Agriculture has always been a part of my life, however, for many years only in the distant background, with weekends away on relatives’ farms, the local show or chats with my pop who was a pioneer in the dairy industry.
It was at these times that I fell in love with the agriculture, but I just hadn’t realised it until I got my first job working on a local dairy farm. This cemented my passion. Approaching the end of high school and wondering where to next, someone mentioned Tocal Agricultural College, and that’s where my career in the agricultural field would begin. In 2015, my second year at Tocal, a lecturer pulled me aside and suggested I apply for the BBM Youth Support Award to travel to the UK. I gave it a long hard think, but my heart was set on attending University, and I felt if I didn’t that year I never would, so that ended the idea of applying. In 2017, I was half way through my Bachelor of Agricultural Business Management at Charles Sturt University, when I saw BBM had opened up their award criteria to ‘recent graduates’ of Tocal. I applied thinking in the back of my mind that I didn’t really stand a chance but if I didn’t give it a go then it was an opportunity I may never get again.
12 countries and 1000s of cows
I was awarded the BBM Youth Support Award for Agriculture, and it only got better from there, a trip that covered 12 countries, lasted 6 months, 6 dairies, 1 genetics stud, 1 gelato bar and 1000s of cows, what more could you ask for. The itinerary I set out before heading away got changed a lot before leaving which made it hard to get on the plane and across the other side of the world where I didn’t know a soul in a country I was living in for six months; but over time it all came together. A lot of that is due to the first farm I stayed at, Barhouse Farm Gloucester, run by the Hobbs family who were tremendously supportive and helpful.
Dairy number one, Barhouse Farm
This free-range dairy, run on the Elmore Estate by Jerry and Jenni Hobbs along with their three children all around my age, used to be a Brown Swiss stud with the few black and whites. In the last few years, however, they have moved from pedigree animals to cross breeding to utilise the ideals of each breed and create a cow that is suited to their farm. The herd consists of Brown Swiss, Holsteins both pure or crossed with British Friesian, Norwegian Reds and Fleckvieh.
The conversations had at dinner time about the cows and reasons behind their farming practices were extremely insightful, which made me think that was the idea of this trip: to learn first-hand experience off farmers, what makes each enterprise work or the issues they face. While staying at Barhouse I first heard about the devastation on Bovine Tuberculosis (TB) and every farm I went to after that have their own story and opinion on the disaster.
Over the next six months I went back and forward from Barhouse, using it as a base and home, as they became more like family. When I first arrived they were in the process of placing a grant to build a gelato bar on the farm as a value add to their milk. As a consequence, in my last week in England I was serving gelato to the public from the farm gate. It wasn’t just a big six months for me but also the Hobbs.
Dairy number two, Soulseat Brown Swiss
This dairy is owned by the McColm Family in Stranraer, Scotland. In the short time I got to spend at this 100-head farm I learnt a great deal, and also got to experience my first ‘young farmers’ rally. It was a day full of competitions and socialising for young farmers from right across Scotland. Back at the farm, I gained so much from my time at Soulseat, doing many jobs from milking to tractor driving and late-night calving watch.
Again, talking to Rob and Sheila was so educational, on their farming system and also the future of family farms. The biggest lesson I take away from this time was ‘work out where you are heading in the future and then adapt your farming enterprise and practices to it’.
Dairy number three & four, Northern Ireland.
Before leaving Australia, I made contact with relatives of family who own a farm in Omagh, the middle of Northern Ireland. Across the family there are two farms. I stayed with the Alexanders who have a dairy and pig unit. This was an eye opener and another way farmers are creating other enterprises to value add their land and time, diversifying to supply ready available markets.
While I was there, I also went and spent a few days with the Fyffe family. This was extremely valuable as Robert was just a walking library on dairy farming knowledge. During my time there I milked for David and Robert as well as going to Hillsborough research farm where AFBI (Agri-Food and Bioscience Institute) put on a dairy open day to showcase the latest research and innovations affecting the Northern Ireland dairy industry, which was a great way to see the country’s dairy production as a whole, see their strengths and also areas the industry together need to work on. That included the outbreaks of TB and also the effects of carbon dioxide emissions. Robert also organised a private walk-through tour of Dale Farm’s cheese production plant. Dale Farm is one of the leading dairy production manufacturers in Northern Ireland, with this plant producing cheddar cheese as well as whey in the form of skim and high protein powders.
The cheese plant is set to turn out an average of 50,000 tonne of cheddar a year, selling into local and export markets. Walking through the plant, we got to go through the steps of production, from the milk filling vats to packaging and labelling of the finished item. It was very interesting to see this side of the dairy industry. Processing is a massive sector as they do a lot of the value adding to the liquid milk farmers work hard to produce.
Dairy number five, Swaites Ayrshires
Dairy number five, Swaites Ayrshires is located in Lanarkshire Scotland. John along with his parents, wife and two young sons are running a 220 head Ayrshire heard as well as 450 ewes. After turning to sexed semen, John has been able to both increase the herd size and sell females at a good price as his blood lines are exceptional.
My main reason for visiting Swaites was to attend The Royal Highland Show (RHS) in Edinburgh with the family. While on the farm we did the final preparations for the show team which included a cow, heifer and two calves.
The four days at the show were amazing, the results might not have gone our way at the start, but I made some great friends, had experiences of a lifetime, worked as part of a team and, most of all, saw the dedication that handlers have for their animals. After what seemed like a few days that couldn’t be topped, Jay came into the show to lead in the young handlers and calf show, taking out champion calf – what a way for the team to finish!
If I ever get the opportunity to come back to the RHS in years to come, I’ll be on the first plane! And I suggest to all future awardees to make the effort and go, you won’t be disappointed.
Dairy number six, Foote Family Farm in Hampshire
This is the dairy where I spent the most time working as a farm hand. The Foote family has a intensive farm, milking 220 cows year-round with the milking cows split into two groups, fresh/high yielders and low yielders. Along with the cow cubicles there is also a heifer unit next to the calf pens which is a progressive unit where calves are first grouped and then move through stages till around four months pregnant where they can then join the far-off dry cows.
Everything on the Foote’s farm runs like clockwork, the day starts at 4.30am cows start milking, yards scraped, beds raked, waters checked then it’s time to do it all over again with the low yielders. At the end of milking, the external yards are scraped, feed is put out, calves are fed, remaining waters done, heifers fed and finally breakfast. There is a repeat of this at 4pm except for the external yards and the heifer units.
The sons Sam and Ben are very focused on animal welfare and production being a big link therefore the cows are treated with low stress. A lot of the animal husbandry is done on farm by the boys including foot trimming, A.I, heat detection, taking blood, displaced abomasum, vet checks & pregnancy testing. So much to see and learn! The idea of a dairy farm doesn’t change much around the world: You feed and look after cows for them to produce quality milk. However, it’s the way this care is done which changes and it’s been amazing to see the different ways animal husbandry is carried out, learning practices which could be beneficial for an Australian farm at some stage.
UK Sires Services Venton Stud
In addition to the dairy farms I also had a week’s work experience at a genetics stud. UK Sires Services Venton Stud is located in Devon and is where semen is collected from bulls and processed into hundreds of straws for farmers to use in their herds. The main breeds of bull I saw while on the stud included Belgium Blues, Simmental, Hereford and British Friesian. While staying at UK Sires I was placed with Kev the head stock person, I learnt about the licence application process and the accurate testing system that has to be adhered to in order for semen collection from the bulls to take place. I observed sample collection from the bulls, watched and participated in the semen processing from the fundamental concentration and motility assessment, through to the packaging and procedure all the way to the post thaw analysis. A massive thanks to Rob Wills, Kev & Karen and the rest of the UK sires team for allowing me the four days at the stud and store to experience this side of the industry and an insight into the process of genetics. I definitely won’t forget the adrenaline rush of working alongside these 1 tonne beasts anytime soon.
Also, during my time in the UK I got to attend the annual Ayrshire Open Day held at East Church Ayrshires, Blannicombe Farm. The day starting like many others have while I’ve been in England, cold and raining but thankfully the sun made an appearance as breed manager Duncan Hunter welcomed us all. The rest of the day was filled with a lot of talking and seeing some truly amazing cows, in the herd and for sale. There were several small talks from sponsors which were so informative and knowledgeable, including UK Sires, Dairy Excellence, Mole Valley Farmers, St Boniface Farm Vets and Bovela which is a live vaccine for BVD.
UK Dairy Day
Towards the end of my six-month adventure I attended the 5th annual UK Dairy Day, this was the plan all along to wrap up my time in the UK. Dairy Day was such a jam packed day of everything cows, from scrapers to A.I straws to ear tags and drenches. The show featured different areas with trade stands, seminars, specialist zones for areas of the industry, but the best part by far was what was happening in the ring, the cattle show. The number of elite cows entered into the show across the range of breeds was amazing and an eye opener. Breeds for the day included Holsteins, Red & Whites Ayrshires, Jerseys, Brown Swiss, Shorthorns and Guernsey. Apart from the cows it was also great to catch up with the many people I’ve met along my travels as a fair few of them were at the show, either parading cows, on a stand or just there for a day out. I hope in the years ahead I might one year get back to Dairy Day and, who knows, I might even be working for someone there or showing cows, the future is unknown!
My trail of learning
While on this trail of learning and experience of the dairy industry I also got to spend a lot of time travelling other parts of the world. I spend a week on a tour travelling around Scotland, which involved castles, views, long white beaches and scotch. At the end of my travels I toured around Ireland, Italy, Switzerland, France, Andorra, Spain, Czech Republic, Germany and the Netherlands. Although I was only visiting these countries recreationally, there was plenty to see about the agricultural aspects in each country.
Concluding my travels around the United Kingdom and Europe the major issues I faced included the idea of jumping on a train, travelling two hours out of London, to a smaller town where a random lady would pick me up and take me out of town to their farm. I faced this situation multiple times along my trip but never felt like I was in an uncomfortable position or unsafe.
Australia on my mind
Another personal issue I struggled with was knowing back home in Australia we were facing a record-breaking drought, and although even if I was home there wasn’t a lot I could do I still had a slight feeling of guilt present. This turned out to be a positive though as it allowed me to open up to my host families and with them compare the issues farmers have to deal with and how they are overcome. One thing that Australia seems to have over the UK is our ability to use social media to spread the word and connect the city to the country, for example the ‘thank a farmer’ initiative.
I would not have been able to get as much out of this experience without the knowledge I gained from Tocal Agricultural College. Completing my certificate three, four and diploma gave me an understanding and appreciation for farming and life surrounding the industry. The support and guidance from my lecturers and mentors made my time all that much easier. Once again, I would like to acknowledge and thank BBM Youth Support for the award that gave me this opportunity and also the extraordinary people I’ve met along the way, from the application process, the trip itself and also my fellow awardees.
Cheers and thank you!
Alice O’RourkeUpdate Your Details