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Appreciating the “finer arts” of dairying through seeing red

The first thing you notice at Graeme and Michele Hamilton’s dairy farm near Mount Gambier are the red cows.

As the national Chairman of the Australian Red Dairy Breed (ARDB) that’s to be expected, but there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes.

Graeme talks about his desire to share the “finer arts” of dairying with young farmers and his pride in farming constantly shines through.

“This is a trade in itself; it’s a profession,” he says. “The amount of money even a modest farm turns over can compare well to prominent shops in the main street.”

And, he’s hopeful the Legendairy communications initiative to raise the profile and reputation of the industry will help to better educate the community about dairy farms and the multi-faceted nature of the work.

Given half a chance, Graeme is more than happy to explain dairying to people.

In fact, the Hamilton’s recently hosted some international pharmacists at their, aptly named farm; Hamilton’s Run.

“I told them about the grass, nutrition, feeding calves, the way the rumen works, fertiliser and water use. Eventually, Michele kindly patted me on the knee and said ‘that’s enough’. Their heads were spinning a bit.”

Graeme was raised on the dairy farm at O.B. Flat, south of Mount Gambier, and apart from a few years training as a fitter and turner has always been a farmer.

“I love being able to take the time, especially on some mornings, to look around and take in the nature,” he reflects. “It might be the trees, the sunrise, the fog or a splash of colour. It’s pretty amazing, and you need to appreciate the animals and the way they return the care to you.”

Graeme’s parents started breeding red cows in 1964, long before the ARDB was formed, and he’s still passionate about breeding and improving the farm’s Aussie Reds.

Hamilton’s Run has a 140 hectare milking area bolstered by run-off paddocks for rearing heifers and producing forage. The Murray Goulburn suppliers rear about 180 calves each year and hope to continue expanding. “Numbers have been building and there’s potential there for more growth,” Graeme said.

The farm is self-sufficient for growing forage, mostly based on annual ryegrasses and forage cereals and, like most farms in the region, irrigation is essential.

Dairy is a big industry in south east South Australia, even though the number of farms has decreased. “Today there are only about 90-100 suppliers but probably as many cows being milked here as ever,” Graeme said.

At 58, Graeme has seen more than herd size change over his time in the industry, even things as simple as carting hay have moved forward with new technologies and systems.

"You might have done 1000 bales a day between two people. Now you go out and cart the equivalent amount in rounds or squares in about three hours and never leave the tractor seat.”

The strategic use of nitrogen and other inputs has seen the farm’s pasture production double over the past few decades and milk production increase to a healthy target of 9000 litres per cow.

Graeme would like to achieve more and says farmers need confidence and sufficient profits to invest back into their farms.

“There are quite a few international red dairy breeds often seen as stand-alone breeds but they’ve all got linkages back to the red breeds of Europe. That allows us to choose the best genetics for our herd wherever we find them among the suitable red breeds.”

He says the breed’s health performance is better than other cows. “They carry more condition which helps them go in-calf much better and they are more robust, so they spend less time in the hospital paddock.  While they’re a bit more modest in the volume of milk they give, their kilograms of solids is comparable to other breeds which is important for our income.”

Graeme has no plan to retire. Instead, he hopes to find a like-minded younger person as a work partner and train them in the “finer arts of dairy farming”.

In the meantime, Graeme and Michele take time to appreciate the smaller things about farming, which in many respects are the bigger things, including Michele’s excellent on-farm photography.