Riding out tough times with low-input system

By Stephen Cooke

BRUCE AND Fiona Manintveld’s low-input farming system enables them to achieve a cost of production of $4/kg/MS, which is helping them achieve their business goals despite the past two tough seasons.

The former GippsDairy Focus Farmers run a 320-head Jersey herd on a 146 ha farm at Mirboo North they purchased five years ago. They have recently leased a further 56 ha next door, to run their young stock.

Mr Manintveld said the low-input system reduced the workload, which meant he did not have to employ labour. Mrs Manintveld, who works off-farm for Agriculture Victoria in Ellinbank, contributes 0.3 of a labour unit, primarily with calf rearing, herd testing and helping out where required.

Mr Manintveld said he worked on average between 50 and 60 hours a week.

“If we paid labour it’s almost going to cost an additional 50¢/kg, and I don’t want to take on the hassle of employees,” he said.

The cost of production includes a figure, taken from the Dairy Australia Dairy Base program, for the couple’s labour, which works out to $130 000 annually.

The Manintvelds were sharefarmers at their previous farm, starting with minimal machinery and going into debt to purchase 250 Jersey and crossbred cows at an average of $850/head. “There was nothing flash about the cows but they did the job,” Mr Manintveld said.

By the time they left, they owned everything outright and had saved $500,000, which they used as a deposit to purchase their current farm.

“Our farming style is a very simple, repeatable system,” Mr Manintveld said.

“We used it successfully when we were sharefarming before buying this farm and carried the practices forward to here.

“We used a consultant while sharefarming. Every month he looked back and said we did everything at the same time as the previous year.

“We are grass-based and don’t tend to bring feed in, because for us there’s usually not a return in it, especially with milk prices sub-$5.50.

“A simple system with low inputs equates to low labour usually.”

Mr Manintveld said the system and low cost of production helped them navigate the price cuts of 2016 with minimal stress.

The goal when they purchased this farm was to be debt-free in 10 years and, halfway through, they remain on target.

“In the back of my mind, the prices of the last few years were always going to happen at some stage. It’s never fun while they’re happening, but we were prepared and it hasn’t impacted on the goal,” Mr Manintveld said.

The Jersey cows are roughly 420 kg liveweight and average 4500 litres and from 420 to 430 kg of milk solids.

“It’s not huge production but I don’t expect it and don’t chase it. The season dropped out two years ago and production dropped 15 per cent. For us, that was a better option than buying in feed and feeding them.”

The herd is fed home-grown grass and silage and about a tonne of grain.

“This year we did 150DM of silage. Normally we do 120DM but had more cows so pushed it a bit. We can get through with 120 rolls of hay, just for the dry cows.”

The Manintvelds finished their two-year period as Focus Farmers two years ago.

“You pick up ideas from other people and hopefully people can pick up stuff from us. You find there are different ways of dealing with the same problem,” Mr Manintveld said.

“The big picture hasn’t changed for us. We have refined the feeding a bit more, but nothing major. We made small changes but came away knowing we were on the right track.”

They are still involved in a local discussion group.

“We go to a different farm every month. With six farmers, there are six options for each problem but it’s up to you to decide which one you want to use.

“With so many options you can walk away pulling your hair out, which is what happened sometimes at the Focus Farm, but it’s about assessing which ideas are relevant to how we run our system.”

Since buying their farm, they have spent more than $300,000 on capital, including installing an effluent system, upgrading the stock water system, improving all laneways and updating the dairy.

More than $200 ,000 has been spent updating the 28 swing-over dairy, including ADF machines that were being installed when Dairy News visited.

“Basically we’ve spent everything we were planning on spending in the short term, we just need to get rid of debt now.”

Mr Manintveld is looking at installing a robotic rotary in five years, once all current debt has been paid.

“I’m looking at robotic rotaries but not too closely now as I might want to put it in now,” he joked.

“It will add cost but hopefully I’ll retrieve some of that back by doing a better job outside the shed. We’ll see.”