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‘Down under’ dairy farmers

Sept. 6, 2012 | 0 comments


Most days you know exactly what’s going to happen on the farm – there are the usual chores and routines that happen every day.

But some days are different and something unexpected happens. That’s what happened at our farm near DeForest last week.

The doorbell rang, and on our porch were four travelers – from Tasmania it turns out. They were dairy farmers on a tour of the United States and had pulled in off the Interstate highway and wanted to visit a family farm.

The two couples are part of a "Kiwis on Route 66" tour. They pulled into the driveway in a rented Mustang convertibles with California plates, having driven to our farm from Los Angeles.

They were on their way to Chicago to meet up with 26 other rented Mustangs driven by Kiwis for a drive down the old Route 66.

Though both couples now operate dairy farms in Tasmania, an island province of Australia, they are originally from New Zealand, hence their participation in a "Kiwi" trip.

John McNab and his wife Sharleen, who were both raised in the city, started their farming career with "a 10-acre block" of land in New Zealand and four cows, as more of a hobby and a way to raise their kids in the country. John continued to work the night shift on the wharves in Auckland.

As they raised calves and found they liked working with cattle, they expanded their farm. When they wanted to expand further, though, they found New Zealand wasn’t the right place for it.

"New Zealand dairy land is just too expensive and we wanted to get bigger," said John.

That’s when they moved to Tasmania and expanded their herd to 700 cows. Their pasture-based system is managed so 580 calves are born in the spring and 120 in the autumn, he said. Their milk was going to a plant owned by Cadbury, the chocolate maker, but is now going to a new cooperative that makes milk powder.

Brian and Bev, who have their own farming operation, used to sell their milk to a cheese company and now it’s going to Cadbury. Neither of them grew up on a farm either.

It’s winter down under now, which is why the dairy farmers had a chance to take this big road trip.



The two dairy farms are among 300 to 400 pasture-based dairies in the area, they said, and all are pasture based. The temperate climate and sandier soil types mean that they can graze their cows – or feed them on sand dunes – throughout the year.

Rainfall is so prevalent where they live that "10 fine days and it’s a drought," said John with a smile.

His cows eat ryegrass and clover with a little alfalfa that they have established in their 54 paddocks, but because of the rain it’s hard to make hay, he added. They use plastic-wrapped grass bales for extra feed and buy barley or wheat as a grain supplement.

Cows are on paddocks for 12 hours and after each time the farmers lightly fertilize the vegetation.

John and Sharleen said they have been breeding their cows to produce A2 milk, a specific kind of beta-casein protein that is becoming a niche product where they live. "Certain cheese plants want to make their cheese from A2 milk," she said.

Their son, who is buying into their business, was skeptical of the A2 emphasis in their herd, until he saw the interest from milk buyers and the public. That won him over.

Their cows are milked twice a day in a 40-cow swing-over parlor and it takes them about two hours for each milking.

Brian McNab’s journey to dairying was similar. He worked on a farm for a year and then sold his house in town to finance a move into dairying. He bought cows and joined a farm that supplied fluid milk to a town, which provided two to three times the income as other dairy farmers.

Not long after he got into that market, the town supplier shut down, so Brian said he felt very lucky to have gotten those premiums. " I was lucky. Timing is everything."

Bev, who is now with Brian, milked 50 cows with her first husband. After she joined Brian in his operation, they started their dairy in Tasmania, just a year after John and Sharleen moved there.

"You could buy twice as much land for the same money," says Brian.


When each couple made the move to the Australian province, they sold their cows in New Zealand and bought Tasmanian cows. But they continue to use New Zealand genetics, which produce a smaller Friesian cow – it’s black and white, but smaller than U.S. Holsteins.

"It’s like a black and white Jersey, with good solids production and high fat and protein," said John.

John and Sharleen also have 40 purebred Jersey cattle in their herd. From those cows they keep back bulls to cover their heifers, she said.

In New Zealand, they said, farmers get paid the same price for their milk no matter when they send it, even though production is quite seasonal.

In Tasmania they get paid more for their milk during months when there is scant supply available. There is no quota system for dairy production there.

A short time ago Chinese buyers were paying $1,400 for baby heifer calves and many of their neighbors got on that bandwagon, selling young stock to improve their cash flow. Now many of those dairies don’t have herd replacements, said the McNabs, who didn’t cash in on that calf market.

"The Chinese are very worried about food security," said John.



The transplanted Kiwis said that farmers can purchase a dairy farm for $10,000 per acre, which would generally include a full operation - several houses, a dairy parlor, buildings and in many cases irrigation. If bare land without any improvements was for sale it would likely go for $4,000-$5,000 per acre.

One unusual cash crop grown on the island province is opium poppies, which are produced for pharmaceutical companies to refine into morphine and other opiates. Farmers also grow potatoes on their red soil, as well as broccoli, carrots and onions.

On the dairy farms, there is no cover for the animals, as they live in such a temperate climate. Brian said the average herd in Tasmania is 330 cows but his is a bit smaller at 220.

He and Bev milk their cows all year round like most Wisconsin farmers. Seventy percent of their cows get pregnant on the first mating.

Brian said they mate their cows to calve in four groups throughout the year so they are raising calves in groups of 25 or so animals.

In their region, calf raising is done in "mobs" where the young animals are put in groups of 10 with automatic feeders. Sometimes mobs can be as large as 40 animals.

The dairy farms in Tasmania compete for labor with a number of other businesses, including local copper and gold mines.

So after a brief window into the dairy farming practices in Tasmania, the two couples jumped back into their rented Mustangs and took off, anxious to get to Chicago before rush hour. But they made new friends halfway around the world in America’s Dairyland.




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