Tracing times of change in the dairy industry

A time of change: William Hetherington (right) sits next to his son Kevin at the old Bega Saleyeards. Photo supplied: Kevin Hetherington.
A time of change: William Hetherington (right) sits next to his son Kevin at the old Bega Saleyeards. Photo supplied: Kevin Hetherington.

When William Hetherington purchased land on Coopers Gully Road in 1925, he had no idea he was buying into one of dairy’s most transformative eras.

Many things were different then, Bega was known for butter, not cheese, the saleyeards were located where the Bega Indoor Sports Stadium now stands and most farmers kept Jersey cows, not the black and white Friesians we see in fields today. 

At 23, Mr Hetherington started his own dairy with six cows from his father.

The depression made finding labour easy. Men walked the streets of Bega looking for employment, and Mr Hetherington hired two men to hand milk his cows in return for food and a bed.

But when World War 2 broke out, most men were enlisted for service and labour became scarce. 

Thankfully for Mr Hetherington, milking machines were introduced soon after.

The machines used a petrol engine to drive a pressure pump that extracted milk. He bought two, which was all he could afford at the time, and drastically reduced his dependency on farm hands. 

Livestock transport trucks brought about the next shake-up in the 1940s. 

Previously, if Mr Hetherington wanted to transport his cattle afar, he had to enlist drovers to walk his herd five days over Brown Mountain to Nimmitabel train station. Now the journey can be done in an afternoon. 

The increased ease of transport allowed farming districts to assist each other in times of need.

After a dry spell in 1952, Bega was burnt out. Hay was donated to the Bega showgrounds for distribution between local farmers. Most of the hay came from the Kempsey area. 

The favour was returned when Kempsey farmers lost a lot of cattle in a flood. A cattle drive was organised by Bega farmers who donated Jersey heifers to the Kempsey farmers nearly 1000km north.

The 1950s saw the introduction of electricity to Mr Hetherington’s dairy farm.

Despite the occasional blackout, electricity proved a great help and facilitated the next revolution in dairy farming, refrigeration. 

Before refrigeration, Mr Hetherington and his fellow farmers would catch their milk in 10 gallon cans, spraying them with cold water to cool the milk inside and prevent spoiling. 

The cans were picked up by carriers from the factory, where the milk was taken to make butter. 

As the factory switched from butter to cheese, it made sold refrigerated vats to its dairy farmers.

Milk was stored on farm in the vats and pumped out daily by a tanker, a service that took the carrier’s job, but surely saved his back. 

These improvements allowed Mr Hetherington to grow his initial herd of six to almost 50 head of cattle. 

While these changes saw herd numbers grow, they created a decline in the number of individual dairy farmers.

Technology has allowed the dairy industry to run on a bigger scale, with less human involvement in production. 

Mr Hetherington ran one of 12 dairies along Coopers Gully Rd, today there are none.

Thanks to Kevin Hetherington for sharing his father’s story.