Heading south and going green

By Dairy News

THE GREEN pastures of Tim Humphris’ new farm in south-west Victoria seem a world away from Tongala.

As he shelters from the spring wind and rain on the Nirranda South property, not far from the Great Ocean Road, Tim says his move from northern Victoria has been a huge learning experience and challenge, and in many ways, a relief.

“The best thing is having the ability to grow a lot of grass in the spring and not having to irrigate,” he said.

Tim is one of a number of northern Victorian farmers who have relocated to the state’s south in search of more rain.

He admits it was very daunting to start.

“We arrived in the middle of calving and it’s very different to the clay loam soils we had at home. If we pugged a paddock at home it was gone for good until next season; if we damage a paddock here it just seems to recover.

“It’s like learning again but that’s challenging and really enjoyable. I’m amazed at how much the grass grows over winter; now the unknown is getting ready to cut as much silage as we can to take us through the summer months and minimise what we have to purchase.”

Tim realised it would be wise not to come in and try to change the world. “I’m watching what has happened here on the farm in the past, what the neighbours are doing and being a sponge to learn,” he said.

The previous owner, Barney Hammond, continues to live onsite and has been a great help with advice.

Unlike Tongala, the farm doesn’t have irrigation. “I’m happy about that,” Tim said, “although I might not think the same over the summer months.”

A vet for 15 years at Kyabram, Tim fulfilled a long-held dream of going dairy farming 11 years ago, purchasing a 130-ha dairy at Tongala with 300 Aussie Red and crossbreed cows.

Like other northern farmers, the critical issue became water. “We only owned about a quarter of the water we used, which exposed us to the temporary water market,” Tim said.

“When supply is tight and demand is high, that’s when the water cost goes up. Our peak water price was around $600 and our minimum was $5. It was heading to where we couldn’t cope with the costs.

“If you’re growing perennial pasture, like we were, a water price of $150 is about the maximum you can afford. I could see the writing on the wall.”

His water right had been purchased for about $1200 a megalitre and was sold with the farm at $3600 a megalitre to a corporate group that wanted to expand a neighbouring farm.

A change in personal circumstances meant Tim could look at relocating, with options in Gippsland and western Victoria.

He consulted Price Waterhouse Coopers agribusiness team about connecting with an equity partner and was matched with Brian Hewitt and his son Jonathon, who have a cropping background in the Wimmera and other business interests.

“They try to align people with similar philosophies and we seemed to be a good fit, in liking to keep things simple,” Tim said.

“They were keen to look in the western districts and I could look for larger farms than I would have been able to afford on my own.”

Land values were a key in moving west ¬– Warragul cost about $12 000 an acre (0.4 ha), in the south-west it’s somewhere between $5000 and $6 000.

Tim moved in on July 15. The Nirranda South property covers 287 ha with a 40-unit rotary dairy. It was milking 350 Friesians; half that herd came with the farm and will be blended with Tim’s cows for a total of about 400.

“My preference is for the Aussie Reds because I’m used to them,” Tim said. “I find the big Friesians are a bit slower; they’re always last to the dairy. Mine are smaller but very competitive.”

Tim’s cows calved in August-September but his new farm had a May-June system and that will be adopted.

Previously all young stock stayed onsite but Tim will use an out-paddock at Beech Forest next to his father’s farm.

Production is tracking well, just hitting 10 000 litres this month. Like Tongala, the farm has mostly perennial pastures with some annuals on lighter, sandier soil closer to the coast.

Tim’s son James, 20, is also working on the farm.

While enjoying the new challenge, Tim says the water issue in northern Victoria “stirs me up a bit”.

“I feel a sense of relief that I’m no longer exposed to that but at the same time, I feel a sense of concern for my friends in the area who are still doing a great job of managing the situation, but it is stressful.

“There’s no obvious solution; it’s a political problem.”

Despite leaving, Tim sees a future for dairy in northern Victoria, albeit in a different form.

“I think the farms will be a lot larger and they will be feedlot farms, utilising irrigated crops with a cut-and-carry system. The key will be to have the scale to cover your fixed costs. It could be difficult for family farms to take that step.”

He also expects more interest in dairy in western Victoria. “I think others will come here. I think it’s a fantastic area for dairy,” he said.

- Rick Bayne