COVID-19 lockdown hits Gippsland dairy farms

By Dairy News Australia

When the Victorian Government announced a lockdown of local government areas in and around Melbourne on July 19, in an attempt to contain the spread of coronavirus infection among the population, it had the effect of including dozens of dairy farms, particularly on the Gippsland border.

Yarra Ranges and, to a greater degree, Cardinia shires — which number dozens of farms in their environs — were affected.

But it’s a testament to the stringent biosecurity practices followed on a daily basis by dairy farmers, that for many of those affected, lockdown has meant ‘business as usual’.

In particular, regularly cleaning surfaces, keeping a record of visitors and working in isolation are daily practice for many dairy farmers.

“We’ve been a little more cautious, but it’s the simple little things you do every day,” said John Versteden, whose dairy farm is at Longwarry, technically within Cardinia Shire. But because of how the lockdown boundary has been drawn, the farm is just outside the designated area.

“We already record who is visiting the farm, we clean surfaces daily, everyone has their own wet weather gear and boots, and gloves are part of common workplace practice,” Mr Versteden said.

It’s a common refrain at other dairy farms, where industry standards ensure workplace policies encompass regularly cleaning equipment, restricting visitors, cleaning boots between the dairy and paddocks, or as you enter and exit the calf rearing areas, and wearing gloves.

Every dairy farmer spoken to by Dairy News Australia said they provided hand cleaning equipment for delivery and pick-up drivers and had signs at the entry points to their properties advising people to pre-arrange visits.

For Evan Campbell at Yannathan, the challenge includes ensuring his farm workers, who live in Baw Baw and Latrobe shires, can get to and from work.

Sheriden and Evan Williams, also at Yannathan, can see the lockdown boundary from their family farm. Their daughter and son-in-law are part of their workforce, and live on the farm.

Apart from restricting visitors and ensuring workplace cleaning and distance is maintained, the biggest issue is access for many to Warragul, which is in Baw Baw Shire.

Many dairy farmers in Cardinia and Yarra Valley shires rely on regular access to Warragul for their business operations — with merchandise stores, veterinarians and business professionals such as accountants, all operating out of the Warragul district, located in Baw Baw Shire.

“The majority of our owned and leased farms are in the lockdown zone — in the Cardinia shire on the edge of Melbourne. We’re about 1km from the Baw Baw Shire boundary,” Evan Campbell said.

“We just have to be mindful that if we’re going to Warragul, we do what we have to do and get out of there. We try not to combine business and household activities.

“Some of our employees comes from Baw Baw and Latrobe shires and the roadblocks mean you have to factor in extra travel time.”

On Dairy Australia advice, he provided letters for employees to carry, identifying their place of employment and their status as essential workers.

“A lot of our staff work part-time and casual, so if anyone was feeling unwell, we’ve got flexibility in the system to cover them,” Mr Campbell said.

“We also keep biosecurity records of who’s on the farm, we have hand sanitiser in the dairy, we wash our boots between jobs and normally everyone wears disposal gloves during milking and riding the bikes, anyway.

“Our feeding and milking equipment is sanitised every time we use it — we keep that stuff spotless — and clean drinking troughs.

“So we have many of the things we need to do already in place as everyday practice.

“Fonterra was pretty early with communicating protocols — if someone on the farm is ill, we just have to notify them so they can make additional measures to ensure they can still pick up the milk.”

Accessing Warragul as their business centre is a similar story for the Williams family, who are also restricted from visiting children who live in the town. On the farm they record visitors and limit interaction.

“The lady who picks up the bobby calves, she comes at a certain time and we make sure we’re not around,” Sheriden Williams said.

“We’ve been selling chopper cows. We pen up the cows and he comes and picks them up and we don’t see him.

“Our business district is Warragul and we feel guilty about going up there. We’re now wearing masks, because we’re within the zone and we have to. It’s a very unusual feeling.”

Mrs Williams said the truck drivers who deliver grain and pick up milk, are wearing masks and using hand sanitiser.

“We all wear gloves in the dairy anyway,” she said.

“People are just aware when they arrive to keep away from each other. Keeping our distance from each other has become automatic.

“We’re always washing our boots. Because it’s basically a family operation, we all live on the farm, and I have the grandkids all the time.

“I think it’s easier between us because we are all the one family.”

Rob Marshall at Lardner is just inside Baw Baw Shire and, during the first lockdown, agreed to a factory-fitted sign from his dairy processor on his access gates.

“People have to ring first rather than walk in,” Mr Marshall said.

“We’ve had about half-a-dozen people who’ve arrived without phoning first and we asked them if they’ve seen the sign. Of course they have! But most people do the right thing.

“Farm supplies were low earlier this year — broadleaf chemical sprays were in short supply, but I had enough in-store to get through. I just had to buy 20 litres.

“Spring spraying is under control, with more supplies to come.”

Mr Versteden, who is an industry representative on an agri-politics committee, said his main worry was if the supply chain was interrupted either locally or globally.

“I’m worried about the effect of abattoir closures on selling bobby calves and chopper cows,” he said.

“If the supply chain has any disruption, there might be some flow-back to farms.

“But on the farm, cleaning procedures haven’t changed — we’re making sure all contact surfaces are washed every day, we diligently clean cups on cows and filters on a daily basis.

“Everybody has the opportunity to wear gloves and everyone’s expected to keep their hands clean. We hose off boots and wash down wet weather gear and we make sure everyone’s wet weather gear is hung separately.

“We keep a record of who comes onto the farm. No-one’s allowed on to the farm without making an appointment anyway.

“It’s not that hard to keep a couple of metres away from each other.

“It’s the simple little things you do that make a difference.”