Doing the hard yards

By Dairy News

NOBODY DAIRY farms for the accolades, least of all Dehne and Sarah Vinnicombe.

But when they were crowned the 2017 Dairy Farmers of the Year, they couldn’t help but feel a little excited and overwhelmed.

“Well, I guess it’s good recognition for all our hard work, but not just mine — my dad’s and the generations before me,” Mr Vinnicombe said.

“I have had a good start but I have had to buy into the business and I have had to make plenty of tough decisions over the years.”

The Vinnicombes farm at Calivil in northern Victoria. They have spent the past few years building up their business and it is now time to find the happy medium.

They currently milk 550 split-calving cows but that number is not necessarily where they will stay — it could decrease or increase depending on the season — but they will always continue to run a split-calving herd.

“You have more options if things come in wet and you can always dry cows off early if you have to. We seem to make the most money when we have a lower stocking rate,” Mr Vinnicombe said.

Self-sufficiency is a huge part of the success of their business, and Mr Vinnicombe works on the theory that he would rather buy in water and grow his own grass, than buy truckloads of hay.

“I would sooner buy water and grow my own grass — once the hay is gone it’s gone,” he said.

“We generally use around 1800 Ml of water if we get a decent spring break and I like to have a couple of years of water up my sleeve. I don’t actually believe in the carryover rule but it is there so I use it.”

This summer Mr Vinnicombe grew sorghum, so the cows have been on green feed twice a day, sorghum in the morning and lucerne at night.

He has sown 100 ha of shaftal and rye and has another 200 ha to go. He likes to keep his milking platform sitting around 300ha.

“I have a bit more hay to carry over this year because I grew sorghum. I grew more hay last year because I was focusing on quality hay for milking but the hay price has remained pretty stable and grain has gone through the roof.

In an average year Mr Vinnicombe grows about 50 per cent of his grain requirements. “I have locked in a price for the rest.”

Last season the business made the big decision to swap milk companies, after spending the past four decades supplying Murray Goulburn.

“Loyalty has gone now and farmers will be looking for the best-up front price they can get, which is not necessarily a good thing for the industry but it does put the onus back on the processors to pay a sustainable price and I think people will be looking for longer term contracts,” Mr Vinnicombe said.

He said a contracted price allowed the business to spend money on capital works if required, pre-purchase water and grain, and allowed the business to ramp up or down depending on the margin.

“This way of thinking has helped our business and got us out of a lot of trouble over the years and it also helps if you are not in the market the same time as everyone else.”

He also firmly believes having a high-reliability water allocation has been gold.

“We have given water up to get on-farm works done, but we have also bought it back. We might have saved water through the program but we now have more land in production then we ever have before, so there are no actual water savings to speak of, just efficiencies.”

Sexed semen is another management tool the business has used.

“We have a ridiculous amount of young stock, which also gives us a lot of options. On day one of calving we can end up with 60 heifer calves in the shed.”

Mr Vinnicombe also relies on his workforce, and said it was important to make them feel appreciated. He uses contractors for silage, while the rest of the work is carried out by him and his workers.

“I don’t milk any more but I do all the sowing, AI and irrigating. I spend a lot of time working more on the business and put a lot of time into OHS — that’s a huge concern and I like to make sure maintenance is always up to date.”

Dairy farming is not always easy, and Mr Vinnicombe has had his fair share of tough times.

The 2011 flood, which saw him unable to milk his herd for two days, was a huge kick in the guts.

“That flood was pretty tough and we were so helpless back then — Sarah and I were doing all the work ourselves back then. Our family has owned this land since 1904 and it didn’t even flood in the great flood of ‘56.”

The Vinnicombes have set themselves a 20-year plan, and if none of their four kids are interested they will get out of the industry.

“Dairying is great but I don’t want to be doing this for the rest of my life.”