Moving south to pursue dream

By Stephen Cooke

A fierce desire to grow their equity, and the unpredictability of the Bega seasons, has seen Tom and Gemma Otton take up a sharefarming role with Peter and Jeanette Clark at Kongwak.
They trucked their herd of 180 cows (in four loads) from Bega to their new Gippsland home, and have since expanded it to 300 head.

Mr Otton is a fifth generation beef farmer from Bega, while Mrs Otton is from a fishing family, having moved to Bega from Nowra. They met while working for the herd management information company, Dairy Express, and their interest in dairy grew as they became involved with good farmers in their two years in the job.

Mr Otton was offered a job with Glencraig Jerseys, which essentially saw him managing the farm after three months. It was a steep learning curve, but it instilled in them both a passion for Jerseys and genetics.

Sophie Orton bringing in the cows.

After three years the young couple was given an opportunity to lease a friend’s farm, and bought the herd and machinery. Securing finance to purchase the herd of 180 cows proved frustrating.
“We went to 10 banks. NAB was the 10th bank and they said, ‘no worries’.” As a result, their advice to other farmers is to keep trying. “You’ll get there eventually,” Mr Otton said.
“Once we had the loan, because we made repayments and paid NAB back, it was easier to get a loan for our next cows.”

He described their time at Bega as the “toughest of our lives”. On top of the milk price collapse, “the spring and summer was the worst in Bega for at least 10 years. We received 30 mm in five months, and were using 2 Ml a day to irrigate.”

They were milking 140 cows and realised it would require better seasons to expand, something that couldn’t be guaranteed in Bega.

“It was a 200-cow farm with reliable rain but we went six months without rain and in Bega you can get your annual rainfall all at once,” Mr Otton said.

“The irrigation bills were extreme and the $30 000 irrigation bill in February was the killer for me. We realised, we’re not going to make a profit from this.”

They made the decision to move to an area that would help them achieve their goals. After seeking advice and visiting several areas, they signed a 50:50 sharefarmer agreement with the Clarks, and trucked their cattle down.

“We had four trucks of cows, nine hours in poor weather, and only lost one calf. There were no cows down,” Mrs Otton said. 

The herd ready for milking.

There have been some lingering effects — the cell count rose with older cows, and production has dropped with a small percentage of the herd.

The couple wanted to purchase 100 of the Clarks’ herd and set parameters — spring calving, younger than six, all calving between July and September; 107 head fit the bill and were purchased.
“We looked at selling our herd in Bega and buying here but realised we would be between $30 000 and $50 000 better off trucking them down,” Mr Otton said.

“They were in calf to AI bulls and have genetics from strong cow families (including Sleeping Beauty, Fern Leaf, Dolly and Molly) so it would have been disappointing to see that investment lost.”
They now have 250 Holsteins (with some crossbreds) and 50 Jerseys, milking on 160ha. Their plan is to expand the herd to 400 in the next three to five years. To do this, everything will be retained.

“Whenever a heifer is born we keep it,” Mr Otton said.

“If you only calve 50 heifers a year, you’re only breeding replacements. If you retain 100 calves a year, you can increase numbers and make the old girls nervous.”

Calves in the calf shed

They still have crossbred cattle they bought in Bega and won’t cull anything that is productive until they have reached their expansion goal.

“If it’s an ordinary-looking crossbred, but is producing 700 kg solids and 130 per cent solids to body weight, why would you get rid of it?

“To us, sending a crossbred heifer calf to bobby market is insane. You could make money in the dairy. It also increases our equity, which I’m big on.”

They have a keen interest in genetics and select their own, conducting extensive research into bulls and cow families. They want to achieve 4.5 per cent fat and 3.6 per cent protein, producing 7500 litres a cow. They select strongly on feet and legs, and udders.

“Our goal for the herd is 150 per cent milk solids to body weight. We also aim to produce 5000 kg total solids in a cow’s lifetime. We may not get there but it’s something to work towards — you never say never,” Mr Otton said.

“We love our Jerseys but Holsteins are more profitable on this farm. In Bega, Jerseys were more profitable. They could turn fresh air into milk.”

They perform their own AI and use Moo Monitors when calving. They are currently discussing whether to introduce a sync program.

“We want lots of cows calving on August 1. I’d rather have two big weeks rather than lot of cows over eight weeks,” Mrs Otton said.

They calve 70 per cent in spring and 30 per cent in autumn, which is the opposite ratio to what they did in Bega.

The Ottons appreciate the quality of the farm, with the Clarks having maintained a pasture improvement program, and maintained laneways.

The 30-head swing-over dairy is fully computerised and has ADF cups, while Mr Clark is building a feed pad in time for summer. The calf rearing facilities include a covered calving pad and milk pumped from the dairy to a vat in the calf shed. Calves receive ad lib milk mixed with cultured milk, which the calves thrive on, to the couple’s initial surprise.

Having done the hard yards, Mr Otton said opportunities started to open for them.

“When we first looked for a sharefarm arrangement, it was difficult without a herd, but when we had one, people were very keen for us to come.”

It can be a hard road for young farmers to get their start, but the Ottons have shown that the opportunities are still there.

Tom and Gemma Otton with daughters Sophia and baby Madelyn.