The time of our lives

By Rick Bayne

GETTING THE timing right is a key to farming as Rachelle De Haas and her partner Mathew Donovan are finding out on a family farm near Heywood.

Rachelle and Mathew are farming with her parents Renee and Judith De Haas, who have owned the property for 30 years.

Renee and Judith have semi-retired and moved into Rachelle and Mathew’s house in town, but they remain very much part of the farm.

The young couple and its three children moved onto the farm in July, 2018. “We’re trying to give my dad a break,” Rachelle said.

Mat, who has been working on the farm for three years, now runs the day-to-day operations while all members of the family pitch in for milking.

Rachelle also works at a kindergarten in Heywood.

Mat grew up on a farm, but went on to a carpentry apprenticeship and has worked in Portland for about 14 years.

Adjusting to the challenge of dairy farming seven days’ a week has been daunting.

“We’re not used to seven days’ a week,” Rachelle admitted, “but we try to even it up, so we get weekends off.”

Adjusting to the time demands of dairy farming has also been interesting, particularly for a self-confessed night-owl like Mat.

The young couple has maintained Renee’s milking times, though will look to make adjustments in the long-term.

“We still milk at the same time Dad milks; he starts getting them in at four o’çlock in the morning and then milks again at 1.30 in the afternoon,” Renee said.

“Dad did that because when we were children my mum worked at the bank, so he was finished at 3.30 to pick us up at school and then spend the afternoon with us.

“Mat’s not a morning person and when Dad goes on holidays, we adjust it a little bit. Ideally, we’d like 5.30 to 6 am and then around 3.30 pm, and if we take on the farm long-term, we’ll look at that.

“It’s going to be a slow process to change; it’s a big thing for the cows to adjust.”

The De Haas family has recently signed a three-year contract with Bega, and the future of the farm will become clearer during that time. At the moment, Rachelle and Mat are working on wages, but other options will be considered in the future.

The farm is a relatively small operation covering about 160 ha and milking 130 Friesians, but it’s a good size for a family operation.

A Friesian-Jersey herd came with the farm when Renee and Judith purchased it but over time, they decided Friesians were best suited to the land.

“It’s been a good season and they’re holding pretty well and doing about 5800 litres every second day,” Mat said.

“It’s a good operation, so we haven’t needed to do much.”

Unlike previous seasons, no summer crops have been planted this year.

The farm receives good rainfall and almost half the land is covered by irrigation, creating enough opportunities for home-grown feed.

“We don’t need extra crops this year,” Mat said. “We buy grain every 16 weeks, feeding about 1 kg to the cows, and we haven’t had to buy in anything else this year.”

Rachelle said grain costs had led to a reduction in feeding.

“We were feeding quite a lot of grain, but we had to cut that back because the bills went from $6000 to $10 500,” she said.

“They’re not getting the rain up north so we have to look at more home-grown feed.”

The irrigation system was added more than 20 years ago and has proven to be a valuable asset. “Before that we could only water the front half of the farm,” Rachelle said.

“We used to have old pipes we had to move physically but now we have post sprinklers in the ground, which is a much easier system.”

A new dairy was built about four years ago — a 20-swingover not far from the site of the former 10 double-up. The walls of the old dairy — adorned with a mural painted by a family friend — have been retained and provide a colourful image for people passing by.

At the time the new dairy was being built, other family members planned to return to the farm; but when those plans fell through, it gave Rachelle and Mat the opportunity to jump in.

A more formal transition arrangement will be considered in the next few years, but in the mean time they plan to continue the joint operation while enjoying family farming life.

“I like being my own boss and being able to do things when you want to,” Rachelle said.

“It’s good for the kids — they’re outside doing things that town kids don’t get to do.”