BUCKING established practices seems to be a trend set by Elgin Dairies, owned by third-generation dairy farmer Darren Merritt and wife Sharon, near Capel in south west Western Australia.
Traditionally, once dairy farms grew beyond a 'dad and mum' enterprise, they predominantly employed male workers as milkers, livestock managers and farm hands, or alternatively, short-term backpacker labour.
But for the past two years Elgin Dairies' day-to-day operations have been carried out by an all-girl team of permanent staff. Darren is chief of staff and there is a male farm manager, but women do the physical work.
Darren and Sharon's daughter Natalie, 27, often assisted by her own daughter Sadie, 4, is calf rearer.
She looks after up to 150 calves in a purpose built calf shed for the first 12 weeks until they are weaned onto grain.
Ellie Smyth, 25, who was previously herd manager at Silvermere Holsteins in Cowra, NSW, recently moved to Boyanup, WA, and now looks after breeding and herd health at Elgin Dairies.
Phoebe McConnell, 19, is livestock feeder and full-time milkers Lianna Clapp, 34, and Hannah Jade, 21, are backed up by two casual milkers, Haley Bettink and Matilda Tinker. Sharon is Jill of all trades, jumping in where needed.
Elgin Dairies milks 750 Holsteins all year round, achieving more than 10,000 litres/cow average annual production. The top 600 average 42 litres/day during the spring flush - off a milking platform of less than 250 hectares.
The home farm is 131ha plus 84ha across the road. Elgin Dairies also leases a further 343ha - all of it dry - and has heifers and dry cows out on agistment.
The operation grows 108ha of silage and buys in grain and hay.
"We are very heavily stocked so it (the feedbase) is pretty tight. It takes a bit of managing," Darren said.
Darren and Sharon said the move to all-female crew had just evolved, but it was now an entrenched strategy.
"We think women are much better, particularly with the cows, they're more maternal, calmer, cleaner, their absenteeism is less, they're not hungover on Monday mornings," Sharon said.
"Over the years we've gone through periods where there was an issue with every second person - their car wouldn't start, or some other lame excuse like that why they didn't turn up - and week after week you'd be stepping in and you end up exhausted because you're doing their job as well as your own.
"But gosh, in the last two years that's virtually stopped."
She said it was young women who applied for dairy jobs now.
"Previously, if you advertised for a dairy hand in the local paper the applicants were always mostly male, but that's changed," she said.
Elgin Dairies has a low staff turnover rate partly, Darren believes, because of its $2m dairy he designed. Again, Elgin Dairies bucked a trend.
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Three years ago when other dairy farms were installing rotary dairy platforms and looking to robotic technology to try to overcome difficulties sourcing farm workers, Darren took a different path.
He built a 24-a-side rapid-exit dairy with the latest de Laval milking system.
It has electronic ear tag recognition which delivers each cow a feed ration based on its production, while digital milk monitors record production data including individual volumes, protect against milk from cows receiving antibiotic treatments going into the milk vat and warn if sudden production changes indicate a particular cow may have a problem like mastitis.
But it was the traditional interaction between milker and cow that comes with washing and drying each udder before cupping and the social interaction between people working together in the pit, Darren wanted to retain in his design.
When you build a dairy you've got to understand you're not going to be the one milking cows in it, so you've got to build something that's comfortable to work in and that people will want to work in.
"When you build a dairy you've got to understand you're not going to be the one milking cows in it, so you've got to build something that's comfortable to work in and that people will want to work in," he said.
"With a rotary you can have two people at stations on their own putting cups on 700 cows and not seeing or talking to each other.
"I've done it myself for four years and it's so tedious, mundane and boring you battle to stay there.
"Whereas in the shed here we have two people milking and they can chat to each other and help each other and they are not standing on their own."
Apart from the friendly design, the dairy features a staff kitchen and rest area that would not be out of place as a comfortable kitchen and family room in a normal home.
Elgin Dairies' women work a split eight-hour shift each day, another factor in its ability to attract and retain staff.
"If it's a family show and you want to be in and out of the shed as quick as you can and smash your cows through, you'd probably get a rotary," Darren said.
"I know other farmers with rotaries who have trouble employing people because it (milking) is that quick. The milkers only come in for two and half hours in the morning and afternoon and casual milkers say 'I don't want that job'."
Darren pointed out one of Australia's leading dairy farms, Moxey Farms at Gooloogong, central NSW, milks 6000 cows over 24 hours so it can give workers eight-hour shifts in order to retain them.
"It's all about staff retention," he said.
Darren also designed Elgin Dairies' calf shed which was the focus of Western Dairy's 2016 Dairy Innovation Day, but it seems investment in calf sheds is a trend yet to take off in WA.
"When we had dairy innovation day I thought, 'I'm going to get hounded to death now with enquiries about the calf shed' because everybody (else) has poor facilities," Darren said.
"But only one person ever came back to me," he said.