Farming a family affair

By Dairy News

With five brothers interested in farming, the Parkinson family at Kirkstall had to get big to keep busy.

Today, the extended family runs three adjoining farms and a dry-stock farm, with a peak of about 2550 cows, and brothers Xavier, Vin, Adrian, James and Daniel having their own patches.

If looking at it like a board of management, dad David is the chair and the brothers are directors. It works well, bringing economies of scale from sharing resources and labour.

Daniel, 30, joined the family operation about five years ago and says it is equitable and successful.

“Operationally we each have a patch to take care of,” he said.

“Strategically we set the plans and meet monthly with a consultant to set budgets and track cashflow, production and costs.

“We’re lucky we get along so well. We’re all at a similar stage with young families and all live on the farms and it’s all equitable.”

The massive family operation wasn’t always planned. Vin and James had shown interest in returning to the home farm but Adrian and James did trades and Daniel did civil engineering and lived in Melbourne for five years.

“I didn’t think city life was for me anymore,” Daniel said.

“There were more opportunities here and it’s a better place to raise a family.”

The home farm in Spencer Rd covers 450 ha and has a 50-unit rotary, the central farm in Terka Rd is largest at 650 ha and the latest addition to the north in Riddell’s Rd is 350ha. Both these farms have 60-unit rotary dairies.

“There are economies of scale and we’re all about sharing resources like plant and equipment and labour and we all get a bit of time off to be with our families, which is important. We each live on a different road; we joke that we’re like an Amish community,” Daniel said.

About four years ago the family shifted all calving from the home farm to a large new shed in Terka Rd.

“It became a bit far geographically to calve at Riddell’s Rd so we wanted something more central,” Daniel said. “It’s efficient to have all the calving happen in one spot.

“When we benchmark our costs against other businesses, we’re very efficient with labour, having centralised calving and we have some of our gear for harvest. Everything is pooled.”

The Terka Rd farm is home to 1100 cows, the largest of the three adjoining herds.

Cow numbers adjust seasonally relative to calving and feed availability; at the peak this year they milked a combined 2550 Friesians.

Terka Rd, where Daniel is based, is able to carry more stock in wet conditions and is home to 1100 cows. “It holds up and it’s a big area so you can share it around during the tough months of August and September,” Daniel said.

“This farm probably finishes the earliest of the three. We have a little bit of irrigation but the other two are better equipped with irrigation. We treat this as a winter farm and chase winter production whereas on the other farms we chase late-spring and summer production.”

Calving starts with heifers in mid-February, cows start about 10 days later and the whole process continues until late July.

“We like the early calves because it gives us better opportunity to get them in-calf down the track,” Daniel said.

This year the combined operation reared about 960 heifer calves, with Adrian and a contract employee in charge. During this time the usual roster of six full-time employees expands to 12.

They keep 600 to 650 of the best calves as replacements and export the rest.

About half the replacements come from sexed semen, which Daniel said has worked well but is governed by bull availability.

Because fertility was dropping, the farm shifted from big, high-producing cows to a smaller, solid and more fertile cow.

“We’ve taken a check in production because of it but overall our net financial result isn’t worse off,” Daniel said.

The Parkinsons aim for self-sufficiency, buying grain but not hay.

“We’re not overly fussy about pastures; we focus on growing grass but we’re not hamstrung about what type,” Daniel said.

They sow about 25 per cent of the farm every year, usually about one-third each of perennials, annuals and Italians. Under irrigation they generally renovate with a higher-end perennial.

“This season has been good; we’ve grown enough silage to get us through, with additional carryover,” Daniel said.

“I can’t remember the last time we bought hay. That’s part of our business; not being backed into a corner where we have to buy hay.”

They have also reduced grain input. “Through necessity we’ve pulled back this year to reduce costs and we’ve probably produced a bit less milk but made more money. The net result we’re in front.”

The farm produces a bit over 20 million litres a year and 1.3 million kg/Ms.

Daniel Parkinson.

Daniel admits he’s “as green as the grass” after five years on the farm.

“I’ve still got a lot to learn. I grew up on the farm so had practical skills but not the high-level management side of it,” he said.

An interest in using resources to gain knowledge led Daniel to follow his father and become a WestVic Dairy director.

“The resources were coming from WestVic and that got me interested in joining the board,” he said.

“The industry is forever changing and there’s always a need for extension and ongoing education, and farmers are time-poor so you have to put information to them.”

Daniel sees a positive future for dairy.

“The price is the best in a decade; the industry will go well as long as farmers are getting paid well,” he said.

“The extension space is very good but advocacy needs to be tidied up and it will be interesting to see what comes in the Australian Dairy Plan.

“There is a good long-term future for dairy. It can be a sustainable industry and we need to be careful and listen to what our consumers want and be prepared to adapt. Farmers will be happy to adapt providing they are supported.”