Billy and Rhys Trigg learn the ropes as they care for a day-old calf. (Photo: Morgan Dyer)

How our farmers have been milked dry

Dairy farmers are facing the toughest of times – but some are putting their hopes for survival in innovation, reports Morgan Dyer.

“It would kill Ron if he had to stop tomorrow,” says Heather Trigg of Ron, her husband of 45 years.

The Trigg dairy farm has been running for over a century but this fourth-generation farmer now has his hopes placed on an invention that could help keep the family tradition alive.

Ron is testing an invention to convert the methane gas from cow dung into electricity. The gas is extracted from the cows’ droppings using a methane digester, a machine that separates the gas from the droppings and turns the remaining product into a dry manure. The manure will renew the farm’s lifeless paddocks but also be sold on at a low cost for other farmers.

The electricity produced will potentially power the Triggs entire robotic barn, saving thousands of dollars in electricity bills.

The digester was installed in 2017 but is still in the trial stage.

The invention is a reminder of the harsh reality faced by Australian dairy farmers. More than 1000 dairy farms have ceased operation in the past eight years, as farmers are defeated by the endless challenges facing the industry, including shrinking profit margins on milk and the impact of a record-breaking drought.

Embed from Getty Images

In Bungaree, 100 kilometres west of Melbourne, much of the community congregates on a Sunday to drink at the local pub – sandwiched between cracked, lifeless paddocks. “If you turn left at the footy oval and go up that hill”, says a pub patron, you will find the 1000-acre dairy and the innovative mind of seventy-two-year old Ron, who even on a Sunday is not giving up on his cows, farm or family just yet.

“If you didn’t have the next generation coming on, you wouldn’t do it,” he says as his two grandchildren, Rhys and Billy, trail behind him and disturb the dry ground into the wind as they ride their push bikes to the dairy.

Ron Trigg cows, who’s droppings may help save the century old dairy farm. Picture – Morgan DyerHe says the drought “really put the burden on us … even though we are not classified in the drought area we are paying drought prices. We lost all our feed this year and we are buying it in for over $400 a tonne”.

The quality milk being produced here does not mean quality prices. Milk has been priced at $1 per litre since the supermarket “milk wars” began in 2011 and it was not until last month that all Australian major supermarkets increased their price by 10 cents per litre.

Since 2011, Australians have paid the same price for milk as they paid in 1992.

“You just don’t rely on governments full stop,” Ron says.

“One will come in and assist something or do something, but you can’t let your business rely on that. We’ve been applying for grants for the past four years, but we’ve got nothing. We are primary producers so we’ve had to do it all on our own, you know, but if you keep trying one day you might get it.”

In February, the Victorian Labor government announced it wanted to set a minimum price processors can pay farmers for milk. This was dismissed by many farmers as they feared the idea could become too complex.

“We know what happened in the wool industry with that system,” says Paul van Heerwaarden, CEO of cheese giant Bega, who recalled the 1980 failings of the grain and wool industries when minimum prices were introduced.

The average Australian drinks 102 litres of milk per year. If processors drop the price they pay farmers by even one cent, it can add up to thousands of dollars in profits lost. This is a concern for many, as overseas companies continue to buy Australian milk processing plants. The largest Australian dairy processor, Murray Goulburn, was sold to Canadian company Saputo for $1.3 billion dollars in 2017, and in December 2018, the company paid $220,000 in fines as they admitted to lying about future payments to farmers.

Ron wipes the dust off his sagging jaws with his white towelling hat and explains his daily tasks. The idea of taking a break is foreign to him. He says lack of sleep is “the way of life”.

He is one of thousands of rural men at risk of developing mental illness. According to Beyond Blue, “men in outer regional areas waited longer than they felt acceptable to get an appointment with a GP compared to men in major cities”. Suicide rates for young people living in rural communities are almost double those in urban areas.

Heather Trigg says of her husband: “I do worry about Ron, but I don’t at the same time.”

She fears if Ron had to stop working it would destroy him mentally and physically. “He is so fit for his age that if he stops, he would not move, he’d be full of arthritis, so while he keeps doing what he loves, he’s happy and healthy and so am I”.

The wind has stopped and the autumn sun begins to shade the barn. Rhys and Billy ride home as they debate what time they must catch the school bus in the morning.

But for Ron, five o’clock on a Sunday is like lunch time for the ordinary Monday to Friday worker.

“One day is no different to the other. Christmas Day is the same thing,” he says as he heads into the barn. Soon he will begin the second round of milking for the day.