Finding the winning formula to share the farming load
The Crabbes at Gerangamete are proving that the family that farms together stays together.
Dad Ian and sons Brendan, Dean and Matthew have found a winning formula for long-term success and, apart from the addition of new land, not much has changed in the 71 years the farm has operated as a family business.
Their enterprise comprises two different farms with separate dairies and an outpaddock, all on the fringe of the Otway National Park where they enjoy the region’s regular rainfall.
A fourth son Stuart works nearby on another farm and Ian’s brother Kevin also farmed in the region.
The current business was started by Ian’s parents Allan and Edna in 1952.
At the time it was just 100 hectares with an outpaddock, but it’s progressed over time to more than 360ha in total and they now milk about 370 mainly Holsteins in two separate herds.
In all their time of farming, they’ve never needed to call on workers from outside the family.
Ian owns the three lots of land and his three sons work for him, but they are looking at options for the future.
“It used to be just myself and my wife Bernadette and then we bought in Dean for a while until he got to about 20 and decided to leave the farm and get a job somewhere else,” Ian said.
Matthew came in on paid wages, Stuart also started on the farm before taking up another opportunity and Brendan also joined the business.
“We’re all in a share system,” Ian said.
“They’re not officially sharefarmers, but it’s getting close because I want to be able to retire.”
Ian hasn’t milked for about four years since Dean came back into the business.
He still oversees the business, but at 72 says that won’t continue for much longer.
“We’re looking at options, such as renting the land to the boys and letting them continue to farm how they want and reap the profits.”
All three brothers are keen to continue.
They agree that they are in a good spot for farming, even though dairy farm numbers in the area have diminished from 10 to 12 when the Crabbes started, to five today. A few have gone to beef and others have become bigger.
“I don’t know what makes it so good but it mostly stays green,” Ian said.
“We’re not far off the national park, but it’s not too hilly for the cows.”
The herd is divided into 130 on one farm, 240 on the other and the outpaddock is used for young stock and fodder.
“We mostly use home-grown feed and don’t buy much except for grain,” Ian said.
“We were even okay through the drought.”
Both farms have achieved milk quality awards over the years, including a silver plaque this year for the business known as IC and BF Crabbe (the other farm is simply I and B Crabbe).
“We don’t do too much extra,” Ian admits.
“We don’t herd test; we just keep an eye on them. We’ve got a healthy herd, nothing much goes wrong.”
Dean and Matthew milk on the larger farm which earned this year’s silver plaque.
The dairy was built in 1958 as an eight-a-side walk in, later upgraded to a 10-a-side herringbone and later expanded to 20-a-side. It has retained the same outside structure since 1958.
Ian admits he isn’t one for making big changes.
“I have stuck with the traditional ways of farming, though Dean, who had experience on other farms, brought home a few new ideas, not that I’m saying that’s a bad thing,” he said.
Dean’s influence has included more urea usage and some new animal health techniques.
Ian left school at 15, working for $20 a month, and maintained an attitude that if you keep your head down and do the work, success will come your way.
The boys have tried to drag him to field days without success.
“I’ve never been to one — I just stay home and do my thing,” he said.
“I never went years ago and don’t need to today. I’m happy with what we’ve got and don’t need to change.”
They keep the herds separate, though if the vat is full on the larger farm, some cows will be trucked to farm two where Brendan milks in his 10-a-side swing over.
Cows on both farms achieve a good production average of about 30 litres. They also have a few Belted Galloway cows, Bernadette’s favourites.
Most years the farms get more than 700mm of rain, so they don’t need irrigation. Being too wet is usually more of a problem than being too dry.
“We’re going to try some summer crops this year,” Brendan said.
“Last year was too wet and we didn’t get any in.”
They normally make about 2500 silage bales every year and calve in autumn and July.
Despite their longevity, the family remains guarded about the industry’s future.
“It’s rocky,” Dean said.
“You never know what’s going to happen next year with the price of milk going up and down.”