8 Remarkable Lessons From Spending 88 Days In A Dairy

This is an adapted post from freelance writer and contributor to CGH Group blog, Hannah Ballard. You can read the original in full here, and learn more about her journey on her website.

Whilst countries like Canada and New Zealand offer two year Working Holiday Visas to under-30s, Australia is a bit different. To stay for a second year, a backpacker must spend 88 days doing ‘specified work’ in ‘regional’ Australia.

To stay in this country, I had to put my freelance writing business on the shelf. For the guaranteed hours – and hourly pay – I donned the jacket of a dairy hand, and took the ferry to Tasmania.

Lesson 1: Sleep is important

Away from any kind of distractions or stimulants (you can’t stop milking cows for a coffee break) and with little else to do on a work day (as the nearest convenience was a petrol station) sleep became a priority – and I soon noticed the tangible impact an extra twenty minutes could have. When you have fewer waking hours, you balance them a bit better.

Lesson 2: Good bosses get dirty

Balancing the things I could control – like sleep – made the things I couldn’t – like cows – easier to deal with. But easier than that, was having a hands-on boss.

For much of my time at the farm, he was working alongside us, covered in muck.

The companies with the best retention and happiest employees (at all levels) are the ones where bosses are willing to get their hands dirty, rather than simply delegating the things they don’t want to do.

Lesson 3: Rather than glamourise grit, encourage respect

It’s a LinkedIn meme: entrepreneurial rags to riches stories of grit and success. They romanticise the work put in at low paid jobs. But using these jobs as examples of something to slog through implies they are lesser.

During my time as a dairy hand, my opportunities outside the farm motivated me. But for most, the early mornings and back-breaking work* is their life. And it is work that keeps the world ticking over.

Donning another life is not heroic. Showing respect regardless of rank – that’s admirable.

*(A colleague actually did break their back; slipping a disc when lifting a calf)

Lesson 4: Being kicked hurts

There is no metaphor here. A hoof to the chest is painful.

Lesson 5: The status quo sets prices. The emphasis should be on value

The cost of milk is used as a benchmark of inflation. But assuming milk should be cheap is in contrast to the actual work of milking cows.

Though increasingly automated, it is a LONG process. Some cows are fussy about where they stand, or who they’re next to.

Cows need management; not to mention the feed, land, and other costs associated with care. But distributors and supermarkets set the prices.

Just as corporates set the current standards, innovation is driven by in-the-box thinking to improve the current system. Instead, we should create new benchmarks and systems.

Lesson 6: Sometimes it’s not about the big aha moment but being humbled

In self-development, the focus is on forging new paths. Looking for the lightbulb ideas. Trying to find purpose.

Between milking, calf-rearing, fence-building and weed-whacking, there wasn’t much space for meaningful moments. As one of the few women, and the least-skilled and weakest farm hand, I was in a position so out of my comfort zone – I was humbled.

And being humbled makes it easier to learn, and keep motivated. Having no relevant skills made me appreciate those I do have – and put that impostor syndrome aside, for now at least.

Lesson 7: That said, hustle isn’t everything

Compared to city working, farming is a more sedentary lifestyle.

But an existence that is either at work or entirely not, with no in-between (or emails to check) was a reminder that hustle is not everything.

It’s easy to fall into that life and death state of “being busy.” It is far more difficult to extract yourself from it. A dairy is life and death. Cows are living creatures that need to be fed and cared for. Just like humans; like employees; like your own mental health.

Unless you’re a parent or a medical professional, your job isn’t really life or death, is it?

Lesson 8: At the end of the day, dirt washes off

Much like the mud that coated my farmwear, the muck you get at work will wash off. The bad bosses, cruel colleagues, tiresome tasks… they are debris of the day, not a reflection on you.

Whilst ‘brand you’ should be authentic, it’s ok to keep some of you for yourself, off the clock.