival rate at “more than 99 per cent”. Quite a few of their calves are now on dairies in China.
As we drive out to take some shots of the herd, we start to talk about the little blue marker flags that recently appeared and now line hundreds of kilometres of roads in South Gippsland and Bass Coast. They are part of a seismic study being undertaken by a State Government department. The official explanation is that they’re giving the area an ultrasound to a depth of 40 kilometres so that we can understand the geology.
The question on everybody’s mind is “And what if there is coal seam gas?”
Caleb says he can’t understand why anyone would advocate for CSG mining in Gippsland given the productivity of this land and the reputation we have overseas for quality. It’s too great a risk for some short-term gain.
“Whatever we do on this farm ends up in the mouth of the Powlett. If one place gets poisoned it affects all the surrounding properties.” He points out that in New Zealand Fonterra won’t take milk from new farms that are exposed to CSG activities. It costs too much to test the milk.
He emphasises that middle-class Chinese consumers are willing to pay a hefty premium for Australian product because they recognise the quality. “If you can’t sell your milk, what good is all this?” he asks.