Pushed to breaking point but back on track

By Dairy News

WHEN YANNATHAN dairy farmer Dean Turner received his first milk cheque after Fonterra drastically dropped milk prices in 2016, he asked himself: “Why am I doing it?” Mr Turner said the price crash made him and his wife, Bek, realise how vulnerable the industry was. Mr Turner is a sharefarmer with Noel and Ann Campbell, having started as a farm hand in 1998. They entered a sharefarming agreement in 2012. A couple of good seasons before April 2016, when Fonterra followed Murray Goulburn’s lead and cut the milk price to recoup money from their farmers, enabled the Turners to buy and rear heifers on a small lease block.

“We were kicking goals, making headway, then it stopped,” Mr Turner said. “Seeing that milk cheque in June, we realised the extent of the impact it would have on the business. It barely covered wages. “We had just bought a lot of feed from up north—almond hulls, apples, oaten hay—as we were told price would be all right. We were above break even at that price so we went for it. “They turned up on the farm and the price crashed the next day. A lot of dairy farmers got burnt.” Mr Turner said he had “quite a few sleepless nights” after that milk cheque arrived. “I refl ected on it for two weeks, then Bek and I took our money out of our investment proper

ties and our FMD, and exhausted all the fi nances we’d worked towards.” Mr Turner said putting his thoughts on paper helped him make some sort of sense out of the industry, and what was happening. “We work so hard in our industry but the rewards aren’t solely cash. You walk into a paddock every day and see your investment walking around you.” With his mind made up to continue, he prepared a check list. Employees were paid fi rst and he made sure he and his family had what they needed. “I don’t get up and work in the morning for nothing.” He prioritised payments to smaller businesses

and called the larger businesses to explain he would pay 50 per cent of what he owed now, with the rest in the future. These calls were well received at the other end. “All the support from Noel and Ann over this period was invaluable. We are starting to make headway but we know it’s going to take time.”

Coming out the other side

“2016–17 has been a good year,” Mr Turner said. “Seasonally it’s been good and the milk price has improved. There’s not a lot of extra money but we’re getting through the bills.”

This season has further reinforced his decision to continue in the industry he loves.  He and Bek have formed an equity partnership with Mr and Mrs Campbell and their son, Evan. The new partnership, Redan Partners, took the lease on a neighbouring farm and has been milking 360 cows from July 1, under Evan’s management. The partners all have equity in the cows.

“When the farm came up for lease, it was probably a year too early for us because of the price drop. I would have preferred to pay with our savings but we had to get finance,” Mr Turner said.

“The bank approved a mortgage within 24 hours and this financed our cows.” The partnership pays for all running costs and each partner receives a dividend three times a year. With their commitment to the industry reaffi rmed, the Turners are now focused on the future. Their priority now is to build their herd.

Turnips make welcome return

Turnips have become an important summer feed at Yannathan once again.

“We stopped planting turnips 10 years ago because of severe weed infestations,” Mr Turner said.

However, they resumed planting them about six years ago, using pre-emergent herbicides and averaging 14tonne/ha over the past few seasons. Insects—particularly bugs, caterpillars and diamond back moths—had also proven problematic but the insecticide Success is applied when turnips are about the size of a 50 cent piece, and again when quite mature.

Paddocks are disced, power harrowed, sprayed with pre-emergent, power harrowed again then planted. Turnips are planted by Melbourne Cup weekend. Normally 15ha is planted but this year it’s 10ha as they’ve taken on the other farm so there’s been more work. Turnips go in the worst paddock or sacrifice paddock, where they receive more nutrients.

In summer the cows receive 4kg of turnips a day then silage in a sacrifice paddock. Once turnips have been grazed, the paddocks are drilled, sprayed, power harrowed and planted to perennial rye-grass (Matrix and Bealey) in March-April.

Crossbreeding for the best herd mix

A decision was made 12 years ago to shift from straight Friesians to a three-way cross—Friesians, Jerseys and Aussie Reds. “It gets quite wet on the flats and the big Holstein cows struggled in the mud. It also proved a challenge to feed them in the wet years,” Mr Turner said.

His sister, Kellie, oversees the breeding program. It is a passion for her.

Jersey bulls were put over the Holsteins initially to reduce the size and then Aussie Reds were put over the crossbred progeny. The average weight of the herd is 520kg to 540kg and they are producing 550kg/milk solids.

“If we had had a 600kg Holstein, I’m not sure they would be able to produce 600kg MS,” Mr Turner said.

Due to the years of crossbreeding, the profile of the herd is run through the Genescreen program with the assistance of HICO.

“We select for type, daughter fertility and cell count and then Genescreen tells us the best bull, whether that is Jersey or Holstein.”