Putting pain into words

By Simone Dunne

TRAGOWEL DAIRY farmer Catherine Shepard is well aware of the pain the dairy industry is going through — it is what prompted her to put pen to paper and write her poem The Dairy Farmer’s Eyes.

She said it was the mental anguish and suffering she had seen in friends and neighbours and her own husband Mick’s eyes over the past couple of years — and more so in recent months — that provided the inspiration.

“Dairying has been a hard rollercoaster over the last few years and I know life is never cruisey and you have to deal with what is put in front of you, but it has been tough,” Mrs Shepard said.

“Dairy farmers might be resilient but they can only take so much — they are still human.”

The couple purchased Mick’s family farm in 2010, although he had been working on the farm since 1999.

“I was the least likely one to take over the farm,” he said.

“I spent 15 years in Melbourne and there was no way I ever would have thought I would end up with my hand up a cow’s bum, but I just love it and I don’t want to do anything else.”

The Shepard family had been long-term Murray Goulburn suppliers and had to go through all the pain and heartache when the co-op dropped the milk price in 2016.

In 2016–17 they had a fantastic hay season and that is one of the reasons why they will make it through this year — beyond that they are not sure what will happen.

“Twelve months ago we made some pretty hard decisions which included culling our herd numbers from 280 back to 200. We had too many old cows in the herd and we did use some of the money to buy 20 new heifers,” Mrs Shepard said.

The Shepards can now feed the cows they have better, and per cow production is up.

“It did take us years to convince ourselves that milking less cows could actually be better financially. As an industry we have been talked into thinking we need to milk more cows to make more money,” Mrs Shepard said.

They also put their hay block on the market (Mrs Shepard said it would be a miracle if it sold) and made changes within the running of the business’ financial structure.

“We changed a lot of things from the way things were always done and it has been a very positive move for our business,” she said.

Mrs Shepard said initially she would sit down to look at the bills and her husband would disappear for the day because it was too stressful — they now sit down together and discuss their business.

“This farm never really had a budget and even though it was our farm, everyone else was doing the book work for us. Doing it ourselves has made us both much more accountable and aware of our business financially,” she said.

The Shepards acknowledge many farmers don’t deal well with change, but the changes they have made have been positive and will allow them to survive this year.

They have some permanent water and there is always the option to sell a portion of that in the future if they have to.

“I shouldn’t have to sell my assets to survive in this industry,” Mr Shepard said.

“I used to think if I had to sell the family farm I was a failure but I have got over that thinking now — something needs to change in the dairy industry or there will be none of us left.”

The Dairy Farmer’s Eyes

By Catherine Shepard

Here they go again, I hear some of you say,

Whinging and whining about the price of hay.

Complaining about the crops that this year have grown shorter,

The price of that liquid gold, good old fashioned water.

The milk price isn’t high enough to cover the expenses,

Let alone having cash to spend on machinery, pumps and fences.

Do you love the job you work, really love what you do every day?

’Cause I don’t know one single dairy farmer who could simply walk away.

Not everyone could do this as a lifelong career you see,

It’s not just a job; it’s a life, it’s pride, it’s honest, it’s family.

Don’t get me wrong, everyone has a place and important are all our jobs,

Whether it’s retail, factories, businesses, cropping or shearing sheep by the mob.

My heart is sinking though as I look into some dairy farmers’ eyes,

The unanswered questions on the dairy sector including, how, what and why.

How has it got this hard? What can we do to hang in? Why are water prices so damn high?

Dairy farming has changed you see along with water regulations and rules,

Australia is a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains yet sometimes ran by fools.

No disrespect intended but our farmers are tiring and sick of being carrots on a string,

You see you can’t just leave the job; there’s debt and bills and feed costs continually coming in.

If our eyes truly are the windows of the soul, we need to bring back the sparkle,

Our rural communities and future generations are depending on reversing this debacle.

This district that we all live in, was once a dairy hub of our state,

So when you see a dairy farmer, any farmer for that matter, stop and say ‘G’day mate’.

A positive and friendly chat can really change a farmer’s day,

too many are growing sad and it’s affecting so many lives.

I’m asking that you please take the time to see what I’m seeing every day –

take a look into a dairy farmer’s eyes.

• Anyone suffering distress can call Lifeline on 13 11 14