Herding in the right direction

hales family in paaddockA couple of years ago the Haleses realised their farm was broken. The cows were getting sick but the vet couldn’t tell them why. Their neighbours were increasingly using antibiotics and artificial fertilisers but not seeing improvement in the pastures or animals.

Paul and Carolyn Hales, and son Daniel, milk 160 cows in Victoria’s South Gippsland region. Daniel returned to the farm two years ago, about the same time the family decided to apply for certification with Australian Certified Organic.

He says, “Organic is a different avenue. If you have a problem with sick cows in a conventional farming system, you drench them or give them antibiotics. The vets never tell you what causes it or why the cows have worms in the first place.

“Under organic you focus on improving the health of the soil, which means healthy pastures and healthier cows. I don’t know what the conventional farmers are going to do when the antibiotics stop working.”

The 214-hectare farm is in stunning country – green hills wherever you look. If there’s money in mud, there should be plenty of wealth in this area but with farms getting bigger to compensate for low milk prices, there are not many people on the ground to show for it. The region doesn’t have the local sporting clubs it once had; there just aren’t enough people. “We’ve only got a cricket club now. We’ve lost the netball club, so there’s nothing for the women,” says Paul. As fifth generation farmers, with young children running around, they appreciate that once they’re fully certified organic farmers they’ll receive fairer milk prices, which will help keep their kids on the land.

The Haleses will achieve full certification in a year’s time. Meanwhile, they undergo inspections each year to make sure they’re complying with the Australian Certified Organic Standard.

Dairying – not so black and white

Sometimes sacrifices have to be made when farmers switch to certified organic farming.

Breeds that worked under a conventional system won’t necessarily stand up under organic management, which, without synthetic drugs and pesticides, needs plants and animals to hold their own. Part of the transition to certified organic for the Haleses is building a resilient herd, so they’re phasing out the Holstein breed (the traditional, leggy, black-and-white cattle) and replacing them with Ayrshires and Jerseys – smaller, stronger, more fertile breeds that produce a higher-quality milk and eat half the grass of a Holstein. So, to be blunt, they’re more economical.

Daniel says, “Holsteins tend to be high maintenance. They’re bred to produce a lot of milk but they’re a big engine to feed and they get sick more easily. They also don’t have very high fat and protein components in their milk, which is what we get paid for.”

Conventional dairy cows are commonly given antibiotics each year when they’re ‘dried off’, or stop lactating, to reduce mastitis. Calves are also prone to diarrhoea, which can be fatal, and again it’s treated with antibiotics.

Like most organic dairy farmers we talk to, the Haleses say because they’re breeding from stronger cattle, improving the health of their soils and therefore plants, their cattle aren’t prone to sickness. They also offer the animals mineral supplements to maintain health. 

What will the neighbours think?

gate signThe Haleses believe it’s not easy to change farming practices after you’ve been farming one way your whole life. Daniel says, “A lot of people are interested in what we’re doing but then they drift off and do what they do, because that’s what they do. You try to tell someone who has been farming for 30 to 40 years to change everything they’re doing. Why would they? If cows or calves get sick, they’ll go to the latest new drug to fix it.”

Some neighbours are impressed and tell them they’re ‘going the smart way and that it’s the way most people need to go’. Another commented on the condition of one of their back paddocks, saying it’s the best-looking paddock in the district.

Paul says, “The first step to going organic is to take that first step. Once you do that, it’s easier.

“I think organic farming is easier than conventional farming but you have to have the mindset to change. A guy down the road has gone biodynamic but is still putting on some conventional fertilisers. They did it because they noticed they were spending more money each year on fertilisers to produce less grass. He’s changed his whole farming method and I thought they’d be the last ones to change.”

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If you’re interested in becoming certified organic go to aco.net.au, call 07 3350 5716 or email info@aco.net.au.