Fighting the winds of change to protect farm land

By Dairy News

WIEBKE AND Jakob Franzenburg settled in south-west Victoria because they thought it was the best dairy farming land in Australia.

Now they’re willing to fight to protect that land from a proposed neighbouring wind farm.

Wiebke and Jakob moved from Germany in 2003, purchasing Ballangeich Run from Kerry Packer.

The Ballangeich Pastoral Run was established in 1841 and remains one of the district’s premier farms, regularly winning milk-quality awards and milking 1500 cows on 1060 hectares.

The couple farmed in West Germany until 1995 before moving to the eastern side of the country, increasing from 70 to 350 cows.

They wanted to expand and be free of the restrictions and subsidies that come with farming in Europe.

Jakob’s dream was to milk 1000 cows. Wiebke researched Argentina, New Zealand and other parts of Australia and found south-west Victoria would be the best place to achieve that dream.

“This was the first farm I looked at and I knew it would be the one,” she said.

They took over on February 16, 2003, adjusting to the different climate and soils and building on the 900-strong Friesian herd.

“We did a lot of research to find this place,” Wiebke said.

“It was about the soils, not being too hilly, the climate, what you can grow, the location and access to plenty of processors. It was ideal and we love the farm. We have never complained; it just works so well.”

They invested strongly to develop the farm, with a new dairy built six years ago, new fences, new drains, calving shed, two big silage pits and accommodation for staff.

The seasons continue to be kind — especially in comparison to other dairy regions — but like other areas the biggest problem is attracting and retaining skilled employees.

“We need skilled workers,” Wiebke said.

“We’re producing food; it has to be clean and 100 per cent without any contamination.

“It’s a very responsible job.”

The farm has 15 employees.

The Franzenburgs say teamwork and cow health and happiness are the keys to their success. The farm produces more than 12.5 million litres a year, averaging more than 9000 litres per cow.

The cell count averages under 60 000; at the moment it’s about 30 000, and mastitis is virtually non-existent.

“We farm a bit different to most Australian dairy farms,” Wiebke said.

“We don’t use hormones and we try not to use chemicals.

“For example, we don’t treat mastitis with antibiotics, but with probiotics and we have been part of research trials with probiotic bacteria for six years.”

Their cows calve year-round, with a full-time calf rearer.

“We don’t synchronise them, if they are ready to go on heat then we inseminate them. We don’t use a lot of replacement heifers because our cows live very long lives.”

They don’t inseminate heifers, instead using Wagyu bulls for natural mating.

“We don’t need to inseminate them. We almost never have to assist a heifer to give birth to their first calf, which is the best start in life for a dairy cow, then we use proper transition feeding.”

All calving is in a shed with dry straw.

Yelling or whistling near cows, hitting or spraying them with water is forbidden.

Dogs are banned from the dairy.

The farm rarely needs a vet thanks to the well-trained team maintaining strict health and cleanliness controls.

“We’re milking 1200 at the moment and there are just two with mastitis,” Wiebke said.

The farming team knows how sensitive cows are and makes sure they have a content herd to produce good-quality milk.

“It starts with how you approach your cows,” Wiebke said.

“They have to be happy otherwise they are not producing milk profitably. We love our cows.”

This is why they say the Hexham Wind Farm proposal could ruin a happy and successful environment.

Wiebke is marshalling local opposition to the plan, with more than 30 landholders joining the Hexham Community Environmental Action Group, which has engaged a Melbourne environmental law lawyer to guide their response.

Although still in the feasibility stage, Wind Prospect wants to erect up to 125 wind turbines up to 250 metres high in an area bordered by Ellerslie, Hexham and Caramut.

The Franzenburgs are not against wind farms.

“We do not object to renewable energy; we are big wind farm fans, as long as they make sense,” Wiebke said.

The proposed wind farm would surround their main dairy block and Wiebke says this presents many threats to their cows while removing top-quality agricultural land.

“Wind towers need foundations, access roads, concrete spaces beside turbines for cranes; they will seal hundreds of hectares of top agricultural land,” she said.

“At the moment with fires and drought, they want to put things up like this in the food bowl of Australia!”

The farm has a groundwater licence to fill a huge dam and use pivot irrigation.

“Nobody knows what would happen to the water flow and water levels; there could also be problems from leaking currents and noise issues for animals,” Wiebke said.

“Studies in Germany show the impact of infrasound on animals; it affects their inner-ear, they get aggressive, stop drinking, stop mating. For me, that’s enough to say it could happen to my cows.”

She also fears the impact of shadow flickering from the rotating turbines.

The proposal places turbines just metres from their fence, though the Franzenburgs hope to counteract that by subdividing and placing a house on the corner of their land, taking advantage of rules keeping turbines away from residences.

“We have 15 people working on that block and it is the main area for the cows,” she said.

“It could really impact the wellbeing of our employees and the cows’ fertility; cows are so sensitive to all sorts of noise, visuals and currents.

“They might say there’s no problem, but did we know anything about asbestos 100 years ago?”

The turbines have a lifespan of 25 years.

“Then what happens — there will be a safety risk as they get old. What about the next generation?”