Dairy relief in the short-term

Daniel Mercer andBrad ThompsonCountryman
Graham Manning with his Holstein-Friesian dairy herd at Harvey.
Camera IconGraham Manning with his Holstein-Friesian dairy herd at Harvey. Credit: Danella Bevis

The group of South West dairy farmers left stranded by milk processor Brownes have been granted a stay of execution after a mystery buyer agreed to take their supplies for two weeks.

Amid threats by the farmers that they would have to slaughter pregnant cows after their contracts with Brownes expired at the weekend, WAFarmers said a “short-term” deal had been struck.

Under the deal, Harvey Fresh will take milk from the farmers — Dale Hanks, Graham Manning and Tony Ferraro — and turn it into long-life UHT supplies for an unnamed third party.

Mr Hanks, a Harvey dairy farmer, said while he would receive a greatly reduced price under the deal, the solution would allow him to avoid dumping the milk as he had planned.

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However, Mr Hanks said he held out little hope that the two-week reprieve would solve the problem he faced — a medium-term oversupply in the market.

As a result, he said he was still likely to cull some of his 300-strong herd while selling and “drying out” others.

Mr Hanks was particularly angry with former agriculture minister Dean Nalder, who the farmer said had not been “the least bit interested” in the farmers’ plight during his time in the portfolio. “The whole thing has been too late,” Mr Hanks said.

“That’s why we’ve been making noises for four months. We’re really disappointed that at no point has a minister actually taken any interest to try to help us. We’ve never asked for a hand-out. We actually wanted an industry solution and that means a bit of help with infrastructure.

“For us personally, we’re just going to limit the damage, minimise our costs and do what we have to do with livestock.”

WAFarmers’ dairy council president Michael Partridge said the deal was a short-term fix only but he hoped it could provide the time for a breakthrough.

“An arrangement has been put in place that will see the milk collected for the next two weeks, and during that time further negotiations will take place to come to a longer-term solution,” he said.

“WAFarmers will continue to be involved in this process. Over the last few months, we have done everything we could to ensure these farmers stay in contract since Brownes announced their intentions this year, and are pleased a short-term arrangement has been made.”

Meanwhile, Harvey Beef says it will reluctantly slaughter pregnant dairy cows for the three farmers if it had to.

Premier Colin Barnett has ruled out direct assistance to the farmers but said the State Government was trying to boost exports to help the industry.

“The State Government is not about to pick up the financial risk of individuals,” he said.

“I don’t think anyone can expect the taxpayer to do that.”

For welfare reasons, the three farmers cannot stop milking the cows but risk breaching environmental laws by tipping out the unwanted milk.

The Department of Agriculture and Food WA is monitoring their treatment of the heavily pregnant and lactating cows to ensure the farmers do not breach animal welfare laws.

Mr Hanks said DAFWA should back off while the long-time farming families tried to deal with an unprecedented crisis in the local dairy industry. “We are going to look after our cattle no matter what and if the Government wants to do something to help it should tell the processors to take this milk,” he said.

Mr Hanks said Harvey Beef had indicated it would do whatever was necessary to help and that was likely to involve slaughtering a significant number of the 900 cows across three farms.

Harvey Beef executive manager of livestock Kim McDougall said it was a sad situation and he would prefer to see the cows remain in dairy production.

“We will do whatever we can to help but obviously our preference would be to see these farmers continue running sustainable businesses,” he said.

“We don’t want to see anyone in rural WA forced out or into this position through no fault of their own.”

Archer Capital-owned Brownes has remained silent on the plight of the farmers since posting an update on social media more than a week ago.

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