Dairy journey from Ukraine to Australia

By Dairy News

AUSTRALIA'S DAIRY industry has often looked across the world to fill on-farm positions but not many make the trek from Ukraine.

Alex Bohdanov and his partner Ivanna Tsybenko have, and they are setting up home on Brian McLaren's Woolsthorpe dairy farm.

With their first child on the way, they are applying for permanent residency while Alex hones his love of farming as the farm's herd manager.

More than two-thirds of the land in Ukraine is dedicated to agriculture and the country has an intensive and developing dairy industry, but Alex and Ivanna wanted to look further afield.

Alex studied production technology and processing in agriculture and worked in Ukraine on a dairy farm but decided to look overseas for better job security.

About seven years ago they found the right match in New Zealand.

“It was a good choice,” Alex said.

“New Zealand was much easier than Australia in those days to get a work visa.”

“I found an agent in Kiev looking for young people to go to work in New Zealand and he found a farm assistant position.”

Despite language difficulties and challenges in passing a required English test, Alex started alongside workers from the Philippines and Germany on a 650-cow farm.

Their initial three-year visa could only be extended if Alex stepped up to a management position so he studied various courses such as animal husbandry and pasture management at agriculture school in New Zealand.

“You get advantages if you study locally,” he said.

“It's all about local knowledge. If I was going to get a step-up in the job, I needed to do local courses.”

He was able to move on to another farm as herd manager, opening the door to another three-year visa.

“It was a good experience. The practical experience was great, learning about treating lame cows and different kinds of treatment to care for cows.”

He looked to make the move to Australia after the farm he was working on suffered a Mycoplasma bovis outbreak, like many other farms in New Zealand.

Despite not having irrigation like his New Zealand farms, Alex says the season has been great for hay and silage.

Having studied in two different countries and now worked in three, Alex is able to compare best farming practices, though nothing matches the challenges of minus-20-degree temperatures in Ukraine.

“Ukraine is a relatively young country; not that long ago we were part of the USSR.

“The way people work there is a bit different from western countries,” he said.

In Ukraine university, his study was more theory-based, in New Zealand it was more practical, while western farms are more about efficiency.

“People are really focused on efficiency in western countries and you don't have many people to work the farm," Alex said.

“In Ukraine a farm with say 700 cows could have 40 people working on it. They employ a full-time vet, mechanics, full-time tractor drivers. It's a different system with a big difference in mentality.

“In Ukraine people focus on many, many details, such as herd testing every 10 days. They want to make sure the quality of product is very good.”

Alex said the milk price was the same around the world — not as much as farmers want or need, while wages for farm workers were much higher in Australia and New Zealand.

“But there is a difference in the cost of living. You can live there with the lower salary because things are much cheaper,” he said.

The weather might be the biggest difference and challenge.

“We have really cold winters, sometimes minus 20 with lots of snow. The cows are kept in barns or sheds.”

The Ukraine Government has been encouraging small family farms. Grants are available for milking equipment along with subsidies of $100 per cow per year.

Some family farms survive with just 10 to 12 cows.

Alex and Ivanna keep in touch with their home land and try to visit every year.

“It's a good country; it's not as bad as some think,” Alex said.

“You can work overseas for a few years and get some money to buy properties.”

Alex and Ivanna own apartments there.

“At this stage we don't plan to go back to Ukraine but it's good to have something there because you never know what will happen,” Ivanna said.

They have applied for permanent residency in Australia and are expecting their first child in late July.

“We had looked at Canada but we had holidays on the Gold Coast and looked around and thought the country was nice and Australia was a good choice,” Ivanna said.

“Australia is closer to New Zealand and has a similar culture.”

While Ivanna works as a hairstylist in Warrnambool, Alex is enjoying his role as herd manager for the McLaren farm where he's part of a four-strong permanent workforce supplemented by casuals and part-timers.

The farm has more than 600 cross-breed cows plus heifers on a 450 ha grazing platform, plus out blocks for silage and young stock.

“I don't see a huge difference between Australia and New Zealand but we feed out a bit more during summer because we don't have irrigation here.

In New Zealand, every farm I worked on had irrigation.”

While learning new skills and adapting to the local conditions, Alex has been focused on herd health and keeping cows clean from mastitis.

“We're doing well; our cell count varies from 120 to 150 which is pretty good for the end of the season,” he said.