Investment a nod to future in dairy

By Sophie Baldwin

SCOTT AND Anna Fitzgerald are looking at the construction of a 50-unit rotary on the Tongala dairy farm they lease as an investment in efficiency.

The couple has a long-term 30-year lease on the property (including water) with Scott’s parents and are already six years through the lease.

They purchased the 300-cow dairy herd when the lease commenced.

They have a unique and positive outlook on the industry and are determined to grow their business and improve efficiencies.

“Some people might think we are mad building a rotary on a property we don’t even own but we look at it a different way,” Scott said.

“Mum and Dad had already spent their lifetime paying for the farm and if we did the same, we would effectively be paying for the farm twice and our business would never grow.

“And we need to grow.”

The first change the couple did make was converting the herd to A2.

The former Murray Goulburn suppliers were hit hard by the price crash and decided a long-term stable milk price was important moving forward.

“We wanted a secure milk price and have been with Kyvalley Dairy ever since. They supported us over our transition and while it has been a big change, it has worked very well, and pricing has stayed steady over the years,” Scott said.

Transitioning to A2 meant selling some of the existing herd and buying in more expensive A2 cows.

Numbers are now up to 380 but the 6.5 hours spent in the dairy each day was testing everybody and hence the decision to build a new dairy.

The couple bought the second-hand platform from Kerang last year and are in the process of installing the rotary at the bottom of their 22-herringbone dairy to save a few dollars and make use of some of the existing infrastructure.

“We wanted to tie in our current infrastructure to minimise cost because we couldn’t afford to build a new dairy on a greenfield site,” Scott said.

He estimates building a new dairy would have cost $1.2 to $1.5 million, their budget is around a third.

In September last year they began the decommissioning process, building a new manure pit and rotary pad.

“We had to build up the land and construct the manure pit because we will be using a lot more water and our old pit would have never coped,” Scott said.

The shed was built over the months of February and March and concreting was completed in April.

The platform is going in at the end of May and Scott was hoping to have the dairy up and running by the start of spring calving in July.

“We probably won’t make this deadline which is more due to financial restrictions than time. It’s been a very tight year and a bit of a juggling act for us.

“In a nutshell we have another big capital project on the go installing a pivot on an out block which we brought forward because of this year’s water price. The out block has a good spear point on it and it was a resource we couldn’t utilise.”

Completing the pivot enabled a maize crop to be sown in January.

“It was a late crop and we have no yields yet (the crop was just being harvested) but we did budget on a 17 tonne/ha crop and it seems like we will comfortably make that, if we didn’t have the maize we would be in the hay market a lot earlier.

“We now have fodder security over winter in a year when it could potentially run out and cost a fortune, it’s actually been a lifesaver.”

The couple is hoping to milk 500 cows and the construction of a new dairy will no longer be a bottle neck to expansion.

“Two years ago we bought a 50 ha block which we will grow maize on over the short term and lucerne long term because it has good sandy soil. We have also bought a neighbouring farm which will expand our milking platform by half and allow us to grow more feed and agist our young stock.”

Scott said the farm used to have a 260 ha fodder block at Kotupna which his parents now use for beef.

“This left a hole in our business which we replaced with agistment and fodder purchases but in a tough year that puts a lot of pressure on things, it is a hole we are definitely trying to now fill.”

Scott has no idea why he remains so positive about the dairy industry.

“I guess I really enjoy watching my business grow which was something I couldn’t get out of my trade. You do something in spring and see the benefit in autumn, or three years later, and that to me is very enjoyable.”

And with a family of four young children, dairying and growing the business is allowing the couple to achieve a better work/life balance.

“It used to be just Dad and I before Anna and I took over. Initially we thought we could do it ourselves, but we soon got burnt out, so we decided to employ our first person and now we have two full-timers and three part-timers — growing the herd has allowed us to do that.”

Scott said they will continue to build herd numbers and the focus will then shift to the herd itself and possibly a feed pad in the future.

“We calve three times a year, autumn, spring and summer, which is driven by the domestic milk market. We need a flat milk supply which means our cost of production can creep up, although it definitely spreads out some of the work load over the year, which is a good thing.”