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A fine dairy ‘red’igree

It would be an understatement to say that Karen Moroney knows a thing or two about good lineage.

After all, the fourth-generation dairy farmer hails from what some might consider part of Australian dairy royalty: the Thompson family in Eskdale, Victoria, who first bred the now-popular ‘Aussie Red’ dairy cow in the 1980s.

“It was my family, and particularly my father Bill Thompson, who created the Aussie Red. The idea for the Aussie Red was born here in the area,” Karen said.

Tragically, Bill never had the chance to see just how far his vision would reach, passing away suddenly in 1989 at just 53 years of age.

“He was innovative and forward-thinking, and I’m sure he’d be very proud to see how the little idea that he had about combining the genetics of different red dairy cow breeds has, over time, developed a commercially acceptable modern dairy cow, known for her health and fertility, wide climate tolerance and excellent workability traits,” Karen said.

“Today, the Aussie Red is considered the third-major dairy breed in Australia. That, to us, is really exciting.”

And, the Aussie Red’s popularity is justified, according to Karen, who with husband Wayne, milks 200 of the intensely chestnut-coated creatures on 435 rolling hectares in the Mitta Valley, 60 kilometres south of the Victoria-NSW border.

“It’s an excellent cow to use in a crossbreeding program for the attributes that it brings,” Karen said. “In my opinion they have superior management and health traits than Holsteins. That’s why we choose to milk them.”

According to Karen, the Aussie Red has been developed through careful selection from overseas breeding programs, including fertility, calving ease and disease resistance, which, she said, means a more profitable cow for the Australian dairy industry. They are known for producing milk with high protein content and medium milk fat content.

Karen has continued her father’s vision as a committee member of the Australian Red Dairy Breed organisation and executive officer of the International Red Dairy Breed Federation, which includes 20 member organisations from around the world.

Dairying was not always on the cards for Karen, but the pull of family brought her back into the fold.

“Both Wayne and I had administrative roles in Albury,” she said.

“We were given the opportunity to join a family partnership in the 1980s with my parents, brother and sister-in-law. The chance to raise our family on the farm was a huge drawcard.”

In 2002, the couple began farming in their own right and Karen hasn’t slowed since, making a name for herself in local industry leadership. Last year she joined the board of directors of the Murray Dairy regional development program – Dairy Australia’s local arm in the region.

“I feel privileged to work with people who are so passionate about the industry. It’s very much a skills-based board. The majority of directors are dairy farmers.”

Karen is also a keen contributor to her local community of the Mitta Valley, holding leadership roles in significant projects such as ‘Our Valley Our Future’, a project focused on supporting the local economy, building local opportunities and increasing the capacity and skills of the local community.  

The project is a collaboration between the Mitta Valley Advancement Forum, Geoffrey Gardiner Dairy Foundation’s Strengthening Small Dairy Communities program, the Alpine Valleys Dairy Pathways Project and Towong Shire.
She is also vice-president of the Mitta Valley Landcare Group, dedicated to the environmental sustainability of the surrounding area.

The fact that women play such an active and substantial role in industry leadership is pleasing to Karen, who believes the traditional image of agriculture as a man’s profession is out-of-date and counterproductive.

“Women are an integral part of successful dairy farming. I’m pleased women are becoming more involved in the industry at a board level. It’s a healthy sign, and I think it brings a balance and perspective to boards and to decisions. I encourage women to contribute to things they’re passionate about. You have a voice, you have opinions, and they count.”

As for the Moroneys’ own business? They have a vision for growth.

“We’re milking 200 cows but want to cap it at about 270 in the next two to three years. We have three grown sons. Two of them in particular are very interested in the farm, so succession is something we have on the drawing board to look at in the next two years. Everything that we’re doing now is about getting ready to have a growing business based on the right innovations it needs to have going into the future.”

Drought conditions over the last decade made the Moroneys review efficiencies on their farm, especially around power, feed, soil and most significantly, water use. They introduced a new irrigation system and are doing more cropping now because they feel they can’t rely on regular rainfall. There are also plans to do more with the waste water from the dairy.

All signs that point to their confidence in the industry’s long-term future.

“From a personal perspective and in everything that we’re reading, the industry looks like it’s improving. We’re hoping that it’ll become a more steady industry and we won’t get as many of the peaks and troughs in the future,” Karen said.
Resilience is a defining characteristic of the local dairying community.

“Over the last 10 years in the Murray area we’ve had extended bushfires, drought and floods, along with the economic challenge of operating in a global market. The region has shown great strength and versatility to get on and do what it does well – that’s milk production,” she said.

“We look at the challenges and talk about them a lot, but we also need to talk about the success of our farmers. By any measure our farmers are among the most efficient in the world.”

Karen points to the industry’s Legendairy communications platform as a way to highlight that success.

“Legendairy is an excellent dairy awareness campaign that’s not only informative in its content but is fun. It shows respect and it shows that producing food for other people is a really important and honourable job. I think the campaign humanises us, and people actually see more clearly what we do. We’re stewards of the environment, we’re stewards of our cattle and we’re stewards of our land. We’re not going to do anything to jeopardise that.”

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