After school, and three great lessons, I was invited to join Sandie, another science teacher at BSC, to her family’s dairy farm just north of Lindenow, in an area by the name of Wuk Wuk. I know what you’re thinking- Kyle at a dairy farm, what the hell is he doing there? This was an experience that I will never forget and was so rewarding (I would recommend anyone to take part in it at least once in their life). I had never been to a dairy farm, let alone take part in a few of the jobs associated with this mega-Australian industry, so it was hard to imagine what to expect
The Australian dairy industry has a gross value of $4 billion, Australia’s third largest rural industry, behind wheat and beef. Fifty percent of the dairy is exported, ranking Australia the world’s third largest dairy exporter. Victoria, specifically Gippsland, has the highest concentration of dairy farms in the country, and I was lucky enough to see one today!
Sandie picked me up after my last class from school to take me to see another part of Australia’s rural industrial culture. I am not much of a farm person, mostly because I didn’t grow up on one and never felt inclined to take a closer look at one. The only time I’ve ever spent on a farm has been at my Aunt Donna and Uncle Frank’s farm in Pennsylvania on a few Thanksgivings as a young kid. I really had no idea what to expect...
Australia is one of those places where you drive around with your jaw in your lap and your eyes are fixated on the next bend in the road, preparing for the view to come. You could drive around, especially in East Gippsland, and anticipate beautiful views around the next bend, only to find more stunning scenery around each gum tree laden bend in the road. Sandie drove me from Bairnsdale toward Lindenow, driving up and down hills, each one having a characteristic view of the Mitchell River valley, full of lush vegetation and farm industry.
After a short drive west, we arrived at the 80-acre farm where the family dairy farm is situated, perched atop of a hill, overlooking the Mitchell River and the valley, with the Great Dividing Range in the distance to the West. I arrived unprepared, of course, without gumboots, and in shorts. It had rained for much of the day, until we arrived at the farm when it cleared and the sun started to peer out from the grey clouds. Thankfully, Sandie's son had a pair of twelve’s that I could fit into so I didn’t have to ruin my runners. The gumboots would come in handy!
After parking the car at the house and exchanging footwear, we headed to the milking shed, a short walk back up the dirt road, passing day to week old calves and what seemed to be the maternity ward of the farm, with heifers and cows about to burst with new life. We arrived at the milking shed to find Sandie's son and another bloke working on opposite ends of the rotary milking apparatus. Luckily, I arrived at the beginning of the process. The rotary had 60 stalls, each one was temporary home for the cows as they were milked and given a chance to feed on the crushed grain in the trough facing the center of the great rotor.
The cows lined up on one side, pushing each other, anxious to be milked and have a feed. I was surprised that they didn’t have to be enticed to enter the stalls. Once each cow entered, Sandie's son cleaned the teats and attached a teatcup, part of the milking unit, to each. The teatcups have a constant vacuum pressure, allowing the cows to be milked quickly and efficiently. The vacuum also keeps the apparatus attached to each cow until all the milk is removed, when the teatcups detach to prevent the delicate teat tissue from chaffing. The cows are milked as they rotate around the circle, until they exit, just prior to making a full pass, near the entrance.
From the teatcups, the milk entered into a few stainless steel pipes where it was collected with the rest of the milk from the other cows and transferred through a heat exchanger, where it cooled before being stored in a refrigerated holding tank. The holding tank at Sandie's farm holds 18,500 liters of milk.
Lucky for me, Sandie and her son made sure I had the experience attaching the teatcups to a few of the cows. Fortunately, with each cow’s excrement exits just over my head, none of them shit on me! If I had a list of things to do before my life retired, “milking a cow” may have not been at the top of the list, but I’m happy to be able to check that one off anyways!
A few of the cows seemed to be infected with mastitis, a bacterial infection associated with dairy cattle. Sandie showed me the difference between milk from a healthy cow and milk from a cow with this udder tissue infection. The milk from the infected cows was not as opaque, more watery, and saturated with clots throughout the liquid. The cows were marked with paint to indicate the infection was found, and were milked into a separate container to be discarded. Sandie's son treated these cows with an antibiotic, and indicated to me that the milk would not be viable for sale until the drug residues had cleared from the cow’s system.
After helping corral the finished cattle toward the pastures of the farm, Sandie and I started closing off the gates to the entrance ramp, pushing the stragglers toward the entrance to the rotary. A few of the cows were curious of me and seemed to be somewhat skittish. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned about getting kicked. I wasn’t, but it wouldn’t have taken much for a few of them to take a cheap shot.
Next, with some fresh warm milk that had been set aside, Sandie took me to feed the calves. They seemed to be even more curious and were anxious to feed. We poured the milk into containers with malleable plastic teats on the sides, allowing each calf to have an equal amount to feed on. What a great experience! Once they warmed up to me, they had no issues with my petting them and a few of them even tried to suckle on my fingers. If I needed to teach them to suckle, I may have needed my fingers, but I think they were just hungry!
As the time on the farm came to an end, the sun started to set in the west over the Great Dividing Range in the distance, changing the sky to a bright pink and orange color. I’ve seen some amazing sunsets since I’ve been here, but nothing like the one I saw in Wak Wak. I really didn’t want to leave!
After helping with some of the clean up work, I headed to the house to wipe the manure and other cow juices from my hands (surprisingly, I didn’t get a whole lot of milk on me, just poop) and took one last look at the setting sun and the view of the valley before heading back to Bairnsdale. I would never want to own a dairy farm, let alone work at one for more than a few hours at a time, but the sunset could easily be an incentive to come out for the evening to help with a few chores.
With a fresh sample from the holding tank, Sandie and I left, driving up to the end of the property line, where we crossed the Wuk Wuk Bridge, traversing the Mitchell River, and found our way through Lindenow on the way back home. According to Sandie, the bridge used to be covered in boards and was very raggedy before being renovated. The bumper sticker on the back of her car (a few years old) said, “Wuk Wuk Bridge is Wuked,” further explaining the need to construct a new bridge only a few years back.
When I drink milk from now on, I will remember today, having gained so much more respect for the dairy industry and the people who put in the timeless hours to get the job done.
Sandie's enthusiasm about her farm and her willingness to go out of her way to share a different part of rural, East Gippsland culture, reaffirmed my notions about the nature of Australians- they are very proud of their possessions and the land they live on. It is one thing to be patriotic, like many people are at home, or at least portray to be, and another to feel so strongly about your culture, that you feel so inclined to share everything you have and know if someone from the outside (an argument well developed from my experiences here, maybe for another time). I thank Sandie for this great opportunity and for sharing part of her Australia with me!
Tomorrow is ANZAC Day and another opportunity to dive deeper into Australian culture; I can’t wait!