’Til the cows come home, celebrating 50 years of farming at Ellinbank

Please note: Images in this article were taken before current COVID-19 safety measures were in place.

Australia is one of the most efficient dairy producers in the world. But environmental, ethical and economic challenges present mounting challenges to farmers and the dairy industry. We visit Ellinbank, where dairy research and development has been quietly ticking away for over fifty years.

Set in the foothills of the rolling Strzelecki Ranges of West Gippsland, Ellinbank is home to the National Centre for Dairy Research and Development. It’s here that Kelvin Burrows started working in 1969. Following a milestone 50-year anniversary of his tenure, we find out about his working life on the farm and how it has evolved over the years.

Milking cows in one of the old dairies, circa 1990s.1951 is key to this story. It was during that year that a 365 acre-property in Ellinbank was purchased by the Crown to undertake applied dairy research and support the dairy farmers in and around Gippsland. It was also the year Kelvin Burrows was born.

In 1969, 19-year-old Kelvin started work at the Ellinbank Dairy Research Station. He joined 18 existing farm-hands, as well as an additional 18 miscellaneous staff comprising researchers, field officers, a farm manager, foreman, and office staff.

Growing up on dairy farms in West Gippsland at Modella and Drouin South, his family moved to Warragul and his father started work at the Ellinbank farm. In August 1969 Kelvin joined him; they worked together for several years.

Suffice to say, dairying has been an enduring part of Kelvin’s life.

A great deal has changed in the past 50 years, but Kelvin’s work has retained the familiar daily and seasonal routines of all dairy farms. There is still hay to cut and bale, silage to make, fences to fix – and cows to milk.

Today the farm has a national research and innovation focus and is supported by approximately 50 research and technical support staff, as well as the Victorian Government’s Department of Jobs Precincts and Region’s Agriculture Victoria staff working up the hill from the dairy in the main office.

The farm is now a 231-hectare SmartFarm. This means that on any given day a drone can be heard buzzing overhead collecting data about pasture growth, along with the more familiar hum of farm machinery. Areas of the site are still referred to as Farm A, B, C, and D as they were when Kelvin first started, but the three small dairies that operated up until the 1980s have closed and been replaced with one high-tech dairy, with the latest computer-controlled equipment to maintain optimum herd health and production.

Now only five farm staff share the morning and afternoon routine of milking a 500-cow herd. And where milk was once collected in cans to be carted away to the local milk factory, the milk is now collected by B-double tankers supplying Bega Cheese.

Professor German Spangenberg, Head of Agriculture Victoria Research, presenting Kelvin Burrows with a Certificate of Appreciation to mark his 50 years’ service at the Ellinbank Dairy Research CentreThe staff quarters and residences that Kelvin remembers have all but gone: there is a reservoir on the site where a family once lived, and only one of the two houses at the top of the driveway remain.

He remembers a time when the farm was ‘like a little village’ with a mechanic, painter, carpenter and butcher working on the farm. And the farm work was more hands-on, with calves to be reared and milking in the smaller five-sided herringbone dairy sheds. A quiet, gentle man with a wicked sense of humour, a child visiting the site once asked him where powdered milk came from – Kelvin’s reply, “dry cows.” And what does he think of the latest ‘milk’ trends like almond milk? “Well you can’t put cups on an almond tree.”

Some things about dairying don’t change. Fifty years on, Kelvin still works an 11-hour day, rostered across seven days, with no immediate plans to retire. He is a man of very few words and asked to name the most memorable thing in his time at the farm he says, without hesitation, “the companionship.”

To learn more about Victorian dairy research, please visit the Agriculture Victoria website.