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Herding teams of cows and footballers

During the week Paul Foster herds a team of 450 Friesian cows around his family dairy farm at Bungador, near Simpson in south-west Victoria.

On the weekends he’s in charge of another team as the new joint senior football coach for the Cobden Football Netball Club ‘Bombers’.

Combining both jobs is a dream come true for the long-serving dairy farmer and dedicated footballer.

That’s why he’s supporting the AFL’s upcoming Legendairy Farmer Round between Collingwood and Adelaide on April 11, which will celebrate Australia’s dedicated dairy farmers and the important role that footy and community often play in local dairy towns.

“A lot of city people wouldn’t know how farms are run or what’s involved with farming,” Paul said. “To be a good dairy operation these days you’ve got to have excellent management skills. Gone are the days when all you did was bring the cows in and milk them and let them out again. It’s a seven-day-a-week job and it’s more mentally draining than anything.”

Paul describes dairy farming as the backbone of the Cobden region and the football club.

Cobden’s cattle club fundraises for the Bombers, with plenty of donations from local farmers.

“We have 40 to 50 farmers or more who chip in,” Paul said. “It’s a good fundraiser for the club. They’re a real strength behind our club.”

Paul’s parents have also been involved for years; his father Michael was a Colac football star in the 1970s and a past club vice president, while his mother Jan is a current committee member.

Not only are dairy farmers always willing to support the club – but many have excelled on the playing field as well.

The Cobden region has produced many top AFL players. The current list includes Gary Rohan (Sydney Swans) and Ben Cunnington (North Melbourne), who both hail from dairy farms. Essendon’s Merrett brothers are also from the area.

Two Cobden players and dairy farming brothers, Joe and Levi Dare, won the Hampden League’s Maskell Medal in 2012 and many dairy farmers feature in the club’s list of life members, with Brad Couch, Greg Tongs, Stephen Hammond and Grant Smith being recent additions, while Marty and Ben Darcy coach in junior ranks.

“We’ve been lucky enough to have local dairy farmers who are very good footballers and very loyal,” club president David Buckle said.

One of those is Paul, who has played football all his life and never contemplated leaving the Bombers since starting in the under 14s.

For the past five years he has captained Cobden and is well-prepared to take the next step alongside co-coach Wayne Robertson.

“When the club approached me about coaching I thought it was a good opportunity to give it a crack.”

Having lost some senior players, he hopes to fast-track the development of younger players this year.

So what is it that makes so many dairy farmers do well in football?

“I’m not too sure. I guess you’re physically fit. It’s a taxing job. When you’re training as well you’re probably as fit as you could be,” reckons Paul.

Paul spent more than five years as a builder in Cobden but his heart was in dairy farming and the lifestyle that he grew up with.

“Mum and dad wanted me to get out and have a look at something else, but I was always interested in coming back to the farm,” he said.

In hindsight it was good to get experience outside the farm gate.

“You get to develop a work ethic working under someone else. You have to toe the line. It puts you in good stead when you come home – you know you have to knuckle down and work.”

His flexible farming lifestyle has allowed Paul to step up.

“I like the farm lifestyle; you’ve got to work but I’m in a position where I can work around myself a little bit,” he said.

“I can organise jobs to free myself up if I have to. I’m pretty fortunate with the help I’ve got around me; dad’s got his finger on the pulse and helps out and we have two full-timers working here.”

Michael and his brothers John, Bernie and Noel were raised on a dairy farm on the rocky borders of the Stony Rises at South Purrumbete. They all moved to the Bungador area to set up their own farms. Bernie and Noel have since sold their properties but Michael and Paul are continuing the family tradition and John’s sons Glenn and Dean run his farm at Simpson.

Paul, 28, admits he’s fortunate to have stepped into a family-run farm.

“I don’t know how a young bloke would go out and buy a farm but it’s a good industry to get into. There’s a lot of upside to it. We’ve got to remain positive and keep upbeat.”

He hopes more young people will be encouraged into dairy farming.

“There aren’t a lot of young blokes around my age in the industry. There a few younger guys who’ve come back to the farm but in general there’s not enough young guys in farming.”

Some days – particularly around calving – it’s hard to make footy training. But Paul has no hesitation in honing his juggling skills to suit his new coaching role.

“I’ll have to free up a bit more time,” he said. “You’ve got to put time into it; you just can‘t expect things to happen. Coaching evolves each year so you’ve got to keep up with the standards or get left behind.”

So is it easier to control a herd of cows or a team of footballers? Paul says they both have challenges but both have their benefits.

“I don’t know if I can answer that. I enjoy both,” he said.

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