Getting by with a little help from their friends

Addressing summer water shortages was the first priority for Peter Kerr and a new water tank and pump has led to improved production.

Peter and Marnie Kerr spent 15 years thinking about how they’d get enough money to buy a farm, and when they did achieve that goal, the real challenges started.

“We probably didn’t put enough thought into what we’d do with it once we’d bought one,” Peter said.

But they had a solution — become a WestVic Dairy Focus Farm and learn from others.

“We thought a lot of people who had been in a similar situation to us could give us some good ideas on where to start,” Peter said.

“We had a lot of ideas of what we wanted to do, but the capital and budgets didn’t necessarily match up.”

Peter moved to the south-west from Melbourne when he was 16, and in 2014 he and Marnie started sharefarming for Gary and Dorothy Boyd at Bostocks Creek between Camperdown and Cobden.

They bought the property in 2021, also continuing the long-held leases of outpaddocks.

Peter and Marnie Kerr.

Nearing the end of their two-year stint as a focus farm, the Kerrs have made targeted but significant improvements, particularly in water infrastructure, feeding and staffing.

They are also working on a plan for a major investment in the dairy.

“We’ve got to be careful to have the right size for the infrastructure and not spend too much to milk the herd,” Peter said.

The farm was purchased on the basis of continuing to lease land, but Peter said upgrading the infrastructure remained a challenge.

Peter and Marnie applied to become a focus farm after completing Our Farm, Our Plan.

“We thought we’d be suitable as a young couple that had just bought a farm and we could get advice on what others would start with and what they would leave till later.”

The support group of about 30 farmers and service providers meets monthly over two years and is facilitated by consultant Paul Groves.

“There’s a good mix of older farmers who have been there and done it and young farmers in a similar situation to us or are still sharefarming,” Peter said.

“The idea is that we all learn from each other.”

Discussions have centred on priorities for infrastructure investment, with water emerging as number one.

“The water was struggling to keep up to the cows in summer so a lot said that was a no-brainer, just get it done,” Peter said.

“We are on town water which is quite expensive and the pressure wasn’t there to keep it up to the cows, so we put in a water tank and pressure pump and a bore is drilled and we’re just waiting to put a pump on it.

“Once it’s running with the majority of the water coming out of the bore, it will pay for itself within a year.

“Even this first year our production was up and we attribute some of that might to having more water.

“It’s ended the stress of worrying about the cows running out of water and having to shift them around.”

The farm peaked at milking 320 last year and the same again this year, although those numbers were only retained for about a month because of a shorter season.

“Stocking 320 is at the higher end of where we want to be so we reduced it a bit just in case the season doesn’t run our way,” Peter said.

“That extra cows weren’t giving as much milk as last year so it didn’t make sense to keep them.”

With children aged four and two and Marnie also working as a nurse and midwife, they want to focus on efficiencies.

“We started with the Focus Farm group to make some quick fixes without a big expense,” Peter said.

A new grain feeder has cut about 45 minutes from the daily workload over calving season.

One suggestion adopted by the Kerrs is the introduction of big grain feeders.

“We were driving around feeding grain to two or three different mobs of calves every day, just putting it on the ground,” he said.

“One of the first things suggested was getting big grain feeders and filling them up so you only have to feed them once or twice a week. It wasn’t a big cost and there was less wastage so we’re really happy with that.”

Another early suggestion was employing more people, something Peter and Marnie resisted for 12 months.

“I was nervous about managing more staff. We had one good full-time employee, but as your staff gets bigger, you need more management skills,” Peter said.

“After a year, we had some breathing room which gave us confidence that we could afford more wages, so we employed an English backpacker for the calving season when we’re really under the pump and he has been great.

“That has taken the pressure off. I was nervous about doing it, but now I don’t know that we could go back to only one staff member.

“The early signs are that he’s going to help us make more money than it costs us by getting things done right and on time.”

Peter and Marnie would like a new dairy but realise the timing has to be right.

A constant topic of discussion has been the dairy.

A new dairy is on the cards — a 25-a-side-swingover to replace a nearly 30-year-old 17-swingover — but it’s a big expense and Peter and Marnie have to time it right.

“We’ve got it narrowed down to what we want to build, it’s just a matter of timing,” Peter said.

“The cows don’t all fit in the yard, we’re still washing it down with a hose, it doesn’t have cup removers and the stall gates are worn out.

“We want to make things easier and less stressful but the dairy takes the most money to fix.”

There’s a monthly report on feed, grazing rotations and production.

“We’ve done tweaks rather than huge adjustments,” Peter said.

“Every month there’s discussion about the margin and whether there should be an extra kilo of grain or should we back the grain off.”

Last year’s production was up a long way and Peter and Marnie fed more concentrate because they felt the margin was there.

“We wanted to maximise the milk price. We were up 16 or 17 cows on the previous year and we got a bit more milk per cow, about 580kg/Ms per cow, quite a big improvement on previous years,” he said.

Getting to the end of the focus farm period, Peter and Marnie are more confident in their farming.

“We always try to have big ears and listen to everyone and then make a decision,” Peter said.

“We’ve definitely got a better system because of it. We thought we had done a reasonable job, but it has taken us to another level and hopefully we can keep the good habits.

“There’s no growth in your comfort zone. Let others in, listen to everyone and filter the advice for how it fits you.”

Improvements made since the farm’s purchase

– New second-hand vacuum pump

– New hot water service and wash water set-up

– Advantage grain feeders, auger and bin

– Troughs for almond hulls

– New water tank and pump

– Oil dispenser for dairy grain

– New kitchen and tidy up bungalow for staff accommodation

– Installed solar panels, power and lights in big calf shed

– New effluent pond and gravel pad

– Created new full-time farm hand position

– New laneway to 30ha to add to milking area from outpaddock area

– New cups, square liners in dairy and longer hoses for wash jetters.

Planned improvements

– Install solar bore pump and pipe to new tank plus some extra lines to connect whole farm up to tank

– New stock water dam

– New laneways to dairy

– Rubber matting for dairy pit.

Improvements being considered

– New dairy

– Hard hose irrigator for effluent water

– Pasture IO

– Auto-steer for tractor

– Installing calf pens on both sides of big shed

– Improvements made to feed pad/could be included in new dairy works

– Cow collars and auto draft

– Multi-bale feed out cart

– Rubber matting for dairy steps/cow platform

– Disc grain mill.

Farm business consultant Paul Groves, Peter and Marnie Kerr, and WestVic dairy extension team lead Libby Swayn during one of the Focus Farm meetings.
About 30 farmers and service providers are part of the Focus Farm group.
The farm peaked at milking 320 last year and the same again this year.