Efficiencies and innovations

By Rick Bayne

MEPUNGA FARMER Colin admits he’s not a stats man, but he knows the value of being efficient.

From introducing irrigation to a third of his farm 15 years ago to recent updates to his dairy, Colin always has an eye for a good investment.

That business nous has led him to shift suppliers to find a better deal, access more land, and to call in the vets whenever there’s a hint of a problem with the herd.

The result is a successful farm business that’s well primed to hand soon to son Christopher.

Colin and his wife Tracy celebrated their 30th anniversary on the farm on July 1. He bought the 120 ha property off a Tattslotto winner who had decided to dabble in dairying.

“I was on the home farm about eight kilometres away at the time but we heard second-hand that it was for sale and Dad rang him up. I was about to get married so the timing was good.”

He set about putting his stamp on the place.

“When we came here it was pretty much a blank canvas, not many fences or laneways. The first thing I did was sell the bulls because I couldn’t keep them anywhere.”

Five years later he upgraded the “terrible” 10-a-side dairy to a 20-a-side swing-over herringbone, perfect for the farm’s peak of 240 Friesians, increased about five years ago from 200 when Christopher returned to the farm.

They also bought a 40 ha block fronting nearby Great Ocean Road, and lease about 50 ha from a neighbour, using both for young stock, silage and running some beef.

In 1989 the farm came with a mostly Friesian herd and it has stayed that way.

Christopher and Colin have stuck with the Friesian herd, preferring their robust calves and good production.

“I’ve always liked Friesians,” Colin said. “They have big robust calves and are good producers, about 8000 litres and 526 kg/M per cow.

Although the farm gets good rainfall, Colin says the introduction of irrigation on 36 ha in 2003 has been a huge bonus.

“We now calve 40 per cent in February-March on the irrigation, then start again on August 1 for the next two months with a few stragglers going into Octobera” he said.

“That was the main use for the irrigation and we now rear about 120 calves. We started it in 2003 and went with fixed sprinklers. They’re not perfect but I’m really happy with them.

“It has definitely been a good investment. We’re not far from the coast and don’t really have drought but we have dry periods and this has basically drought-proofed us.”

Prior to irrigation, they calved from mid-May but the change better suited payment structures at the time.

The February-March calving is a straight eight weeks of AI, August-September finishes with bulls.

“A few later cows don’t worry me now because I can milk them on the irrigation,” Colin said.

The irrigation produces excellent summer crops of turnips.

“The cows are on turnips from late December to the end of April. We don’t have to buy much. We get grain, but not a lot, and feed about a tonne of wheat per cow.”

Likewise, Colin has been flexible in choosing processors.

He was with Fonterra but joined Saputo after the price drop.

“It hurt everybody but I was in full production when they dropped the price and it cost me a lot of money,” Colin said.

From August he will supply Bulla for a $7.20 flat rate across the year. “It’s a business decision — what’s best for us.”

Recently the focus has been improving the dairy. Solar panels were installed last November to battle “astronomical” power costs.

The dairy’s new rubber mats have made it easier for the cows.

“It’s a big investment and next summer we’ll get a better idea of the impact. They’re definitely helping but this isn’t the time of year you’d make the biggest gains.”

Colin expects a five-year payback period, with a predicted $800 a month power bill reduction during summer.

New Daviesway milking machines were installed six months ago, and the Milkrite triangular liners and lighter cups and claws are making a positive difference.

“It’s all about being light weight,” Colin said.

“They up the vacuum and suck a little harder. We never had trouble with our cell count — around the 150–200 mark — but in the last few months it’s been under 100.”

Rubber mats were also added.

“The concrete was 20 years old and getting a bit shiny and slippery. We had it grooved and that helped but didn’t stop all the cows from slipping on the ramps. The mats have made a massive difference; you don’t want them to get injured.”

Cow health is always a priority.

“I’m a vet man,” Colin said.

“I see a cow with a runny nose I ring the vet. We probably pay more for vets per cow than the average farm but we have a very low mortality rate. The knackery bloke said to me he’d go broke if he was relying on us.”

Colin says being efficient is the key to farming success.

“If something’s not working, I’m pretty quickly onto it. You have to be efficient.”

Now 52, Colin has started planning to handover to Christopher.

“It gets a bit harder as you get older, but we’ve got it pretty well set up.”