Transforming cows and lives

“We work as a team.” Maryke Roux with staff members Grenito Fostanes and Ayvon Martin.

Maryke Roux has not only transformed the Yambuk farm she manages, she’s transforming the lives of people she meets.

Seven years ago, Maryke took over management of the farm and turned it from a struggling enterprise intro a thriving, profitable and tightly managed business.

At the same time, she has embarked on a journey of personal growth, studying counselling and now a Diploma of Community Services at South West TAFE after being inspired by a former worker who had just come out of jail.

She’s also giving young people with autism new experiences on the farm and is planning a Christmas fundraiser for children in foster homes.

Maryke took out one of the premier Great South West Dairy Awards this year — Dairy Farm Business Management.

When announcing the award, supported by Dairy Australia and WestVic Dairy, the judges said Maryke displayed an insatiable passion and energy for the business, and demonstrated exemplary performance in planning, delivery, communication and commitment to business management.

Maryke’s farm management style is geared towards ease of operation, but she’s not afraid to take a risk with people.

She has a passion for farming and helping people, and sometimes the two converge.

Above and below: More than half the farm is under irrigation, allowing Maryke to concentrate on more home-grown feed.

When a homeless man just out of jail and dealing with heroin addiction asked for a job, she said yes.

“I gave him a chance. He worked for me for two years. It was up and down at the start but at the end he could hold the job and look after himself and now he has something on his resume.”

Getting workers hasn’t always been easy. During pandemic lockdowns, Maryke spent three months working the farm on her own — including the calving period.

She now has three Filipino workers and life is much easier. From her $1000 gift voucher for winning the award, Maryke bought them fishing rods to recognise their contribution.

Originally from South Africa, Maryke has been in Australia for 12 years.

“I always had a passion for farming, but where I lived near Cape Town was too dangerous for a girl to farm.”

When she was 21, she went to an agency and asked for a farm job in Australia and soon found herself in Tasmania on a dairy farm.

“I knew nothing about dairy farming; I’d never even driven a tractor,” she said.

Within 12 months, at age 22, she was managing a 1000-cow farm.

After five years, she decided to move to the mainland and took a job managing corporate-owned Yambuk Dairies.

“I only left Tassie because it was too cold — it’s a little bit warmer here and a bit closer to everything.

“The owners are amazing people ... I don’t like to be micro-managed and they trust me. I just talk to the owners every fortnight.”

The farm was converted from a sheep operation in 2006 and covers 210 hectares, including 130 under irrigation.

With low milk prices and tough conditions, it wasn’t making money during her first years, however, Maryke implemented major changes to turn things around.

“I sold 300 Friesian cows and turned them over to cross cows. Some of them were on eight or nine kilos of grain and didn’t want to work for their feed.

“We were buying too much product, especially feed. I said let’s go with a safer approach, let’s change the herd into cows that don’t need that fancy stuff.

“We’re mostly crossies now and the Friesians are LIC and slightly smaller. We’ve gone from 500 to 540 cows and still have some big cows, but not as many.

“They were the wrong sized cows for the farm. Now they don’t pug the paddocks and we get hardly any milk fever or many lame cows.”

The conversion led to a financial windfall.

The calving shed has a new roof after a windstorm last year.

“We’re selling big Friesians for $2300 but buying cross cows for $1700 when they’re about to calve. Eventually I’ll get the herd evened out — I’m still getting rid of the bigger cows.”

Maryke used a variety of crosses and says the herd now “looks like a Smartie bowl”.

She also sells calves for export and buys replacement heifers at a lower cost.

“As long as you can source heifers and be sure they won’t bring in disease and are good quality, it makes absolute sense to sell to export.”

With the herd changes, feed has been cut to four kilos of grain for most of the year, six when they peak.

“Every cow that produces on four kilos of grain deserves to be here,” Maryke said.

“We started making money by dropping the expensive input costs, such as vetch and canola. All the fancy feeds are out.

“Instead of canola, now I use fertiliser in the paddock and that has pushed the protein up in our milk.

“Milk production is still really good, the same as when they were putting in eight to nine kilos.

“People try to sell things you don’t need, which just over-complicate farming. We’ve gone back to basics with mainly home-grown grass in the diet.

“This farm can look after itself. The only thing I bring in is hay for fibre when it’s wet.”

A new roof was added to the calf shed this year after the old one blew off in a windstorm, and a feedpad is on Maryke’s wish list.

Previously all dryland paddocks were being replanted every year but a change to permanent pastures has meant a big saving, with cocksfoot and balansa clover and some base rye-grass working well.

“Half of the farm is fescue under irrigation, the other half is rye-grass,” Maryke said.

“A lot don’t like fescue grass because it influences production but cross cows’ fibre intake is higher.

“When it comes to calving time, I can use fescue so they don’t get milk fever. In spring when grass is growing freely, in mornings they go to fescue and nights to rye-grass.”

The farm has split calving, all through AI.

“If a cow doesn’t get pregnant in autumn but is still producing enough, I will carry her over. If she doesn’t get pregnant in spring, she’s gone.

“That has helped the farm a lot — as has our three strikes you’re out policy with mastitis. I’m not going to keep problem animals.”

While she loves working on animal health and growing grass, Maryke sees an opportunity to blend her studies with her farm work.

“I’m not necessarily looking for another career, but there’s an opportunity of mixing the two together.

“I’d like to work with people who have come out of prison and help them to find a job and learn skills. In two weeks, you can milk by yourself.

“I can pick up when people are struggling. I’m the person that walks up to a homeless guy and sits and have a chat. I don’t care what people think about it.”

Farm ownership is on her agenda, but one day Maryke wants to retire to “the middle of nowhere” and live a self-sufficient life with her dogs, horse and chickens.

“I love the quiet.”

South African-born Maryke Roux has transformed the Yambuk farm she manages and is now changing the lives of people around her.