Calcium-rich dairy foods are often recommended as a natural booster of bone health, but Far North Queensland dairy farmer Lex Emerson is incorporating dairy into her fitness routine in an unexpected way.
Christened Alexandra but known her entire life as Lex, this 75-year-old continues to take the lead in milking her family’s 160-cow herd.
“I milk full-time – twice a day, every day,” the third-generation dairy farmer Lex says. “It keeps me healthy. I have osteoarthritis so I need exercise. If I wasn’t doing that now, I probably wouldn’t be able to walk; it’s as simple as that.”
Dairying runs through Lex’s bloodline. Her parents and grandparents (the Graham and Chapman families) were in the industry, as was her late husband Keith’s family (the Emerson family).
Lex’s father-in-law Bob Emerson arrived in the Atherton Tablelands in 1908, having driven 1000 cattle more than 1800 kilometres overland from Lismore in northern New South Wales. Despite half the mob having been lost to tick fever when they reached Mt Garnet, the Emersons went on to establish one of the region’s earliest dairy farms.
At the time the family supplied milk to the Malanda Butter Factory – a facility that led the way in dairy processing on the Tablelands and was the forerunner of Lion Dairy & Drinks’ site today.
By comparison, the Graham family were relative latecomers, settling the Tablelands a decade or so later.
“My father was only a baby when the Graham family arrived on the Tablelands – one of 12 children,” Lex says. “Dad loved showing cattle and when he first left school he used to go around the shows, travelling with the cattle on the train to look after and feed them. He always loved shows and milking competitions in those days – going to the exhibition in Brisbane.”
The extended clan has been dairying at Jaggan, on the Atherton Tablelands near Cairns, for more than a century.
Lex’s cousin, Ross Chapman, has a dairy farm not far from the Emerson property.
“The Chapman side of the family came from Scotland to Gympie; my grandmother’s people were Danish. My grandfather thought there were no more selections to be had down Gympie way so when he and my grandmother were first married they came further north to find land. They had two selections here; he had one and she had another. Now we have four blocks altogether that were originally selected.”
The Chapman and Graham name changed to Graham and Emerson in 1962, when Keith and Lex moved back to the family farm in partnership with Lex’s parents. Lex has lived on the farm ever since.
“Things were tight and tough at times but we always managed. I don’t care who you are: you have your hard times, your hard seasons,” she says.
And now, one of Lex and Keith’s four sons, Wayne, is continuing the tradition. While Chris, Raymond, Mark and sister Maree have pursued off-farm careers, Wayne has chosen to work beside Lex, sharing responsibility for managing not only dairy but also beef cattle.
“Keith loved cattle and so does Wayne, just like his father,” Lex says. “It’s something within. We’re part beef here these days as well; we’re not all dairy.”
For milking, the Emersons run a blend of Aussie Reds, Friesians and crossbreds. “We’re mixed today,” Lex says. “When deregulation came in we bought some Jerseys to up the milk fat and protein levels, and we’ve crossed them through some of the others.”
Lex says she has seen consolidation and contraction across dairying on the Tablelands, where roughly 100 farms have tapered down to 43, in her view driven largely by milk pricing.
She is assisted in the dairy primarily by 19-year-old Jessica Stonehouse, with backup from sons Wayne and Raymond whenever their workloads permit.
One of Lex’s teenaged grandsons is already showing interest in the farm. “Raymond’s on the railway in Cairns and is here a lot. His son Lachlan, who’s just turned 15, loves the farm. We’ll wait and see, but he comes up as often as he can – holidays and weekends.”
Lex is conscious of maintaining her physical health, having seen her mother experience osteoarthritis and a sister become paralysed by multiple sclerosis. “Given what my sister’s going through I’m very lucky,” she says of her own osteoarthritis. “At times it gets to be a bit much but generally speaking the milking is very healthy for me.”
Lex balances running the dairy and taking care of the property’s business paperwork with having an off-farm break occasionally. “I tend to go once a year to see Mark in Ballarat, Victoria, or Maree in Lake Cargellico, NSW.
“I do the business paperwork; Wayne does the cattle paperwork and the dairy. We split it between the two of us,” she says. “It works out.”
Lex says increasing digitisation is one of the biggest changes to have occurred in dairy farming in recent decades. “Everything is more computerised; in our day it wasn’t. You have to be up with that. It’s what’s expected.
“But, also farmers need to be very careful financially. You have to work out a plan to focus on where you’re aiming to go.
“We’re not stressed like young people starting off, coming in and having to work their way through. We’ve been there; we’ve done that. We’re just comfortable where we are at the moment.”