AT 35 Katrina McRae is taking on the biggest challenge of her life but it’s one she’s been planning for as long as she can remember.
Alongside partner Kerry Cowland and their daughter Sophie, 9, Katrina is taking over management of her family farm just outside Heywood.
Her parents Andrew and Loretta McRae took over from his parents in 1980 and now it’s their turn to pass on the reins when calving starts in April.
Andrew and Loretta had planned to sell the herd and had cut from 280 to 140 before Katrina decided to take on the challenge.
“It’s something I always wanted but it wasn’t really planned,” Katrina said. “The opportunity is there now and the cows are still here; starting up again would be too hard,” Andrew added.
The herd was reduced to 140 but the addition of 38 Jerseys into the predominantly Friesian herd has brought the tally up to 178.
The home farm is 190ha, but only about 175 ha is suitable for farming with native bush and swamp land.
It’s a good farm for dairy with high and low ground. “The high ground in front is good because it won’t slop in the winter when it’s wet, and it’s good for growing grass on the lower ground,” Andrew said.
They also have out paddocks to rear calves.
The farm is largely self-sufficient with Andrew eschewing high input systems.
“We only buy about a tonne of grain per cow,” Andrew said. “We made a lot of hay and silage this year because the season turned out a lot better than expected.
“We didn’t get a lot of rain but we got the right amount at the right time.”
The farm achieves just under 500 kg/Ms per cow, though it’s likely to be better this year to make up for the reduced numbers.
Andrew trialled a high input system for about five years but went back to his traditional methods.
“I couldn’t get around spending the money,” he said.
“We kept buying more and feeding more to get high production but you end up giving money to someone else and you don’t have enough for yourself.
“We went back to basically what we can grow at home in silage, hay and grass with a little bit of grain to entice them into the bales, which also helps with joining in winter.”
The farm uses top AI bulls, looking for high components, good legs and feet, and temperament. The focus on quality has worked and they have the number 16 BPI herd in Australia. They have used AI and herd testing for 40 years to get the best out of the best cows and to cull the lesser cows.
The dairy is an 18 swingover with auto cup removers, auto draft and milk flow meters.
“Having all the information means you make good decisions and can cull the cows that aren’t worth having,” Andrew said.
“We’re looking into genomics to test cows but the biggest problem we face is analysing it all — you can get over-run with data sometimes.”
Last year they used a new computer program to determine priorities for bulls and their preferred traits.
They also aim to breed more heifers than needed and then use herd test figures to decide which to keep.
Katrina is now working alongside her father to learn the farming systems, although she’s no stranger to farming.
She worked for an AI company and in other jobs, but always came back to the farm to help. Kerry runs their own earth-moving business.
“Dad said if you don’t do it now, you’re never going to do it, so we’re going to have a crack,” Katrina said.
“It’s all set up; everything’s there and we’ve just got to make it work. It’s going to be a challenge but it’s something we are looking forward to.”
Katrina will do most of the animal husbandry and Kerry will focus on pastures.
Kerry recently helped to improve one of the out paddocks, now being used for a crop of rape after its rye-grass and clover was cut into hay.
“It gets very wet in winter and you can’t really stock it, so last year Kerry came out with the grader and scraper and made it into lands with humps and hollows so the water runs into the hollows and runs away,” Andrew said.
“We’re also changing the fencing to utilise the land properly,” Katrina added.
“We planted rape for the first time last year and we got a good crop off it.”
Because Andrew was planning to sell and had reduced numbers, new crops will be needed and some pastures will have to be revived.
The farm has an irrigation plant but it hasn’t been used in recent years.
“We’re lucky the way the farm is set up we have feed without having to use it and put on extra water,” Katrina said.
However, Kerry wants to try it to see if it boosts production.
Andrew, 60, is moving into semi-retirement. “Forty years of milking cows is enough for me. We want to do a bit more travel,” he said.
The transition will happen over 12 months to make sure Katrina and Kerry want to continue.
“You’ve got to plan ahead and make the right moves at the right time,” Andrew said. “Luck plays a part, but you’ve got to work to make it happen.”
For Katrina and Kerry, it will be a steep learning curve. They’ve already brought in Jerseys and will keep some, but will focus on their Bonniedoon Holstein stud.
They have also reversed plans to dry off over summer and will milk through.
“It’s exciting to see what we can make of it,” Katrina said.