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Love begins on the dairy

The old saying ‘you can talk about it ’til the cows come home’ isn’t far from the truth for Gippsland dairy farmers Belinda and Stuart Griffin.

What began as a quick chat after a local footy game in 2010 quickly turned into something more – under slightly unusual circumstances.

“As the story goes, we can both talk the air out of a paper bag and stayed up all night talking until 4.30am, at which point we rode off on the motorbike to get the cows in,” recalled Belinda of the couple’s first meeting.

The impromptu first date was far from over. Smack-bang in the middle of a busy calving season on the Griffin family farm, Belinda was put right to work that early morning in borrowed tracksuit pants and beanie, helping with the morning milking.

It was the start of one love affair and the revival of another for Belinda, who grew up in suburban Melbourne but found her passion for dairy farming at age 14 through a work experience stint on a dairy near Echuca.

“It was just like riding a bike – very familiar!” she said of her first morning on the Griffin farm. “I met Stu’s parents and extended family that day and I think I was considered part of the future plans right from the word ‘go’.”

Stuart and Belinda married earlier this year, adding to nearly 100 proud years of history for the Griffins on their ‘Springdale’ property in Westbury, Victoria, which the family settled in 1920.

“The Griffin family is extremely proud that Springdale has had nearly a century in the hands of one family. Considering the recent droughts that have passed though, this is a considerable effort,” she said. “I feel we have very big shoes to fill, but hopefully with the information and technology available, we can continue to grow stronger every year.”

Stuart is the fourth generation to farm on Springdale. A vet by training, he left the farm after university, but returned to help manage the farm when his father Chris took on various industry leadership roles, including time as President of Australian Dairy Farmers and Chair of the Australian Dairy Industry Council.

Stuart and Belinda are building equity in the business as Chris and wife Jan gradually hand over the reins.

“Every year we take a bigger stake in the business, including buying a percentage of the herd, so we’re quite lucky to have a supportive entry to the industry,” Belinda said. “It’s great to have the whole family committed to the farm and the dairy industry and we feel that this gives the business strength and an ability to adapt to challenges and opportunities as they arise.”

One of those challenges is access to affordable and productive land, given growing tourism to the area and encroaching urban development. The Griffins are partly addressing this by investing strategically in infrastructure improvements to handle possible expansion of their current herd of 370 cows.

“There’s been consistent investment by each generation to improve how things are done,” Stuart said. “Over the past five years we’ve added automatic drafting, extended the dairy, improved our yard wash and effluent system and upgraded cattle handling facilities – all of which have allowed us to milk more cows with a similar labour input, and made things less stressful for both the cattle and the operator.”

Having a resident vet on the farm doesn’t hurt either.

“It’s certainly a great skill set to have on the farm! We’re always looking for better ways to do things and animal health is no different. Stu’s vet background means he’s often running small trials on things like reproduction or calf management to see what works for our system,” Belinda said.

“Our cattle are our livelihood, so their wellbeing is at the centre of how we operate our farm,” Stuart added. “It’s about maintaining healthy and productive animals, whilst adhering to, and as much as possible exceeding, the appropriate codes of practice. We run by the principle that if you look after them, they’ll look after you. Our cows and calves are treated with respect and patience.”

And just in case the day-to-day running of the farm isn’t enough, Belinda works full-time for the Victorian Department of Human Services, fitting her office schedule around morning milkings. The local footy and volleyball clubs, community volunteering and industry groups also pack the calendar.

“Evenings are often filled with any number of activities and weekends can be really busy on farm. Sometimes we feel like we don’t get a rest!” she said.

But it’s not a lifestyle they’re about to give up. Their passion for dairying was never more evident than at their wedding earlier this year, which was resplendent with not just the more traditional decorations, but an enormous Legendairy banner in support of the dairy industry’s promotional initiative.

“We see dairy as a fantastic industry with a positive future. We’re excited to be part of such a progressive industry that produces world class products. We’re always striving to better ourselves as people and as farmers, so looking at the bigger picture helps to keep us focused in the future, not just the jobs that need to be done tomorrow,” Belinda said.

“What really makes this job Legendairy is sitting back at the end of the day and reflecting on the quality milk we are producing, the sustainable way we produce it, and the fact that we are continuing an almost 100-year-old family tradition.”