In an industry when days that start and end in the dark combine with unrelenting milking cycles and a turbulent market, life on a dairy farm sometimes has more than its share of tough moments.
With one of the bleakest financial years in history behind them and the buyout of a major milk processor looming, farmers say social support is helping to ease some of the pressure of the job.
The pressures were evident for Angela Tweddle and her husband, Ben, when they bought their farm at Glencoe, in South Australia’s south-east, last year as the industry was entering a downturn.
“The day that we signed the finance papers was the day that Murray Goulburn dropped their milk price, April 28,” she said.
“I’ll remember that day for the rest of my life.
“It was very, very daunting — very scary. We have been able to get through the first 12 months but it’s been tough.”
Ms Tweddle believes the nature of dairy farming means it was never going to be an easy ride, regardless of the market.
Getting out of the gumboots
With her days revolving around morning and afternoon milking rounds, she has sometimes felt stuck on the farm.
“Most of the time I’m definitely there for at least 8 hours — that’s milking duties,” she said.
“And then there’s always the bookwork and the farm work that has to happen as well, so it can be anywhere up to 12 to 13 hours a day.
“Often we are at home 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and we don’t go to see other people unless we make the initiative to.”
Ms Tweddle was one of several dairy farmers to attend a recent ladies’ lunch hosted by Dairy SA, aimed at giving industry members in the region the chance to meet and socialise with each other.
She said it was a welcome opportunity to step off the farm and just enjoy the company of other farmers.
“We all face the same things every day and it’s good to be able to catch up and talk about them,” she said.
“I’m one of those positive people. So even if there are some negative people in the room, I like to be able to put my positivity into them.
“You can’t underestimate the power of getting out and having a chat.”
Sharing the load
Dairy farmer Jennifer Stolp, also from the south-east, said socialising tended to take a backseat to farm duties during busy periods like calving.
“When I have a quiet time, somebody else probably has a busy time,” she said.
“Some days can be very full on — even [my husband and I] are like ships in the night.
“But then you have the days once the hard yakka’s over, the calving’s over, the AI’s over, that the lifestyle becomes a bit easier.
“When these opportunities do come up, we try to take them.”
Ms Stolp said the simplest gestures, like making time to have a cup of tea with a local farmer, could be the most worthwhile.
“It’s just listening to the stories if they’re having a down time or it’s not working well for them,” she said.
“Just being there and listening to how they feel or vice versa, if there’s anything I can do to help staff-wise or work-wise or just helping with the children.
“Mainly the listening ear is what’s helpful I think — just letting them get the load off.”
Industry shifting focus to wellbeing
Dairy SA’s Wellbeing Coordinator, Rick Hinge, said there had been deficiencies in the way the industry talked about and addressed mental health in the past.
“It’s a tough industry in the sense that it’s very constant and the price that guys receive for their product is usually out of their control,” he said.
“The extra pressure means that there’s very little time left for other things and often you neglect yourself.”
Mr Hinge now travels around South Australia providing support to dairy farmers and said support services are placing a greater emphasis on maintaining relationships and friendships.
“We’re not looking to have absence of struggle, but we are looking to have a life that is full,” he said.
“I always leave [farms] reminding people to look after the things they treasure the most.
“If your relationships are going hard or your communication isn’t good, you’ll generally live a life that’s less than it could be.”