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WA prison system powered by milk

The day starts particularly early for Serpentine, WA, dairy farmer Wayne Owston.

Once he’s finished the morning milking for his own herd of 30 Jerseys and Holsteins, he’s off to his day job at Karnet Prison Farm, about an hour south of Perth, where he works four days a week as the Vocational Support Officer and Dairy Manager for the Western Australian Department of Corrective Services.

The 30-year-old runs a fully functioning 200-head dairy at the men’s minimum-security prison, which also houses an abattoir, a poultry farm, a market garden, an orchard and metal, woodwork and mechanic facilities as part of a rehabilitation program that helps inmates who are approaching the end of their sentence prepare for successful re-entry into the community.

The dairy program, which Wayne started nearly two years ago, has quickly become a success.

“I have six milkers and calf-rearers working in the dairy and another five who work in our packing and pasteurising area,” he said.

“We pasteurise, homogenise and separate about 90% of our milk on-site, then it’s packaged into biodegradable packaging. From there we supply every prison in WA. On average, we do 25,000 litres of milk a week, depending on the season.”

It’s up to the inmates to approach Wayne for an audition before he accepts them into the dairy.

“They have to come to me and I give them a bit of a go,” he said. “The majority have never milked cows before, but they learn quickly.

“They love it. A lot of them, the day they’re being released, will come back and say goodbye to their favourite cows. It’s quite interesting watching inmates come back and cuddling cows. There’s a real connection. One of my mentors, Murray Williams, once said to me, ‘You don’t make friends with cows. Cows make friends with you.’”

The program is about much more than just providing the dairy workers with memories when they’re released.

“It’s compulsory, if you want to work in my dairy, to do a Certificate III in milk harvesting through TAFE,” Wayne said. “We’re in the process of installing an NCDEA (National Centre for Dairy Education Australia) qualification and will hopefully start that next year.”

Tying the qualification into Dairy Australia’s NCDEA offerings will help the program tap into a national network of employment and skills development opportunities.

And for Wayne? Once evening milking is done at Karnet, it’s back home again to tend to his own herd and spend time with his family. It’s been an easy career choice.

“I do a lot of embryo work,” he said. “I love having a heifer: you show her, you do really well, you AI her, you get a beautiful heifer calf on the ground, then you raise her up and show her – you do it all again.

“I’m probably the only person you’ve ever met who’s had cows at his wedding. We had a beef bull and a Jersey cow as best man and maid of honour. I had about 10 blokes saying ‘I’m going to be the best man’ and I said ‘well, argue with him. He’s the bull.’ I love my animals. You don’t consider it hard work if you enjoy what you do. I wouldn’t do it otherwise.”