The smouldering wreck of Ukraine’s dairy industry, where farmers risk their lives to milk surviving cows

The smouldering wreck of Ukraine’s dairy industry, where farmers risk their lives to milk surviving cows

Warning: This article contains images some readers may find distressing. 

Dairy farming is tough at the best of times, but operating in a war zone with bombs raining down on you and the risk of unexploded ordnance detonating beneath your tractor shows extraordinary dedication.

For two years, Ukrainian dairy farmers — among Europe’s biggest suppliers — have been facing these hellish conditions in their battle to maintain critical milk production while war rages around them.

Horrific images of rotting carcasses of cows, of contorted, smouldering remains of tractors, and of paddocks pockmarked with bomb craters show there are many front lines to this invasion by Russia.    

Andriy Dykun, president of the Association of Milk Producers of Ukraine, says some dairy workers are trying to diffuse bombs themselves, while others have been drafted into the army to fight for their country. 

“Up to 50 per cent of the dairy industry is lost and up to 200,000 cows have been killed,” Mr Dykun said.

Hundreds of thousands of dairy cows have been killed during the war.(Supplied: Andriy Dykun)

Before the war, Ukraine was a major milk-producing country, ranking ahead of Australia, and producing almost 10 billion litres a year.

It will be many years, if ever, before its dairy industry recovers.

‘Everything has changed’

Mr Dykun says the Russian invasion has affected the dairy sector in many ways.

Speaking at the Australian Dairy Conference in Melbourne last week, he showed Australian dairy farmers a harrowing series of photographs, some depicting cows blown apart, burnt to death, or dying from gaping shrapnel wounds.

But as shocking as those pictures were, he says the reality is even worse.

“It’s not the most horrible pictures, it was like a light version of them,” he said.

“We have thousands of fields covered in mines, so that’s a really big challenge for Ukraine in the future.”

Andriy Dkyun says landmines litter many farming properties.(ABC Rural: Warwick Long)

Farmers have banded together to import a de-mining machine from America in an attempt to clear their paddocks of landmines.

“As farmers we invested some money into a military roller de-miner … for farmers to use in front of their tractors,” Mr Dykun said.

“It’s better to explode the mines with the roller than with a tractor.

“There is a front for soldiers, and there is a front for farmers.”

This paddock is riddled with craters from Russian bombs.(Supplied: Andriy Dykun)

Dairy workers mobilised to fight Russian invaders

Mr Dykun says many men previously working on dairy farms are now in the army, leaving those left behind to try to keep farms operating.

“Fifty per cent of employees are mobilised to the army, so if you have 20 men working on your farm, 10 of them are in the army now,” he said.

“So you need to think what to do more efficiently on your farm and maybe attract more women to work on your farm.”

Huge amounts of Ukrainian farmers’ machinery have been destroyed during the war.(Supplied: Andriy Dykun)

Previously a major exporter of milk products, Ukraine now can’t even produce enough milk to meet its own needs.

“We were exporting dairy products before the war, but now we are importing,” Mr Dykun said.

“But if we stop production, the economy of the country will die.”

Mr Dykun says like their Australian counterparts, Ukrainian dairy farmers have experienced times of depressed milk prices that created challenges for the industry, but the Russian invasion has put that frustration into perspective.

“Sometimes we were not happy, because the prices were low, but this is not bad, you were lucky,” he said.

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