Category Archives: General Farm

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I blinked, and it is almost the end of the year

After a lengthy post back at the start of the year where I spoke about Christmas, holidays and the start of the school year, I promised myself that I would be more up to date with my blogging.  After all, we do refer people to this website and I knew that it would not do to have outdated information or infrequent blog posts on here.  And yet, this is exactly what I have done this year.

Sigh.

I’m not going to do a recap now (after all, what will I be left with to write about in my recap of the year when it comes Christmas!!), but suffice to say that it has been a busy, lengthy and at times, challenging year.

I thought that having the 4 kids at school would free me up for doing more “working ON the business rather than IN it” but you know, it hasn’t worked out that way.  I increasingly feel pulled and pushed into every direction and sometimes I just don’t seem to get anything achieved.  That being said, I have been able to concentrate more on the calves this year than I have for the past 8 or so.  And I loved it.  Until I didn’t.

And I didn’t because we had a (still) unknown bug hit our calves over a 3 week period and we recorded the highest mortality rate EVER in our calf rearing shed.  No amount of testing, autopsies, drug therapy, TLC or prayers were going to identify and ultimately stop whatever it was affecting our babies.  At the end of the season, we lost in the realm of 23% of our calves*.  Almost a quarter.  A QUARTER.  F*@k.  This left me in a pickle, as I then needed to keep everything that survived.  I had no surplus to play with.  So regardless of the genetics, I am keeping all B&W heifers.

(*I should clarify that number, by saying that this included bull calves as well, but as I had decided to keep about 60 bull calves for meat production and paddock bulls, this figure was kept as it reflected losses of bulls we may have kept as well).

Keeping 60 odd bulls has been a mixed bag of blessings.  We decided somewhere during the first part of the year to retain some bull calves that we could use as an income stream seperate to the milk income we received.  Whilst we are passionate and committed dairy farmers, the world and the economic climate is changing around us – and it is not for the better.  Having all our eggs in one basket and relying on a single commodity to provide our income is rapidly becoming a stupid business management decision.  Sure, we have cull cows and bobby calves to provide some income from, but that has traditionally been around the 10% mark.  We recognise that we need to get at least 25-30% of our income from an enterprise that is not dairy.  Over the years, we have tossed around various ideas of what we might be able to do, from vertical integration (processing our own milk and selling) to horizontal integration (purchasing a property that we can managed for feed).  But both carry huge risks and capital outlay that we just don’t have handy right now.  So the logical move is to utilise what we already have and try to make this better.

So rather than selling all the bobby calves for market price as 4-6 day old calves (which quite frankly is about $1/kg or less), we would grow them out here and sell them when they were coming up 18months -2yrs for the meat market.  There is also the idea that given our background in herd identification, monitoring, genetics and measurements, we could keep some of the better genetic bulls and sell them as working bulls at 2yrs of age.  And possibly, get a small number tested and into the semen market.

So this is what we did.  And then, after committing to keeping around 50-55 bull calves, we got hit with the news that we are entering an El Nino episode and that grain and hay prices are about to go through the roof.  Yay……(not really).

All of a sudden, we were lumbered with excess stock that we cannot really afford to feed at inflated prices, and stock that buyers are not wanting while climatic conditions are so……shit.  So what can we do?  Well, keep them.  Feed them.  Look after them.  And hope and pray that when the El Nino season passes and people are looking to restock numbers and potentially buy in some good paddock bulls, that our patience and persistence will pay off.

The upside is that we won’t need to buy in any Holstein paddock bulls in a couple of years.

We have increasing been using genetics as a management tool for breeding and selection.  At the end of last year, I made the decision that we would not use any Holstein semen in the late cows as I did not want to be tempted to keep the resulting calves (because their genetics was in all likelihood, not going to improve my herd).  So instead, I told Mark to use Angus and a relatively new beef breed – Speckle Park.  Our first SP calves hit the ground and they were VERY popular.  Not just with buyers wanting them, but surprisingly, with Mark as well.  I had to fight him off keeping them.  In the end, I think he ended up keeping 2 or 3 heifers and 2 bulls.  The others went to living homes where I get updates on some of them from their owners (Cookie & Cream, Salt and Pepper…).  I have to admit, the SP calves really were a highlight of the calving season and ended everything on a happy note.

Speckle Park x Holstein heifer calf

Breakfast time

Having breaky

2018 babies


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Planning for 2018

Category : General Farm

A new calendar year always gives you the opportunity to start afresh.  It is a bit silly that a date on a calendar gives us the “permission” to do this, but nevertheless, we all do.

So today, I started some outlines of things that we will implement this year on farm, starting with breeding objectives and mating goals.  Over the past couple of years, we have been amassing quit a bit of information on the cows via herd tests, taking part in the Improving Herds project, submitting cows for Holstein Australia classifications and through genetically testing our calves for the past few years.  However, this information can become onerous quite quickly and what tends to happen is that it is simply set aside.  Today I worked out a rough plan of how we will start to integrate all this information together.  It’s going to take time and it will be a work in progress, but I hope that we will be able to have some firm records to measure ourselves against.

I was heartened to see that we had moved up 150+ places in Datagenes Genetic Progress Report since August 2017.  We hadn’t done particularly well in our sire selection for our 2014 drop cows, but things have picked up markedly with 2015’s data coming through.  And as I mentioned in the cow section, we joined our cows differently in 2017, so hopefully, we will see even more genetic gains as we go on.

I will also be taking more photos around the farm and uploading them on here throughout the year.  I will also be setting up a new page which will deal with current events on farm.  For those that are viewing our farm from urban areas, this will hopefully give you a better idea of the constant work that goes on within a dairy business.


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The signing off of another year

As I sit here, on the last day on 2017, I have a five minute window to reflect on what this year has been about for us.  There have been some great moments, but there have also been some terribly low ones too.  But I guess that we need them to learn from, to grow from and to show us just how great the good times are.

So what were the highlights and lowlights?

  • Mark was diagnosed with PMR (polymyalgia rheumatic) which answered a number of questions but presented us with a long recovery period on high medications
  • We spent 10 days at Apollo Bay over summer thoroughly enjoying ourselves
  • Kids started back to school with Tom entering his final year of primary school.  H starts kinder and this year marks our final year ever at Wydinia Kindergarten: 10 years all up.
  • Bella picks up tap dancing as an extra dance genre.  It is a LOUD activity.In March, we started preliminary discussions with a local architect to renovate and increase the size of our house.  This has been a long time coming and to be honest, I think there is still a long way in front of us.
  • Trevor celebrate 10 years with us and starts making good on taking long service leave (lucky bugger!)
  • Biddy is diagnosed as being unable to digest and absorb a number of carbohydrates and is on track to develop coeliac disease.  This follows on from some surgery she has just prior to Christmas the previous year.  Lots of tests ensued to work out what is the issue.  Biddy was placed on a full FODMAP elimination diet for 8 – 10 weeks and then had to reintroduce foods, one carbo family at a time.  The process is still not complete and has taken about 10 months.  Exhausting for me to work out what she can and can’t eat.  We are still working on diet.
  • Biddy and Tom go on their respective class school camps
  • Tom has increasing fainting spells and dizzy spells culminating in a seizure where his breathing and heart stopped for a bit.  scary stuff.  Tests for cardio and neuro followed but to date, nothing concrete has appeared as to why.
  • Our first ever backpacker has joined our Craiglands team.  Issy Foster, from England, is spent about 4 months with us.  She fit in amazingly well and everyone was very sorry to see her go.
  • We filmed an online advert for Puffing Billy during the first school holidays.  The filming crew obviously loved Bella as she gets quite a bit of the screen time.  You can see the clips HERE and HERE .
  • I started pilates as part of my surgery recovery (from last year) as I was having significant muscular pain.
  • In May, calving started on the farm and from now on, it is busy all the time as one activity rolls into another.
  • Mark is forced to resign from the Bonlac Supply Company board and the Fonterra Farmers Forum (of which he was chair) due to the fact that he voiced his concerns that the company was not looking out for the farmers.  Amazingly, in the months that followed, many of his PMR symptoms regressed and we now realise just how much stress he was under in the role he held off farm.
  • We nominate St Brendans Primary to take part in the “Cows Create Careers” program and give them 2 calves to rear for a few weeks.
  • Henry turned 5
  • Josh Robertson (aka Robbo) completed his Cert III in dairy and graduated at the SW Dairy Awards.
  • Bella turned 7
  • We dehorned calves for the first time using twilight sedation.  A game changer as far as labour management and animal welfare.
  • Biddy’s pony had to be put down due to old age.
  •  Our annual holiday was for 2 weeks to do the Oodnadatta Track in outback SA.  We all loved it, including Cooper the Kinder Bear who came along with us.  A memorable trip and amazing landscape.  Do it.  Put it on your bucket list.
  • Tom turned 12 at Oodnadatta
  • Biddy has a dermatologist appointment for itchy skin and turns out she has a number of skin issues (typical!).  Creams, lotions and potions are dispensed.
  • Sam becomes a mentor in a PhD program
  • We all got the flu over the third school holidays.
  • Bella undertakes her ballet and tap exams and aces the tap exam with a High Distinction!!
  • We start to get some info back on our participation in the Improving Herds project and initial data is great.
  • We use our genetic testing information to mate our heifers and cows based on BPI for the first time ever.
  • Biddy and Bella participate in their dance school’s dance concert with both of them picking up main roles.
  • Buster the rescue cat had to be put down due to kidney failure.
  • the farm hosts 8 dairy women from across Australia, including Sam, to film a segment to encourage Australian women to eat more cheese.  This advert will be aired in early 2018.
  • We welcome Emily into our Craiglands team.  Emily is undertaking a school based apprenticeship through Colac Secondary College.
  • The storm of the century  – the storm to end all storms, the 1 in 100 year event – cancels plans across Victoria including our family Christmas gathering in Gippsland. Only for the weather to be fine and sunny on SW Victoria.
  • Army worm moved in across SW Victoria and decimates pastures.  We spend $$ on getting rid of the bastards.
  • Tunnel moth moves in after army worms.  More $$ to get rid of these.
  • Silage season is great with good cuts both at home farm and at Gellibrand.
  • Robbo breaks his arm riding a bike (on his own time and off farm!).
  • Season turns off quickly after silage season, so a couple of truckloads of vetch hay is needed to get cows through summer.
  • Sophie finishes her Cert III in dairy.
  • Biddy turns double digits – 10 – on Christmas Day.
  • Rex the farm terrier died after an altercation with one of the tractors while Mark was feeding out.

That’s about it in a nutshell.  It was a busy year and on the whole, it went ok.  Looking forward to 2018, I hope that we can get some final plans drawn up for our house and as a family, get to spend more time off the farm together…even just for an afternoon or a night.  Tom starts secondary school which is exciting for everyone.  H starts primary school which is bittersweet, but the girls are looking forward to having him with them more.  H is looking forward to travelling on the bus!  Of course, we hope that some lifestyle changes for us all will result in better overall health, but I suspect that the reduction of stress on Mark will help a lot.  I also hope that next year we don’t loose as many pets, because poor Biddy suffered a bit with loss this year. Next year, with H starting school, I will be starting back on the farm 2 days a week and devoting chunks of time to updating our farm blog, website, Twitter account and Facebook page.  Keep an eye out for all that!

Have a wonderful New Year.


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Who’s business is it anyway?

A week or so ago, I had a surprising – and a little disappointing – discussion with a friend of mine in relation to our farm business and my family’s life in general.  And the discussion got me thinking about all the people that feel they have an opinion on our businesses, our lives and our reputations.  Especially when the offer to comment back is not reciprocal.

I am launching into divulging aspects of my farm business and life that really – and I shouldn’t have to say it, but I will – is of NOBODY’S BUSINESS BUT MINE AND MY FAMILY’S.  But for the sake of this post, to shed light on the conversation and to also give a perspective on my thinking process about all of this, I will let you in on things.

Let me begin at the conversation and work backwards.

The comment was put to me that due to a comment of mine on Facebook over one of the weekends about doing some hand drawn plans for a house extension, and the fact that Mark and I took the kids down to Apollo Bay for 10 days in January, that people have said that we were whinging about not being able to pay bills, but now we can afford to take holidays and build a house.

Wow!  Sounds like we are travelling overseas for extended leave and building a mansion.

Not that any of these people have ever said anything to my face.  EVER.  (Feel free to do so by the way….I would love to hear you tell me about how I am hypocritical about money).

There has long been a firmly held – but incorrect belief – that landholders and primary producers are “rolling in money”.  This belief I should say, is held by extended family members as well, not just by public.  However, for anyone that has been involved in agriculture to a reasonable degree, will know that the reality is not further from the truth.  True, our assets and the things we own are worth quite a bit of money, but assets do not equate high income.  In fact, the opposite is almost true for agriculture.

Think I’m stretching the truth?  Well how about some facts and figures.

It is common knowledge that in April last year, two of the biggest milk processors announced (for different reasons) that they were going to average the milk price to $5/kgMS (milk solids).  Dairy farmers do not get paid in c/litre like the public buys it.  So I imagine that $5/kgMS sounds pretty impressive.  Except for the fact that it is UNDER THE COST OF PRODUCTION for many dairy businesses.  In other words, we were – and still are – being paid less for our milk than what we can make it for.  Many half enlightened do gooders helpfully suggested that farmers just stop milking.  After all, the processors need the milk, so if we turned off the tap so to speak, then they would have to pay us a higher price.  Ummm….no.  That’s not how it works.

Dairy cows, like many agricultural animals, cannot simply “turn off production” like turing off the aforementioned tap.  The timing of the price drop also meant that a large proportion of the southern dairy farmers were caught in their peak milk period (i.e., the time of year that they produce the most amount of milk).  Stopping production was not something we could do.  In addition to this, if enough dairy farmers cease producing milk and the total amounts falls to a certain level, then there actually is legislation that can force dairy farmers to milk cows.  Did you know that?

So in May and June, in a bid to even out the year’s price to an average of $5/kgMS, the processors actually dropped the price to $1.80 ish/kgMS.  This effectively gave us a negative cash balance for those 2 months.  This is the TRUE part.  Families COULDN’T AFFORD FEED THEIR FAMILIES MUCH LESS RUN THE FARMS.  But as I mentioned above, we still had to milk.  And feed cows.  And buy fuel.  And purchase chemicals.  And run the farm like nothing had ever happened to the milk price.  Oh, and we still had to feed our kids, pay school fees, daycare and kinder fees and continue on like normal for our kids, like the stress of the world was not on our shoulders.

As an example, for our May milk (paid in June) we received just over $10,000.  The day my milk payment arrived, I opened up 2 bills from Barwon Water.  Each of them was over $5,000.  So the water bills alone used up my monthly money.  And I still had to feed cows, purchase dairy supplies, pay staff (’cause they don’t work for free!), pay fuel and and that point in time, was paying for seed that we needed 2 months earlier because tunnel moth and red legged earth mite destroyed 3/4 of the pastures on our farm.

Sounds exciting and so lucrative doesn’t it?

In order to get through those 2 months, most of the autumn calving farmers were forced to take a loan with their respective milk processors.  These loans were paid to us to bring us back up to a $5/kgMS for May and June milk, BUT the kicker was…..we have to pay that back with INTEREST.  Even though we were backed into a corner to take it in the first place, by the result of mismanagement that had NOTHING to do with us.

This is a simplistic view of the situation, however, comments from outsiders on how we use our money are also simplistic in nature too.  Just keeping it all on an even keel here.

Taking holidays.  Ok.  When Tom (who is 11yo) was a baby, Mark and I went away and stayed in a self contained house for a couple of days for a break from the farm.  It was at that point that we realised that we could not afford to take holidays in motels/hotels/resorts anymore.  We needed at least 2 rooms and that hiked the price up substantially.  So when Biddy (now 9yo) was a baby, we purchased a caravan and that is what we take holidays in.  We go to low cost places, where the kids can entertain themselves and we cook our own meals most of the time.  For a family of 6, our 10 day holiday in Apollo Bay works out to be cheaper than some of my friends who have smaller families but go to Melbourne or Sydney for the weekend. (Oh and I should say that we holiday in Apollo Bay because it is close enough to the farm, that if anything needs doing, we are close enough to nick back).

The tone of the comment – and others before – have been that we must have it pretty good if we can go away for 10 days, 2 weeks or even a month (every 3rd year) at a time.  Just another comment that gets me riled a bit.  Those that are working in paid employment enjoy their time off.  Whether that be on a traditional weekend (Sat/Sun) or whether it is over the school holidays, or whether it be during the week.  There are very few people who as employees get NO time off at all (and if you think you are getting no time off, then your employer is probably pulling a swift one on you, because by law, you are entitled to regular time off).  Not so for us.  Each YEAR, we get one 10 day break and one 2 week break to spend time together as a family away from the farm.  That is it.  We don’t get weekends off, or every school holidays, or even public holidays.  If we want to spend time as a family, then we all trudge up the paddock and help out with the tasks.  Just to spend time together.

In a year, there are roughly 96 weekend days, 12 public holidays and 4 weeks leave.  There is also sick leave for those that take it and use it as holiday (yes, as employers we know people do this).  So for the average worker, there are about 128 days that you are free to spend as you will.  With your family if you wish, or working on your projects, or sprucing up your house, or taking a holiday.  If I added in a few more days over the course of the year on top of our annual holidays, then we spend 30 days away from the farm as a family.  That means the average Joe has about 100 MORE HOLIDAY DAYS than us, and 1/3 of that is PAID LEAVE.  Ironically, when we take leave, we have to not only pay for the holiday or break we are taking, but we also have to PAY FOR STAFF TO BACKFILL our jobs.  So we pay twice.

Again, sounds great hey?

Many studies have been done that show that everyone needs leave.  Everyone needs downtime.  So why shouldn’t dairy farmers?  Why, when we take leave, people look askew at us and assume that we are either rolling in it, or hypocritical about our spending habits?

Finally, the house extension.  This is an easy one.  How many people buy a house with cash?  How many renovate their homes with cash? I’m guessing not very many and of those that do, it would be in the extremely low percentages.  So if “normal” people are taking loans to do this major stuff, why wouldn’t people assume that dairy farmers do the same thing?  The money to renovate doesn’t grow on a money tree out the back.  We will have to borrow it like anyone else.  And pay it back with interest.  Like anyone else.  Should farmers have to live in standards of housing below anyone else in the community?  Why can we not improve our lifestyle and farm assets?

Some may comment and say that it is hard luck for us, and we chose to be dairy farmers and so, by extension, we should just learn to live with the short vacation times, houses that our families have stretched to beyond capacity and the milk price fluctuations.  Yes, in part, that is true.  But what we shouldn’t have to do is JUSTIFY ourselves and the way we operate our businesses and family lives to people that have no idea about what we have to go through.

What I ask is this; THINK about what you say before you say it.  Perception is not always the reality.  If you are not prepared to have a microscope placed on you, your business and finances, don’t do it to us.  If you want to be educated about the issues facing the dairy industry and how they affect our lives, ask us.  Don’t gossip behind our backs.

So I ask again…..who’s business is it?  Who’s business is it to question what we do in regards to our business.  The answer is, no-one outside the business.


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A week is a long time….

Category : Family , General Farm

They say that a week is a long time in politics.  Well, a week is a long time on our farm as well.

The kids started back at after school activities last week and with a number of changes to the schedule, it really put the pressure on me to be super organised.  It is going to be a very busy year.  Miss Bella has decided that she is going to do tap dancing this year (could she pick a more noisier activity?), so in order to that, she had to drop tennis.  She seems to think that this is a pretty good trade off.  Biddy is continuing on with acrobatics and Tom is still plugging away at the guitar.  Henry has been given a term off swimming lessons, but is allowed to have a play around in the water while the others swim.  With him starting kinder this year, it is hoped that a combination of increased age and the introduction of new rules (about how to behave) will help settle him in order to get back into swim lessons next term.  Little turd.

We have been busy on the farm as well.  Our position that we advertised for a milker has been answered and a new staff member starts tomorrow for induction.  I will do a post about the new person in the coming weeks.  Mark was busy at the Sungold Field days in Warrnambool last week, answering questions and fielding grievances that really head office staff should have been facing (don’t get me started), and tomorrow we are hosting a field day for a new feed out wagon.

One of our staff members, Sophie, is starting her traineeship next week.  We are very excited for her and she is looking forward to gaining more skills to use around the farm.  Next week also, we have a film crew here doing something about something that has nothing to do with us, but they need cows in the background.

Fonterra announced a step up last week, but at $5.20/kgMS no-one is really celebrating.  Generating a lot of trust and increasing good will certainly needs to be the focus for Fonterra over the coming 12 months…..companies such as Midfield milk’s UDC are on the horizon and loyalty being what it is….well, I think they will have no trouble attracting suppliers.

Our work with Thomas Carr College is getting to ramp up again for 2017.  We have decided to change the presentation (largely because I was sick to death of it!!), so a bit of work needs to be put into developing a new presentation in time for the kick off in mid March.

Earlier in the year, Mark and his dad took part in an advertising campaign for 90 years of Western Star Butter.  The ads have started hitting main stream media as well as social media, banners and posters.  For all the time it took to shoot the darn thing, their spot in the ad is tiny!  I think the cows get a bigger bit.  And they were an afterthought!! Hahahaha

90 Years of Western Star

Click HERE to see the advert.

And that sort of quickly wraps up what we have been up to lately!