Last day for a Deniliquin dairy in southern NSW as drought forces farmers out

A family has been forced to shut down their dairy farm at Deniliquin in southern New South Wales.

David and Kathleen Johnston and their daughter Kacee can no longer survive farming through the drought without water, and they believe the NSW Government is to blame.

Deniliquin dairy key points

Key points:

  • The Johnston family of Deniliquin are shutting their dairy because they can’t afford expensive water and feed
  • They’re only getting 45c a litre for their milk, but need $1 a litre to cover rising costs
  • Deniliquin was once home to about 40 dairy farms, this is one of the last

“Who knew that this drought was going to be like this and who could foresee the Government’s stupidity for giving away all of NSW water,” Mrs Johnston said.

The Johnstons milk 140 cows in the Murray region of the Riverina, which has a general water allocation of zero from the NSW Government.

Buying what little water that is being traded at inflated prices and buying expensive feed to keep their cows producing milk is no longer viable for the family.

“A normal irrigation season for us costs about $60,000, but this year if I was to buy temporary water out of the channel system it would cost us close to $300,000 for the same amount of water,” Mr Johnston said.

“We need to be getting $1 a litre to cover it.”

Dairy days over at Deniliquin

In the good times, Mr Johnston said Deniliquin was home to as many as 40 dairy farms.

But since they started dairying 10 years ago they have seen farmers continually exit the industry.

However, the Johnstons’ confidence in the dairy industry lifted when Canadian dairy giant Saputo took over embattled processor, Murray Goulburn.

The family received a Premium Quality Award from Saputo for the milk they supplied to its factory at Cobram, Victoria, for 2017/18.

“Saputo were promising a lot of things, but we can’t hang on waiting for them,” Mrs Johnston said.

Last year, they were milking 120 cows that produced 6,000 litres of milk over two days. Now they are milking more cows — 140 head, but getting less milk — just 4,000 litres.

“It’s all about cow health and we can’t afford to keep feeding them. They are our priority. It’s all about them and without them there is no milk,” Miss Johnston said.

More money needed to keep farmers in business

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The Johnstons felt the 10-cent rise in dollar-a-litre milk in supermarkets was of little help on the farm, especially for farmers like them who produce milk for cheese for processor Saputo.

“It won’t make any difference, it’s just a marketing exercise by the supermarkets to make the consumers feel good, like ‘geez we’re giving the farmers extra money’,” Mr Johnston said.

It’s a harrowing time for the Johnstons, preparing to see their much-loved animals leave the farm.

“It’s depressing and upsetting. I’m not going to handle it real well to see them go on the truck,” Mr Johnston said.

While Miss Johnston was sad that their dairy days were over, she said she knew it was the right call.

“But I’m proud of my parents for recognising that we can’t keep going.

“We would only get in more and more debt, more and more stress, so even though it was a tough decision, it’s a bit of a relief that it’s taken off their shoulders.”

Future unknown after dairy farm shuts down

Once the cows leave the property for their new home at Gippsland in Victoria, the Johnstons will consider their options to potentially lease out or sell the 250-hectare property.

Kacee knows she will most probably be moving away for work and Kathleen will work in aged care.

The family is hopeful conditions and support improves for those who remain in the dairy industry.

“We got through last year by the skin of our teeth, but there’s nothing left in the kitty and it’s looking like another dry year with no water. We’re only the start, I think there will be a lot more farmers to drop out yet,” Mr Johnston said.

“It’s not looking good, unless the government gets behind it and gives back our water. There has to be a regulation in price that’s for sure,” Mrs Johnston said.

The NSW Government said it was committed to improving conditions for farmers.

“We are looking to better support our farming communities in relation to water allocation,” Premier Gladys Berejikilian said.

“The first thing we’ve done is dedicate a minister looking at water specifically. That’s not happened in New South Wales before, we have a minister now in charge of water,” she said.

Dairy Australia reports that in 2009/2010 there were 820 dairy farms in NSW and in 2017/2018 there were 626.

Editor’s note (9/4/19): This article originally stated that this farm was the last in Deniliquin to close. The ABC has since confirmed at least one other farm in Deniliquin is still operating, and acknowledges there may be others.

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