Proactive comeback

By Rick Bayne

When Wayne and Bonnie Johnstone surveyed their burnt paddocks after last year’s St Patrick’s Day fires, it didn’t take long for revival mode to kick in.

On the Sunday morning after the blaze which destroyed 75 per cent of their land near Terang, they weren’t sure what to do, but pretty soon a clear direction emerged.

“On Monday a crew came in and said, ‘where do we start cleaning up’,” Wayne said.

“They were just people going past. It was happening everywhere and it was so uplifting. From that day on, I realised I had to be organised so I started buying posts and buying wire and working out a plan.”

“Every time you’d get a bit down, someone would be knocking on the door saying what can we do?’ ” Bonnie said.

Wayne warned Bonnie that the feed bills might be horrifying but he was determined to be proactive and get the farm back to full capacity as soon as possible.

Bonnie agreed: “In the long run you’ve got to make milk to make money.”

On Tuesday, Wayne organised a nutritionist, bought 400 tonnes of hay and sent 150 cows to South Australia on agistment.

“There were two ways we could go and I picked maintaining production. That was possible because we had good support from staff and friends and volunteers,” he said.

“We couldn’t be more appreciative of footy clubs, cricket clubs, Lions clubs, racing clubs and everyone. It set us up to be well on the road to recovery.”

As soon as the fire became a threat, the cows were yarded in a safe zone.

“I had a bit of luck,” Wayne said. “I had forgotten about 100 cows, we went down the next day expecting to find them dead and they were just standing there.

“We were strip grazing the dry cows, which is good summer management, and the paddocks were so bare the cows could stand on a dry area and the fire went around them.”

The farm was lucky compared to some, losing land and fences but all major infrastructure, three houses, 300 bales of hay and all cows were saved.

About 323 ha of the 485 ha property was wiped out. “Everything died in the paddocks, not even the capeweed lived,” Wayne said.

Because the capeweed died, it was easier to regenerate pastures.

“I don’t know how many tonnes of grass seed we planted; we did the whole lot,” Wayne said.

“It meant we couldn’t graze those paddocks until they got established. We only milked from one paddock for May, June, July and had to spend a lot on bought-in feed but I didn’t want to let them slide and never catch up.”

By the middle of August, milk costs and production matched the previous year.

“That’s when we had grass, grain levels were back to normal and cows were back to normal production,” Wayne said.

Twelve months after the fires the Johnstones have a positive outlook as they continue dealing with their insurance company for compensation and plan a 2020 European tour that had to be postponed because of the damage.

“We had 70 mm of rain a fortnight ago that sparked it up and we’re fairly confident moving into the next season,” Wayne said.

At 59, Wayne is planning to reduce his load, though the fire set back those plans. Their son Daniel plans to return to the farm next year.

Wayne bought the farm 34 years ago, when he was just 25, and has tripled its size over the years.

“We had a goal to run a farm that made a profit and enabled us to live the lifestyle we wanted to achieve,” Wayne said.

“It’s still a full-on job and I love it but we love travel and camping and there’s more of that to come.”

They have four full-time staff and 700 mostly Friesian cows; which Wayne describes as “the easiest cow to look after”.

Milk production is stable, bringing in about five million litres a year. “Now that we’ve reached where we want to be with per-cow production, we want to focus on cost of production more than volume,” Wayne said.

They plan to grow more home-grown grass and cut back on inputs. Grain has been a huge input since the fires. They are well advanced in this shift and the cost of buying hay has dropped substantially.

“If it’s affordable and accessible we buy it, but it has to be a win-win,” Wayne said.

There is a strong focus on fertilising pastures and tighter rotations. “We’re getting better at cow management around the farm and working more diligently on rotations,” Wayne said.

“We’ve been able to subdivide enough that farm pasture management is a lot easier. We now have 90 paddocks of about 12 acres and we can better manage them.”

The farm grows more permanent rye-grass than annuals.

Another focus is tightening the seasonal calving which starts late April and normally covers 10 to 12 weeks.

Wayne and Bonnie have bought new out-paddocks in the past 12 months and are open to further expansion.

“Never say never when you have a 23-year-old son very keen to come home on the farm,” Wayne said.

“I love the farm and farming so hope to set it up so I can continue to take an interest, but the farm is ready for the next person to drive it.”