Looking for a reason to smile

By Rick Bayne

HAPPY COWS mean happy farmers and young Western District farmer Rachael McGrath is doing her best to keep smiling.

At 25, Rachael is taking over management of her family farm which has endured years of adversity and setbacks. With a good 2019 opening price and general improvements over the past year, Rachael is confident things have turned the corner.

The McGraths have farmed at Orford, North of Port Fairy since the 1940s but that was threatened in 2007 when a worker on a quadbike was hit by a truck as he crossed a road.

Not only did they lose their worker in tragic circumstances, they lost their dairy farm.

Under legal advice, the McGraths pleaded guilty to culpability for the accident even though it happened on a public road — a plea they later regretted — and were forced to sell their 355 ha dairy farm to pay fines and compensation totalling $3 million.

“It was so life-changing,” Rachael said. “There was a girl in the accident who broke her femur and people thought it might have been me on the back of the motorbike.

“It took a lot of rebuilding emotionally as well as financially.”

The McGraths had kept one property through the legal proceedings and continued as beef farmers until 2010. However, beef wasn’t working financially so in 2010 they built a new dairy 4 km away from their home property on land already in the family and returned to the industry.

Rachael farms with her parents Eddie and Anne, uncle Andrew, 70, who keeps the dairy spotlessly clean, sister Maureen who keeps the books and brother Leo.

There were positive times — like when a horse owned by Anne, Tears I Cry, won the $600 000 Emirates Stakes in Melbourne, but a lot of challenges. Anne was diagnosed with cancer in 2012 and successfully fought the disease, Tears I Cry was bitten by a snake last year and died and they lost five horse stables, floats and equipment in a shed fire in March.

“I said to Mum, can we get this place blessed, I’m sick of bad luck,” Rachael said.

This year is considerably brighter and Rachael is relishing her responsibility.

“I did a Certificate IV through RIST last year,” she said. “I didn’t feel confident enough to take on managing the farm without having that study behind me.”

She works closely with teacher Janet Hunter, who is now a farm consultant, and with agronomist Bill Feeley from Bade Ness.

“We had managers but they didn’t know the way we like to run the farm,” Rachael said.

“It’s hard to give control to someone else. With the Cert IV, I felt confident I could manage pastures, nutrition, paddock rotations and soil tests and breeding, and I already knew AI and preg testing from a Cert III at TAFE.

“One of my things is happy cows. We have the radio on and don’t talk much to each other and they come up nice and easy. We don’t use backing gates and they’re happy. We had a farm manager who used dogs and pushed them quite hard but that didn’t work. Our cows are basically pets; they’re easy to deal with.”

They milk 400, about 150 pure Jersey, 180 crosses and about 70 Holsteins but they aim to become fully Jersey.

“We just joined 115 replacement heifers and about 80 of them were straight Jerseys. We don’t want any more than 420, so next spring calving whatever’s not Jerseys we’ll sell as springers.

“We haven’t sold young stock in the past but now we’ve met our quota it’s an option. That’s what I’ve been aiming to do and I wanted a good record as well so it’s a saleable herd.”

Jerseys are preferred for their good feed to milk ratio and high milk solids, and the opening prices for the season are giving Rachael and her family reason to feel confident.

“Everyone is pushing for more milk and they’re pushing the price up which is really good to see,” she said. “We supply UDC. The opening price was $6.60 then went to $7, we sit at $6.80 after deductions.

“Hopefully the dairy industry keeps going well and there seem to be promising things happening.”

Rachael says well-fed cows are happy and good producers, which reflects well on the bottom line.

“They’re milking well and this year’s heifers are the best we’ve grown out,” she said.

Profit was up about $200 000 during May so Rachael is confident she’s heading in the right direction.

The dryland farm can’t be self-sufficient but the McGraths are investigating irrigation and have altered their feeding system.

“We buy wheat delivered on farm and a pre-mix which has added crushed corn and also includes lime, salt, acid buffer, oil, magnesium oxide, and we add an elite dairy premix pellet, magnesium sulphate and Monensin,” Rachael said.

“I didn’t want to cut their feed because it was expensive; they’re milking well and paying for themselves.”

With a new milk price focusing on milk solids, Rachael is happy the Jerseys are achieving 1.8 kg/MS per cow and producing about 22.5 litres, while some Holsteins have topped 40 litres.

Their 40-unit rotary dairy with a GEA system and Dairy Plan, automatic cup removers, retention bars, flow meters, automatic drafting system provides good data, though Rachael wants to spend $70 000 to add collars for the cows.

“With the collars, if I’m away I can still see exactly what’s going on with heat detection and we can track their walking, rest time and rumen function and pick up sick cows a lot earlier.”

They are also boosting home-grown feed, following the cows with urea and gibberellic acid which has led to significant increases to the growth rate.

“I wanted to put a bit of weight and energy on them before joining so we’d get a better conception rate. We haven’t been bad — about 70 per cent — but I wanted to improve that. This year I’ve been checking dirty cows once a week and then Mum and I flush them with iodine and then Metricure if they’re not coming good. Changing management and watching them all the time is improving the rate.”

Dry conditions in recent years prompted a change to calving which now starts two weeks later in mid-March, and a general tightening of the system to avoid winter calving while giving those not in-calf a second chance in spring.

Rachael has also bought her first show cow, Wallacedale Melvara Melanie, and hopes to follow Leo who has had success with his Wootanga Park Jerseys.

Rachael is keen to forge a strong future in the industry. She was sponsored by the Gardiner Dairy Foundation to participate in a New Zealand study tour, took part in a recent Jersey Australia tour and would like to see more support from the industry for young farmers.

“I want to stay dairy farming and ultimately own the farm,” she said. “I have 20 cows in the herd and some young stock and we’re looking at possibly trading my cows for a percentage of shares.

“The biggest thing is you can’t buy in unless you have family or you’ve made money elsewhere. It’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle and it’s what I enjoy.”