Hunter River NSW

The river flats:

Dairying in the Hunter Valley

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click for fullsizeThe Hunter region has long been regarded as one of Australia's most reliable milk production regions, producing up to 25% of NSW milk, around 275 million litres annually (NSW DPI, 2006).

When Neil Raphael and his family left their dairy farm on the west coast of Scotland in 1982 to take up farming in the Hunter, near Muswellbrook, the security of being able to access water from the Hunter River was a big draw card.

click for fullsize"If it weren't for the Hunter River we would be out of here because you can't milk cows without water. Without water, dairy is impossible."

When asked about how hard it was when they first arrived Neil says it was all go from day one.

"I was only 35 when I arrived, adrenalin kept me going, and determination to get it done. We've never looked back, we were fortunate to find a place like this."

The first drought they experienced was the year they arrived with the current drought being the worst of all. Now stocked to capacity, the pressure is greater to provide feed and water. Normally irrigating 100% from the Hunter River, 2006 was the first time they have ever needed to use their groundwater licence.

With the changing face of the dairy industry, farmers like Neil are becoming a dying breed. When they first arrived there were over 500 dairies in the Hunter. Now, from Dungog to Jerry's Plains and up to Scone there are only about 35 left. Locally, the last one between Denman and Muswellbrook has just closed, except the dairy operated by Bengalla Mine.

"The dairy industry used to have a lot of clout, now it's the mining industry that has the clout."

While his eldest son, now a vet, is living in America, the other two are both actively involved in the dairy and are looking to put their own stamp on how things operate. The youngest son, Douglas, has been to Scotland while the middle son, John, is very happy to stay right where he is.

With a 700 acre property (including land leased from Coal and Allied) Neil, his wife and two sons are milking 550 cows a day producing between 6-7 million litres of milk per year. The day starts at 4.00 am for the first milking with the second kicking off at 3.30 pm. It takes a good couple of hours to complete a milking session.

Neil quite often gets down to the river with his grand daughters who like to splash around in a few of the sandy spots, and to fish. The towns people use the river for swimming and mucking about.

click for fullsize"In the paddocks nearer to town, every summer new holes appear in the fence where the local boys get through to come and swim. Every year we fix them and every year they reappear. It is good to see people having fun in the river."

Neil has a very clear view on the Hunter River and what it means to him and his family.

"The river is a very valuable resource. Now that it is privatised, the value of the water nowadays is worth more that the value of the land. I'm not sure it is a good move as far as farmers go because now you have the mines coming in and snapping up the water allocations. To have a sustainable farm you have to have access to water."

Despite the drought and the significant changes to the dairy industry, Neil is confident about the future and that there is a place for the dairy industry in the Hunter Valley.

Hunter-Central Rivers Catchment Management Authority Text/Photos from www.hunterriverexplorer.com