There are not too many people who would have a stronger association with the Illawarra breed than the English family from Malanda, on the Atherton Tablelands in Queensland.
Greg, wife Bronwyn and their seven children have more than 100 years of Illawarra genetics proudly flowing through their veins and now five generations of dairying under their belt.
The English family originally started farming at Kiama, the birthplace of the Illawarra breed, but Greg’s great-grandfather James English was looking for better opportunities for his family and decided to try his luck in the previously unsettled area of Malanda.
“James came up to Queensland when this area was thrown open for selection in 1908,” Greg said.
“The six cows and six heifers were boated up to Cairns after they were walked through the centre of Brisbane to get on the boat. They then walked from Cairns to Atherton and were the first cows introduced into the area.”
Greg said it would have been a tough time for his great-grandfather as everyone, including the cows, adjusted to life in tropical Queensland, the different weather conditions, ticks and whatever else the new area threw at them.
In 1922, Greg’s grandfather J.K. English took over the herd and property, naming it Eacham Vale — a name that a century later is synonymous with quality cows in the Illawarra show ring.
“We have such a proud family history and the Illawarra breed has gone on to do very well for us,” Greg said.
Showing Eacham Vale cows in the show ring is a very important part of the day-to-day life of the English family.
Last year they made the decision to travel 1700km to show six Illawarras at the Royal Queensland Show in Brisbane, a two-day drive just to get the cows there, let alone settled in and prepared.
However, the trip for Greg and three of his children — Rachel, Jerry and Patrick — and friend Angus Bewick was far from wasted, when four-year-old Eacham Vale Precious 7 was crowned Champion Illawarra and Supreme Champion of Show, while Eacham Vale Erin 4 was named Supreme Champion Intermediate.
Precious’ win was the first time a breed other than Holstein or Jersey had won the award in a decade and she was the first Illawarra to win Supreme Champion at Brisbane in 29 years.
“It was a bloody marvellous win because it took so much dedication to take a team of animals that far,” Greg said.
“The cows did travel well but it took around-the-clock care. We were away from the farm for two weeks and Bronwyn, Catherine, Hannah, Mary and Frances took care of things at home.”
Greg was also this year’s Illawarra judge at International Dairy Week at Tatura, a role he was honoured to fulfil.
The 180-cow Eacham Vale herd is farmed on a milking platform of 72ha, while heifers, calves and dry cows are kept on about 90ha of out-blocks.
The herd is grazed year-round on pastures of tropical grasses that grow like crazy over summer and autumn and slow down over the winter months.
Spring is the driest period.
“We don’t have any irrigation but we do receive massive amounts of rain over summer; sometimes it would be nice if it was a bit more balanced out over the year,” Greg said.
“We slash or top the paddocks to help with management because the grasses can grow fairly quickly over summer.”
The family doesn't conserve hay or silage and the milking herd is supplemented with heavy grain feeding in the dairy and cottonseed in spring. There are no plans to further increase herd numbers at this stage.
“The home farm is well stocked and I would prefer to milk a few less cows, feed them better and get better production than half-feeding a heap of cows which can then lead into a heap of other issues including reproduction issues,” Greg said.
He said the Illawarra breed was hardy and well-suited to the region.
“We do have an element of Red Holstein in our genetics.
“This has improved production and udder quality of our cows while retaining the low-maintenance traits of the Illawarra breed — they calve easy, have great fertility and good feet, which is very important for us: all our laneways are cement so the cows must have good feet.”
While conditions can be tough, the Illawarra genetics in the herd have had more than 100 years to acclimatise.
“A cow with no exposure to ticks can die within in a day in extreme cases and any introduced to the region from out of the area must be vaccinated,” Greg said.
The relative isolation of the area can also make things difficult.
“Everything needs to be freighted which adds a cost to whatever we do, and we don’t have any competition when it comes to processors either.
“We supply Lion Dairy Drinks Group (they have only ever had one processor) and with the sale going through who knows where our milk will end up.”
Greg said prior to deregulation there were about 200 dairy farms in the area; now there are less than 50.
“Dollar-a-litre milk has really hurt us and the entire Queensland Dairy industry and it is horrific how many farmers have exited the industry.
“I know I sound like a broken record but the Australian supermarket industry has a lot to answer for, expecting Australian farmers to produce top quality food for nothing.
“I hope COVID-19 makes consumers realise the importance of the quality of food we produce here in Australia, not something imported and grown in a Third World sewer.”