Brad Collins is going back to basics as he looks to capitalise on what he calls the best farming land in Australia.
Third-generation farmer Brad farms with his wife Tammy at Dixie, south of Terang, and is in the final year of a four-year plan to buy the property from his parents, Jeff and Barb.
Now 44, Brad has been farming most of his life, including stints in northern Victoria, NSW and South Australia.
He looked at other options, but settling on the family farm emerged as the best plan.
“We could have bought cheaper farms but this is one of the best areas,” he said.
“Out of all the places I’ve farmed, this kills it.”
Since returning to the farm, he’s made it a one-man operation and embarked on making farming simpler.
“We were getting great production but making no money,” he said.
“The way we were treating our farm wasn’t going to be sustainable. We were pushing it so hard; hammering it with urea, pushing the stocking rates. It wasn’t going to last and wasn’t what people want.
“It’s going back to simple is best; running the farm myself, rolling my sleeves up and doing the work.
“We’re farmers; we should work and be proud of what we do. I had to change my mentality to be proud of what I do.”
Brad said the farming and feeding systems of 15 years ago don’t work today because of grain prices, labour and other costs and changing markets.
“People want clean and green and we have to be as clean and green as we can,” he said.
“Let’s bring the protesters into the room and listen to them and make them listen to us. They’re not going away so let’s meet in the middle and educate each other.”
At one stage the farm was milking 450 cows, but has cut to 230 to 240. Production has dropped but so has the cost of production and the farm is more profitable.
“We were feeding 2.5 tonne of grain; now we’re about 1.2,” Brad said.
“I can still increase production but we’ve got to find the happy medium.”
Brad’s main focus is growing crops during summer and fully utilising his irrigation while reducing fertiliser applications.
He hopes the mainly Holstein herd will push about 7000 litres this year and ultimately reach 8000 on about 1.2 tonne of grain.
“To go from 8000 to 10 000 would be a kilo of feed for a litre of milk, depending on time of lactation. When grain is $400 a tonne, there’s not enough margin to make it worthwhile,” he said.
His crops include maize, chicory for the first time, lucerne, clover and turnips.
“I like the mix. Lucerne can be tricky but there’s no restriction on the amounts the cows can have, whereas turnips are limited to about 5 kg a day.
“I want to back off on the grain and on more strategic use of urea, using the better feed value of the crops to inject natural nitrogen into the ground.”
The farm uses only about a third of its 360 Ml water right and will add a turkey’s nest dam early next year and pump water into it to help drought-proof for the future.
“It will give us added resources over summer and we can’t pump water out of the ground quickly enough at the moment,” Brad said.
He has also added a mill beside the 30-year-old rotary dairy, regularly maintains the dairy and will plant 1000 trees this year and 3000 next year.
Brad also has a half-share deal with a cropping farm at Darlington where he does the work and takes half the product each spring.
“It takes the pressure off him and brings fertility back here,” he said.
“It’s important to have connections to other farms and systems and for farmers to stick together so we have a strong voice.”
He has adopted February-March calving, replacing the previous split autumn-spring system.
“We’ve gone back to a one-man operation and wanted the simplicity of one calving.
“We’ve got the irrigation to grow crops to feed them early, and, for selfish reasons, we wanted to have January off to go fishing.”
Brad is convinced south-west Victoria will become Australia’s food bowl and is already the best area for dairy.
“We’re going to have more competition with sheep and beef and eventually fruit and vegetables,” he said.
Brad and Tammy like the idea of diversifying. They already run a few beef cows and also host a swim school at their indoor pool, run by Brad’s sister Holly.
“In 10 years’ time, I don’t think we’ll be just dairy farmers. I think the industry will push that way and people are thinking outside the box.
“We need to be proud of what we do and education should be about diversity; not just one path.”
Brad is very positive about the future although he questions the longevity of export markets.
“We should concentrate on growing our clean, green industry and promote that in Australia,” he said.
“Norco pays farmers 75 cents a litre and they’re pretty much 100 per cent domestic.”
After completing Dairy Australia and Great South Coast leadership courses, Brad has been elected as a WestVic Dairy director.
“If you believe it’s the best area for dairy and want to create change, you’ve got to do the right thing and get involved and help guide WestVic on how best to help farmers. Farmers don’t realise the resources we have and they should reach out for them,” he said.
“There are a lot of good stories here and a lot of farmers making good money in the dairy industry.
“In 10 years, I think this region will be the best in Australia, I don’t think we will be a mass exporter but we will be growing the food that people want, need and love.”