Have you ever wondered what it’s like to live and work on a Dairy Farm? I hadn’t. I don’t drink milk, so it had never crossed my mind until I wanted to extend my Australian Working Holiday Visa and had to complete 88 days of farm work.
Some people go fruit picking. Others go planting trees. You can even do some time in a produce factory if you really want to. Well, I’d tried all of that through a working hostel and it got me nowhere. So if there’s one thing I had learnt about these 88 days it was this; get them yourself and not through a hostel.
In one last-ditch attempt to get my remaining 30 days, we applied for jobs on a dairy farm. I’d read about other backpackers working on them and honestly, they seemed to be your best bet if you wanted to avoid being messed around and scammed.
I knew it would mean early hours but there was also a chance of having to nurse baby cows… how bad could it be? I’d already done the hard work planting trees, right?
I was wrong and I wasn’t prepared. Not at all.
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We were lucky enough to find jobs on one of Australia’s Largest Dairy Farms where we would be living and working alongside 30+ other backpackers and a handful of Aussies.
What I didn’t know at the time was that this farm ran slightly different to other Dairy’s I’d read about. Ok. A lot different.
Other farms had two milking shifts where you started at 3 or 4 am for a few hours then came back in the evening to do it all again. This farm wasn’t like that. I wish it was.
With 2 milking parlours, each with over 3000 cows (Yes. You read that correctly. 3000. I didn’t accidentally add a 0), this dairy farm was operational 24/7 and each heard of cows were milked 3x a day.
What that meant for the workers was a series of unpredictable 8-hour shifts scattered across the day. I don’t know how it happened, but I will forever count myself lucky for landing on the late-night shift (4 pm-midnight) and being kept on it for our whole time there.
Those first few shifts were horrible. Not only was I adjusting to the new sleeping pattern but my body was being put through movements it hadn’t done in a long time – if ever!
That was another way in which this farm differed from the rest. It wasn’t the old fashioned style milking booths you see on TV. This was equipped with fancy rotating booths positioned above eye level. The cows came around to you, instead of you walking up and down a line to them all shift.
It also meant the smaller of the bunch (me) ended up having to stretch a lot more the normal inorder to reach the cows. Stretching above your head with weighty milking cups all-day really makes you feel it. You’ll not be surprised to hear I lost a lot of weight working here.
After I’d settled in and found my rhythm with it all, my day kinda looked something like this;
11am – 4pm Free Time
This is our downtime. The time before work where we’re free to do anything we want so long as it’s on the farm. Did I mention we were in rural New South Wales and roughly 40 minutes away from the nearest anything? So we couldn’t go off exploring in the mornings.
There’s a big window here because it really depended on what we had planned before work and whether we’d stayed up later than normal, either due to working late or staying up for drinks with the house.
There were days when we’d stay in bed for most of it out of sheer exhaustion and others where we woke up early to socialise. There was even the odd occasion where Dec volunteered to do an extra few hours because someone called in sick – yep. Dec’s crazy.
Either way, we savoured these few hours.
Somewhere around 3 pm I’d try and force a cooked meal down me and pack a decent lunch to have on our break. Getting a new eating habit was the hardest part I think and it definitely contributed to my drastic weight loss.
4pm Cover Breaks
Our first take when we arrived was to swap with the two staff who need to go for their breaks – and hope they’re on an easy section to start us off with! To save confusion, I’ll explain the sections later but we usually end up doing a full circle while they’re on their lunch.
The evening team usually consisted of 4 staff members on each shift and a supervisor, plus any trainees that might have just started. In the sheds there was usually 1 – 2 cow ‘pushers’ too, they were responsible for making sure the cows were where they needed to be and a completely separate role to milking.
We had 5 herds in our parlour and the 4 pm shift always started just towards the end of the last set of cows. These were the worst ones. The new mums. The cows who had just had their very first calf. As you can imagine, they were the most temperamental. If you were going to get kicked on a shift, it usually happened with these cows.
5pm – 6pm – Wash Down
Once we’ve finished the last herd of cows, the rotary and pens need cleaning ready for the next shift to start.
This requires hosing the whole area down with a foam solution and scrubbing it in with a hard bristle brush before it’s hosed off with clean warm water. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out there’s usually a lot of shit about and it gets everywhere. E.v.e.r.yyy-where!
The clean down was usually the slowest part of the shift. Especially whenever the supervisor chose me to get up onto the rotary to clean the individual pens and the dribble guards *has horrid flashbacks*.
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6pm – 8pm Milking
The rotary was split into 4 sections too – one for each member of staff – scrubbing, drying, cupping and ‘dipping’. After the clean down ends it’s down to the staff to decide where they wanted to be for this section of the shift.
If you were smart, you never chose the easiest section first because that meant you’d likely end up with the hardest section for the hardest cows.
Who would have thought milking cows would need such strategic thinking!
For the sake of simplicity, I’ll run through the sections in order, but I always tried to go cupping first. We swapped stations every 30mins (roughly every 200 cows) moving on to the next station on the list.
This section is responsible for operating the rotary gate, making sure cows got on and off ok and that nobody got stuck – a stuck cow meant halting the rotary which slowed production and stressed out the cows… if this happened at the start of the night you could guarantee you’re in for a killer shift.
The cleaners main role though was to, of course, clean the cow’s teats. We did this with a rotating scrubbing brush – kind of like a mini version of a car wash. The idea was to clean the teats and stimulate them ready for milking. Each teat needed at least 2 seconds in the scrubber.
Remember – the cows are continuously moving on the rotary. So you had to be fast.
It’s also the poo zone. For some bizarre reason, cows will mainly poop getting on and off the rotary. While you’re not safe at any point during your shift, you’re most likely to get pooped on here. Keep your eye on the teat but always look up.
Possibly the easiest job but it required a little hand-eye coordination. On this station, they were in charge of making sure all the teats were dry but they had to change the cloth every 2 teats.
With the cows constantly moving, they had to be able to swap the clothes over without stopping drying and ensuring they didn’t miss a cow. It was also this person’s job to make sure the cows (and their teats) were healthy and flag up any that weren’t.
It was all a matter of ‘rhythm’ in the drying section. Once you found it, it was pretty easy to keep up but if anything threw you off pace – like an unhealthy cow – it was hard to catch back up.
This is what the rotary looks like, and how far I had to stretch up (the lowest bar is just at head height)
An obvious one here. The cupping section is purely in charge of making sure the cows get cupped. The cups are an automatic part of the rotary that milk the cows just the right amount so the cows teats don’t get damaged and so the milk that’s drawn is of good quality, but they need human intervention to make sure they’re attached properly.
This is the kick zone. If you’re going to get kicked, it’ll happen while you’re cupping. You can usually sense if the cow is a kicker. They’ll be shifting their weight from one side to another, being very vocal or being perfectly still, much like the calm before the storm. Speed if your best friend while you’re cupping. The quicker you can get in and out the less chance you’ll have of being kicked.
I got kicked once by a Heffer (A cow who has only had 1 calf) in the 5 months we worked on the Dairy Farm. It hurt, a lot, and left me with a lovely hoof shaped bruise on the top of my arm for weeks afterwards. It made me very flinchy for about a week afterwards and too nervous to cup for my first shift back after it happened.
My top tip for working on a dairy farm is to simply not get kicked. It’s no fun at all.
This is the most important (and messiest) job of them all. ‘Dipping’ is the process of sterilizing the teats. The teats stay ‘open’ for roughly 30 minutes after they’ve been milked, so we dip them in iodine to make sure germs can’t get into them.
Each teat has to be individually dipped into the cup of iodine so while the dippers job is the easiest, it’s the messiest too. The iodine goes everywhere and you’re highly likely to get pooped on because this is where the cows exit the rotary.
This was my favourite section but not because it was the easiest. This is where you get to see the cows leave and some of the overly affectionate cows will often hang around. If there was ever a break between cows, I would run up and give the ones who hung around a bit of fuss and attention. I like to think they appreciated the love after what they’ve just had to put up with.
One of my favourite cows trying to get my attention (and succeeding)
8pm – 8.30pm Break
Our breaktime coincided with the next lot of staff starting (the 8pm – 4.30am staff), They’d send us on our break for half-hour then afterwards we’d send the other two home.
After washing off the poop, we would spend our breaks in the staff room that looked over the rotary. There was never a minute where we weren’t either looking at, or smelling, the cows.
9pm – 12.30am Milking
This was the hardest part of the shift – going back after a rest knowing you still had 4 hours left of milking. If we were lucky, something exciting would happen.
Like the time someone left a gate open so all the cows got out into the yard.
Or the time a cow started giving birth on the rotary – yes. This was news for me too. They start milking the cows as soon as she starts producing, which is often before the calf is even born. They’re supposed to get drafted into the birthing barns days before they’re due but this one either slipped the draft or dropped early. Either way, it made for a very interesting shift.
The calves enjoying our last visit before we left
12.30 am – Home time
We clocked off as soon as the next lot of staff arrived and those who were staying had finished their breaks.
Occasionally someone would not show up, meaning we’d have to stay a few extra hours (by we, I mean Dec…) but thankfully that was rare.
The very first thing we did was take a shower at the parlour. It made more sense for us to shower before getting into the car so we made the most of the on-site facilities. They were better than the ones in the house anyway!
Living on the farm meant we only had a short drive to our house where one of two things happened – we were greeted with quiet and could go to bed or there was a party happening and we had to try and sleep through it. It was more often than not the second one.
Then it was simply a case of sleep and repeat.
It sounds easy doesn’t it, when you see it broken down like that but it was hard. Living in a rural location so far away from anything, with people who you were forced to get along with. Dec and I are social people, but not when it’s forced upon you. We appreciate our sleep and a quiet place to do it – this wasn’t easy on the farm.
We also struggled with the emotional side of things. I found myself on several occasions questioning why I was there and had to remind myself I needed to be there for my 88 days farm work.
I saw some things on this Dairy Farm that I never imagined I’d see, and things I don’t ever want to see again;
- Like a cow having a miscarriage or a stillborn in the middle of milking.
- A cow who fell over so badly she had to be put to sleep.
- I saw and grew attached to, the male calves getting reared in the open fields until the day a lorry came and they weren’t there anymore.
- I saw the way kangaroos were seen as a pest to the farm’s crops, and the only way to deal with 7ft pests is with a gun.
- I saw calves being taken away from their mums and the way the mums looked for them, even days afterwards.
If you’re looking to do your farm work on a Dairy Farm, be prepared for the emotional side of it. It certainly made me question a few of my life choices and while I’m not vegan, or even vegetarian, I now make conscious decisions on where our food is coming from. We buy organic and locally sourced produce where we can. I don’t believe everyone needs to be vegan to do the right thing, but I do believe everyone should experience something like this to know exactly what the processes are for the food that we eat.
Just some of the kangaroos that visited us in the yard
Quick tips for working on a large Dairy Farm
- Research the farm. Make sure it’s somewhere with a good reputation for treating staff well. We got looked after and paid well which partially made up for the emotional and physical stress I was put through.
- Take clothes you don’t care about. Everything smells by the time you’ve finished. Even the clothes you haven’t worn. If you can, leave your best clothes with a friend or in your car. You won’t be needing your party clothes while you live on a farm
- Don’t get attached. I made this mistake with a few of the cows. Don’t name them because one day they won’t be in the herd for milking and you’ll never see them again.
- Buy wellies – tall waterproof wellies are better suited for life on a farm than hiking or work boots. They’ll keep the poop out better and you won’t spend 8 hours with wet feet.
- Don’t expect to see calves every day. Unless you go to a small farm, the chances are you’ll be working with the big cows. I only ever saw calves if I went up to the calf pens during my time off. Or if one was born on the milking rotary but that was rare.
- Have a good playlist ready! You’ll need something to help you get through those long monotonous hours!
Getting my Australian Visa Extension through work on a dairy farm was the hardest work I have ever done when it comes to the emotional and physical side of things but I don’t regret it. It made me appreciate my time in the country a whole lot more. Have you extended your working holiday visa? What work did you choose to do? It’s really interesting to hear other peoples experiences so please, share it in the comments or over on our Facebook page!!