BACK in Harry Cleeland’s day, when practically every farmer on Phillip Island had 20 acres and milked 20 cows, there were upwards of 50 dairy farms on the island.
Now there’s just one left.
The last dairy farmers on Phillip Island are the husband and wife team of Adam and Annette Eldridge, milking 160 cows on a picturesque property just off Ventnor Road, five kilometres or so from Cowes.
And last Thursday morning, with a red sun rising, a glimpse of Westernport in the distance, plenty of grass in the paddocks and the cows still producing lots of milk… there was no better place to be.
“What a difference a year makes. We’re probably having our best year since we came here six years ago,” said Adam.
“Last year we virtually had no rain from January to June forcing us to cull heavily.
“We got rid of all the dry cows and others we’d been meaning to move out but fortunately we had plenty of good replacements coming through and this year we’ve probably got more than we need.”
The couple milk a mixed herd of Holstein, Jersey and Jersey-cross cows.
“The smaller-framed cows seem to do better with the shorter seasons, and you don’t have to feed them as much to keep them going.
“The island can dry off very quickly and we usually have to buy plenty of hay in, but we got all the hay and silage we needed this year and the way the season is panning out, we’ve been able to drop back some of the hay we’d usually be putting out by now.”
And at milking time, it’s showing in the vat as well.
“We’d normally be looking at drying them off by now but they’re still milking quite well which is great.”
The Eldridges have a 16-aside swing over herringbone shed with a good feeding system but without automatic cup removers meaning it’s really a two-person job.
Which is just fine for the husband and wife team, both coming from four-generation dairy farming backgrounds.
Annette was a Gray from Glen Alvie and, according, to Adam is better in the shed than he is.
Last Thursday morning they worked together like a well-oiled machine; Annette letting the cows in and then hanging the cups on from the top side while Adam works his way down the other side, spraying the cows’ teats before they exit the shed after milking.
“There’s been no trouble with mastitis this year either. It’s been just about perfect in every way,” said Annette.
Although both have strong dairy farming backgrounds, the thing that really set Adam up for a career in dairy farming was the three-year apprenticeship course McMillan College used to run in Leongatha.
Bill Van Ryswyk was the guru and they had excellent staff and access to expert tuition.
“They taught us everything from AI to welding. It’s a pity they don’t still run it. I think it’s something that’s really lacking.”
Thanks to the training he received, Adam pretty much does it all from devising a breeding plan and doing the AI on all his cows himself, to pasture improvement and farm planning.
And around the kitchen table he gets plenty of expert help from Annette whose
something of a quiet achiever, her only vice being her horses, a passion she shares with daughter Sarah, a year 10 student who helps around the farm.
The Eldridge’s two sons, Brian and Kirk, both motor mechanics, have left home for work.
Prior to coming across to the Island, Adam share-farmed with Gordon Beard, at the prominently located dairy farm on the corner of Bass Highway and Korumburra-Inverloch Road at Inverloch.
But he’s loving being on the island.
“One thing though, it’s hard to get experienced relief milkers.”
That’s one of the downsides of being the only dairy farmer for miles around. Usually you could depend on sons or daughters of neighbouring farmers to lend a hand.
The other issue with isolation is milk pick-ups but Saputo, and Murray Goulburn before them, have guaranteed they’ll always send their truck.
And right now, with the national milk pool dropping from 11 billion litres annually to just eight, milk is at an absolute premium and farmers like Adam and Annette Eldridge are finally operating in the black.
Adam’s just ordered a load of urea and if he can get another couple of inches of rain over the next month, they’ll sail right through into autumn without a care in the world.
They might be the last dairy farmers on Phillip Island at the moment but who knows, if dairy farmers finally start to get paid what the job’s really worth, the idea could catch on again.
What would Cowes be like without cows?