This week Nundle will lose an icon of its agricultural landscape and a veteran of the dairy industry when Derek Hill sells the last of the dairy herd on Bukit Padang, a dairy established by his father, Edwin Pritchard Hill, at Bowling Alley Point in 1930.
The herd of black and white Friesians, jerseys, and Aussie Red dairy cows won’t amble up from the Peel River flat pastures to the dairy twice a day, the glow of dairy lights won’t be a comforting fixture for early morning commuters, and milk trucks won’t make their way along the Nundle Road before turning into the dairy driveway.
Derek, who is nearly 85-years-old, and has lived on Bukit Padang for most of his life, says the intrusion of Chaffey Dam and the loss of a further 24-hectares for storage following its expansion, and the stress of maintaining staff stability, contributed to closing the 87-year-old business.
Derek says he has no regrets about closing the dairy and the family will remain on the 629-hectare property and run a 200-head breeder beef herd.
“We were without irrigation from August last year, when the rising water in the dam flooded our irrigation infrastructure, and, only because we had such a productive spring and made 1500 bales of silage, we were able to feed the cows,” he says.
While there were once about 300 dairy farms in the Tamworth region, Bukit Padang is one of about a dozen left. At its peak the dairy milked 110 cows, producing 750,000 litres, but in its final week it is milking 32 cows. Carol Fiddes, who has worked on the farm on and off for 16 years, is helping milk during the last weeks. A prospective buyer is expected to purchase the remaining herd this week.
“There are dairy farms in the region that have been run by several generations, but we would have the oldest by about 50 years,” Derek says.
Derek’s parents bought the property, which was Lot10, part of Goonoo Goonoo Station’s 1925 N.E subdivision, from the Australian Agricultural Company, then trading as the Peel River Land and Mineral Coy, in November, 1925. They named the property Bukit Padang, Malaysian for hills and meadows. They started the dairy during the Depression to generate cash flow.
“My father wasn’t interested in dairying. “He only started the dairy so he wouldn’t have to milk a house cow”.
The first dairy, made of corrugated iron and round timber poles, was built in 1930.
“It was architect designed,” Derek says. “My uncle, Jim Busby, was in partnership with my father and was friends with a young architect by the name of Fairleigh Cunningham, who drew up plans for the dairy. He’d never designed anything in round timber before.”
It was a walk- through hand-milking shed with four double bales, where they milked 20-30 Jersey stud cows. The milk was separated for cream, which was trucked to Tamworth for butter manufacture and the skim fed to pigs.
Milking was mechanised in 1937 and was primitive by today’s standards
“Inflation came as a rubber tube which had to be ‘shaped’ with a ring and tensioned by a nut and thread. Being rubber they tended to perish and absorb butter fat,” Derek recalls.
“It was open to the weather and on a wet day you’d have to wear a raincoat and no matter what you tried the cows would turn the laneways to mud.
“The vacuum pump was driven by a diesel engine, which also powered the lights and milk separator.”
The current weatherboard timber dairy was built in 1957, on the back of the wool boom. It was updated in 1992 with a 12-a-side Herringbone dairy.
The business had two long standing employees who played an important role in keeping the dairy going during Derek’s father’s long absence in the army during and post the second World War. Derek also pursued a parallel career, serving in the CMF/ARes for 21 years with the Hunter River Lancers, following National Service and concluding three years as its Commanding Officer and eight years on the coaching staff at Bardia Barracks, Ingleburn.
Jack Gurd worked at the dairy from the age of 21 until he retired at 65, and Mick Corbett from 16 years to 64 and they were responsible for running the farm during those very difficult war years.
Derek started working at the dairy after graduating from Wagga Agricultural College. When he returned home it was one of the first times he and his father had spent a lot of time together.
“It was a shock to both of us. I am from the generation when children were seen and not heard,” he says.
“I assumed management in 1965 and bred the dairy herd to Friesian by natural mating and AI. The emphasis was on litres per cow under the Milk Board’s regulated market. We later developed a three-way cross of Friesian, jersey and Aussie Red to return to the component focus under a deregulated industry.
“From 1964 to 1985 I served as a director on the Tamworth Dairy Co-op, until the grocery wholesalers used us as a bank and a receiver was appointed”.
Derek and wife Pat deliberately nurtured a closer, more relaxed, relationship with their three daughters, Felicity, who died in 2004, Myee, and Cindy.
“Cindy worked here for a couple of years before moving to Tasmania, and my granddaughters Sarah and Jasmine have helped with milking when visiting from England,” Derek says.
In the final month of the dairy operating Myee, and Cindy’s partner, Dave Higgins, returned from England and Tasmania to help with the closure process.
After Pat’s death in 2007 Derek married wife Shirley in 2009 and they look forward to freedom from the pressure of running a dairy farm, and being more involved in the Nundle community.
“In days gone by there have been great times,” Derek says.
“I’ve grown used to thinking that when one door closes, another door opens.”