EVAP­O­RATED MILK

How dairy farm­ers are walk­ing away from a fam­ily tra­di­tion

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - - NEWS - JACK MORPHET

THE drought is more dev­as­tat­ing to the dairy in­dus­try than dol­lar-a-litre milk, with one farm in NSW clos­ing every week.

Last fi­nan­cial year 51 dairy farms closed across the state, ac­cord­ing to Dairy Aus­tralia fig­ures to be re­leased next month.

Dairies in NSW are go­ing bust at the fastest rate in more than a decade be­cause farm­ers without wa­ter can’t grow pas­ture to feed their herds, forc­ing them to buy hay and grain at prices wildly in­flated by the drought.

Far­m­gate prices for milk have ac­tu­ally in­creased by about 10 per cent this year but live­stock feed costs have jumped be­tween 80 and 100 per cent since 2017.

The monthly milk cheque is not cov­er­ing costs to keep dairies afloat.

For farm­ers who sur­vived the ma­jor su­per­mar­kets’ dol­lar-a-litre milk cam­paigns — sell­ing home­brand milk for less than pro­duc­tion costs to get shop­pers through the door — and dereg­u­la­tion 20 years ago, the drought is the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Ads from auc­tion­eers spruik­ing fire­sales are be­ing emailed out every week, an­nounc­ing another farmer who needs to sell their en­tire milk­ing herd and ma­chin­ery into a sat­u­rated mar­ket.

After a life­time milk­ing cows in the state’s south­west, dairy farmer Neil Camp­bell, 64, from Blighty, will walk off the land as soon as he can. The sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion farmer, who bought the farm from his fa­ther in 1982, doesn’t know what he will do for a job once he sells all 530 Jersey and Friesian cows and two blocks of land.

“If I sell ab­so­lutely ev­ery­thing, which will be a chal­lenge, I’ll walk away debt­free,” Mr Camp­bell said.

“After work­ing 84 hours a week all my life I was plan­ning on re­tir­ing in a few year’s time but there’ll be noth­ing left to re­tire on.”

For the past two years, Mr Camp­bell has not been al­lowed to ac­cess wa­ter he al­ready paid for to ir­ri­gate his crops. For most farm­ers in the re­gion, pur­chas­ing ad­di­tional wa­ter on the open mar­ket is un­af­ford­able. He spent $460,000 on live­stock feed in the first six months of this year, which he would nor­mally grow him­self.

Since July last year, more than three tril­lion litres of wa­ter has washed past Mr Camp­bell’s farm, down­stream to South Aus­tralia and out to the South­ern Ocean as part of the Mur­ray-Darling Basin Plan’s guar­an­tees for en­vi­ron­men­tal flows and South Aus­tralian farm­ers.

Even while NSW rivers and dams are run­ning dry, wa­ter from the dwin­dling Hume and Dart­mouth dams near Mr Camp­bell’s prop­erty is cur­rently be­ing al­lowed to flow south for the ben­e­fit of South Aus­tralia.

Mr Camp­bell’s neigh­bour, Andy Lostroh, sold his en­tire herd of 260 prized milk­ing cows six weeks ago. The Lostroh fam­ily had been milk­ing cows for 110 years.

“Sell­ing up has been the hard­est thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Mr Lostroh said.

“But when you’re mak­ing big losses, year after year, you have to bite the bul­let.

“I don’t have plans for the farm but do­ing noth­ing is bet­ter than milk­ing cows, be­cause we’re not los­ing money every day.”

After a life­time as a dairy farmer, the 54-year-old has landed a job as a teacher’s aide next term.

NSW Farm­ers lob­by­ists ex­pect milk will be trucked in from Vic­to­ria, which is a larger milk-pro­duc­ing state where many ar­eas have had good rain, to make up the short­fall from lo­cal farm­ers ex­it­ing the in­dus­try. Su­per­mar­kets will in­crease the price of milk but it won’t be enough to ac­count for the huge hike in costs crip­pling farm­ers, ac­cord­ing to Dairy Aus­tralia se­nior an­a­lyst John Drop­pert.

“It’s hard to over­state the im­pact of the drought,” he said. “Farm­ers are ex­it­ing the in­dus­try, pro­ces­sors and su­per­mar­kets will take a hit, but even­tu­ally we’ll see a price in­crease.

“Wa­ter, hay and grain prices have dou­bled but milk prices won’t dou­ble, so ev­ery­one’s go­ing to

take a hair­cut.”

Pic­ture: Dan­nika Bonser

Farmer Andy Lostroh, with daugh­ter Jemma, wife Cathy and daugh­ter So­phie, has been forced to sell his prized herd of milk­ing cows.

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