According to Gregie Dennis, known as Farmer Gregie, cows love to be milked by robots. This leads to the cows producing more and better quality milk.


McCarthy-Wood: Look, thank you very much for your company. Now this one, I’m very interested. I’m Andrew McCarthy-Wood. I’m into technology and absolutely love getting involved, finding out about these things. Just for example, just how we do this podcast. We’re using the RODECaster, and we’re bringing in multiple phone calls. I’m currently in the Morton Bay region, on the coast. We’ve got Daryl on the line. You’re up in Toowoomba, Daryl. How are you going?

Daryl Nicholson: Yeah, mate. I am in 4350 today. Yeah, I have been away in 4000 and 4380, but I’m back home.

McCarthy-Wood: Now, we’ve also got Farmer Gregie. He’s on the road, and as he mentioned he’s got the mobile phone connected via Bluetooth. This is all technology oriented, this conversation so far. But Farmer Gregie, whereabouts are you?

Farmer Gregie: Yeah g’day, Andrew. Look it’s ironic, I’m actually in transit back to host the farm tour in the Scenic Rim region, but I was in the Morton Bay Regional Council area this morning, so I’ve been up on the north side of Brissy. We had a family get together yesterday, which was pretty cool. And just heading home this morning.

McCarthy-Wood: Oh, there you go. How exciting’s that? Well, Daryl, you’re going to have a talk to a Farmer Gregie about technology. Take it away, mate.

Daryl Nicholson: Yep. Mate, going back about three months ago, I went to a dinner party with [Josie Howard 00:01:17], and I met Farmer Gregie, and we decided to do a live stream where we were having dinner and talking about issues. But mate, Gregie, thanks for coming on the show today. I really do appreciate it. How’s your trip going so far?

Farmer Gregie: [crosstalk 00:01:29].
Good, good. It was good to meet Daryl. And we connected the dots, on the night of that dinner party, that we probably unofficially met about 25 or 30 years earlier, when I was dancing and you were DJing, in the early days at Toowoomba at Rumours Nightclub. So that was a pretty good catch-up.

Daryl Nicholson: That’s right. True. It was a good catch-up. That was a good catch-up. And Andrew, why I find Gregie so interesting is one, I’m going to talk about 4Real Milk. His family have had this farm in their family for over 30 years. And in 2013 the producing factory was built to give consumers fresh pasteurised-only milk. Now, their goal was to get a fair gate price for their product. And they’ve got a robotic farm, where the cows automatically go up and get milk. So Gregie, can you tell us a bit about one, the fair gate price, and the robotic farm that you’ve got operating for 4Real Milk?

Farmer Gregie: Yeah, it was really interesting timing, because we made the decision to instal the robotic dairy in 2010. And we did our due diligence, we’d looked into it quite extensively. And it was a big commitment, a big investment. We had invested over a million dollars in the technology for our dairy. And something that happened three months later, that nobody in our industry saw coming, was the price war on milk. And that’s when all the major supermarkets crashed the price to a dollar a litre retail. And that turned the clock back 20 years on the flow of money to the farmer.
So effectively we saw, through our Queensland and New South Wales especially, were impacted by the price war on milk, because we’re a domestic milk market more than an export milk market. So we made a decision, that actually forced our hand. And that’s when we decided to break away from the major retailers and the biggest milk processors, I guess.
We used to supply our milk to Pauls or Parmalat. And we broke away, and we built the factory 4Real Milk, which started bottling on site, as you said, in 2013. And that did enable us to pay the farmer a fair price, because we were not competing in that cutthroat market of cheap milk. We were selling our milk at retail for the right price so that we could share a fair amount of the money back to the farm gate.

Daryl Nicholson: Well done. That’s great news, mate. And just watching you over your Facebook page and your live feed, have you cracked through into Woolworths and Coles and the IGAs? Have you got your product in there?

Farmer Gregie: Yeah. Look, I feel like we spend a fair bit of time spinning our wheels and I guess in small business it’s often that way. There’s some really exciting things happening, but at the same time we still haven’t figured out how to sell quite all of our milk, you know. We we do want to support local, and we’d love to see local support us. And at Toowoomba, it’s been very supportive. I think we’re in 30 or 40 retail outlets in Toowoomba now. But the volumes of milk per store are not real high.
As far as the major supermarkets, yes, we’re in about 120 IGAs, probably about 30 FoodWorks and quite a few in Toowoomba. We are now in 60 Woolworths stores, and growing. They’ve been extremely good to us. And I’m pretty sure we’re in seven Woollies stores in Toowoomba alone now, as well as a lot of other parts of Southeast Queensland.
And I guess the challenge is that the perception is 4Real Milk is still expensive at retail, when it’s actually at the right price. It looks expensive compared to the cheaper brands of milk that have been getting sold now since 2011. And that is an artificially subsidised low price, if you will. When I say subsidised, the markets are able to subsidise that price so they don’t lose money, because they put a larger margin on a lot of their other products. So they’re still making money. But no part of the dairy industry gets subsidised by that low price. We just get to wear the loss, unfortunately.

Daryl Nicholson: Okay. Now, I haven’t been to your farm yet, and I know you’re doing a farm tour at 10 o’clock. And I’ve been watching your Facebook, with school kids coming through. And [Paula 00:06:06] tells me she’s been there. And she’s telling me some of the cows go and get milked seven times a day. And I just find that quite fascinating. Tell us about the robotic farm and how it works.

Farmer Gregie: Well it is a voluntary milking system, and it’s rare for cows to milk themselves more than four times a day. Some will milk four of five times, but the average of all of our herd is generally running at a little bit under three milkings per cow, per day. And the robots don’t get turned off. The robots are controlled by a computer system and all of the cows have an electronic tag on a neck collar. So every time they walk into the robotic dairy shed, they’re scanned and recognised by the central computer system, which then decides what to do with each cow. And the robot is then sent information, so all the cows are treated as individuals. And there’s four robots milking four different cows in the shed at the same time. But effectively 24 hours a day the cows have access to the robotic dairy.
The reason they generally don’t milk more than three times a day is because we have automated gate changes, and every eight hours the gates change direction and the cows, as they leave the dairy, are sent to another feed, a fresh strip of pasture. So yes, our cows literally eat grass every single day of the year. And for me, I think that’s very natural for the cow. And I’m probably going to run into a bit of trouble with some of my farming friends, but I’m kind of opposed to the growth in the factory farming sector. I think we need to find a way to get back to what’s more natural for our animals. And the only way to do that, and to really reinvigorate and return profitability to the family farms, the only way to do that is to sell food for a fair price.
See if we keep on discounting and undercutting the value of our food, then the cheapest way to produce food, it doesn’t matter whether it’s an animal or a plant product, but the cheapest way to do that is in an industrial level or on factory farms, when it comes to animals. So we’re really setting ourselves up for a failure in doing that. I think that we need the the support of consumers to understand what is a fair price for food, and then the flow of money getting back to the farmer will enable smaller family farms to operate sustainably into the future.

Daryl Nicholson: Yeah, definitely agree. And Andrew, this is what I was talking about when we did our first recording, the Toowoomba Farmers’ Markets at Cobb and Co. You’re meeting local producers, you’re spending local, and I’m a big advocate for spending locally. And it might cost you a dollar or more, but sometimes it’s even cheaper. But this is what Gregie’s about, he’s about local business. And this is what I love about this guy. Have you got any questions about the robotic farm? I mean, I want to go and have a look at this thing and see how it works.

McCarthy-Wood: Yeah, it does. It sounds very, very interesting. And definitely those points, Gregie, about the cows choosing when they want to get milked. I’ve been around a few dairy farms, just here and there. And you tend to find it’s interesting that the cows do, they tend to learn the way. But quite often dairy farms are very much about, you know, five or six o’clock in the morning, start milking and then get them out into the paddock. And I guess if they’re not ready to go right there and then, well it’s too bad. You’ve got to fit in with the herd. So do you find that you get better yields out of a cow because they are choosing when they want to get milked?

Farmer Gregie: Yeah, and it’s almost a paradox, Andrew, because not only have we seen better productivity yields, our cows have probably increased their per-cow production by 10% since we’ve been in the robots. And that’s compared to the sort of milk production we used to get pre-robots. But we’re also seeing better health and longevity, as in how long the cow can live. Because a cow in a robotic dairy is actually more comfortable, relaxed. It’s a calmer environment. And there’s even been research done in the universities. And I believe Camden University in Sydney has found that cows in robotic dairies are quieter and calmer than cows in a conventional milking system. And that’s because there’s no humans to push them around and tell them what to do. It’s like, the cow does what she wants when she feels like it.

McCarthy-Wood: Yeah. And that’s interesting, the way that you’re describing that, because I’m looking at your website, And when you talk about robotics and dealing with animals, that does sound like an industrialised approach to producing food. But you’re actually saying, really for the cow, it’s keeping that unnatural contact away from the cow as much as possible. So it’s actually really the opposite.

Farmer Gregie: It is completely the opposite to what people think until… And as you said before, Daryl, we’re doing tours all the time now. And I guess since 2012 we started doing farm tours, and I’ve hosted about 1,500 tours in that time. And we do occasionally get people ring us and want to tell us over the phone that this is inhumane, how dare you milk a cow with a piece of machinery. But for the people that come for the actual tour experience, they get to see firsthand with their own eyes just how comfortable and calm and relaxed the cows are with what’s happening. Like you said, it’s the opposite to what people think. It’s less intrusive on the cows than people trying to tell a cow what to do and when to do it.

McCarthy-Wood: Yeah. Gregie, before we talk about the details… Because before people should form an opinion either way on it, they probably should at least experience it, so they know what they’re talking about. And, and you say, they’re likely to switch to having a positive view on it. But what about people’s way, or approach to buying milk? How would you like to see that change?

Farmer Gregie: Yeah. Well look, it’s a pretty interesting time when it comes to food in general, and I know you’re a bit of a foodie yourself, Daryl, you love your food.

Daryl Nicholson: Yeah, so does Andrew and [Jody 00:12:36]. They love food.

Farmer Gregie: But the challenge we face today is that the massive majority of Aussies who eat food know absolutely nothing about where it comes from. And I’m not just talking about animal production. I’m not just talking about cow’s milk, or our beef or lamb or pork. Even our fruit and our vegetables. They have no concept of what goes into the production of food that they eat. They just rock up to the farmer’s markets or the supermarket and buy what they need. So I just think there’s not a lot of grey areas when it comes to… Sorry, there’s not a lot of black and white. It’s all grey and it’s all… the context that people take, thing.
For example, in the production of cow’s milk, some sectors of our society today are being quite concerned that there’s animal welfare issues and it’s inhumane. So they choose to drink a plant-based milk instead of something from an animal. But now I see a lot of people, and I don’t have any doubt they’re well meaning people. They want to do what’s right for the animals and for the planet. And they are promoting something like almond milk as an ethical replacements for cow’s [inaudible 00:13:47]. But there’s a whole ethical issue around the production of some of our plant crops.
And when we look at, okay, we have nearly four million people in Southeast Queensland that could support local and drink milk from a cow that eats grass, in their backyard. Yet they will choose almond milk that’s being shipped from California. Now if we really care about our planet, shouldn’t we be supporting local, and minimising our carbon footprint? You know, more and more of our plant-based choices, and dare I say our vegan choices, are being shipped all around the world, pre-packaged in plastic, when they could’ve been eating real food that came from their own backyard, and supported local. Which then in turn supports local jobs and businesses, and has a much, much smaller carbon footprint.
So you know, there is a whole lot of grey, and people don’t always look beyond what… You know, if we don’t allow our kids to grow up with a balanced view and hear both sides of a story, then all they’ll be is converted to what they believe is right, based on lies. And that’s where I do talk a lot about where our food comes from, and the importance of recognising the behind-the-scenes work that goes into food production.

McCarthy-Wood: Yeah. Farmer Gregie, like for anybody to want to know about you, you’ve got a Facebook page there, which is just, as per usual, forward slash FarmerGregie4Real. But for people that want to come out on a tour, what’s the best way for them to find out about that?

Farmer Gregie: Yeah, so we also have a 4Real Milk Facebook page. It’s a bit more product related. Farmer Gregie Facebook page is more my thoughts and opinions, and views on the world at large. And I’m happy to share my thoughts and opinions, but I think the important thing to recognise, anyone who wants to be a person of influence today, if you’re going to share opinions, you really need to do some research, and base them on truth and reality. We see a lot of opinions shared based loosely on opinion these days. That’s a problem.
But yeah, so far as tours go, Daryl, people can check out… We have a couple of websites, as well. The robotic dairy website as you mentioned before. And also the 4Real Milk. That’s the number four, And both of those websites have contact details for tours. The tour experience does require a booking. So we are putting together tour groups all the time. We run about five tours every week. But some days there’s no tour on, so people can’t just turn up without having booked in. But we’re always putting groups together.

Daryl Nicholson: That’s excellent.

Farmer Gregie: And yeah, so that’s the best way to find those details.

McCarthy-Wood: Yeah, look, that sounds really, really good. Thank you very much, Daryl Nicholson, for your time with Gregie. Gregie, thank you very much for your time as you drive through traffic. And I’m glad that you checked out the Morton Bay region, it’s a beautiful place. But gee, that Scenic Rim, just looking at those images of the farm.
If you have any interest or concerns around the robotic dairy approach, at the very, very least, just go check out the website. It’s got great imagery there that really show what the cows are enjoying as far as the views and the green grass, and all of that sort of stuff. But if you’re even more interested in it, get yourself onto one of these tours.
Also, think about your choices. When you’re heading to that shopping centre or that local service station, maybe just cast your eye over the brands of the milks, and take a bit of an interest as to where that’s even coming from. And then do your own research and look into the processors, maybe, behind that milk actually making its way into a bottle.
Further, when you come to those plant-based alternatives, you have an absolute right to make a choice around veganism, or anything else in-between. And there seems to be all shades of grey there. But really, the best thing is to be fully informed, isn’t it Daryl, when it comes to making these decisions?

Daryl Nicholson: Oh, definitely. And as I say, you can’t avoid the majors, but when you’re in the majors, just think about the locals. Can you buy something locally? And that’s really what I’m trying to push. You just change your spending habits by 5%, you’ll make such a difference in your local community.

McCarthy-Wood: Thank you very much for your company.

By Andrew McCarthy-Wood

News Videographer/Photographer/Journalist and Media/Communications Consultant.