Spending money to make money

By Rick Bayne

Kevin Wines would love to have a Valiant Charger sitting in the garage of his Ecklin farm, but how would it help his business bottom line?

Obviously, it wouldn’t, so practical-minded Kevin instead drives a steady family car.

“I’d love an old Valiant Charger but the prices are ridiculous and I’d probably only drive it three or four times a year,” he said. “Instead, I think I could put that money into a new shed. You’ve got to know where you sit and don’t go overboard.”

That sort of sound business thinking, not to mention a well-honed ability to grow grass, milk a productive herd and farm to his challenging conditions, has earnt Kevin and his wife Claire the Dairy Farm Business Management Award at the recent Great South West Dairy Awards.

Kevin and Claire have been on the farm since 2010 as share-farmers with Kevin’s parents, Max and Pam. They took over ownership at the start of the 2017-18 financial year.

Earlier Kevin and Claire had worked on her parents’ dairy farm at Nullawarre – where she won a Victorian apprentice of the year award - while Kevin continued helping his father in a contracting business and spent time as an electrician.

Kevin didn’t take much interest in the farm when he was young but once he and Claire decided to take the share-farming route they developed a huge thirst for knowledge that continues today.

Their parents and the Mepunga discussion group and more recently its Ecklin counterpart have been great fonts of knowledge. Kevin also completed many WestVic Dairy courses, such as Pasture for Profit, soil and nutrition, FertSmart, and on-farm days were also helpful.

“Talking to the fellas at the Mepunga discussion group was fantastic,” Kevin said. “They happily pass on their knowledge. They’d come to our farm help us fix any problems so we could make more money.”

From grazing management and stock numbers to feed and commitment to work, the group helped in countless ways.

Now 39 and active in the Ecklin group, Kevin says he learns from other farmers young and old and hopes he’s getting to the stage where he can pass on some sage advice.

The award indicates he’s already there.

The Wines farm on 120 hectares plus a leased outpaddock 10 minutes away at Laang.

There was no pressure for Kevin and Claire to take over –initial plans to move to ownership in 2016 were put on hold for 12 months when the price crash hit.

Max keeps busy with his small contracting business and helping out around the farm, along with providing sound advice.

“We’d been pretty much running the farm since we got here,” Kevin said. “They had confidence in the previous share farmer to run it as he saw fit and in turn with us.”

One of the changes Kevin and Claire instigated was to drop numbers to increase per-cow production, reducing the mostly Friesian herd from 230 to 210.

“We didn’t want to be milking and putting pressure on the farm,” Kevin said. “If I had too many cows I’d have to rely on bought-in feed. Dad always taught me grass is the cheapest feed. We can harvest it ourselves and it’s there when we need it.”

The young farmers bought calves and heifers and integrated them into the existing herd while culling those with high cell count, empty cows, cows that kick, and those with recurring mastitis

Records kept via the Easy Dairy system made it simple.

Because the farm gets wet with an average 900mm rain a year, they vaccinate and avoid big cows. They have consulted with cow evaluator Amy Wright from World Wide Sires to set direction for a medium-sized herd and to improve traits; mostly mastitis resistance, good milk solids and fertility, while rectifying any problems such as bad legs.

“There are still some big cows in the herd; the old pump-a-heap-of-milk, hard-to-get-in-calf type, but they’re slowly breeding themselves out,” Kevin said.

“This farm won’t tolerate bigger animals. We’re getting a nice-uddered herd with good stature and we’re trying to reduce mastitis which can be a problem because we’re a wet farm.”

In summer it’s a bit greener than most other places and the farm has two feed pads and a calving pad close to the dairy to help during the wet winters.

“The feed pads help out immensely,” Kevin said. “We don’t really need two but the first one was a bit small and this gives us one on each side of the farm. Calving through the wettest time of the year; that’s where the feed pads and calving pad come in handy.”

Previously a March-July calving farm, Max changed to chase price incentives. Heifers are due to calve in early August; cows start later in the month.

Kevin and Claire continue to improve reproduction, although their 10 per cent empties is a good number for the district and the conditions. This year they’ve used all A.I, avoiding problems for bulls on the wet land.

The cows are producing about 600 kg/Ms, at the higher end for their size. “We could get bigger solids out of bigger cows but if I push them harder I’d end up with mastitis and sickness because they’d be trying to do too much,” Kevin said.

They’ve had regular mastitis problems but manage by moving cows; strip-grazing, using the feed pad and having a strong focus on herd health and replacing those susceptible to the condition.

They use mostly home-grown feed, growing hay at the outpaddock and having mostly perennial pastures at home. Their sheds can hold 1200 rolls under cover.

Max always had a proactive but targeted approach to spending money on the farm and Kevin has kept that philosophy. “We’ve got two kids Kora and Korbin and we’ve got to have a bit of fun time but we’re putting what we can back into the farm to make improvements. We spend money to make money.”

Although as Warrnambool Cheese and Butter suppliers they were cushioned from the price clawbacks, the Wines try to be prepared for when times get tough.

It was business as usual during their first year as owners. “We didn’t go spending too much. DairyBase helped so we knew the figures. Now we can look at how much we made and work out what we can spend for something we really need.”

Future opportunities could include shelters to protect cows and pastures during wet winters and a move to A2 milk if that became a possibility in the region.

“Dad’s always been proactive, not reactive. Be prepared is what he taught to me. You don’t know what might happen because farming is always a volatile industry. I’m not afraid to spend money but I like to get a return for it.”

Winning the award took the Wines’ by surprise.

“I think grass growth was a big factor. Our figures using the DairyBase system stacked up. We grow about 7.3 tonnes of dry matter/ per milking hectare; the judges said the region average is around 5.5Dm/Milking Ha.

Kevin is pleased to share his success. “I love showing off the farm and in the Ecklin discussion group I like getting off farm to see if I can find a new idea to bring back here. I’m still learning but I’m getting to the stage that I’d like to pass on what I’ve learnt. It’s all about sharing what we know with each other.

“One of the comments I heard was there’s a thousand ways to farm, you’ve got to find one that suits your farm. Everyone’s still learning, no matter how old you are.”