Happy cows are healthy cows, and healthy cows in turn produce the highest possible calibre of milk, according to Pat, Michelle, Gregory and Erika Quinn.
Who: Pat, Michelle, Gregory and Erika Quinn
What: 500-head mixed Friesian-Jersey herd on 1400 hectares
Where: Mincha West, near Kerang, northern Victoria
How: Year-round paddock grazing with supplementary hay, grain and silage
“If your cows aren’t happy it leads to disease,” Michelle says.
“Dis-ease is just that: dis–ease. If you keep your cattle happy – at ease – then their immune systems are stronger and there’s less chance of something going wrong.”
The Quinns farm just over 1400 hectares at Mincha West, half an hour’s drive due south of the Murray River in northern Victoria. It’s flat, naturally dry terrain scattered with native saltbush but made fertile by irrigation water run through a highly efficient network of modern underground pipes.
All four are proud members of DFMC, with its more than 350 producers spread across Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria to South Australia.
The current Quinn property includes 182 hectares purchased in 1948 by Pat’s father, Greg, a Melbourne-born World War II serviceman and wool-classer who decided to take up breeding stud sheep.
Greg and his wife Johanna soon found, however, that the size of their holding size and the soil type at Mincha West were more suited to dairying so the flock was replaced by purebred Guernsey cattle.
In turn, the enterprise was transferred to Pat and his brother Bill, two of six Quinn children; the pair bought additional land in 1984 and added a state-of-the-art rotary dairy to their set-up in 1989.
It was around that time that the Quinn operation acquired one more vital link in its chain in the form of American-born Michelle. Michelle first visited as part of an agricultural student exchange program, being assigned by chance to the Quinn farm, where she developed a connection with young Pat. Almost 30 years later that girl from rural Illinois is still enjoying the Australian lifestyle as the property’s present-day matriarch.
Over time the family changed its breed from Guernseys to bigger-bodied Friesians; Jerseys were added later. They now have about 750 cattle on the farm, comprising adolescent stock, calves and 500 milking cows split into two groups to calve in either spring or autumn to provide a relatively even flow of milk throughout the year.
Inseminating the heifers with semen chosen to produce mainly female offspring allows the Quinns to minimise the number of bull calves born.
“We don’t like to sell them while they’re still very small calves; we aim to hold onto them all here to raise as steers for beef,” Michelle says.
The Quinns signed on as suppliers to DFMC in 2007.
“There were six or seven of us in this area who joined at the same time,” Pat says.
“We chose DFMC predominantly for the security it was offering – we weren’t happy with the company we’d been with, where our income was either boom or bust because of fluctuating milk prices. We’d had a really, really bad year in 2002-03 when we had very low water allocation from the Goulburn River system so we waited till the right opportunity came along to switch.”
Up to 20,000 litres of milk from the Quinn farm is collected every day in peak periods, or every second day when volumes are slightly lower, and trucked by refrigerated tanker to Lion’s processing plants in Melbourne or Sydney. Within hours of leaving Mincha West it appears on retail shelves under brand names including Dairy Farmers, Pura, Farmers Union, Big M and Dare.
“The number one thing that has impressed us about DFMC is its contracts,” Pat says.
“In our case it’s a balance of fixed and variable, based on the current domestic price. We know exactly what we’re going to get from one month to the next; our DFMC contract is rock-solid.”
“Our cows have access to pastures for grazing and they’re also given dry feed in troughs that we mix ourselves,” Michelle says.
“At milking time they love coming into the shed where it’s cool. We’re always looking out for their welfare. We keep them fed with good feed, not just ordinary feed – they like the best – and if ever there is a health issue, like a sore hoof or an infection, we identify the cause and treat them immediately.
“We’re holistic about what we’re doing here. That means we also look after the health of our soils and our grasses. Instead of using artificial fertilisers on the farm we apply a lot of lime and use composting.”
As part of this regime, waste from the dairy is returned to the paddocks to help ensure they remain rich with beneficial micro-organisms and therefore productive, yielding all of the herd’s annual requirement of fresh and harvested lucerne, clover, millet, ryegrass, vetch and cereals such as wheat and barley. (The only dietary item not grown on-farm is dry grain.)
“Our pastures are watered by gravity-fed irrigation that’s controlled by remote sensors so that once the pre-determined water has been delivered we know to shut them off,” Pat says.
As well as caring for the natural environment, the Quinns pay close attention to their own physical and emotional needs. Pat in particular is actively involved in various community organisations, and when a farmer health workshop was held in the district, both attended, along with their farm workers.
“We keep a close eye on our own health and on occupational health and safety,” Pat says.
The Quinns are especially impressed by Dairy Pride, a Lion initiative that encourages dairy farmers to set the highest possible behavioural standards.
“It’s all about treating animals in an appropriate way and producing a high-quality product that consumers want and can feel good about drinking,” Michelle says.
“They give us as dairy farmers very clear guidelines to follow. We’re working now to let the public know that we’re aware of their concerns around farming and that they really don’t need to be worried. We’re doing everything right, because at the end of the day we love our animals and we want to look after them well.”
That genuine affection is reflected in the cattle’s calmly confident, inquisitive behaviour; curious cows nuzzle family members as they walk through open paddocks and are completely relaxed around visitors.
Pat and Michelle have four additional reasons to keep the wellbeing of their property, their stock and themselves firmly in sight: children Rebekah, Gregory, Erika and Kaleb.
“The farm has always been my future,” Gregory, 22, says.
“I’ve always loved animals. I did a welding apprenticeship but as soon as I was qualified I headed straight back to the farm.” (His welding skills were invaluable when the family decided to upgrade its dairy shed, yards and milking apparatus in 2015.)
The youngest Quinns, Erika and Kaleb, 20, have also spent time away from the property. Erika attended boarding school at Yanco in New South Wales and Kaleb is still training as a diesel mechanic. Erika now balances full-time farm work with studying equine podiotherapy, and both twins exhibit stud cattle on the agricultural show circuit.
The eldest Quinn sibling, Rebekah, 25, has just relocated to the US to spend time near Michelle’s side of the family, with its Midwestern farm supplies business.
As the Quinn style of dairying is passed down to a third generation, Pat and Michelle’s careful stewardship ensures the outlook remains bright not only for the children but for their happy, healthy, productive livestock, too.