Old, small but back in action after nearly 100 years

By Rick Bayne

PAT RYAN would love $10 for every time he’s been called crazy for renovating an old walk-through dairy on his small farm at Grassmere.

But as the dairy, complete with original bluestone pavers, nears its century, Pat is having the last laugh.

“It suits what we need,” he said.

“It was a pretty cheap option and for what we’re doing it’s fine. We’re making use of the land and creating an income stream.”

Pat and his children Majella and Matt share duties taking care of their 60 cows and 15 horses on 42ha.

Laying claim to be one of the oldest and smallest dairies still in use, it’s just over 12 m long and built in the 1920s. One bluestone paver sets the date at August 15, 1928.

The dairy has four stalls and eight machines, easy enough to get all the cows milked within two hours during peak production.

Majella, a medical scientist, and Matt, a lawyer, bought the farm in December 2012. Pat, who became a widower 11 years ago but came from a dairy background, moved in with them.

They didn’t intend to use it as a dairy but that changed in 2016 when they bred some heifer calves.

“We were going to sell on the export market but the market dried up,” Pat said.

“We had these heifers we couldn’t sell so we thought we’d milk them. The old dairy was here and didn’t need a lot of work to get it back into shape.”

They put in new headstalls, a new roof, new machines and lined the inside, but the woodwork and bluestone floor and yard are original.

All the old milking gear — slide pulsators — had been removed.

As far as Pat is aware, the dairy hadn’t been used since 1972, but the building was solid and they thought it was worth renovating. They spent about $18 000 to $20 000 on the shed, plus machinery.

The equipment fitters were a bit puzzled. “They doubted my sanity,” Pat said.

“I wouldn’t mind $10 for every time I was told I was crazy, and I’ve had a lot worse than that too.”

“One comment was ‘Are you for real?’ but I said it would work and it did.”

Pat, 71, was raised on a dairy farm and had been farming until a tractor accident forced him to other pursuits. He was keen to get involved again.

“I looked forward to it; I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t enjoy it. It gives me a reason to get out of bed in the morning and it pays its way.

“It’s not onerous on any of us. We’re lucky we have off-farm income so we’re not relying on it to survive.”

Majella and Matt live on the farm and help before and after work, but Pat is happy doing his share.

The mostly Jersey herd is ideal for the small farm and old dairy.

“Jerseys are best for their easier carrying capacity,” Pat said.

“They’re not as heavy so there’s less pugging and they’re easier to handle in the dairy. They’re all pets.”

Their lighter weight means less problems on the bluestone dairy floor, which they have no trouble negotiating.

They started with 38 heifers and the next year bought another 11, and then last year got to 60. “Sixty will be about all we can carry,” Pat said.

The cows are producing about 500 kg/MS, ranging 480 to 540, and are close to matching their body weight.

“Like everything else, it’s still a work in process but we’re happy with what they’re producing and it’s profitable enough,” Pat said.

They are milking off about 34 ha with the cows sharing the land with 15 horses, which are being bred for racing.

Pastures are still being developed.

“It’s an ongoing process,” Pat said.

“The whole place needs renovating. We do two summer crops of turnips and oats, a winter crop and then sow it down.”

The farm was originally part of a larger property owned by Jimmy Henderson, who had a major Ayrshire stud. The Ryans keep one Ayrshire as a token to that history.

The dairy is the smallest in the region “by a long shot” and probably one of the oldest still in use anywhere in Australia, but Pat sees no reason why it won’t make its century in 2028.

“We won’t be changing it, except maybe put in a third-line cleaner,” he said. “At the moment we cart in a bucket of water.

“We put a fair bit of thought into it; without the double-up machines it would be difficult but we’re doing what suits us.

“We’re not out to set the world on fire, just to get it to pay its way and keep improving year-on-year. We’re not setting the goals too high.

“It’s a small operation and we have to keep overheads down as far as we can and always remember it’s an old dairy.