Young Aussie dairy farmer prioritises animal welfare with modern technology

Published: February 2020 I By: Joanna Webber, Photography: Gethin Coles 

Renae Connell isn’t new to dairy farming, and believes if herd wellbeing is top priority, productivity and profitability will follow. 

Renae Connell on her farm, Valleyrose, in Megan near Dorrigo, where she raises mainly Jersey cows. Just days after our photoshoot, Renae learned she had won NSW Young Farmer of the Year for 2019.
RENAE Connell was born and raised on a dairy farm and now drives her own operation with her eyes firmly on the future. Success for Renae is a combination of technology and old-fashioned hard work – something today’s motivational speakers call “grit”. 

Young and old alike near the dairy she runs with husband Scott describe her as “Dorrigo district’s very own Wonder Woman”, and a “young farmer with fire in her belly”. It’s this drive that has seen 29-year-old Renae named the 2019 NSW Young Farmer of the Year.

“It is really fantastic to have this [Farmer of the Year Awards] and I think it is really important to showcase the amazing skills that people in agriculture have because we don’t always get recognition for the knowledge that we have,” Renae said as she accepted her honour at NSW Parliament House.

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Renae in the dairy. 

There is plenty of know-how on display at Renae and Scott’s dairy operation at Megan, near Dorrigo in North Coast NSW, where they live with their two daughters, Layla, 11, and Makayla, eight. They bought the property, Valleyrose, from Scott’s parents on their retirement last year, having worked with them since 2008. The couple then purchased a neighbouring farm, bringing the property to 219 hectares.

Holistic herd management and animal welfare key to healthy livestock

With a strong focus on animal welfare, Renae and Scott believe that if the fundamental wellbeing of their herd is top priority, productivity and profitability will follow. “The more you look after your animals, the happier, healthier and the calmer they are,” says Renae. 
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“I was raised that way on my parents’ dairy farm [in Bowraville, North Coast NSW] so it’s natural for Scott and I to continue to farm that way. We feel this approach is what will get us to our goal, which is to produce the healthiest, best-bred herd we possibly can.”

Renae’s husband Scott checks a control unit that monitors milk yield. 

Renae’s work ethic is proof that it was high time for the Young Farmer of the Year award to return, after a hiatus of seven years. From 2012-2018, young farmers were invited to enter the main NSW Farmer of the Year awards.

The Connells now have 350 dairy cattle including replacements, consisting of 70% Jerseys and the rest Holsteins and crossbreds. Together they have grown the business towards complete holistic management, supported by the latest research and technology. 

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“We research all the latest data and try to stay on top of best practice,” says Renae. “We plant trees because the cows need shade. We get rid of weeds and lock up paddocks because it’s good for the land. In the climate we are having at the moment we don’t want to lose any moisture, so we avoid spraying so as not to kill the natural grasses and ground coverage that’s here. You have to work with the land not against it.”

Between 2009 and 2014, Renae and Scott took advantage of grants from CMA (now Local Land Services) to help pay for two concrete crossings over the creek running through the property and nearly 1km of new laneways. Keeping the cattle out of the water has significantly improved their hoof health. 

Jersey cow Showgirl in a CowScout collar – the device detects cows in heat and sends alerts about their health.

“You would think that dirt would be softer for them than concrete, but the truth is where there’s dirt, there are rocks, and our land is quite rocky. The cows would get stone bruises, which would lead to lesions that would lead to footrot and lameness. The concrete crossings have made a huge difference. We very rarely have the vet out here now.”

They have also fenced off areas to keep cattle out of the dams and plan to build water troughs next year. But their biggest investment has been in on-farm technologies.

Collaring system monitors everything from eating habits to fertility

“We’ve just recently put collars with responders on our cows which gives us data on every individual in the paddock,” says Renae. “It means we don’t have to watch them as closely and the analysis it provides is obviously far more accurate than we could collect ourselves.”
Called CowScout, the technology monitors the animals’ movements day and night, reporting measured activity at regular intervals to a processing unit via antennas. It spots the best time for insemination for fertile cows and also sends an alert if there are any health problems present.

The herringbone dairy – where the farmer stands in a pit behind the cow – is designed for animal throughput and for integrating technology. 

“The unit is hooked up to the drafting gates, so when the cows come into the dairy, those that are on heat are drafted out automatically,” says Renae. “It frees us up a great deal. It’s safer for the farmer and less stressful for the animals.”

The technology also records ruminations and monitors how much the cows are eating. “One of the first signs of illness in cows is when they go off their feed and that’s something we wouldn’t see in the paddocks. Now we get alerts so it’s a huge help.” 

Renae and Scott have also invested in a robotic feeder for new calves. The animals are now fed around the clock which means less filling and lifting of heavy buckets and happier well-fed animals. “They are quieter and happier because I’m not moving them around,” says Renae. 

Renae and Scott check on their Jersey and Holstein cattle.

“I still go up to the shed two or three times a day because they’re still babies and they need to be checked on, but less handling means less stress for them and much less work for us.”

Commitment to mental health matters supports rural communities 

Along with her commitment to the welfare of their animals, Renae is proactive when it comes to the wellbeing of her community. Having been through tough times herself, she understands the importance of finding a healthy work life balance.

Renae is joined by her daughters Makayla and Layla in the dairy.

“Mental illness is as prevalent in regional Australia as it is in the cities, but people in rural and remote parts of the country have limited access to health services,” says Renae. 

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“If we hear of someone who is struggling on their own, we always reach out to them on a social level. Just letting people know they’re not alone and that they’re not going to be judged helps. Supporting each other builds stronger communities and that’s what it’s really all about.”  
Renae’s top three steps to successful dairy farming

  1. Renae has shifted to Jerseys capable of producing A2 milk, at a time when sales are soaring.

  2. New equipment includes a herringbone dairy with automatic drafting that has reduced labour three-fold, so a milking session takes just one hour.

  3. Concrete laneways and creek crossings help prevent injuries.

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