Richmond River Historical Society
District History  


Downturn at the Dairy (Part 3)

by Margaret Henderson

Overcoming Problems

1. Pasture Grasses

The Richmond River District was found to be suitable for dairying and production could be maintained throughout the twelve months of the year unlike some of the other areas where production fell sharply in the winter months. This was one of the things which attracted South Coast farmers to the area in the first place. However, the native grasses were found to be unsuitable for intensive dairying.

The problem had been recognized as early as the 1870s and several people had therefore experimented with different pasture grasses in an effort to find a suitable grass. One of these people was Edwin Seccombe who, in 1892, obtained a shipment of Japanese clover seed. When the seeds were sown it was found that there were some stray seeds amongst them and these were later identified as paspalum dilatitum.

The grass grew well and Seccombe, together with the Town Clerk of Lismore, Charles Barham, and the Mayor, James Barrie, decided to plant some seeds in the grounds of the Council Chambers. The grass flourished, so much so that it had to be fenced in securely to prevent people from stealing the grass itself and the seeds produced by it. Small quantities of seed were available in 1893 and 1894 and its popularity spread. By 1900 it was the major pasture grass on the North Coast.

Its effect can be judged from what happened at the Garrard property "Booerie", near Lismore. The Garrards were one of the first families to introduce dairying and around 1885 they had a herd of Ayrshires. These were big animals which did well on native grasses and foraging on the steep hillsides. However, the butterfat yield was not as good as with some other breeds such as Jerseys and Guernseys. The Garrards would have preferred the latter but they required much better pasture. When paspalum was sown they were able to change their herd, and their dairy farm became much more productive.

2. Tuberculosis

A second problem was the presence of tuberculosis bacillus in milk. This had been a problem throughout the industry and could cause the disease to be passed to humans as well as to other animals. It was not until pasteurisation was introduced that this problem was solved. Herds on the South Coast had been decimated by tuberculosis and it was suspected that the separating stations had helped to spread the disease. When milk was taken to the stations it was pooled before separation. The separated milk taken away by farmers to feed calves and pigs could, therefore, be contaminated by milk from another herd, and the disease be transferred to healthy animals.

The N.S.W. Creamery Butter Co. Ltd. factory in Lismore had a pasteurising plant and was popular with farmers because of this. The problem did not prevent the overall establishment of cooperatives and separating stations on the North Coast, however.

With the availability of smaller separators, which were less expensive, most farmers were able to purchase their own machine. This meant that milk could be separated on the farm and the risk of disease being transmitted from one herd to another via skim milk was overcome.

In 1901 the first private separator was installed on the North Coast. By 1911 there were 5500. Originally these were hand operated but as the industry developed, engines, first steam-powered and later petrol-driven, were used to operate them.

3. Central Cooperatives

The cooperative movement could see the benefits of central processing of products. A more consistent and high quality product could be produced at a lower price. In 1892 W. Moses called a meeting at Clunes in an effort to establish such a cooperative. Byron Bay was considered the ideal site as the jetty had been opened in 1888 thereby giving easy access to shipping and a world market. In addition, the much awaited railway between Lismore and Murwillumbah, via Byron Bay, had started in 1891 and was expected to be completed shortly. It was completed in December 1894. This would do away with the major transport problems experienced by the industry and allow easy access to Byron Bay. As the River was the lifeline to the first settlers so the railway was seen as the lifeline to the inland settlers.

After several delays the North Coast Fresh Food and Cold Storage Cooperative Ltd. began operations on 5 June 1895 at Byron Bay. By 1897 it had seven separating stations supplying it. In addition it had approximately 100 individual suppliers. The number of individual suppliers was to increase as the years passed and eventually the separating stations ceased to exist. A few were upgraded to branch factories. In 1904 the N.C.F.F. & C.S. Coop. Ltd. changed its name to Norco.

Although Norco was eventually to dominate the industry there were several other cooperatives in the area. Many of these later merged with Norco but not for some years, e.g. Ballina Cooperative in 1929 and Casino Dairy Cooperative in 1975.

The original factory to be established on the North Coast, the privately owned N.S.W. Creamery Butter Co. Ltd. was later taken over by the Lismore Coop. Dairy Co. which later merged with Norco. Foley Bros., another proprietary company, became firmly established in Lismore and held a firm share of the market. However, it too was purchased by Norco in 1958.

4. Cream Quality

One invention which proved of great benefit to the industry was the Babcock Tester. This gauged the amount of butterfat in milk. Previously all suppliers were paid at the same rate for their milk or cream, by quantity. Some farmers added water to the milk so that it would bring them a greater return. This was futile if the payment was made for quality rather than quantity. With the Babcock tester the more efficient farmer with the superior dairy herd benefited.

5. Wollongbar Experimental Farm

The dairying industry as a whole had tried to improve over the years. Milking machines had been introduced, firstly with petrol engines and later with electricity. There had been problems with tick infestations, however, and cattle had to be dipped at regular intervals in an effort to control the pest. Infertility in the soil was also a problem. It was found that the shallow basalt soils of the Big Scrub soon became infertile and therefore even pasture grasses, even paspalum, were not sufficient to keep production high. Hand feeding was expensive and beyond the means of most farmers.

Improving product quality required farmers to improve their herds by buying quality stock, and by improving pastures. To assist with this, in 1894, the New South Wales government established the Wollongbar Experimental Farm. Among other tasks it established Shorthorn and Ayrshire herds. These breeds were the basis of the Australian Illawarra Shorthorn which had become an established breed on the South Coast and was later introduced to the North Coast. In 1915 the Experimental Farm changed to Guernseys which remained until the 1950s when the farm became an Agricultural Research Station. The herd was transferred to Yanco.

Part 1: The Pioneers; Land Boom; First Dairy; Early Problems
Part 2: Dairying Takes Off
Part 4: Marketing; The Milk Zone War
Part 5: Defeat in Victory for the North; The End of an Era

The Sargent Dairy near Corndale, c. 1910

Staff of Lismore Dairy Butter Factory, South Lismore, c. 1900