Next generation of farmers

By Rick Bayne

BEN AND Anna Kenna are proof you don’t need to start your farm ownership dream with high equity.

The Kennas didn’t want to wait until they were in their 50s to buy a farm and, despite some initial reservations from their bank, they are happy they have taken the plunge.

Now aged 39 and 35, Ben and Anna have three years of farm ownership behind them and their equity situation is already on the rise. It started around 20 per cent and 18 months ago stood at 27 per cent; today it’s 42 per cent.

As a WestVic Dairy Focus Farm, the Kennas have been dedicated to making decisions that improve profitability. The Focus Farm group has been a great help, with support and ideas

They started sharefarming on land near Terang in 2002 for Anna’s parents Kevin and Therese Moloney. Ben’s parents Bernie and Denise owned the herd at that time, but the young couple entered a lease-purchase deal about 10 years ago, paying off the cows over eight years.

They purchased the 305 ha farm about three years ago. They milk mostly Friesians, with the herd reaching 570, up from 534 the previous years. Depending on price and seasonal conditions, the numbers could go a bit higher.

Becoming a Focus Farm presented a two-way opportunity for the Kennas — they could learn from fellow farmers and also share some of their successes.

They were particularly keen to improve understanding of their operational costs

“Because we only purchased the farm fairly recently, we had a reasonable amount of debt. Part of it was to show people it’s achievable with a low equity start,” Mr Kenna said.

Debt consolidation is now their primary aim and every decision aims to maximise profitability.

They are pleased with the substantial growth in their equity, though they realise favourable conditions won’t always prevail and the current rate of improvement might not be sustained.

They knew they had to buy the farm at market rates but didn’t want to wait too long.

“The bank had said we could look at it in five years but we were keen to do it sooner rather than later,” Mr Kenna said.

“We didn’t want to wait til we’re 50. We wanted to put our best foot forward now.”

Consultant John Mulvany reviewed the farm figures and gave them confidence to press ahead with the purchase.

“His presentation allowed the banks to take it more seriously,” Mrs Kenna said.

The 60-unit rotary dairy was only three years old, meaning the farm purchase would be their only major investment. The dairy also features a nearby feed pad, split into two sections that can be used separately by the milking herd or calving cows.

The Focus Farm has helped the Kennas to fine tune their expenditure, and to introduce some new technology.

“Because we can closely monitor the farm activities and our expenditure, we can see where we’re going well or where we might need to fine tune a few things. We found we were doing pretty well,” Mrs Kenna said.

Cost of production remains quite good at $3.67/kg/MS, lower than most similar farms.

One of the main focuses has been on herd fertility. The Kennas have installed a heat activity system that has delivered a five per cent improvement in their empty rate and a seven per cent improvement in their six week in-calf rate.

“We had been thinking about it for a while but we had the advantage of the group facilitator, Angus Drummond, being able to crunch the numbers for us,” Mrs Kenna said.

The facilitator found that if they got two more cows in calf every year they would pay for the system over seven years, while also eliminating other costs and creating significant labour savings. In the first year there were close to 30 more cows in calf.

Someone in the Focus Farm group had the same Cow Manager system installed and was able to give an insight into how it worked. Since then four members of the group have installed the system.

This calving season they have added a third employee to ease workload pressure. The heifers start calving on April 1; the cows a few weeks later. For the past few years they have raised extra calves to sell on the export market.

Based on a suggestion from the group, the Kennas have introduced dryland maize for the first time. Despite the dry summer, it seems set to supply a reasonable harvest, following on from good crops from their traditional perennial pasture over the past two years. They achieve 8.8 tonne/DM and home-grown feed accounts for more than 50 per cent of the total.

Production is strong. In the previous year they achieved 313, 573 kg/MS with 534 cows; this year they will achieve about 340,000 kg/MS with 570 cows while maintaining 587 kg/MS per cow. Total farm income is $6.61/kg/MS and EBIT earnings are $2.63/kg/MS.

The stocking rate has gone up from 2.1 to 2.25 per hectare, which Mr Kenna says is relatively high for a dryland farm but sustainable. They send heifers away for agistment because they don’t have any support land; however, an out paddock is on their medium-term agenda.

The Kennas use contractors for all fodder conservation. “We don’t have much machinery; we only have two tractors, a silage wagon and a silage grab but that keeps repairs and maintenance costs down and we can focus better on running and managing the farm,” Mrs Kenna said.

Another initiative over the past three years has been recycling effluent into compost. “It’s a sustainable practice which means we can re-use our effluent and save on fertiliser,” Mr Kenna said.

The Warrnambool Cheese and Butter suppliers, who have four children, say the Focus Farm process has given them more confidence and a bright outlook.

“We feel really supported in the whole process,” Mrs Kenna said.

“It gives us confidence that when we decide something it’s been discussed and reviewed and we’re comfortable with it.”