International Workers Help Keep McNamara Cows Going

International Workers Help Keep McNamara Cows Going  

by Madeline Schultz, schultz@iastate.edu

Garry McNamara began farming with his father in 1982 in Irrewillipe, Victoria. “Dad had 150 acres and another 150 acres in the front came up for sale, so I bought it and joined the two farms,” explained Garry. Over time, he purchased additional blocks of land adjoining the farm and an additional farm, which he operates with a share milker.

Garry McNamara of Victoria, Australia discusses his dairy operation.Garry and his wife Judy grew their dairy herd to 1,100 cows before starting to scale back. Judy is involved in the rearing of all heifer calves on the farm, keeps the record books and stays on top of the farm’s finances. Garry sees big changes in southwest Victoria agriculture. “There’s not a lot of people coming into the dairy industry and a lot are getting out,” stated Garry. 

Discussing the situation in the local dairy economy, Garry explained land prices in the area dropped eight or nine years ago and never recovered. Land prices in the grain production areas just 90 miles to the north have gone up. “The grain farmers are making money and coming down to buy up dairy farms for beef production,” stated Garry.

The soils on the McNamara farm are black loam. Just 15 miles away, there are volcanic soils. “Volcanic soils are great too, but they generally get less rain,” said Garry. Most water for the farm comes from local dams and availability of water is becoming more of a risk.

The McNamaras previously intensified their business by investing in housing for 400 cows and installing grain bins and grain feeding systems. “We used to buy in a lot of grain but that totally changed this year,” stated Garry. The farm family also used to calve year around and fed the cows well on lucerne (alfalfa) and vetch hay. The price received for milk today is the same as it was ten years ago. With the high cost of feed and low prices received for milk, the astute manager changed his strategy from intensification to minimal inputs. “It feels like we’ve gone back 35 years, but the production loss is better than buying high price feed,” stated Garry.

A minimal input system just makes more sense in the current economy. That means minimal machinery on the McNamara farm, too. Interest rates rose to 4 percent and machinery repair and maintenance is expensive. “Mechanics are $110 per hour, we’re priced out of it,” said Garry.

Danny O’Donnell, the McNamara’s share milker, grew up locally. He began working with the family as a way to enter the dairy industry and it has been a synergistic and positive relationship. The Australian code of practice for share dairy farming promotes a viable path for gaining experience and ownership. “The share farm was making more money than us because of the labor situation. Danny gets the work done of two and a half people,” commented Garry.

The McNamara family installed an 80-cow rotary milking parlor nine years ago that works very well for them. The family employs around 8 to 10 staff for milking and other farm work. Currently, just over half are local and slightly under half are international including two young people from the Philippines, one from Ukraine, and one from the Netherlands. “We have to have more labor, I can’t run around like I used to,” Garry commented.

Like many neighboring dairy farmers, Garry and Judy sometimes employ backpackers, a term that describes the temporary nature of foreign workers. These workers, mostly from Asia and Europe, help fill local labor shortages. Through a Working Holiday Makers visa program, the Australian government allows young people who are interested in a cultural exchange to work in Australia for up to two years. If the visa holders work a minimum of 88 days (three months) during the first year, they are eligible for a second year. The visa allows the backpackers to work a full twelve months each year if they choose to.  An employee works with the cattle on the McNamara dairy farm.

The McNamaras and other farmers must comply with the same set of Australian labor rules whether employing citizens or foreigners. Garry explained there are five classifications for farm labor based on skills and experience. Each classification has a minimum starting wage that ranges from $18.93 to $23.68 per hour. With the tight labor market, many farmers pay considerably more. The standard week is 38 hours and all farm workers must receive overtime pay, paid holidays, and time off.

As a side note, Melbourne Cup Day is a long-standing state holiday in November in honor of a horse race that began in 1861. A much more recent state holiday celebrates the Australian Football League Grand Final Friday in September. Australian football is a very different game than American football, but the fans are equally fanatical. Other holidays are similar to holidays in the United States.

Garry is appreciative of the Working Holiday Makers and other types of visa programs. “Farmers in Australia need international labor,” stated Garry. The young people he employs from overseas are generally very conscientious and good workers. They help keep the McNamara cows going around on the rotary milking parlor.  

 

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