AgVic Talk podcast series

This podcast series delivers knowledge and information in a format that suits the way farmers and agricultural professionals work and live today.

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Podcast series

Episodes cover contemporary problems and solutions on how members of the agricultural community recover, grow, modernise, protect, and promote Victorian agriculture.

All information included in our episodes is accurate at the time of release. Contact Agriculture Victoria or your consultant before making any changes on-farm.

Season two:

Episode 10: Learning from other people's experiences, mistakes and successes, with Sammy Mitchell and Andrew Bell

Speaker 1:

Welcome to AgVic Talk, keeping you up to date with information from Agriculture Victoria.

Drew Radford:

Becoming an employer for the first time is a daunting process. Finding the right person is stressful enough, but then there's so much else to consider. Everything from pay rates right through to workplace legislation. The good news for young farmers is they don't have to tread this path alone, or indeed pretty much anything to do with farming. G'day, I'm Drew Radford, and the young farmer and new entrant mentoring program, helps by providing insight to producers early on in their career. Someone who's embraced it is, Samantha Mitchell. And Sammy, joins me in the AgVic Talk Studio. Thanks for your time.

Samantha Mitchell:

No worries at all.

Drew Radford:

Sammy, where do you farm and what do you farm?

Samantha Mitchell:

I farm north of Birchip in a small area called Watchupga, and we farm cereals. So wheat, barley, and we do canola, lentils, and then we do some vetch for hay and sheep. We have roughly 500 Merino ewes, and that keeps us busy on the off cropping times.

Drew Radford:

Sammy, you said that, we. This is a family property, is it? And you've returned to it?

Samantha Mitchell:

Yes. So it's my dad's, and we've been here for quite a few generations, I'm not sure exactly how many. And I moved back nine years ago now, full time.

Drew Radford:

So Sammy, you moved back. You had another career in between though, did you?

Samantha Mitchell:

Yeah, I did a bit of everything. I was a bit lost, I think. I got into teaching and I decided to have a gap year, which I'm glad I did now looking back because it made me realise I would not be a good teacher and yeah, it just doesn't interest me at all. But I studied sustainable ag and I studied remedial massage and I'm not sure why I did that now. But yeah, I did that for a few years in Bendigo before getting sick of that and realising my real passion was on the farm. Even though when I left school, I didn't think I could do it at the time, but I've always been on the farm part-time so I've always done harvest since I was 16 years old. I've always stopped work, come to the farm and live at the farm for a few months to get harvest done for dad, but full-time nine years ago.

Drew Radford:

So Sammy, you said at school and just after you didn't think you could do it, why was that?

Samantha Mitchell:

Well, there wasn't many females around farming that I knew of. And also I just thought you had to be strong...mainly the strong element. I don't know why that bothered me so much, but I just felt like I wasn't strong enough to be a farmer. But yeah, how wrong I was. Definitely these days with machinery and everything, you just make the machinery do everything for you.

Drew Radford:

Sammy, you've overcome all of that and quite well obviously, you've been there for nine years and you're pretty much running the show now, aren't you? Your dad's not there as much?

Samantha Mitchell:

Yeah. So dad bought a property down at Heathcote, four years ago now, and dad's been down there practically full-time and just comes up here a couple of days a month, and jumps on the truck and just carts a little bit of grain. But if I'm super busy, like when I was marking lambs or something, he'd come for a couple of days, but we've gone through a bit of a transition. We started a couple years ago, but yeah, it's really taken into place this year.

Drew Radford:

So what's helping you with that transition? I understand you've got involved with the Young Farmer and New Entrant Mentoring program. What's involved with that for you.

Samantha Mitchell:

So I decided to apply for the Young Farmer mentoringship, because definitely with the transition I knew I was going to come up with quite a few challenges and being young and I've felt like I've got the farming all under control, but the business side of things I felt like I could definitely improve on. So I applied for that thinking it'd be more business minded, but as the year has progressed, I've realised I can't do this all on my own, so I need to employ someone. So we've been really focusing on that in our little group and it's been really, really good because I have no idea about anything about employing someone and yeah, the process and everything like that. So it's been really, really worthwhile.

Drew Radford:

So Sammy, there's two sides to that, I'm hearing. One is obviously the logistics side, the procedures or the bureaucracy of actually paperwork and everything to get a person on board. But then there's actual reality of managing a person.

Samantha Mitchell:

Yep. I barely can manage myself sometimes, so a person is another little challenge. And I'm teamed up with Andrew Bell, and he's always had someone working with him for a fair while now. So he gave me heaps of knowledge about his experiences, and I feel like that's the best way to learn is from other people's experiences and their mistakes and successes.

Drew Radford:

So how has this helped increase your confidence in terms of taking on an employee?

Samantha Mitchell:

Hugely. I've literally had no idea where to start, Andrew has talked me through the whole process and even coming up with an ad and it was really nice. I typed up a rough ad and then sent it to them for them to look at and say anything that was wrong with it. But a heap more confident because I couldn't do it by myself.

Drew Radford:

So have you put the ad out yet?

Samantha Mitchell:

Yeah, I have. A week and a half ago I think it was.

Drew Radford:

And how's that going?

Samantha Mitchell:

Yeah. Good. I've got a few really good candidates and then you get a whole lot of interesting ones too.

Drew Radford:

And is Andrew helping you sort the wheat from the chaff and develop a strategy to try and choose someone or interview somebody?

Samantha Mitchell:

Not yet. I'm hoping we're going to have another meeting in the next week or two. I think that's the plan. And I feel like I'm capable of seeing the differences, but the interview process and selection, I'll definitely be quizzing them over the next couple of weeks about it. Because I feel like it's important to ask the right questions.

Drew Radford:

From what I understand, Andrew's going to be mirroring your process because his family properties had someone working there for 40 years, who's retiring soon, so he's got to do the same. So possibly he's going to be learning along with you.

Samantha Mitchell:

Yeah, that is quite funny when he said that, so it's good to learn from each other I think.

Drew Radford:

The mentoring program with Andrew, have you focused purely on employment, or has it broaden out to general discussions about running your farm and the future of your farm?

Samantha Mitchell:

Definitely at the start, it was very broad and because when I applied, I had five or six different things I've thought of that I needed help mentoring with. So yeah, we were very broad. Even buying land versus leasing land and budgeting. And even with the sheep, I'd like to do more sheep. We talked about that and Andrew is very much in the sheep game. So at the start we were talking about everything and it's quite interesting because yeah, you get on tangents and you learn different aspects of the business and yeah, it's quite good, but I think we've just narrowed it down. Because I'm in this process at the moment, but I'm definitely keen to talk about sheep and cropping and land.

Drew Radford:

Sammy, at this point, what do you think the main thing is you've got out of the mentoring program?

Samantha Mitchell:

The relationship's been really good and having someone that's very experienced on hand to ask questions, and that's been really, really handy. Learning about the employment game has been massive for me because me and my dad have not really employed many people over the years. We've employed someone for harvest, but not a full-time employee or anything, so I've gained a lot of experience from that. But yeah, the relationship's been really, really good and beneficial.

Drew Radford:

Sammy, the unusual thing about this mentoring relationship that you've got with Andrew is because of the current times with COVID, I understand you haven't actually been able to meet face to face yet.

Samantha Mitchell:

No, unfortunately not. That would be one of the downsides so far, it's just the way the world is at the moment. But Zoom has been really, really good, like you still see but yeah, there's nothing that can compare to face-to-face and the interaction you get with meeting someone face-to-face and talking to them. So hopefully even if it has to be next year or something meet up one time, which would be really good.

Drew Radford:

Sammy Mitchell mentioned a mentor she's working with is Andrew Bell. Heavy rain on his property near Horsham, drove Andrew indoors and gave me a chance to speak with him about his role in the program and his farming background.

Andrew Bell:

Oh, we're very much a mixed farming business here Drew, probably too many things at times I think, but look our main source of income is from meat and wool from sheep. We run a mixed flock of Merino ewes self-replacing, and also a large mob of first cross ewes for prime lamb production. As well as a cattle operation and also meat goats for the meat trade, which is becoming more popular in the last five to ten years. And also a wide range of crops from cereals, oil seeds, lupins, and also small seed production for clover seed and hay production as well. So it's very mixed and there's a, there always seems to be something going on around the place, there's not too many dull moments.

Drew Radford:

Andrew that's quite a mixture. It sounds like a reasonable patch of land?

Andrew Bell:

Yeah. Look, it's been a long-term family farm I guess, Drew where I'm currently the fourth generation to farm here at Mockinya, and my father still active in the farm. He's retired now into Horsham, but he's still out here anywhere between one and sort of three or four days a week helping with odd jobs and shifting sheep and that sort of thing; and, my son, who's nearly 19, he's looking to come back to the farm at some stage to keep the whole operation moving along smoothly. So, we've been here since late 1800s on this property anyway.

Drew Radford:

Andrew, how did you get involved with the Young Farmer and New Entrant Mentoring program, and how'd you even hear about them?

Andrew Bell:

I'd done some work Drew with a company in Bendigo and they approached me earlier on this year to see whether I'd be interested in being a mentor for a young farming person. And I more or less just jumped at the chance because I've been lucky enough to have a couple of mentors in my life, including my father. So that was made it a very simple idea, and to get through and to get going sounded like a great thing to me.

Drew Radford:

So it doesn't sound like there was a lot of arm twisting involved, you just were happy to get involved. I mean, is there a motivation beyond that?

Andrew Bell:

Well, I just think that we're always hearing about the lack of younger people in agriculture and maybe they're turning away from it in some way or another. Farming can be very tough, but the young guys and girls that are getting involved in it at an early age, I think now are starting to see some of the monetary rewards too, which can come in and perhaps they've been lacking in the last generation as well, especially with the wool. So it's just encouraging for the young people to get into it and have a bit of a go.

Drew Radford:

Andrew you're involved with Samantha in terms of a Mentoring program. And one of the things that Samantha is looking for is some guidance in dealing with employees, how many staff do you employ and what do you think some of the things that you've done that have resulted in successful long-term employee, employer relationships?

Andrew Bell:

Well Drew, we've been very fortunate here that we've had one full-time staff member now for over 40 years. So he's actually made his whole life's work, working on this property firstly for dad, and then he was able to successfully merge across, to work for myself and my wife. And it's very rewarding in the fact that we can go away for a short period of time or a holiday and let our full-time employee basically run the business without having to worry too much about what's going on. And having that long-term relationship has certainly made it easier for the day-to-day running of the property, but like everyone, you've got to work on it and we seem to be able to get along well.

Andrew Bell:

We meet regularly and we also meet with the employee’s family and that as well, so we can get an idea from them as to their future directions. And it won't be very long before the fellow will be looking towards retirement and we'll be in the position of having to source perhaps another full-time worker, which will be similar to what Samantha's going through now, trying to place ads in papers and media to try and select and find the right person for the job.

Drew Radford:

Andrew, it's not far down the track then that you're going to go through a similar process to Sammy in terms of employing somebody coming onto the property. But what do you think things young farmers should know when employing staff, other than telling them to find a job indoors when it's bucketing down like it is at the moment at your place. But what are some of the things that they should probably know?

Andrew Bell:

I think the most important thing is you've got to see the staff member as another person who is wanting to work on the property and within the property and feel valued within the unit of the business. So we spend a lot of time or most mornings in fact, talking about what's happening for the day and in the business side of things, and it's really got to be a two-way street. And it's got to be a very open relationship as well. And if the employee needs time off to do something in particular, well then it's pretty important that you realise that and let them do that. And the other thing is to really understand that they're going to have their own ways of doing things and it's not necessarily always the same as the way I would do it, or my dad would do it, or the way we've done it on the farm.

Andrew Bell:

And so you really have to let them have their responsibility. And as long as the job is getting done, it's most important that they're rewarded for getting the job done and not chastised for perhaps doing it incorrectly or in the way that I would have done it or my father would have done it.

Drew Radford:

Andrew, you used the term there reward, in terms of the mentor mentee relationship, is it a two-way thing? People sometimes have the perception that look it's really just the mentee who gets everything out of it, but does the mentor gets something out of it as well, as far as you're concerned?

Andrew Bell:

Yeah, look very much so I think Drew, and I've quite enjoyed talking to Sammy, on the telephone, we haven't met in person yet. Look, she's very proactive and a real early adopter, and that, it makes me think about the way we're doing things here. And sometimes because it has been such a long held family farm, you do things in the ways that you've always done them. By talking to Sammy, and other people in younger farming roles, you can get very excited about redoing things on your own property in a different way, just by talking to them and seeing how they're modernising things with perhaps, with different sheep handling equipment or different computer equipment for the cropping side of things.

Andrew Bell:

They're all up to date with the latest podcasts and Twitter and Instagram, which can certainly help in modern farming. Whereas perhaps some of the older-aged farmers aren't as interested in that type of thing. So it's certainly a two-way street there, Drew.

Drew Radford:

What would you say Andrew, to other experienced farmers about possibly getting involved in the program?

Andrew Bell:

Look, I think it's been a great program and I applaud AgVic for getting into it because it's certainly helping the mentees with setting their future direction. And as I've mentioned the mentors tend to get a lot out of it as well. And I'm sure that if we weren't in these restricted times with travel et cetera, well then we'd be meeting up as a group and having good one-on-one chats and group chats about future of farming and how to go about things in a professional way. Which I think is really what we're all aiming to do, to get the efficiencies of planning and profitability on farms.

Andrew Bell:

And the great way to do that is by meeting. And unfortunately at the moment, because we can't meet, we're doing it via Zoom and phone calls, but I still think it's working quite well. And the mentees at this stage do appear to be getting a fair bit from the coaching if you like, of the mentors and the mentors are getting a benefit out of it as well.

Drew Radford:

So you'd encourage your farming friends to get involved?

Andrew Bell:

Yeah, certainly. I do have farming friends that do mentor younger farmers. Even in my district here, some of the young fellows have come back to the farm from either a shearing career or something else, and they've just needed that little bit of extra help from some of their neighbours, many of whom they've known all their lives. But it's just helped to convince them that what they're doing is the right way to do it. And not necessarily everyone has the right idea or the same idea how to do things, but as long as the outcome is the same or the reward is the same well, I think it's worthwhile.

Drew Radford:

Andrew, you mentioned that you haven't been able to meet with Sammy face to face, but have you been able to pick up that she's grown and developed during this period?

Andrew Bell:

I think so, Drew yes. And certainly with the advertising, for the fact that she needs a farm worker, we've worked on that one a couple of times over the phone and just tweaking things to get the right ad, to get the right person that she can go forward with on the property. And she seems very confident now that that's in process and it should really help to secure her, the person that she wants and needs to help her on the property. And she seems a very confident young lady and I'm sure she will make the right decision with regard to an employee for the future and the direction of the property.

Drew Radford:

Andrew, you've got a lot of experience to share there, literally four generations of farming in your DNA. Thank you for taking time to share some of that with us in the AgVic Talk Studio. Andrew Bell from Mockinya. Thank you for joining me in the AgVic Talk Studio today.

Andrew Bell:

Thanks Drew, I really enjoyed it and yeah, let the rain keep falling as I'm watching it out the window here, it's beautiful at this time of year.

Speaker 1:

Thank you for listening to AgVic Talk, for more episodes in this series, find us and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

We would love to hear your feedback, so please leave a comment or a rating and share this series with your friends and family. All information is accurate at the time of release. Contact Agriculture Victoria, or your consultant before making any changes on farm.

This podcast was developed by Agriculture Victoria, authorised by the Victorian government Melbourne.

Episode 9: Share farming as an opportunity, with Hans van Wees

Speaker 1:

Welcome to AgVic Talk, keeping you up to date with information from Agriculture Victoria.

Drew Radford:

Share the profits, some of the risk, but none of the capital outlay, it's a farming arrangement called share farming. And, with primary production often being expensive to get into, is it a pathway for developing future farmers? G’day, I'm Drew Radford and the only type of farming Hans Van Wees does is share farming. To find out more about it he joins me in the AgVic Talk studio, Hans, thanks for your time.

Hans van Wees:

No problem.

Drew Radford:

Hans, where do you farm?

Hans van Wees:

We farm in, Tinamba, which is in the MacAlister Irrigation District located around Maffra.

Drew Radford:

Now Hans you're running a few head of cattle on that dairy farm aren't you?

Hans van Wees:

Yes.

Drew Radford:

How many?

Hans van Wees:

We run about 850 milking cows. And depending on the time of the year, we also have 240 yearlings and 240 calves.

Drew Radford:

So it's a fairly busy operation and it's not just you running it then I'm guessing?

Hans van Wees:

No, it’s me and five full-time equivalents, and my wife helps out as well with the calf rearing and other times.

Drew Radford:

Hans you're growing a bunch of your own feed as well though I understand?

Hans van Wees:

Yeah, we have some parts of the farm we don't graze much, so we grow lucerne and cereal crops through to lucerne for silage. And we occasionally dabble with some summer crops, if the season and water availability is kind.

Drew Radford:

So that's a reasonable patch of land then isn't it? I'm assuming.

Hans van Wees:

Yes.

Drew Radford:

How big is the land Hans?

Hans van Wees:

Total area is 400 hectares, of which 200 hectares is used as a milking area. The other 200 hectares is support country for the young stock and of that 200 hectare support country, 130 hectares is irrigated as well.

Drew Radford:

So it's a reasonable patch of land. You've got a lot going on, especially looking after 850 cows of milk on a daily basis, but underneath it all Hans, this is a share farm. Now for those that don't know what share farming is, how would you explain it?

Hans van Wees:

You share a percentage of the inputs, depending on the percentage, and you share a percentage of the outputs. So you basically become part of the risk. You take part of the risk with you.

Drew Radford:

You described that very simply Hans, cause when I was reading some background material, I was left asking a lot of questions. Well, what about this? And what about that? And we'll drill down into that in a bit, but how did this relationship start?

Hans van Wees:

Very interesting. I was actually share farming another job and that terminated, and I actually rang my current share farming partner looking for a house. He says, I can't give you a house, but I've dabbled over the years, come and see me about a share farming agreement, starting first July in 2008. So, that's how that started.

Drew Radford:

And you haven't looked back since obviously you're still on same property?

Hans van Wees:

Nope, been there since 2008.

Drew Radford:

So, Hans, what would some of the benefits then be of share farming? The way you see it?

Hans van Wees:

Okay, depending on the share agreement, you can make a lot of money in good years, a hell of a lot of money. You have a fair bit of freedom to run your farm.

Drew Radford:

You're ultimately responsible for the daily decisions though. Are you? Or are they shared?

Hans van Wees:

Oh, I do all the daily decisions, grazing management, irrigation management, repairs, and things to keep the farm going. I don't have to refer back to my share farming partner to okay it. If it has to be fixed it just gets fixed. Now big capital expenditures, we have a meeting, we do a budget. But yeah, day-to-day running, I do all that.

Drew Radford:

That was one of the big questions in my mind was about those big capital expenditures. Let's say you want to put in a new milker? That's a lot of money.

Hans van Wees:

Well, the owner pays for that anyway, the share farming partner. So, our big expenditures would be upgrading irrigation infrastructures, silos, maybe milk vats. That's the other partner's cost anyway. But yeah, we discussed that fairly thoroughly and now I have to justify my spending.

Drew Radford:

I would imagine you would. I mean, you're essentially going to a shareholder, aren't you? Essentially.

Hans van Wees:

Going basically to the shareholders slash bank to justify. If we do this, I can return you X, or you know safety, or sustainability measures. So that's really what we look at.

Drew Radford:

You described that very clearly and simply, but Hans there's a lot of trust there from your shareholder that you're a pretty good business operator to get in bed with to start with it I assume.

Hans van Wees:

We had known each other probably for about 10 to 12 years beforehand, and we butted heads a fair bit, but a business relationship is very, I would call it, very professional.

Drew Radford:

That's interesting description, Hans, you butted heads, but you still ended up working together?

Hans van Wees:

He's the major shareholder, and he still has final say on anything if he wants to. But he said, I don't want to milk my cows, I don't want to work, I want to go on holiday, I want to go away, I want nothing to worry about. I'm paying you a lot of money to do the job properly and deal with the problems.

Drew Radford:

On that Hans, some of the problems. I understand the property, 80 per cent of its floodplain. You've got a major weir upstream.

Hans van Wees:

Yeah we've been flooded a few times.

Drew Radford:

So you've been flooded a few times. How does solving all of that end up playing into a share arrangement? You've got insurance, you're going to have fences to be arranged, you have got lost productivity. There's a whole range of things.

Hans van Wees:

Yep, so the lost productivity, we share, that's just the fact of life. I'm on a floodplain, that has advantages and disadvantages. Capital rebuilds, that's the other partners problems. So any major capital damages from floods, that's not my issue. I'll have to provide a bit of labor to help and stuff. But yeah, it's very well detailed.

Drew Radford:

I like the fact that he used the word detailed there. I'm assuming that really boils down to a written contract?

Hans van Wees:

Yes, written contract and understanding what each other's responsibilities are.

Drew Radford:

Hans, how often do you review these contracts?

Hans van Wees:

We haven't reviewed it since the day we started.

Drew Radford:

Wow, you laid it out well enough 15 years ago that everyone's been happy?

Hans van Wees:

Well actually the person I'm share farming with he had an agreement originally and I basically took it over as it was, with a couple of little tweaks, but nothing major. And we probably meet at least four or five times a week anyway, over coffee and just chat. So there's never any really big surprises

Drew Radford:

Your share farming partner is certainly not stepping away from the operation. He's pretty close to things going on if you meet him that much.

Hans van Wees:

Oh, he lives on the farm, but he wouldn't have a clue how to start a plant or how to milk a cow. Trust me.

Drew Radford:

Okay, but he's obviously got a bit of an idea about farming being a former dairy farmer himself though?

Hans van Wees:

Well he's a former vet, he's a part time dairy farmer now, he is a world famous vet.

Drew Radford:

Right? Okay. So, Hans, often people use share farming arrangements to get into farming before becoming landholders.

Hans van Wees:

Yeah.

Drew Radford:

What has been your drive to remain in a share farming arrangement, long-term?

Hans van Wees:

I think, this sounds horrible, I can make a lot more money being a share farmer on a very profitable farm, and probably a lot less capital outlay.

Drew Radford:

Simple fiscal reality.

Hans van Wees:

Yes. I do own land, but nothing to do with the dairy farm.

Drew Radford:

That's a really interesting analysis. And you strike me as the sort of person Hans who would have weighed up those figures over the years.

Hans van Wees:

Yeah. I've done those figures. And I've looked around the Australian dairy industry, I see a lot of people struggling to find employees like me. Why would I put myself in the place where I'm going to be exposed to more risk, and stuck with a farm I might not be able to run myself properly?

Drew Radford:

Hans what would your advice be for young farmers looking to use share farming to get into farming, whether that's dairy, horticulture, or any other form of farming.

Hans van Wees:

First thing, do a realistic budget, with realistic figures, and realistic ambitions. Nobody's Superman. Nobody's got to set the world on fire the first few years in any enterprise.

Drew Radford:

Being a pragmatist sounds key as far as you're concerned.

Hans van Wees:

Yes. So just plan for the average, hope for the best, and prepare for the worst.

Drew Radford:

Hans, how do people get involved in share farming?

Hans van Wees:

Well in New Zealand it's a structured way of getting very reliable labor. Now money and rewards is a pretty good driver. The better you do, the more money you make.

Drew Radford:

Hans do you think there is a lot of potential for share farming to become a more common way of operating in the future?

Hans van Wees:

I think there is, but I think that there's an issue you might have some share farmers not up to this job. And you'd probably find some owners who'd balk at some of the money some of us are earning share farming. It's eyes wide open. It's not always going to be beer and skittles. You know, sometimes it’s thorny subjects you got to deal with, but do it professionally. Do your budgets, do your cash flows, do your risk analysis.

Drew Radford:

And as a share farmer, where did you go to learn those sorts of skills? You did an agricultural degree in New Zealand many years ago, but since then.

Hans van Wees:

I did a couple of courses through Dairy Australia, which really helped. I did the Frontline Management course through RMIT, which is really good about risk structures. I learned a lot from them.

Drew Radford:

Hans, you’ve done a remarkable job developing your share farming relationship to where it is and have shown that ongoing training has assisted you get to where you are today.

I reckon you’ve undersold the amount of work you’ve done to continue your education. The completion of a graduate certificate in Front Line management; and advanced leadership training and specialised nutrition courses through Dairy Australia are all long courses that require a good amount of time to complete.

The commitment to education and continuing to build your business and technical skills over several years is a really important part of having a successful farming enterprise.

Thank you so much for your time and joining me in the AgVic Talk studio.

Hans van Wees:

No problem.

Drew Redford:

Hans van Wees is a regular contributor to the Milking the Weather newsletter. Subscribe to the Milking the Weather newsletter on the Agriculture Victoria website.

Speaker 1:

Thank you for listening to AgVic Talk. For more episodes in this series, find us, and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. We would love to hear your feedback, so please leave a comment or rating and share this series with your friends and family.

All information is accurate at the time of release. Contact Agriculture Victoria, or your consultant, before making any changes on farm.

This podcast was developed by Agriculture Victoria authorised by the Victorian Government Melbourne.

Episode 8: You don't have to come from a family farm to make your dreams come true, with Tamara Pabst

Speaker 1:

Welcome to AgVic Talk, keeping you up to date with information from Agriculture Victoria.

Drew Radford:

Where's the next generation of farmers coming from? It seems not all of them grow up with dirt on their boots, which is the case for Melbourne-born Tamara Pabst. Her suburban dreams of becoming a farmer and the reality of now owning her own farm near Lurg were a long way apart.

Drew Radford:

G'day, I'm Drew Radford. To find out how a city girl ends up becoming a sheep farmer, Tamara joins me in the AgVic Talk studio. Thanks for your time.

Tamara Pabst:

Thanks for having me.

Drew Radford:

Now, Tamara, just in case there is any confusion with those listening, the rooster cries in the background are real because you live on a property, don't you?

Tamara Pabst:

Yes, I can confirm I do. I've also got six guinea fowls, so if you hear them screaming at some point, don't be alarmed.

Drew Radford:

Tamara, you didn't grow up on the land though, did you? Anything but, really.

Tamara Pabst:

Yeah. I actually grew up in Pakenham, in South East Victoria. We did spend a bit of time growing up there on my grandparents farm, just outside Mansfield. Yeah, we'd just go out there for school holidays and long weekends and things, and liked to help my grandpa on the farm.

Drew Radford:

Is that where the desire came from, from your grandparents?

Tamara Pabst:

Yeah. Well, I always had a passion for animals and then I realised that it was more rural-based animals I liked. Then I did a bit of work on, the neighbours to my grandpa's farm. They had sheep, so I'd go out and help them check sheep when they were lambing and help them with crutching and sheering and all those sorts of things and lamb marking. I developed a bit of passion for that and steered in the direction of being a rural vet, but then when I did my Bachelor of Agriculture, I realised that I liked the agriculture side of things more and there's so many more job opportunities in that, you don't just have to be a vet.

Drew Radford:

There are a lot of opportunities, but the difference is you also want to be a farmer. You want to have your own property, don't you?

Tamara Pabst:

Yeah, for sure. I love the idea of being able to produce off the land and produce a living and an income from it, so that's why I looked at this property last year that I purchased. Yeah, I just love the sheep side of things as well, because they are dual purpose. Obviously, you're getting your wool and your meat from them. That's sort of why I steered in that direction and really enjoy just being on the land.

Drew Radford:

You mentioned that kind of lightly, "Well, that's why I purchased this property," but it's been a long road just to get to that point I imagine, a lot of hard work and saving, because it's not a case of inheriting it or some sort of succession process.

Tamara Pabst:

No, that's right. Yeah, I've been saving for a very long time. Yeah, this opportunity came up last year. It was neighbouring my boss's place. The option came up to purchase it privately and they actually offered it to my boss. He has been doing a lot for me and actually offered it to me to get myself up and running, so that's how I got in that way. But yeah, definitely a lot of hard work over a long time.

Drew Radford:

Well, it continues to be hard work because you are still working on your boss's property, aren't you? What are you actually doing there?

Tamara Pabst:

Yeah, so I work full time at Kilfeera Park. It's a Merino stud and we run about 4,000 ewes out there, obviously enough to keep me employed full time. Then just in my spare time, I just manage my hundred ewes that I've got. We've got rams, that's one of our income streams. We look after them, feed them morning and night and constantly fine tuning them. Then just the general husbandry of managing ewes and lambs all the time, so enough to keep us busy,

Drew Radford:

Tamara, getting the property is one thing, and yes, you've studied ag at uni, but there's still, I imagine, quite a gap in skillset from all of that and actually running it and being a farmer. How do you go about that?

Tamara Pabst:

Yeah, for sure. When I finished my Bachelor of Agriculture, I thought I would be lacking a bit because I didn't have that growing up in a farm experience like a lot of my peers did. All my friends went and got jobs when they finished their degree. I was living up at Dookie College, just working part-time while I did my third year, and then I had the option to stay on for another year and work full time to gain some more experience, which I really enjoyed. Then I went overseas for a bit and came back, and by working on this farm here I've gained a lot more experience and feel pretty competent in this industry now. I definitely think just applying to get jobs to where you can get experience is really beneficial because it just opens the door for so many opportunities in the future.

Drew Radford:

Well, it has opened doors for opportunities in the future, but you've also sought out opportunities I understand, in regards to trying to further your own skillset through other areas.

Tamara Pabst:

Yeah. Early this year, Agriculture Victoria held a business bootcamp for young farmers. That was two days held over at Bendigo, which helped you to look at the farm from a business perspective as opposed to just running the farm on a day-to-day basis. I found those days really useful, because not only could I learn, but I could talk to other people there and think of new ideas to help me on my own farm. Yeah, I just think that is such invaluable information for me, which was great.

Tamara Pabst:

I also applied for Young Farmers Scholarship last year, and that gives you $10,000 total, so $5,000 to go towards up-skilling, so getting the opportunity to go and get some skills that you can bring back onto your farm. Once that's completed, you get another $5,000 and you can then put that information into practice on your own farm in various ways. I've applied to do a Graduate Certificate in Agribusiness, and once that's completed, I will go and purchase some weigh scales so I can accurately record data on my farm and help it to be as productive as it can be.

Drew Radford:

Tamara, you're talking about improving how you operate your property and the scholarship's going to be an important part of that, can we just take one step back to the Young Farmer Business Bootcamp? What sort of things have you been able to take away from that experience and apply it to your business so far in practical terms?

Tamara Pabst:

Yeah. I've been able to look at my farm from a whole business perspective, as opposed to just working day to day on the farm and just being able to take a step back and look at things like cashflow budgets and livestock trading accounts, and then even looking at the bigger picture, formulating a five-year plan so I can get a bit of an idea of what I want to do with the farm in the future, not just right at the moment. I think it's super important to look at it from all these different angles.

Drew Radford:

Tamara, can I ask, what does your five-year plan look?

Tamara Pabst:

Yeah, so I've currently got my hundred Merino ewes in the place, maybe in the next five years I'd look at leasing some land of my boss as he looks to downsize or increasing the stocking rate on my own property once I put some fertiliser and urea on this year. Hopefully, depending on the season, obviously I had a pretty good season so far this year, but it's easy to look at the future. But yeah, hopefully be able to increase the stocking rate and improve the productivity of the farm would be a good goal to have. Yeah, and then just see where it takes me.

Drew Radford:

In terms of where it does take you, are you looking to do further study elsewhere?

Tamara Pabst:

Yeah. I found a really cool course; it was a farm manager course and it's for a week in New Zealand. Obviously, when we can travel again, I'd really like to go over and do that. I just feel like you might get even more of an insight. Farmers on other farms, they might have different perspectives about different things because of different climates, but they also might have some knowledge that I can transfer onto my own property.

Drew Radford:

You've achieved a lot at a young age. Has there been a case of, "Well, I've got to sacrifice this to do that," or have you been able to pick a balance in the middle and still lead a young life, for want of a better description?

Tamara Pabst:

Yeah, it's definitely had it sacrifices, obviously saving a lot leading up to the purchase of the farm, but it's all about finding a balance between things. You've got to have a life as well. It's all good to be goal-driven but you've still got to be able to enjoy the life that you're leading at the moment. Yeah, I think it's just good to be able to manage everything. I still took a few weeks off and went overseas before I started my job here at Kilfeera Park a few years ago. I think that's really good, to go away and just relax and refresh yourself before you come back and start working again, just to open your mind up. It makes you realise that this is what you want to do. Yeah, I really value that time as well, as well as being on the farm.

Drew Radford:

Tamara, what advice would you give to other young farmers working towards owning their own land or business?

Tamara Pabst:

Yeah. Well, if you're going to make sure it's your goal, what you definitely want to do, because if you don't value it, then you're not going to want to achieve those goals and save as hard towards it. I think first and foremost, you have to be sure that that's what you want and commit to it, to commit to achieving that goal. It takes time, you've got to be patient. You can't just expect to have everything at the tip of your fingers. I'd also say just taking all the opportunities to learn and develop your skills and knowledge. Taking opportunities to network as well, meeting people in the industry. I wouldn't have got where I was without meeting these people that wanted to help me along the way. Then taking opportunities such as the ones that Agriculture Victoria offers, such as the scholarship and these free bootcamps that you can get to. There's so much knowledge to be learned and it's up to you if you want to take those opportunities, because you're the one that's going to benefit in the long run so it would be silly not to.

Drew Radford:

Tamara, do you think it's been any disadvantage to you not coming from a farming background?

Tamara Pabst:

I probably think the opposite actually, because just being open and honest saying that I didn't come from a farming background, a lot of people have then given me the opportunity to learn and develop myself and develop my skills and knowledge. Yeah, I just encourage anybody, even people that aren't from the farming background and if you are interested, to still apply for these things. You don't know where you're going to end up. If you're committed enough and passionate enough, you can still achieve the things you want to do. You don't have to be off a family farm and inherit a bunch of land to be able to make your dreams come true. You can always start small and meet people and take every opportunity you can get to get where you want to go.

Drew Radford:

Tamara Pabst, it sounds like you have taken every opportunity, you've made a lot of your own along the way. Congratulations on all you've achieved so far and thank you for joining me in the AgVic Talk studio today.

Tamara Pabst:

No worries, thanks for having me.

Speaker 1:

Thank you for listening to AgVic Talk. For more episodes in this series, find us and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. We would love to hear your feedback, so please leave a comment or rating and share this series with your friends and family. All information is accurate at the time of release. Contact Agriculture Victoria or your consultant before making any changes on farm. This podcast was developed by Agriculture Victoria, authorised by the Victorian Government Melbourne.

Episode 7: Setting clear boundaries and expectations when working with family with Emma Hawker and Tristan Schilling

Speaker 1:

Welcome to AgVic Talk, keeping you up to date with information from Agriculture Victoria.

Drew Radford:

Building your own farming enterprise from scratch can seem like a distant dream for many aspiring young farmers. However, the thought of having three farms under your control before you're even 30 would sound like pure fiction to most. Good day, I'm Drew Radford and what I'm describing is the remarkable achievement of Emma Hawker and Tristan Schilling, who've left no stone unturned in their quest to become farmers. To find out how they've achieved it, they join me now at AgVic Talk studio. Thank you both for your time.

Emma Hawker:

Thanks for having us.

Drew Radford:

Firstly, whereabouts do you farm?

Tristan Schilling:

Edenhope in Victoria. We also do some farming at Nhill, Victoria. It's about 100 kilometers down the road, so yeah, we've diversified a little bit.

Drew Radford:

And what do you farm?

Tristan Schilling:

We do cropping at Nhill, and we do mainly sheep at Edenhope.

Drew Radford:

How big are the properties Emma?

Emma Hawker:

The one down at Edenhope, that's a 730 acre property. And then up at Nhill, it's about 700. We have another one at Douglas now, 640 acres.

Tristan Schilling:

That’s a leased property.

Emma Hawker:

That's a leased property.

Drew Radford:

That's quite a bit of growth for both of you, because let's wind it back just a little bit. First of all, how did you come into farming? Emma?

Emma Hawker:

My parents are in a transport and haulage business, so I've always been around farming. But I trained as a registered nurse and really got involved in about 2014 with Tristan, when him and his brother were looking at buying their parents' farm.

Drew Radford:

On that Tristan, you grew up on the family farm, and it was a succession thing, was it?

Tristan Schilling:

Yeah. I grew up on the family farm at Nhill. Mum and dad, they had about 5,000 acres of just continuous cropping. And then they were struck by the Millennium drought, and downsized from 2011 through. They downsized, got smaller and smaller. And so that's where my brother and I in 2016, got the opportunity to buy the last bit of property they had left.

Drew Radford:

So you went into share farming with your brother then, how did that go?

Tristan Schilling:

My brother and I bought the last 820 acres of my parents' farm. And we didn’t get on from the start we both had different ideas in how to work and who was going to work it, and all that sort of stuff. And basically after I worked it for two years, and after that, we both decided to sell it, and that was going to be the easiest option in going our own ways.

Drew Radford:

That sounds like a quick and smart, early decision, rather than laboring through something for a very long time, I'd imagine?

Tristan Schilling:

Yeah. At the time it wasn't probably the easiest, but looking back on it, it probably worked out for the best to dissolve it quickly and move on, and get our lives on track when we were in our early 20s.

Drew Radford:

That's easier said than done though, isn't it? Because selling one property, which I assume you probably had to borrow for in the first place, and then trying to go on and set up another property. It's not straightforward.

Tristan Schilling:

No, no. As soon as we sold that property, I was pretty much just onto agents, real estate agents and looking around. And we looked everywhere within a 300 kilometre radius just for something. And that's where we got the opportunity to buy down at Edenhope. This is a pretty rundown farm when we bought it. And a lot of people said, "You're silly buying that farm, it's not this, it's not that." And yeah, we never looked back really.

Drew Radford:

Emma, I understand there's a bit of a phrase for this property though, which relates to suburban real estate, doesn't it?

Emma Hawker:

Yeah. One of the worst farms on the best street.

Drew Radford:

So did you buy it together?

Tristan Schilling:

No. At the time I bought it. Emma and I had only been together for three years. So I bought it just off my own bat.

Drew Radford:

But has that caused issues down the track though, in terms of now you're a partnership, but I imagine the property is in your name? How does the bank deal with that?

Emma Hawker:

Yeah. So in 2019 we officially became T and E's Farms partnership. Because yeah, as Tristan said, despite being together for many years and especially this farm, building it from the ground up, we realized because it was in Tristan's name, when it comes to the bank, they don't recognise us as official partners or equal partners. So that really was the culmination for us forming a partnership when the bank didn't recognise us.

Drew Radford:

Obviously though, it sounds like you've got around that though, Emma, because you've gone from that one property, whereas now you're involved in three properties.

Emma Hawker:

Yeah. So it's still all sitting with Tristan, because you've got to have so many years as a partnership for them to recognise. You definitely need 12 months. And then just the way it's been going, we haven't really needed to go back again. We'll be revisiting that in the coming months though. So luckily we've just been able to push on with the two of us and our off-farm income to keep getting us through.

Drew Radford:

The reason I asked that is, being in an official partnership, I imagine that makes things easier down the track, does it? In terms of dealing with banks and future financing issues?

Emma Hawker:

Yeah, definitely. And that's why we did it. That's why we became partners on paper.

Drew Radford:

Tristan, winding it back just a fraction. You were very honest and upfront there in regards to, you worked out very quickly with your brother that it wasn't going to work between the two of you. So what would you suggest to siblings who are looking at succession planning and moving ahead with the family property?

Tristan Schilling:

Yeah. Just get it done early. And Emma and I have talked, if we ever have kids, we'll be succession planning with them from day dot, if you know what I mean? It won't be a drawn out process. I think every family farm has had some sort of complications in some sort of succession planning. So we've gone through it early, and it's going to be one of the first things we do when we have children. That's if they are, or aren't interested in the farm, it just got to be done.

Drew Radford:

Is that a lot about too expectations on children as well, that well, I was a farmer, you're going to be a farmer, or is it something like that?

Tristan Schilling:

That's right. There's always, something got to be done with the farm, whether they're going to be a farmer or not. So you just got to get it done and get it sorted. And I suppose succession planning so big now, because everyone else's parents have basically stuffed it up in some respects. That's why it's so big now.

Drew Radford:

Emma, what did you take away from that process?

Emma Hawker:

It definitely shows the importance of setting clear boundaries and expectations, because whilst it is a family, it is a business. So I think sometimes it's really hard to separate family from business, but at the end of the day, farming is a business, so you need to make business decisions. So yeah, really learning that separation, which can be really difficult because obviously for parents, this is their whole life, and we were still quite young coming into it. But just requiring boundaries and really clear expectations, and everyone's roles and responsibilities, I think is really important from the outset. Otherwise it can become quite a headache.

Drew Radford:

That sounds like very sage advice, that at the end of the day, it is a business. And that's often difficult to separate when you've grown up on the family property.

Tristan Schilling:

Yeah, it is tough, but you just got to move on and get it done, and everyone's got to live on with their lives, I suppose.

Drew Radford:

Well, you have moved on and you have got it done. I would argue almost in remarkable time, now being involved in three properties. Beyond the initial, okay, we're going to go out on our own, what are some of the things that have been a challenge to get to this point?

Tristan Schilling:

Yeah, cashflow is a big thing. So when we bought the farm at Edenhope, we just pretty much had enough money for a deposit. And then the bank said, "Yep. And then when it come to livestock, find your own way." So we've had off-farm income and just saved and worked hard for it, and probably missed out on a lot of things to put towards our farm and that sort of stuff. So yeah, cashflow is one of the hardest things we found, especially with the bank, because if you want to borrow a hundred grand, you sort of got to have a hundred grand before they'll give you money nowadays. So that's been our hardest thing.

Drew Radford:

In terms of that off-farm income, is that you Emma working as a nurse?

Emma Hawker:

Yeah. I work at our local hospital. I've also moved into a quality role, so that's been keeping us going there. And then Tristan was also shearing. And then on weekends usually, it'd be doing the farm work.

Drew Radford:

That's quite a balance, isn't it? That would have an impact on both of you in terms of trying to manage your time effectively, wouldn't it?

Emma Hawker:

Yeah, definitely. Especially if I'm working Monday to Friday, and then on the weekend we have lamb marking and doing that on the weekend, and then back into work again Monday. But yeah, one thing I think we really worked out at the start, we would do our own shearing. So Tristan would be shearing, I'd be in the shed rousing, and we'd slowly make our way through. And then we're like, this probably isn't working in terms of we're missing out on completing other jobs. So it was really having a look at how can we be time effective, in the sense that while we might have to pay someone, the time it's saving might be the opportunity cost we're gaining. So yeah, it's really been a review of what we should be doing and not just doing everything ourselves. So now we'll get another shearer in and another rouse, so we can get it done in a couple of days, instead of I think what we did over a month of weekends.

Drew Radford:

Emma, that sounds really the simple age old adage of sometimes you've got to spend money to save money as well, isn't it? That's a smart application of resources.

Emma Hawker:

Yeah, definitely, definitely. That pretty much sums it up.

Drew Radford:

It sum it up also for tensions of working together on certain occasions, I'm sure as well.

Tristan Schilling:

Well look, we have arguments, there's no doubt about that, but at the end of the day we always come home where it's back to normal sort of thing. I think it's just part of any normal farming relationship I reckon.

Drew Radford:

Is there any other challenges that you've had along the way that come to mind that you've come over? Most people would have just kept on in your scenario, no we're not going to bring somebody in, we're going to keep working that through. So are there other challenges that you've managed to work through to get to this point?

Emma Hawker:

I'd say we've been really lucky in building our machinery asset base, which has allowed us to expand into some contracting.

Tristan Schilling:

Yeah. We have bought some machinery to do our own jobs, and then we've gone out and said, let's see if we can do some contracting with it, which we've been pretty fortunate. So yeah, we've bought a spreader, do our own spreading, and ended up doing a lot of spreading contracting with that. And we bought a header doing our own harvest and ended up doing our own harvest and go and do a lot of contract harvesting with that, which has really helped us. And bought an air seeder and went to Donald to do a lot of contract cropping up there, which is good. And it's really helped us get to where we are. That's probably a big help, as long as with our off-farm income.

Drew Radford:

That's a smart way of looking at it too, isn't it? Because buying the land is only the first part, then actually having the equipment to work it as an entirely separate equation and often nearly as expensive.

Tristan Schilling:

And especially for our acreage, a bank looks at this and says, "What do you want to buy that for? You're better off getting a contractor." But then at the end of the day, once you own it you can do it when you need. So sort of a catch 22 when it comes to that stuff, trying to borrow money and build up machinery wise.

Drew Radford:

It's pretty clear that you're working towards your dreams. Based on how hard you've both worked to get this far, what makes you feel positive about the future of your careers in agriculture?

Tristan Schilling:

I just think coronavirus has really proven. So when coronavirus first came in last March, I think it was, we had lambs. And my agent was telling me, "We'd better start booking some forward contracts in for lambs, because this could be disastrous. What's going to happen?" And grain, and all this. And I think it's just really proved that there's such a strong demand for it, products of agriculture, and it's a really positive industry to be in.

Emma Hawker:

It's also the lifestyle. I think having ownership of your business and our future, building something together, it's really enjoyable. I think farming, it's a lifestyle and it can be really hard, and you need to be really resilient, but it can also be so enjoyable, rewarding and you can come home and just feel like you've really accomplished something that's not only for yourself, but is going to benefit your community and society.

Drew Radford:

Have you been involved with external groups or mentoring programs to actually help you get to this point?

Emma Hawker:
Not exactly external mentoring programs as such. I'd say we've been extremely lucky and grateful for the support networks that we have and the friendships and relationships we've built, from Tristan shearing and just living in the community that we do. And we've been extremely fortunate to have a lot of people sharing their knowledge and wisdom with us. That's including our neighbors down south who were really welcoming, because it is a different farming type down there. They've been our unofficial mentors and it has been a major influence and really assisted us to get to where we are now. I suppose we've also received some great advice, that being having a really good team surrounding you. So when you're looking at your team, like your stock agent, your agronomist, accountant, and also just building on your own knowledge at all times. So yeah, not formal, but definitely we've had some fantastic unofficial mentors.

Drew Radford:

It sounds like you're balancing quite a bit there, Emma and Tristan, between running the farm, off-farm work, working as a nurse in your case, Emma, and also doing further study. I think a lot of people would feel that their nose is just above the water line.

Emma Hawker:

Yeah. Yeah. It can be quite stressful and difficult. But yeah, got to keep pushing because at the end of the day, we're achieving our dream.

Drew Radford:

Emma Hawker and Tristan Schilling, you've achieved an enormous amount in a short time, and I look forward to hearing what you achieve over the years ahead. But thank you so much for joining me today in the AgVic Talk studio.

Tristan Schilling:

No worries. Thanks for having us.

Emma Hawker:

Yeah. Thanks for having us Drew. It was really good.

Speaker 1:

Thank you for listening to AgVic Talk. For more episodes in this series, find us and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

We would love to hear your feedback. So please leave a comment or rating and share this series with your friends and family. All information is accurate at the time of release.

Contact Agriculture Victoria, or your consultant before making any changes on farm. This podcast was developed by Agriculture Victoria, authorised by the Victorian Government Melbourne.

Episode 6: Everyone deserves to go home safely at night, with Danyel Cucinotta

Speaker 1:

Welcome to AgVic Talk, keeping you up to date with information from Agriculture Victoria.

Drew Radford:

Everyone deserves to go home at night. For farmer and business owner, Danyel Cucinotta, it's way more than a line about safety. It's the foundation to how she helps run her family's egg farm. It's a philosophy she's also passionate about beyond her own farm gate. Recently, she was elected as Vice President of the Victorian Farmers Federation, the position she's bringing fresh perspective to as the youngest ever in that role. G'day, I'm Drew Radford. And running a farm is becoming increasingly more complex, particularly around OH&S. To find out how Danyel is incorporating that on her own property, she joins me in the AgVic Talk studio. Thanks for your time.

Danyel Cucinotta:

Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

Drew Radford:

Well, it is a pleasure to have you here, especially as I imagine time is tight, as not only do you help run the family farming enterprise, which is a big operation, you're also a young mum and recently elected as VFF Vice President. There's a bit to juggle.

Danyel Cucinotta:

So the VFF and my farming job is nothing compared to having a toddler at home, so that is definitely the hardest part of my job. However, coming to the VFF and doing my work there, looking after farmers, and doing the advocacy policy side of the industry is actually quite fun. I enjoy it. I'm a bit of a nerd at home. And yeah, my job on the farm is quite, I guess, easy these days simply because I have an entire support network and my family are all here. So they relieve the pressure of me. And yeah, the toddler's the crazy one. So I enjoy that, but that's the hardest part of my job.

Drew Radford:

Well, talking about the farm specifically, you point out that you've got a support structure there. That must be particularly important though because there's three businesses running from one location. That must make managing staff somewhat complex.

Danyel Cucinotta:

Yeah. So we do have the farm and on farm we have a cafe and a deli. Each department has its own manager. So we're very fortunate that they almost run with someone looking after them. However, my job is OH&S and HR. And that is an entire complex situation based on depending on what department I'm talking to. But I personalise it, I enjoy it, and it gets me out on the farm again. So yeah, I'm a half-glass-full kind of person. I enjoy the work and I always see the positive side of it.

Drew Radford:

Drilling down into that a little bit further though, Danyel, there must be a mix of skills and also language skills to some extent. Is there?

Danyel Cucinotta:

Yeah. So there's differences in skills. There's differences in age groups. The way I will communicate with my casual cafe staff about whether it's HR or OH&S is very different to how I'll speak to and ensure the understanding on the farm. Especially with some of our staff. English is their second language, so ensuring that I've found a way to communicate properly. And having the HR side of our business has really helped because I've created relationships with each individual staff member, whether it's the deli, the farm, or the cafe. And I then communicate the OH&S side based accordingly. Yeah, it's very complex, but we find a way. We manage because it's just so important.

Drew Radford:

Well, you do place a paramount importance on that. Why is safety something that you are constantly thinking about when it comes to your business?

Danyel Cucinotta:

Because everyone deserves to go home at night. So we're a family farm. We get how important family is. And we obviously want all of our staff to know that they're safe here and we want them to go home at night and see their own families. But it's very much passed down through my father.

Danyel Cucinotta:

So quite a while ago, when I was a lot younger, there was an accident on a neighboring farm at the time. And dad, I guess he thought that he had to take this a little bit more seriously, OH&S. So not so much what was happening, but rather the implementation and the way we communicated that more effectively and more efficiently. And from then, he then started the process. And a couple of years ago when I got pregnant, I thought, well, I can't do as much day-to-day operations. I had this huge stomach out in the front of me. It didn't allow for carrying boxes anymore. So I thought, well, what can I do? And how can I improve it? So I took over the OH&S. And I'm a bit of a social butterfly on the farm, I won't lie. I love a good chat. So yeah, it just fitted in really well. And it allowed us to create a new direction for us in OH&S and HR at the same time.

Drew Radford:

It sounds like that accident was quite pivotal in terms of how your family looked at health and safety full stop.

Danyel Cucinotta:

Yeah. So after the accident on the neighboring farm did happen, WorkSafe came around to all the farms in this area, started checking in on what kind of processes we had in place. And we were doing everything right. But I guess the panic, like when someone comes to check in on you and finding all the paperwork. Back when dad was doing it, he was like, "I was going through filing cabinets. I was nervous. You don't know where to find everything when you're being asked for it then and there." So we took a new approach because we thought, oh, we've got to be more efficient, more effective.

Danyel Cucinotta:

And we then implemented, or dad implemented at the time, a software program, but he still did it by hand, but on paper. But he was at least having more consistency and more continuous improvement and having more accountability of himself. And then as I came in a few years ago to take over this particular part, I was like, "Oh, pen, paper. Why?" So I then came in and spoke to our particular software program and said, "What can we do to improve this?" And we then got the app up and running. And now I do everything on the app. And it's amazing. Just walk around the farm, take photos. I do all my toolbox meetings on the app. And it just keeps me accountable too and makes sure that in my busy schedule I don't forget to continually do the processes and the policies and the updates for all our staff and myself.

Drew Radford:

So rather than being a chore, this is something embedded in you and it's a living, breathing thing which is constantly evolving and being updated?

Danyel Cucinotta:

Yeah. So I think OH&S or farm safety to safety in general, it has to be. It's a continuous improvement. It never stops. I personally don't look at it like a chore. I enjoy it. I don't know how many other people will ever say that, but I do. I enjoy it because I go around and I have a chat to our staff and it keeps that morale. So it effectively actually benefits us as a business because we're going around, we're showing our staff that we care about them. It creates better relationships in the long term. And then they also feel more comfortable to come and say, "Hey, we're not really happy with this particular thing." or "This seems a bit funny." So they're essentially my eyes and ears on the ground. And once you have that relationship, it's no longer a tick-a-box exercise. It's actually true health and safety on the ground.

Drew Radford:

What tips would you give to those particularly who haven't had your experience to have these conversations with their family about farm safety?

Danyel Cucinotta:

Dinner table conversations in our household are still just like any other family farm. So you can never really tell dad and my uncle exactly what to do. My mum's old mentality, not for safety, but my dad and my uncle would use it, it's do as I say, not as I do. So this program actually gives me more, I guess, of a leg to stand on. It's like, "Hey dad, don't forget that if we're showing our staff this particular way, you need to be the leader. You need to showcase that we're doing it all the right way and the correct safety equipment is being used." So it holds dad and my uncle accountable too. And it just gives me the opportunity to sort of like stand up and say, "Hey, don't forget that you can't do it that way."

Danyel Cucinotta:

So the software itself is what has given me that opportunity, but I'm sure if you sit down at the table and just say, "I care and I love you and I don't want anything to happen to you, so you need to do the right thing so we can all go home and argue at the dinner table on Thursday night."

Drew Radford:

That's a fantastic description. You made the point earlier on that you're a bit of a social butterfly. You like moving around the farm and talking to people. How important though is it to actually have structure around that and monthly check-ins with staff about work safety, and how does that work in a larger group as opposed to one-on-one chats?

Danyel Cucinotta:

Yeah. So we don't do larger group toolbox meetings anymore for a number of reasons. One, because there are three different businesses on site. We just simply cannot get everyone in the room at the same time. There is just too many different needs and requirements of different staff members. So again, language barrier is one, age group, the way I communicate, the particular policies at the time, it's different for every staff member. And three, as I said, the relationship is essentially what has made this. So our software provider sends us monthly continuous improvement updates, which could vary from policies to proof of OH&S systems on the farm, and then it's my job to ensure we go out and take the photos or have the toolbox accordingly.

Drew Radford:

People sometimes say it costs too much to have the latest safety equipment. Why do you feel this is money well spent?

Danyel Cucinotta:

We personally, and I would imagine everyone out there would say the same, you can't put a price on anyone's safety, especially your own family and your staff. It's like insurance. We very much treat OH&S systems and our software and the monthly updates as an insurance. We go out. We do the thing. We make sure everyone's looked after. Ideally, we don't want to be claiming back on this because that means something's gone wrong. So it's an investment we do to ensure that we don't end up with something bigger in the long term.

Drew Radford:

You're obviously engaging with your staff a lot. I'm guessing you view it as really important to have a good workplace culture, especially when it comes to farm safety.

Danyel Cucinotta:

Yeah. So our staff retention is quite good. We don't have too much staff turnover here. Cafe's a little bit different. You always have casual staff throughout their uni degree stay and go, but we've essentially seen a huge improvement since doing the individual toolbox meetings. And yeah, the staff culture's quite good. And it's also a comfortability thing. They know that we're looking after them. They know that this is a place that they enjoy working at. And we also make it very clear that they can come and chat to us about anything. And they really become a second family. I know more about their families than maybe I should sometimes. But yeah, I enjoy it and they enjoy it. And you spend so much time in your workplace, so why not have a safe and an enjoyable environment while you're there?

Drew Radford:

Is this about setting it up right from day dot through with a good induction process as well?

Danyel Cucinotta:

Yeah. So I had the farm safety consultants at the VFF come out and have a little chat to me about where I was late last year. And I wanted to know was our farm doing okay? Were we on the right track? And we were doing all the things right. And it was actually my inductions that were probably lacking. So it's okay not to be perfect. It's just a matter of knowing where your improvements need to be made. And at the time, John came out and said, "This is great. This is great. This is great. However, you're lacking here, here, and here." And yeah, I spent the next three to four months improving those practices and getting those inductions sorted. And that was probably my downfall just only six months ago. So here I am. I'd be pretty proud of my induction.

Drew Radford:

I would imagine then being proactive and fixing and acting on concerns as quickly as possible is fairly paramount to the way you run your farm and your businesses.

Danyel Cucinotta:

So funny example. Recently, Kyle came to me and he's like, "Oh, the emergency exit light isn't working. The bulb has blown." He then had his two days off. So he alerted me on Monday and then Tuesday, Wednesday had the days off. And he came in on Thursday and he was so proud of himself, even though he didn't fix it. He just alerted me. And I won't lie, I didn't fix it either. I gave that job to dad. But he was so proud of himself that he felt heard and he felt like he was part of ensuring the health and safety in our business was also at the level it needed to be. So when he came in and he did make the comment, he's like, "Last time I bought something up at my old workplace, they never actually fixed anything."

Danyel Cucinotta:

So yeah, we're all about timeliness, effectiveness. And if our staff bring a concern to us, we take that very seriously. And I mean, fixing a light bulb being blown is part of the way that you do things and it keeps Kyle happy, it keeps one of my staff happy, and it shows everyone else that we do care about what's being brought to our attention and we will fix the things that need to be done.

Drew Radford:

What would your advice be to farmers who are worried or concerned about getting a safety advisor onto their own farm?

Danyel Cucinotta:

So the Making our Farmers Safer program is fabulous. I cannot recommend it highly enough because the consultants are not there to pick on and give you some kind of infringement notice or anything like that. Instead, they're there to find flaws that we may have in our business and give us the tools and resources we need to actually fix them and ensure that we're looking after everyone. So I know it all seems scary. And my uncle actually has that mentality where it's like, "Oh, we don't want anyone coming in. We might end up in trouble," whereas my dad's the opposite. Dad's like, "No, we need the help. We can use as much as possible." So I would say to everyone, yes, it seems scary, but this particular program that's running at the moment one, it's free and two, everyone needs a bit of help. So I would highly recommend them coming out on the farm to actually see where we can all improve. And it's for the benefit of everybody.

Drew Radford:

Danyel Cucinotta, it sounds like you're running a pretty tight ship and OH&S is your first priority. And I imagine that's got significant positive flow-ons for your business. Thank you for taking the time and joining me in the AgVic Talk studio.

Danyel Cucinotta:

Thank you. It was a pleasure and I hope I can come back soon.

Speaker 1:

Thank you for listening to AgVic Talk. For more episodes in this series, find us and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. We would love to hear your feedback, so please leave a comment or rating and share this series with your friends and family.

All information is accurate at the time of release. Contact Agriculture Victoria or your consultant before making any changes on farm.

This podcast was developed by Agriculture Victoria, authorised by the Victorian Government Melbourne.

Episode 5: Teaching farm dogs new tricks with Kelly Barnes

Caroline Winter:

Welcome to AgVic Talk, keeping you up to date with information from Agriculture Victoria.

With a lifelong love of dogs, a passion for rural and regional Australia and a commitment to boosting the resilience and wellbeing of her community, it's no surprise Kelly Barnes has made her mark. She's the recipient of the 2020 Victorian AgriFutures Rural Woman of the Year Award, which recognizes her innovative working dog training school pilot program that sees the dogs not just as a tool of the trade, but as a very important companion.

Caroline Winter:

I'm Caroline Winter and in this episode, Kelly explains to me how her program has very personal origins and how it's focused on not just teaching farm dogs new tricks, but bettering the social and mental health of farmers and her community. Kelly Barnes, thank you for joining me in the AgVic Talk studio.

Kelly Barnes:

Thanks for having me. It's a great pleasure.

Caroline Winter:

Kelly, you live in Dunkeld in Western Districts, how would you describe your connection to the land and the people on it?

Kelly Barnes:

I live in town, but I work in rural merchandise, so I work with farmers every day. And then I live vicariously through my friend who works on a farm. And as I described, I'm a fair weather farmer now so when it's sunny, I go out and help them and when it's raining, I stay inside and watch Netflix. But it's really great here. It's such a good community. I love sheep so it's perfect to me, it's a lot of livestock farming around here, which is great and the people are just really lovely. So it's perfect spot to be.

Caroline Winter:

And so have you always lived in a rural community?

Kelly Barnes:

Yeah, I'd say so. So I grew up on a farm in the south of England. We were quite near to town, it was about an hour outside of London, but we were on a farm there. And then ever since I've come to Australia, I've always worked and lived on farms or lived in rural communities.

Caroline Winter:

And what do you enjoy most about living in a rural or a small community?

Kelly Barnes:

That's a really good question actually, because growing up where I went to school was quite built up, more urban and I guess I'd never really found my fit and then when I came over here, I just loved being with other farming people and sort of having the open space and the fresh air and things like that and just I obviously really loved farming. And I just never really found those kinds of people where I grew up. So I had a few farming friends and I know when I went to uni, I definitely found a lot more, but where I grew up there probably wasn't as many and I hadn't found that niche of people. So I think when I came over here, I just really loved the fact that everyone was so absorbed in agriculture.

Caroline Winter:

I like that, you found your people.

Kelly Barnes:

Yeah. And I do remember when I went to uni in England, like I went to an ag college and I sort of really found a whole range of people there that I never knew existed. And then coming over here, it's like a whole other level again, I was amazed when they had adverts for sheep drench on the TV and I remember ringing my mum and dad and telling them, like you just wouldn't get that in England. So I just really love how Australia is really backing their farmers and everything's really based around agriculture.

Caroline Winter:

Well, you've certainly found your place in the agriculture community in Victoria and you won the 2020 Victorian AgriFutures Rural Woman of the Year Award. Congratulations again. What is that award about and what opportunities did winning it give you?

Kelly Barnes:

It's just been absolutely amazing. And I always laugh because I think when I applied for it, I don't think anyone ever really truly knows what they're getting themselves in for, but yeah, it's been so much bigger than I ever imagined. So it's basically a way to promote and help you fund an idea or a project that you've got running, so you win a $10,000 bursary, but there's so much more to it than just the money. And I think just the connections you make, the opportunity you get for personal development, there's seven of us that were the state winners and you've just got this huge comradery and everyone's there to support each other and you're just surrounded by such amazing women. And it's those things that I've really loved, it's that celebrating each other, but really sort of seeing how many powerful women there are out there and really getting behind each other and helping each other out. And we've had so many personal development opportunities through it.

Kelly Barnes:

So I guess this year for us has been a completely different experience to the normal structure of the award, so we won in March 2020, and then we never had an award ceremony for Victoria, it was right at the start of COVID and then they postponed everything for a year. So we sort of had this weird standstill where we've been doing bits and pieces on Zoom and then we just had the national panel judging over Zoom as well. So it's all a little bit different, but it's just the support. The AgriFutures team are just amazing at getting behind you and really pushing you where you need to be pushed, but giving you the opportunity to really tell your story and get your idea out there and connect you with other people as well. It's the network of connections and the alumni and everything else like that, it's just a really powerful group.

Caroline Winter:

You mentioned the $10,000 bursary. Now you established the Dunkeld Working Dog Training School, what was the catalyst, I guess the inspiration, behind establishing the school?

Kelly Barnes:

Back in 2018, I did a digital storytelling workshop with the National Center for Farmer Health and it was about telling a story of a challenging time that we'd faced. And I had to put a video together and get pictures of various things that sort of related to my story. And I was going through my phone and looking for pictures and literally every single one of them was a dog selfie in one way, shape or form. And as I was putting this story together, I had all these pictures of my dogs and I just thought they've been huge for me, I've never really probably appreciated how much they've helped me outside of doing farm work, that support and that companionship and just being there. And I have a chronic condition called fibromyalgia so I spent a fair bit of time on the couch with fatigue and things like that and my old dog's always with me then.

Kelly Barnes:

So it really sort of sparked this idea of well, if that's how much they can help me, nearly every livestock farmer has got a dog and I just wonder if they can start to get some of those benefits. So yeah, that sort of sparked the idea. And then I've done a dog training school with Ian O'Connell back in 2012 and I remember thinking, "It's absolutely amazing, but I can't remember half of it," and I did it two Sundays, one week after the next, and then three or four months down the line, you sort of think, "Oh, I have all these other questions and I've tried these things and they don't really work and I'd love to go back and do more." So that's part of the concept too, is that you get that ongoing support so you get a day to catch up and learn things and then you get time in between to go and try ideas and then come back and brainstorm and debrief and things like that.

Kelly Barnes:

So basically based on my own experiences of both the challenges of living rurally, the challenges with mental health, and then having these courses where you go and learn a whole chunk of information all at once and then you're just let loose on your own, I needed that ongoing support. So that's where I designed the program.

Caroline Winter:

So it sounds like you've brought a number of passions together, and it is an innovative program. How central was developing this kind of approach to enhancing the social and the mental health needs in your town?

Kelly Barnes:

The underlying theme behind it all is to improve mental health and wellbeing in farming. So I studied a couple of years ago some of the modules that they run at the National Center for Farmer Health around agricultural health and medicine and I did a lit review on the mental health outcomes in rural communities. I think it really opens your eyes. I don't think even though we've tried to break down the stigma as such, people still don't talk about it and I don't know whether they really realise what's actually going on for themselves or for someone else. I think farming is always tough and everyone sort of just takes that for granted, but there's so many things that you can do to make it a little bit easier.

Kelly Barnes:

You do spend a lot of time on your own and whether you work in a team or not, a lot of the jobs you are doing on your own and the only thing you really have with you is you dogs or you're working with your sheep or cattle. So to build resilience is huge, and I think it's not necessarily for people with a mental illness either, it's just giving people the tools to prevent them getting down that path, or just becoming aware that I think there's so many things that can affect what you're doing that are out of your control. So it's really giving you the tools to focus on thing that you can control and then sort of be prepared for those situations when they do arise and work through them a lot better.

Caroline Winter:

You mentioned the relationship and the bond that you've had with your working dogs over the years and your current pooch is it Dougal? Can you tell me, what is that relationship like and why do you think that there is that strong connection that can, I guess, help you and others through some difficult times?

Kelly Barnes:

Yeah, it's a really good question. It's actually really hard to sort of identify. I guess, I've always loved animals, I'm just naturally drawn to them and I just remember always wanting to get my own dog when I was younger and the first ever working dog I got was a Border Collie in the UK. And ever since then, when I came to Australia, obviously had to leave her behind. And Dougal was my first dog I ever got over here and I just really missed having that dog with me and they are company, but they're quite calming, you're sat on the bike and you're moving sheep and they'd be on the bike with you and you'd be patting them or talking to them, they're just always there with you. They just have this absolute admiration for you like you can do no wrong and you have a really tough day and things go wrong but at the end of the day, they're still there with you and they just absolutely adore you and would do anything for you.

Kelly Barnes:

And I think you can see them when they're working, they will try their absolute hardest to do what you ask of them. And they're very forgiving and yeah, there's just something really special about them. And I find it quite a hard thing to really narrow down on because it's so subtle, some of the effects and the support they give, but definitely now poor Dougal, he's 14 and he's had a few injuries in his lifetime so he now pretty much spends his life on the couch, but even then, I come home from work and he'll sit in the garden sometimes during the day and he's just there at the gate waiting for me. So even though we don't work on farm, he's still there, he's really loyal and he's just that really good company.

Caroline Winter:

Obviously you have had that affinity with animals all your life, what other skills did you already have that helped you establish the dog training program and what skills did you have to acquire on along the way?

Kelly Barnes:

As far as actually official skills, probably none. But I remember getting feedback from a leadership program a few years ago and everyone said, "Oh, you're just so easy to talk to, I'm always really comfortable talking to you, you're kind," and all those things and that really got me thinking because I just have the ability to have these tough conversations with people. And a friend of mine always says it to me too, she's like, "People always open up to you, they always just start talking about things with you and they don't do it with me." And so I guess that was my kind of role in the program to start introducing some of those more difficult or more unspoken topics around mental health and things like that, but in a way that people feel comfortable.

Kelly Barnes:

So I enlisted the help of Ian O'Connell, so he is amazing and he did the dog training side of it so I didn't have to have any dog training skills. And I think to draw people into a program, you have to have someone that's really, really good in that area and if I'd tried to do that myself, I wouldn't attract necessarily those people, they're sort of coming to learn off Ian and then I kind of sneak all the other stuff in behind the scenes. So that worked really, really well. So just working on my own experience and kind of the experience of watching producer groups and working with clients and working with different farmers, seeing how much they can benefit from getting together and getting off farm, but that's all the stuff that you do in the background.

Kelly Barnes:

So it might not be really obvious to other people, but I just tune into that and I can really see the benefits. So sort of setting up exercises to get people working together, setting up the day so they have enough time at lunchtime to have a chat and have a coffee and things like that and just really having some of those tough conversations, like we'd had a discussion around suicide and around fear of failure and things like that, but it was sort of done in the middle of the program when everyone's a little bit more comfortable with each other, but also you still had a couple of sessions after the following months to then move on and have some wins with your dogs and other things.

Kelly Barnes:

So it was just really, I guess, for me having those people skills to frame those conversations and find the appropriate time for them, but be bold and have those conversations too. I think it is important to include some of that stuff in there, but being aware of the audience too. I couldn't bowl in on day one not knowing anyone, no one knows each other and then get everyone to start caring and sharing. I think people would have not turned up or run out the door a hundred miles an hour. So just having that ability and that emotional intelligence to read the room and see where things fit.

Kelly Barnes:

And be adaptable, like I had this schedule set out in my mind and I was quite flexible depending on what had come up, but pretty much every subject that I'd come up with was the perfect timing and people would talk about things at the end of one session and I'd be thinking to myself, "Oh, this is great because that's exactly what I planned for the next one." So yeah, really reading the room and being a bit flexible, but also not being afraid to have those open conversations as well.

Caroline Winter:

It definitely takes a good structure and the right person, particularly when you're dealing with difficult issues. So what does the program involve?

Kelly Barnes:

In a nutshell, it's six one day sessions, they're based once a month so we ran the last Saturday of the month for the pilot program over the course of six months, there was a group of 15 people, Ian O'Connell runs the dog school so he's got his own sort of framework around teaching people how to train and work their working dogs. So we do a bit of practical, a bit of theory and then I sneak in a bit of resilience stuff sort of in between as well. So we'd incorporate different aspects, like the first session was around goal-setting so getting them to set goals of what they wanted to achieve with their working dogs throughout the course and then building on that as we go.

Kelly Barnes:

We talked about nutrition and how that affects how you're feeling and how you perform and the same with the dogs and tying a lot of stuff in back to their relationships with their dogs. So things like fear of failure, you might go out and try something with your working dog and it's an absolute disaster one day, but the next day you go and do it and it's completely different. So just being brave enough to go back out and try again.

Kelly Barnes:

And I think one of the things I really found most valuable is the debrief sessions, so the participants would get the chance to talk about where they've had some wins and then if they'd had a few issues or something was a bit of a disaster, they weren't afraid to bring it up. And then as we went through, the other participants all sort of pitched in to help each other out as well. So they got a really good balance of practical, some theory, and then that chance to debrief and that chance to really get together and help each other out and build friendships as well. The whole idea is to create a group of people that are likely to catch up outside of the program as well. So they're learning to interact and help each other out and then hopefully they can then carry on doing that once the course finishes as well.

Caroline Winter:

For participants who've already been through the program, how have they gone so far? What kind of feedback have you had?

Kelly Barnes:

At the moment, we're just working through getting some independent evaluation done, but I've got a few brief snippets of feedback and they've just been amazing, they've said it's a life-changing program, they've really enjoyed meeting new people, staying in contact with people. I think the biggest thing that I have seen is just watching them grow, having that repetition and they've all really loved the format that they can learn some skills, go and practice, and then come back and talk through it again with Ian and talk about what's gone wrong and what they can do better.

Kelly Barnes:

Another one was incorporating those aspects of resilience and probably building awareness to it. So I think people don't always think about that on the land, they don't always take their own health and wellbeing into account and they probably don't realise how much it affects what they're doing as well. So I think just really highlighting that and things like stress, the last session we did was all about low stress stock handling and kind of remaining calm and tying that all in together. And I think sometimes people get so worked up when they're working stock and it's all going wrong, but all the participants, you could see them over the course of the program, they've learned to accept that when things go wrong, it's okay and you could see their reaction from day one where they'd be really stressed and really worried about it to the last session where things go wrong and that's all right and you just get back in and go again. So I'm really looking forward to getting the final report and then grow and keep building on it.

Caroline Winter:

What advice would you give our listeners who might want to take on a project like yours or apply for the AgriFutures' Rural Women's Award?

Kelly Barnes:

A hundred percent just do it because I am the queen of procrastination and I would never have got anywhere near where I've got now without doing it. So it's absolutely life changing program. And even if you don't get through, so even if you think you have an idea, but it's not quite there just apply anyway, just have a go, just chuck in an application. I did the previous year and it was quite honestly not very great if I look back at it, but one of the previous winners, she messaged and emailed and she said, just get in touch, happy to help you, happy to brainstorm, and she did. And so the following year, I was like, "I'd really like to try again," so I fine tuned to my ideas and really nutted it out and then I spoke to her and I spoke to another girl that had won the South Australian award and they really step you through it.

Kelly Barnes:

So I think don't be afraid to have a go. And if you don't get through the first year, try again, it's not the end of the world, it's all a growing experience. And just be really open to the opportunities. I mean, I'm more than happy for anyone that's thinking about it or that doesn't think that they could do it, just jump on the phone and have a conversation and throw your idea out there. The more you vocalise your idea, the more real it becomes.

Caroline Winter:

A great offer there and some great advice. Kelly Barnes, thank you for joining me in the AgVic Talk studio.

Kelly Barnes:

And thank you for having me, it's so great. I could talk about dogs for as long as you'd have me. So it's always a pleasure. Thank you.

Caroline Winter:

If this podcast has brought up difficult emotions for you, please find someone you can talk to or call Beyond Blue on 1300 22 46 36, MensLine Australia on 1300 78 99 78 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Thank you for listening to AgVic Talk. For more episodes in this series, find us and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. We would love to hear your feedback so please leave a comment or rating and share this series with your friends and family.

All information is accurate at the time of release. Contact Agriculture Victoria or your consultant before making any changes on farm.

This podcast was developed by Agriculture Victoria authorised by the Victorian Government, Melbourne.

Episode 4: Having a strong voice in your local community with Jessie Holmes

Speaker 1:

Welcome to AgVic Talk, keeping you up to date with information from Agriculture Victoria.

Caroline Winter:

Jessie Holmes has come full circle. Jessie grew up in the town of Dimboola, and after moving away for study and work, she returned to the neighbouring Shire of Yarriambiack as the youngest female local government CEO in Victoria. Her rural and agricultural roots run deep across the Wimmera and Mallee. She's a passionate advocate for, and leader of, the community she represents. Hi, I'm Caroline Winter. In this chat, Jessie helps demystify how leadership and advocacy work together, and reveals the one big takeaway for anyone starting out down this path. Jessie Holmes, thank you for joining me in the AgVic Talk studio.

Jessie Holmes:

Thank you for having me.

Caroline Winter:

Jessie, you grew up in Dimboola, and are now the Chief Executive Officer of the neighbouring Yarriambiack Shire. Does that have special meaning for you?

Jessie Holmes:

I guess so. It's good to be in the Wimmera where I grew up, so schooling in Dimboola, and then I went away, traveled overseas and went to university in Melbourne, and then moved back to Horsham and then Birchip, which is in the next-neighbouring Shire of Buloke where I worked for nearly 10 years. So yeah, just a strong affinity to the Wimmera region. My parents were born around this area as well, my Mum in Watchem and my Dad in St Arnaud. My husband's off a farm just south of Horsham. So we're entrenched in Wimmera, as far as you can be, I guess.

Caroline Winter:

How wonderful. So a bit of a homecoming, I guess, a bit of a full circle?

Jessie Holmes:

It really was. We've been back for nearly 13 years, and it's one of those places where you leave, and as you start to drive up the Western Highway and you get closer, and you go through the Grampians, and then you start to see the broadacre cropping, the browns and the yellows as opposed to the greens, that you start to realise you're back home in the Wimmera, Southern Mallee area. It's a nice place to be.

Caroline Winter:

Can you paint a picture for me of the Yarriambiack Shire in terms of agriculture, and I guess the flow-on effects and the benefits that the industry brings to the community?

Jessie Holmes:

Predominantly, broadacre across Yarriambiack, so 94 per cent of our land is zoned farming. We've got 14 towns across the council area, the largest being Warracknabeal, with sort of 2,500. Then you've got your next range of towns, Murtoa, Hopetoun, Rupanyup and Minyip, which are around the 500 to 900. Then a spattering of smaller towns that are between the sort of 50 to 150, 50 to 200, around Woomelang, Lascelles, Brim, Patchewollock, et cetera.

Jessie Holmes:

It's a very long shire. It's a long, skinny shire. We're about 220 kilometers in length. We have about 5,000 kilometers of road that Council manages. One thousand is sealed, 2,000 of gravel, and 2,000 of urban roads. The average farm property is six to seven times what it was in the 1960s. There's been a lot of aggregation across the agricultural communities as well, but the efficiencies on-farm over that period have just continued to grow and grow.

Jessie Holmes:

So the machinery that's used, the chemical usage, the ways in which tillage, and crop care, and paddock rotation, and just the amount of agronomy and extension research that's happened over the last four decades, has really just seen the type and the quality of the crop that is grown, just continue to be expanded upon each year.

Jessie Holmes:

With that comes a bit of feast and famine as well. So we had the Millennial Drought, we've had floods in 2011 and 2016. You'll get a good run of a few years, and then you'll have a few lean years, and then you'll have very dry years. So the fortunes can be varied, and being a long shire, you can have an amazing crop in the south with the north really suffering, or you can have below-average yields in the south with a sporadic outbreak of good yields in the north.

Jessie Holmes:

So it can be at times quite a gamble for a lot of our community. And then our rural community feeds into our townships as well, so a lot of the businesses are rural-dependent enterprises. So their fortune and famine also rely on the cycle nature of the agriculture yields as well.

Caroline Winter:

Now, you're the youngest female local government CEO in Victoria. You certainly were when you were elected at the age of 31, you're a few years into the job now.

Jessie Holmes:

Yeah.

Caroline Winter:

Did you always have goals of being a leader?

Jessie Holmes:

I definitely think my nature was to bring people together to get the best outcome, which I guess by nature extends into leadership, but certainly, sure, if you asked my parents, they would have suggested that I was quite bossy as a younger person, and that probably fed into them thinking that I would take charge at some point.

Jessie Holmes:

I didn't necessarily leave school with the intention of going into local government. I'm not sure many people do. The story of local government, most people you speak to in local government say they don't quite understand or know how they fell into local government. But yeah, it certainly made sense. I studied community development and policy planning at university, and at a post-graduate level.

Jessie Holmes:

We were living in Birchip at the time. My husband is an agricultural diesel mechanic, so that gives me an agricultural radius to live in as well. So I returned, and through some contacts with the local government at the time... Buloke was looking for a town planner... so I started there, effectively, not long after I moved to town.

Jessie Holmes:

Then over a 10-year period with Buloke, I added something else each year. It was building, and then planning, local laws, community development, economic development, et cetera. So I got to a point where I was at a director level, and I had statutory services and community services, and really quite enjoyed being able to put into effect the decisions that were made by our council.

Jessie Holmes:

You had a council making those strategic decisions, and then you were the operational perspective, able to actually make those decisions hit the ground into a reality. So 12 years into local government, and it's one of those careers where you never have the same day twice, and you get to be involved in lots of different things, and you actually get to see real things happen on the ground.

Jessie Holmes:

You get to see your councillors making decisions that you know are going to change the lives of young people, older people, in sport and recreation, in economic development, in the environment, for waste management. It's really nice to be in a position where you get to lead an incredible team of staff to make those council decisions to become a reality.

Caroline Winter:

So was it important for you, in this kind of role, as a CEO of a shire, to be in an agricultural area, to be in charge of a rural community, so to speak?

Jessie Holmes:

Yes. I think for me, I can't envisage a time where I wouldn't be in a rural area. I love everything about living in the Wimmera. We've got a small family now, so the girls are at primary school, and our family is here. Our parents are here, and I just can't imagine why you would be anywhere else.

Jessie Holmes:

All the things that I love about living in a regional area... I love my drive to work is 60 kilometers, and it's half an hour of just I might pass two or three cars, but I get to see the paddocks changing over the 12 months, from whether it's the burning stubble to the growing canola, to the headers out at 9:30 at night with their lights on during harvest. I get to see that cycle happen across the community.

Jessie Holmes:

I get to see what communities are like when things go right, or go wrong. Some people don't always love that in small towns, everybody knows everybody's business. That has positives and negatives, but it's very rare to get people in rural areas that aren't working 110 per cent to the benefit of their community. That sense of community, I couldn't imagine being anywhere else, to be honest.

Caroline Winter:

Let's go back to your first leadership position. How did you find yourself there? I guess if you think back, how did you feel at the time?

Jessie Holmes:

I started as a planner, and then I moved to a coordinator. I remember becoming a coordinator and then not just looking after myself, but looking after three staff at that time. Starting to learn some of those management skills around offering support to your staff, giving them structures to work within. Then I became a manager, and then a director.

Jessie Holmes:

You certainly notice the change when you start to offer leadership instead of just management. You're not just saying, "Here's your budget. This is what you spend, and this is what you need to spend it on, and this is the outcome that's expected," but you start to say, "Okay, well, we've got this budget. Like, what can we achieve? What's the strategic direction that's set by the community and the councillors?"

Jessie Holmes:

Definitely, the transition to management was fairly straightforward, learning finance skills and HR skills, but the transition to leadership, where you empower your staff, or even if you're leading with a community group, empowering them to be able to make the decisions and facilitating that is, for me, it was a bigger transition than just transitioning into management.

Jessie Holmes:

But it's this really great space, when you can see that the staff that you've empowered to make decisions, or you've facilitated communities to prioritise and make something a reality, like a new childcare center or a new rec reserve, and you can stand back and say, "They did that."

Jessie Holmes:

They were able to make that happen, and as a result of that, you may have provided leadership in relation to doing the advocacy to the state or federal government, but here you've got a community group that's actually got an outcome that makes it a better community for everybody. I think it's a different skill set, and it's one that you have to work on a lot harder than I think necessarily just becoming a good manager.

Caroline Winter:

Let's talk about advocacy. You have been in an advocate-type role for quite some years. How important is good advocacy and leadership in a rural community like yours, not just for the towns, but for the future of ag in the region?

Jessie Holmes:

It's so important. We do advocacy at a local level, at a state level, at a federal level with government, with private partners. Good advocacy is being able to articulate the advantages of investing in a service or a capital product that people can relate to or can understand.

Jessie Holmes:

So we talk about the storytelling that comes with advocacy, and because a lot of people have a romanticised view of living in rural communities, so they're often associated with being quaint and the community all getting together, and those things are very true, but the need for services and the need for development in those communities is also very real, and is less romantic.

Jessie Holmes:

How do you say to a government, state or federal, that has a range of competing priorities for their funding... how do you make yours the service they need to fund, or your new hall the hall that they need to fund? So, constantly making sure your narrative is aligned to whatever those ministers' priorities are, or the bureaucracy understands what you're trying to say as well, is really important.

Jessie Holmes:

When I first came to Yarriambiack, their external grant-funding percentage was quite low for a small rural council. We've really managed to turn that around in three years, so that they're above average in relation to attracting external grant funding from the state and federal government. That's built on being able to attract the funding, but then also convincing the funding bodies that you can deliver, on time and on budget, the product that you said that you were going to deliver.

Jessie Holmes:

That's been building those partnerships and relationships with the bureaucrats, so that the people within the agencies... making sure that you're keeping them up to date... they know what's in the pipeline, they know what you're advocating for. Then briefing your relevant members of parliament at a federal and state level, so there's no surprises for them either.

Jessie Holmes:

They're perfectly aware of, if you raise something, it's not the first time they've heard it, they've got a briefing paper on it. Then obviously my councillors need to be out in the community, getting that feedback from the community, feeding that back into us, so that we're actually advocating for what the community wants, because then the community can get behind you.

Caroline Winter:

Advocacy can be a bit of a vague or a misunderstood term at times. What does it mean to you, and how have you been an agricultural advocate?

Jessie Holmes:

I think for us, especially at a state and federal level, there's a lot of ministers who fundamentally don't understand agriculture. I talked about that romanticised view, but it's a huge economic driver, so you have to bring those ministers awareness around what agriculture brings, not just to the economy, but the value-add opportunities.

Jessie Holmes:

Depending on the minister that you're speaking to, and what their portfolios are or what their general interests are, what their backgrounds are, you need to tailor your advocacy to that. There's some ministers who are very familiar with agriculture, who've been Ministers for Ag or Ministers for Regional Development. So you can target your advocacy or pitch it at a different level with them.

Jessie Holmes:

As opposed to potentially Ministers who've grown up in the city and who've been predominantly ministers of urban development or housing. You're having to pitch to them from an advocacy perspective, explain the importance of agriculture, explain the importance of rural, regional areas, and the significance of the products that are being developed or grown out in these areas.

Jessie Holmes:

We're constantly raising awareness and raising education about rural and regional communities, and agricultural communities, to anybody who will listen, so that they're aware of the challenges and the opportunities that come from government intervention or private intervention into the markets in rural areas as well.

Caroline Winter:

How, then, are leadership and advocacy related?

Jessie Holmes:

We've got a lot of leaders out in the community who might not be Chief Executive Officers, but they're leaders in their communities because they're able to advocate well.

Jessie Holmes:

If you naturally have leadership in the sense that people will listen to you and will follow what you're asking of them, and those natural leadership skills... which don't necessarily mean that you're the president of a group or you're the CEO of a company... but if you have the ability to bring people along with you because they will naturally follow or extend on your leadership skills, they're some of your better advocates.

Jessie Holmes:

They're the people who can quietly and effectively raise awareness around issues, and matters, and services, so that the players that can fund those services, or that infrastructure, or that development, understand the narrative. So your best leaders are, without a shadow of a doubt, your best advocates.

Jessie Holmes:

But I think we've got to be really clear that leadership doesn't necessarily come with a role, in the sense of being an elected president or whatever it might be. Often leaders in your community are those that are able to strongly articulate what your community needs, and they then become your best advocates.

Caroline Winter:

For someone looking to take up an advocacy role, or who may have found themselves in a place of advocacy or leadership for the first time, what piece of advice would you give them?

Jessie Holmes:

I think it's just being really clear about what you want. I know that seems really simple, but when you ask for something, people want to know what they're giving you. So you need to really clearly define the problem, and really clearly define the answer.

Jessie Holmes:

You need to be really clear and say, "You know, the issue here is that we don't have enough Div 1 nurses. The opportunity here is that we could collaborate with a... you know... training organisation to employ twelve nurses and hope that six of them stay at the end of their training, and this is what we're going to do about it."

Jessie Holmes:

It's really clearly articulating the problem, and really clearly articulating the outcome that you want, and what your ask is. People generally want to be able to give you what you ask for. If it's reasonable, people will find a way to give you what you've asked for. If it's reasonable.

Caroline Winter:

Jessie Holmes, some really valuable insights and advice. Thanks again for joining me in the AgVic Talk studio.

Jessie Holmes:

Thank you very much for having me.

Speaker 1:

Thank you for listening to AgVic Talk. For more episodes in this series, find us and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. We would love to hear your feedback, so please leave a comment or rating, and share this series with your friends and family.

All information is accurate at the time of release. Contact Agriculture Victoria or your consultant before making any changes on farm.

This podcast was developed by Agriculture Victoria, authorised by the Victorian Government, Melbourne.

Episode 3: Advice for aspiring rural leaders with Pru Cook

Speaker 1:

Welcome to AgVic Talk, keeping you up to date with information from Agriculture Victoria.

Caroline Winter:

Impostor syndrome, that feeling of self doubt in career or life is something many experience even at the top of their game. But learning how to manage it, harness its power and use it to help make a great leader is something Pru Cook knows a lot about, whether it's as a specialist communicator with government, the Birchip Cropping Group, or now as director at Nine Creeks Consulting, or during her roles on committees and boards like the VFF Grains Group and GRDC Southern Region panel. This well-respected member of the Wimmera community is here to share with you and me, Caroline Winter, how everyone has something to offer in a leadership role. Pru Cook, thank you for joining me in the AgVic Talk studio.

Pru Cook:

It's a pleasure to be here.

Caroline Winter:

What do you love most about living in a rural community?

Pru Cook:

There's a lot that I enjoy about it, the sense of community. I know my neighbors, I'm close to my family, the opportunity, there's I love living and working in agriculture, and I think it's great to be able to do that when you're actually in amongst a farming community. I spent a couple of years working in Canberra and my manager at the time realised that if I didn't get out in the paddock talking to farmers on a semi-regular basis, I went a little bit potty, so I think I'm definitely a country girl. I also talked to city friends and they're like, "What do you do out there?" And to be honest, I then asked, "Well, what do you do in Melbourne?" And really, I actually think that I probably got a lot more that I'm actually doing than a lot of city friends just maybe not dining out as often, which is not too bad on both the hip pocket and the waistline.

Caroline Winter:

Indeed. Do you have a favorite memory of your time growing up on the family farm at Diapur?

Pru Cook:

I feel really lucky, really privileged that I did get to grow up on a farm. I love that the grounding that it gives you and the ability to get home and have a pony meet you at the driveway and the adventures that I'd go on with my brother and sister. But I think growing up on a farm gives you that real connectedness to the land, but also an understanding of life and death and a lot of responsibilities as well too. I think my father certainly instilled a bit of a work ethic. You go until the job's done. So there's a lot to love about growing up on a family farm.

Caroline Winter:

Let's talk about your role in leadership. Did you always have aspirations of being a leader?

Pru Cook:

Look, no. No. And I think a lot of it comes down with what we traditionally think of when we think of the term, what is a leader? And I think growing up, you would think, well, it's a prime minister or it's a CEO or it's someone in the military, and as a young girl growing up, most of those roles were held by men. But I suppose as I've got older, I've realised that leadership takes on a lot of forms and it's not just the person who's up there standing, but it's the person who's willing to drive change and make decisions and coordinate people. And so I personally have goals for getting stuff done that is useful it's to a high standard, and I'm always looking at how we can be improving things. So I've realised, as I've got older, that they are actually leadership qualities. So I really focus on being practical, professional and progressive, and there are things that I can help lead, whether it be a project or a community group or a board, there are things that I can all do to help and lead and coordinate and help progress.

Caroline Winter:

And how did you find yourself in your first leadership position and how did you feel at that time?

Pru Cook:

I suppose if I think from a professional perspective, my first leadership in terms of a representative role was sitting on the Victorian Farmers Federation Grains Council as their council representative for the West Wimmera. And how did I feel? I didn't want to do it. I think when I was first asked, I was terrified. My first response was, "There will be people better qualified than myself." I was concerned about the fact that I wasn't a farmer. I certainly didn't know enough about trucks to be on the VFF Grains Council. And I think there was a lot of cajoling involved in getting me to sign up in the first place, but I'm so glad that they proceeded in encouraging me to do that in taking up that role, because once I did get there, I realised, well, it's not important that I don't know anything about trucks because there was a lot of council representatives who did have that knowledge.

Pru Cook:

What I brought that perhaps wasn't sitting around the table was an understanding in communications and understanding of membership organisations and understanding my professional area is around extension and farmer practice change, so that was some of the stuff that I brought in. And I realised that you don't need to know everything, but you need to have a point of difference that you can contribute and so I sat on that Grains Council for two years and thoroughly enjoyed it and learned a lot.

Caroline Winter:

As you point out, you brought some of those skills to the table and have since gone on in a leadership role in other organisations. So what skills have you developed to help you in those other roles?

Pru Cook:

So I think being in the roles allows you to hone further the skills that you already bring to the table. So that’s in my case, that's extension and adoption and understanding of human behavior. I've been told that I ask really good questions as well too. And I think that's something to remember going into these roles is that you don't need to have all the answers, but if you can ask good questions that encourage people to think, then you can all work collectively to be able to come to good responses. I think that the skills that I have developed and that I think are important and that I'm constantly striving to try and understand a bit better are interpreting financial statements and how they can be used to monitor financial performance. That's one that I'm a bit nervous about because obviously as a young girl growing up, finances or money was not really something that was pushed on me.

Pru Cook:

So that's something that I'm striving to understand a lot better as I get older. And I think that's particularly important in any representative role where you are making decisions about and are responsible for money. And the other thing is about understanding risks being faced by the organisations and overseeing risk management processes. I think that's another thing to be aware of that when you are putting your hand up for leadership positions that you are taking on a certain level of responsibility, and I think it's very important to be aware of what that responsibility is, making sure you understand that appropriately and that you're aware of any consequences that might arise from that to both yourself and the organisation that you're representing.

Caroline Winter:

It certainly sounds like you've grown in your roles in a leadership position as many people do. Was there ever a feeling of impostor syndrome or did you back yourself the whole time?

Pru Cook:

I still have impostor syndrome all the time. All the time. I think, yeah, when you speak to a lot of people that it's the same. I've had some very good advice over the years though in one piece early on in my career was just because you're finding something easy doesn't mean that everybody else does, so latch onto that. And the other thing was as well too is say something with confidence and people will believe you. So there are a couple of bits that I latch on, but that impostor syndrome is absolutely rife and I still face it very regularly. I have it every day, even now, when people will ask me to take on a piece of work or step into a particular role, usually my first response is, "Oh I can't do that." It's the same with the VFF Grains Council. There will be someone better qualified. I don't think I'm up to it but I'm a lot better at going, "Okay," that's my automatic response. It's what my next response to that is that's going to be important.

Caroline Winter:

You've named some of these up already, but what attributes and skills do you think make a great leader and more specifically a great rural female leader in the agriculture space?

Pru Cook:

It depends on what the role is and also defining what works best for you as well too. From my perspective, I think authenticity is very important. In a chair, I really look for someone who's consultative and who's able to ensure that everyone around the table gets a good opportunity to have their say. I think being able to engage with and represent the people that you're there to represent is really important. So good stakeholder engagement, being able to talk to the people who are going to be affected by the decisions that you make. And I think good organisational skills and keeping to time and recognising that often people who are stepping into these roles are busy with modern work environments and family environments. It's harder and harder to get people to put their hand up, to volunteer for any position, whether it be at the local sports club right through to board levels.

Pru Cook:

And if people are going to put their hand up, you've got to make sure that it's worth their time. So I think to be able to stick to the timeframes and be able to deliver outcomes, I think that's really important. I talk to a lot of younger people who are interested in leadership and they say, look, if they're just talk fest, it wastes a lot of time. And it's usually evenings when I should be with the kids. If we haven't got those structures right, where people are going to be able to be efficient and get stuff done that drives positive change, then you're really going to struggle to engage the next gen of leaders, particularly in regional areas where there's so much stuff that needs to happen. A lot of it is relying on volunteers and volunteers are really stretched.

Caroline Winter:

Have you had any role models who were leaders that you've looked up to along the way? And if so, what was the most important thing you learned from them?

Pru Cook:

There's a lot of people that I look up to, and I think that's something that I'm really mindful of is to continually work with and surround myself with people who I want to learn from, whose leadership styles I admire but also recognising that that's a particular style, that elements of it may and may not work for me. So some of the things that I really have admired in some of the people that I still gravitate to throughout my whole career is the ability to understand your strengths and weaknesses and surround yourself with people that compliment your skills and perhaps buffer you a bit in your weaknesses because nobody can be good at everything.

Pru Cook:

We often tend to want to surround ourselves with people who think and act like ourselves because that's familiar, there's less conflict, but when you can actually surround yourself with people who bolster you up in the areas that you're not particularly strong in, again, everyone gets a better result. There's broader representation, you're covering a lot more bases. So I think being open and honest about what you good at, what you're not so good at, and trying to surround yourself with people who can compliment you in the areas you're not so strong with is something that I've seen in some people that I look up to that I think is something that I admire.

Caroline Winter:

Now, you've been selected as part of the 2021 National Farmers Federation Diversity in Agriculture Leadership Program, what's that all about? And what is it that you're looking forward to getting out of it?

Pru Cook:

The Diversity in Ag leadership Program is now I think this is the fourth year that it's been running and we've just recently had a two-day retreat, which was the first part of the program in Canberra. From that, we then have three months of intensive mentoring where we're paired up with an industry mentor. My mentor is Stephen Brown from Rural Bank, and then we finish up at the NFF conference in September. The premise behind this particular program is Fiona Simpson, who is the first female president of the National Farmers Federation realised that she also doesn't want to be the last female president of the National Farmers Federation. And so this program is about encouraging and facilitating more female leaders in agriculture. And I do believe NFF has set the target of having 50-50 female representation in Australian agriculture by 2030.

Pru Cook:

So that initial retreat that we had in Canberra, it was absolutely brilliant. We did some amazing workshops with a number of female leaders. A standout for me was with Cathy McGowan, who was talking to us about grassroots advocacy at a regional level, and also engaging with and influencing politics. And we got to spend some time at Parliament House meeting with politicians and meeting with a lot of public servants and discussing journeys into leadership, building personal brand. It was absolutely fantastic. I think the key things that I'm looking forward to taking away from the course, one is confidence and that comes to back to the question that you asked me about impostor syndrome. I think that's something that I'm always going to have to contend with, but having a few more skills in your back pocket and having heard from some amazing women can actually help put your hand up a little bit quicker, further down the track.

Pru Cook:

So confidence, networks, and I think I was just blown away in Canberra by how willing everybody was to help out in our journeys to strive for leadership within our communities and our industries. And that was not just the people that presented to us and that we met with but also the other women involved in the course. And the last thing that I'm looking for out of it is inspiration, and that was sort of coming through in spades. There's a women on the course from Broome down to Tasmania and everywhere in between who do some pretty amazing things in their sectors and in their communities and the people that we met with had some really amazing stories about what they've done and what they've overcome get into leadership positions. So I think confidence, networks, and inspiration are definitely things that I'm kind of take away from involvement in this program.

Caroline Winter:

If our listeners are looking at taking on a leadership role or have found themselves in a place of leadership for the first time, what piece of advice would you give them?

Pru Cook:

So be authentic, find a style of leadership that works for you, and don't feel like you have to do certain things that don't feel right to you just because you think that's the way that it should be done. And when you're going into a particular role, go in with these are the three things that I bring to the table, recognising that you don't have to know everything, and then also make sure you think about three things that you want to get out of being involved as well too and I think that's the bit that we often forget. You're often doing this because you want to get something out of it personally or for your community.

Pru Cook:

So for me, the three things that I usually go in with are, I want to be able to drive change and do innovative work, I want to be able to work with or alongside people who I can learn from, and I also want to build or maintain my industry profile. And don't be afraid to walk away if things aren't working for you as well, too, if your things aren't gelling with you. I mean, remember that your time is really important and you're often putting your hand up to do this stuff on top of your job, your family. Regional communities are really heavily reliant on volunteers. If stuff's not getting done or if it's not working out for you, don't be afraid to walk away.

Caroline Winter:

Pru Cook, you've given some great insights into being a rural female leader. Thanks for joining me in the AgVic Talk studio.

Pru Cook:

My pleasure.

Speaker 1:

Thank you for listening to AgVic Talk. For more episodes in this series, find us and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. We would love to hear your feedback. So please leave a comment or rating and share this series with your friends and family.

All information is accurate at the time of release. Contact Agriculture Victoria, or your consultant before making any changes on farm.

This podcast was developed by Agriculture Victoria, authorised by the Victorian government, Melbourne.

Episode 2: Taking on the books and advocating for the dairy industry with Jess Knight

Speaker 3:

Welcome to AgVic Talk, keeping you up to date with information from Agriculture Victoria.

Drew Radford:

A teenage girl who dreamed of being a farmer was then told by a school’s career advisor that girls don't do agriculture subjects at school. It sounds like the sort of guidance that was dished out in the times of black and white TV. However, for Jess Knight, she received this guidance at a regional school during the internet age, in the year 2000. Jess followed the advice, gave up her dream and went on to study law. Fate, though, sometimes plays a hand, and Jess is now firmly on the land and helping other young farmers in the industry. To find out about her unusual path and the skills she brings to running a farm, she joins me in the Ag Vic Talk studio. Jess, thanks for your time.

Jess Knight:

Oh, I'm happy to be here.

Drew Radford:

Jess, could you almost describe yourself as an accidental farmer? I get the impression that you wanted to be one, and then you went on another course, and now you are one.

Jess Knight:

Yep. That's exactly it. It was a running joke in my family, actually, that Jess would never marry a farmer, and that's where I ended up. So.

Drew Radford:

So, you grew up on a farm?

Jess Knight:

No. So I grew up in town. I had... My grandfather worked on a beef and sheep farm. My uncle was a dairy farmer, so I was from a really agriculture area, but yet grew up in town myself.

Drew Radford:

So you went off to study something entirely different?

Jess Knight:

Yeah. So I was always interested in agriculture. It was what I wanted to do at high school, and I was told by a careers advisor that, "No, girls don't do ag subjects. Go off and do something else. Work in an office." So, I ended up going to Melbourne and getting a law degree. Then in the last year of my law degree, which I was doing by correspondence, I met my husband and then decided, yeah, that going back to the city wasn't for me.

Drew Radford:

Jess, I have to ask. What year was it that you were told that girls don't do farming? You don't sound that old to me, so I'm just surprised that you were being told that.

Jess Knight:

I graduated in 2003. So yeah, it would have been when I was in about year 10. So yeah, not that long ago, but I think, in probably the past 15 years, things have changed a lot for girls in agriculture.

Drew Radford:

Well, I would hope so, and you're living proof that that's exactly the case. So you met your husband and he was from a farming background, but it wasn't a case of him just taking over the farm, was it?

Jess Knight:

No, definitely not. So he'd come from a farming background. His parents had a beef farm. And straight out of high school, he wanted to do agriculture. It was what his passion was. And he got an apprenticeship on a dairy farm and did all of his apprenticeship in that. And then he went overseas for a year in Canada and worked on some cropping farms and that over there. And then the year that he got home was the year that we met, and I'd actually been overseas doing exchange in Denmark. So, we'd both had our sort of travel and everything, and yeah, we met, and I think, within about a little over a year, we were married.

Drew Radford:

Yeah. He wanted to get his own farming operation, and so did you, but that's easier said than done for a young couple, though. It's not a cheap thing to do to get into a farm.

Jess Knight:

No. So he was working on a farm, managing a dairy farm, and we always wanted to buy our own farm. But yeah, the reality of that, of the amount of money that it takes to purchase a farm now, was just sort of something that we saw it as a bit of a pipe dream. And then the farm next to his parents was a dairy farm. And we just approached the owners one day and just said, "If you're ever interested in selling, let us know." And then probably about a month later, we heard back and they were like, "Yeah, we'd be interested in selling." And we were like, "Oh, okay, sure." So we went through all the process of hashing out all the details, and we were lucky that we had family support to go guarantors on our loans, so that we could actually purchase the property. Because, I think, without that family support and backing behind you, purchasing a farm these days is just, it's not reachable.

Drew Radford:

Jess, it's a very expensive thing to get into. But then you did get into it, and then you found, well, it's not just actually the physical side of operating the property and producing milk in your particular instance. There's a lot more involved, and that's where, I understand, you guys became a real team.

Jess Knight:

Yeah, definitely. I think we bought the farm, and we knew that it was going to be a lot of hard work and a lot of long hours and the physical practical side of it, and then we went, "Oh, there's all this behind the scenes stuff that needs to be done as well." And I think that just naturally fell to me. I was in the house. I had a two year old and a three month old at the time, so getting actually out on the farm each day wasn't much of a possibility. So yeah, doing the books just fell into my lap.

Drew Radford:

So, it's the business of running the business, essentially in some regards, isn't it?

Jess Knight:

Exactly. And I think that's something that, I guess, farming seen as just the everyday, out in the paddock, getting all those jobs done, but there's so much more to it on the business side that also is needed to make it run well.

Drew Radford:

So how did you throw yourself into this? I mean, it seems that you've really immersed yourself deeply into the administrative side, and there's a lot of software out there to help you these days, but it's a labyrinth.

Jess Knight:

It definitely is. So, for me it was... We picked an accountant that worked really well. We knew they had a good reputation with farmers, so, we went along with them. And I think I got about a half an hour introduction to how to use our accounting program. And from there, it was just learn-as-you-go type situation. So for me, it was a lot of emails, a lot of phone calls to our accountant going, "What am I meant to be doing here? How does this work? Where does this go?" And I think it was just that learn-as-you-go factor that made it work for me.

Drew Radford:

Well, you're obviously not a slouch. They don't generally just hand out law degrees, but accounting's a very different a domain, isn't it?

Jess Knight:

Yeah. I think finance was never my strong suit, but I've definitely, yeah, taken it on gung-ho and come out of it on the bright side, at least.

Drew Radford:

Developing a good relationship with your accountant seem to be first and foremost, and then really self-teaching, in particular, accounting side of it. Is it also about building a network around that? I understand you're involved in a lot of different groups.

Jess Knight:

Yeah. It's definitely about having people to talk to. And you'll be at something and someone will say, "Oh, look, I do it this way." And that's the definite case of it, that I think I've changed the way I've done my books just in the past six months, based on some information that a friend gave me and said, "Oh, look, I've been doing this. It cuts my time in half." So definitely, we're involved in a group that our accountant runs, and it's all young farmers like us. And we put all of our figures on the table every year, and we go through, and we look at it all and see how we can improve our finances.

Drew Radford:

So you're actively sharing all those, what some people would consider, quite intimate details with other primary producers?

Jess Knight:

Yes. Yeah. Yep. So yeah, I think it's what makes the group work is that everyone's honest and upfront, and we all want to see each other succeed. So, doing it this way, it just works.

Drew Radford:

That sounds like an amazing living classroom experience, really.

Jess Knight:

It definitely is, because, yeah, we'll have a focus farm each month, and we'll go over any issues that they're having or any plans that they're putting in place. We were the focus farm a couple of months ago, because we're just in the process of building a new dairy, and we took our facts and figures in and literally, they went through and picked through it with a fine tooth comb, put up every possible scenario that you could look at, and every problem with it. And yeah, it helped us, because it's not just us looking over it then. It's getting the different viewpoint of probably 10 different people.

Drew Radford:

That sounds like an amazing opportunity. That could also be a little bit scary too, though. Does it ever prevent you from making a decision?

Jess Knight:

Oh yeah, it's definitely scary. I think we got home after that session and just sat there a little bit shell shocked, to be honest, with some of the things that have been put at us that, "Well, what if this happens and what about the cost of this?" It does make you sit back and go, "Wow, are we doing the right thing here?" But I think in the end, if you don't look at all the possible scenarios, then you're not doing yourself any favors.

Drew Radford:

Have you learned in this particular process too, about the efficiencies of actually having good backend systems and the money you can save? And I imagine also identifying opportunities to save money out in the field.

Jess Knight:

Yeah, definitely. It's looking at your day-to-day procedures and saying, "Well, yeah, I can save things here," and getting ideas from other people that say, "Well, look, we implemented this, and it's really benefiting us." And yeah, it just opens that door to new ideas.

Drew Radford:

Jess, I understand you're not shying away from the concept of exposing yourself to new ideas, because you are now doing further study in this particular field.

Jess Knight:

Yeah. So, I'm, at the moment, completing a Masters of Agribusiness at Marcus Oldham. And yeah, my subject at the moment that I'm doing is Global Commodities, which is, yeah, very finance-based and a lot of learning, a lot of new terms and things to wrap my head around. But yeah, I think that I'm always someone who's looking to learn more and do more.

Drew Radford:

You talked about the group that you were tied up with through your accountant, but are there other groups you're part of as well that you use and draw upon and add to, to try and build your own experience?

Jess Knight:

Yeah. So locally, we've got the Young Dairy Network, so that's made up of all local young dairy farmers, and they hold events and information nights so that you can learn more about the industry. And it's a really good focus group for those young farmers who are looking to take the next step in their career. We've also got a Women In Dairy, which is really great to get out there and talk to other farmers' wives and other mums who are going through all the same things as you. And most of them take on the same role in the farm as me, so it's good to sit down and have a chat with people that are in the same place as you.

Jess Knight:

Then on a more wider scale, I'm a member of the Young Farmers Advisory Council, which is a fantastic group made up of young farmers from all across the state, all different agriculture industries. We meet with representatives from AgVic and other places, sometimes with the Minister for Agriculture, and just go over what issues young farmers are facing and what we can do to help them.

Drew Radford:

You're involved in an incredible amount, on top of being a young mum and having a dairy running in the background. Do you ever get five seconds to put your feet up?

Jess Knight:

I think that's just part of who I am, and I think my husband's very much the same, where we don't put our feet up much, but I think we work hard, and the time that we do get to ourselves, we enjoy probably more for having worked hard the rest of the time.

Drew Radford:

Jess, what advice would you give to anyone listening to this, who's about to, for want of a better description, take over the books?

Jess Knight:

I think it's that, no question's too silly to ask. You won't be the first one to have asked it, and you won't be the last.

Drew Radford:

Well, Jess Knight, you're certainly no slouch in terms of taking over the books and a whole range of things that you're involved with. Thank you very much for joining me today in the AgVic Talk studio.

Jess Knight:

Thank you for having me.

Speaker 3:

Thank you for listening to AgVic Talk. For more episodes in this series, find us and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

We would love to hear your feedback, so please leave a comment or rating and share this series with your friends and family.

All information is accurate at the time of release. Contact Agriculture Victoria or your consultant before making any changes on farm. This podcast was developed by Agriculture Victoria, authorised by the Victorian Government, Melbourne.

Episode 1: Thinking of the big picture when it comes to farm safety with Sarah McLean

Speaker 1:

Welcome to AgVic Talk, keeping you up to date with information from Agriculture Victoria.

Drew Radford:

Being knocked out by a kicking cow is dangerous enough as it is. Having it all happen while you're alone adds even more danger to it. Throw in being pregnant and also having your 18-month-old daughter playing on a rug outside the cattle yard would probably make most people stop and think about what is being prioritised on their farm.

Drew Radford:

G'day. I'm Drew Radford, and this was exactly the case for Sarah McLean. We caught up with Sarah in the first series of AgVic Talk, where we found out about her journey as a young farmer. It's a great story of persistence and can be found on the AgVic Talk website. Today, she's back in the studio to discuss the bigger picture, how putting your safety and health first is the most important thing you can do for your business.

Drew Radford:

Sarah, welcome back.

Sarah McLean:

Thanks Drew.

Drew Radford:

Sarah, you farm over a number of holdings. Where are they?

Sarah McLean:

The most of our land is down in a place near Drik Drik. So very far South West Victoria, but we also have a smaller property in Purnim, near Warrnambool.

Drew Radford:

You're kind of unusual, Sarah, because you and your husband have built these holdings up from scratch. They haven't been inheritances, so it's been a lot of hard work I understand.

Sarah McLean:

So we started off with 89 acres at Purnim. We saved hard and bought that and learned a lot of lessons along the way there. A couple of years later we bought some land down where the majority of our land is now in a place called Greenwald. And then we got some lease country and the business has built up over time from there.

Drew Radford:

You started from scratch essentially, but you did grow up on a farming property.

Sarah McLean:

Yeah, I did. So I'm actually a fifth generation farmer. So I grew up, as most country kids do, helping mum and dad out on the farm. I had a passion for horses and you always get the cattle in for them and it was just something I just always wanted to do. But I hadn't articulated I wanted to be a farmer. So I went away and studied psychology but always had in the back of my mind that I actually did want to be a farmer. And, I guess, having that career enabled me to save some money to then purchase that first property with my husband, Byron.

Drew Radford:

Sarah, the main focus of our conversation today is about farm safety. So you grew up on a farm, fifth generation. Do you remember safety being much of a focus as you were growing up?

Sarah McLean:

Oh, to be honest, not at all. We were sort of left to do our own thing. I'm sure in the background mum and dad were working to keep us safe, but it's not something that I would say I have really early memories of. I'm sure I rode my horse without helmets and we probably rode our bikes without helmets. And even the machinery back then, there's no cabins on tractors and things like that. And we used to ride the tractors around and all sorts of things that probably wouldn't fly these days.

Drew Radford:

You are juggling a lot. You got young kids going on, you're juggling properties around the place, plus a professional career. Has that led to you, when you're actually on your property, maybe not originally having safety as much of a focus as possibly it could have been?

Sarah McLean:

Yeah. And like, to be honest, there was a bit of a light bulb moment for me. So we bought that first property in Purnim and my husband was working overseas. As I said, we both worked pretty hard just to get our foot in the door and earn some money and buy that place. And I was heavily pregnant with my second child and my first child was about 18 months and she was playing on the outside of the yards as I was getting a heifer in that was having trouble calving. And, anyway, what happened was we had a really old crush that had no vet gate or anything, and I was trying to put a pole in behind the heifer so that I could put the calf pulley onto it. And she actually kicked the end of the pole as I was... Because I had to sort of bend down, because you can imagine I've got this massive belly, and get this fencing post in behind. And she kicked and it hit me under the chin. And I just got thrown back and probably very, very briefly got knocked out. And I sort of got up and dusted myself off.

Sarah McLean:

It really scared me. Not because I got knocked out in the cattle yards, because it's sort of like, yeah, you know, I was thinking, "Oh, this is not great when I'm pregnant," but I had my 18-month-old daughter outside the yards, playing. And that was a real moment because there's a creek probably only a hundred metres from where we were. And, while I was alert, I could just keep checking her and she'd had some toys there and I had a bottle there and she was quite happy doing what she was doing, and she didn't even notice what happened. But it really shook me up a bit and I just thought, "Hey, I've got to get better here." Because obviously if something happens to your children it just puts a whole new perspective on the importance of your own safety.

Drew Radford:

So was that really a moment of like, I've got to change things? Was it very quick or was it very, you walked away and went, "Oh yeah, what can we do better?"

Sarah McLean:

Yeah. It took time to think about getting better. And, I guess, being a new mum, it was sort of the first situation where I just went, "Oh gosh, that could have ended badly." I mean, nothing ended up badly. There was nothing that sort of happened out of it, but it's that I need to keep my kids safe, so therefore I need to be safe.

Sarah McLean:

So, I guess, now, my husband and I, we're always conscious and we've always got farm safety in mind with everything we do. So the first thing I did was obviously upgraded that cattle crush. So now I've got a vet gate. But that was a bit of a luxury in some ways, because, as you said, we're young farmers. We're saving all our dollars because obviously we've got cattle to buy, we've got land to buy, we've got all the tools and costs associated with running the farm. So you can't just, necessarily, buy new equipment all the time or have the latest gadgets and things like that for farm safety. So we've had to sort of think outside the box a bit in terms of how do we operate within our budget constraints and make things safer for ourselves and our kids.

Drew Radford:

So is there any structure that you put in place about making that actually happen then, Sarah? Is there procedure, planning, or is it just a constant reassessment?

Sarah McLean:

Yeah, so a bit of both. We had a bit of a think about what are the risk areas. And most of it is just changing practice and procedures and it just keeps evolving over time. So, for example, I've tried to up-skill in terms of being able to muster with dogs. So, say I was on a motorbike or four-wheeler. It makes it pretty hard to get cattle in, particularly if you have children with you. So I went and did a Neil McDonald school and getting increasingly confident with my dogs. And I'm lucky that my husband is quite confident working dogs and has some nice dogs. And so that means I can go out into the paddock and the dog's around and I just walk in front of the cattle and then there's no risk of me tipping a bike over, or having nowhere to put the children. Because I can either go on foot or I could go in the ute and everyone's safe.

Sarah McLean:

So it's all those little things. Mustering with dogs, for example, also has the added benefit in that it quietens or trains your cattle as well and they're used to seeing you on foot. So then when you get into the cattle yards, you're not working in their flight zone all the time. They're happy to see you and they're more well-trained to come off pressure and things like that. So it's little things that you don't actually initially go, "Wow, that's farm safety," but it actually is farm safety because, I guess, it's making your life easier and you're taking the risk out of it.

Drew Radford:

It sounds like a lot of common sense too, Sarah, but is there also a bit of planning about it as well. As I've mentioned, you've got a lot going on in your life. So is it about actually doing tasks and giving them enough time to do those tasks rather than trying to rush things?

Sarah McLean:

Yeah, a hundred percent. So it's allowing yourself time to do the job that you need to do. And, particularly with kids, I always pretty much double. If I think it's going to take an hour, I allow two. And sometimes it even takes three hours to do something. But you've always got to think about, if you're going to rush something, then things happen, mistakes happen. Say you're working cattle and you rush them. Because cattle know that you're in a rush, and all of a sudden they'll start getting stirred up as well.

Sarah McLean:

And you've got to manage fatigue. You can't be tired all the time and rush around from job to job.

Sarah McLean:

And I think, when you do rush, things actually end up taking longer. For example, if we buy cattle, my husband or I will spend some time with the cattle, making sure they have quietened down. And when I say quiet, I don't mean like we can go pat them. I just mean learning to come off pressure, not being upset if they see us on foot in the paddock, and things like that. So people say, "Well, I don't have time to spend that time with a cattle." And we'll even take them to the yards and just give them a dry run through the yards. By that, I mean we just take them to the yards and take our time and just let them walk through the yards so they know where to go. We don't process them in any way, so there's no injections, there's no pressure, and that's a positive experience for those cattle.

Sarah McLean:

And then you say, "Well, that takes so much time. Like, you know, that's going to be a half a day's work to put some cattle through." But then, the next time you yard them, those cattle are so much quieter, the job is so much quicker, and there's so much less frustration or potential for things to go wrong because the cattle are happy, you're happy, and everything works smoothly. And smooth tends to be quicker anyway. And then, every subsequent experience, the cattle have had a positive experience, so therefore things get quicker. You've got to be effective in what you're doing, and that trades off in the time that you spend in terms of preparation as well.

Drew Radford:

Sarah, have you come to the point in this process of perhaps realizing the most important asset on your property is you, and also your husband, and about protecting that? Is that probably the centre of all of this stuff?

Sarah McLean:

Yeah, I think it is the centre of everything. We have to enjoy our farming. And we know that farming is obviously one of the highest risk occupations, and we also know that farmers also tend to have poor mental health, maybe suffering often in silence and often not seeking treatment for different mental health conditions.

Sarah McLean:

And, I guess, people don't go, "Oh, farm safety, mental health," in the same conversation. They think, "Farm safety, I need a tractor guard or I need to have a cattle system where I'm working outside the yards," and all this sort of stuff. But, if you think of farm safety, I think mental health is one of the really most underrated aspects of that. Because, say you're anxious or you're stressed, then you're rushed and you take short cuts. Or, you don't pay attention and your mind's not on the job, you're not looking at your surroundings. Or, say you've got symptoms of depression, your thinking is actually slower, your reaction time's slower, you've got a lower frustration tolerance. Something might happen and then you become angry or you just don't think properly and then that's when accidents happen.

Sarah McLean:

So, I think looking after that enjoyment aspect of the farm is really, really important for safety. Most people just don't think about mental health and safety the same. They go, "Well, there's issues with mental health and there's issues with farm safety." But really the two are so intimately interconnected. So it really is about having, I guess, the mindset of the people in your farm in the right spot. And then I think you'd find that a lot of these accidents are avoidable or can be avoided.

Drew Radford:

Sarah, are there avenues that farmers should consider also about in terms of getting help for implementing further safety procedures on their properties?

Sarah McLean:

There's so many options that I can't really cover them all quickly, and it depends what you're looking for. So, obviously, if you're looking at infrastructure changes, there's all different industry specialists in that area. So, if you're looking at yards, you've got all your big companies that sell yard equipment and various products have various pros and cons. If you're looking at mental health, there's obviously lots of avenues for people to go and get help and usually starting with their GP to do that. So it really depends on what you want to do and having a think about it and having a plan. Like, for us, the dogs were sort of an obvious thing of, well, there's actually pretty inexpensive and once you do a few schools, you actually go, "Well, it's actually not that hard to train a dog." And it was something that I thought I'd never be good at, but if you get the right dog, they tend to read your mind anyway.

Sarah McLean:

So, I guess it's just looking on your farm and, whatever your budget constraint is, going, "Well, how is that spent?" Because I think about our farms, like we've got, I don't know, maybe four or five sets of cattle yards. For us to completely upgrade them to be state-of-the-art facilities where, say, we don't have to get in the yards with the cattle, the cost is completely prohibitive for us, and probably would be for most farmers when you think of the competing demands of finances and where else you can spend your money on a farm. And then you've got your tractors. You think, "Well, is everything guarded properly?" Say you've got a post driver. Well, the newer one's probably more safe than the old one, but can you afford to upgrade it?

Sarah McLean:

So it's really just about the farmer sitting down and having a bit of a plan and going, "Well, what can we do?" And some things don't even cost money that you can just do, like allowing yourself more time, working out where you're wasting time so then you've got more time to do some important things, and thinking outside the square and realizing that farm safety, if it's in the front of your mind all the time, you can do things a little bit safer, or a little bit slower, or a little bit more enjoyable.

Drew Radford:

Sarah, I really liked the fact that you keep on harking back to the point of enjoying your farm. That seems to be very central to all the work that you're doing and a great foundation for building safe practices around that. Sarah McLean, thank you very much for joining me in the AgVic Talk studio today.

Sarah McLean:

Thank you very much, Drew. It was a pleasure to speak with you again.

Speaker 1:

Thank you for listening to AgVic Talk. For more episodes in this series, find us and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

We would love to hear your feedback, so please leave a comment or rating and share this series with your friends and family.

All information is accurate at the time of release. Contact Agriculture Victoria or your consultant before making any changes on farm. This podcast was developed by Agriculture Victoria, authorised by the Victorian Government, Melbourne.

Introduction with Mary-Anne Thomas, Minister for Agriculture

Hello and welcome. ​

​I’m Mary-Anne Thomas – Minister for Agriculture. I’m excited to bring you season 2 of the AgVic Talk podcast series.

​Victoria’s farmers, agribusinesses and surrounding communities are an integral part of our way of life. They feed us, clothe us and export our products to the world. Agriculture creates essential jobs in our regions and supports the productive management of our landscapes. ​

​This season of the AgVic Talk podcast series will highlight personal stories of people who have overcome challenges they face every day. We will hear from rural women, young farmers, people from cultural and linguistically diverse backgrounds and agricultural communities, on how they recover, grow, modernise, protect, and promote Victorian agriculture. ​

​As outlined in our Agriculture strategy for Victoria, our government is committed to positioning the industry as a career of choice and build its reputation for workplace excellence. We will hear firsthand through this series how rural communities are preparing for the future and challenges of climate change, how young farmers are building careers in agriculture and the importance of safety on-farm. Through these stories we are shaping the story of the agriculture industry – one that is strong, innovative and sustainable.

​For more episodes, subscribe to our podcast. We would love to hear your feedback, so please leave a comment and share this series with your friends and family.​ Thank you

Season one:

Episode 11: Balancing location, variability and optimum capacity with Brett Findlay

Speaker 1:

Welcome to AgVic Talk, keeping you up to date with information from Agriculture Victoria.

Drew Radford:

Managing a dairy of 400 head is a big enough task in itself. However, it becomes even more so when you're in a location that makes it too expensive to freight feed in. So you have to grow everything yourself. A location that also sees your property split in two by river. That's the life of Brett Findlay, who's a dairy farmer near Corryong, in the Northeast of Victoria. And he joins me in the AgVic Talk studio. Brett, thanks for your time.

Brett Findlay:

It's a pleasure to be here Drew.

Drew Radford:

Brett, you farm on a unique property. You're near Corryong, but you actually straddle the border, I understand.

Brett Findlay:

That's right. Yes.

Drew Radford:

How does that work?

Brett Findlay:

Most of the time, it's not a big issue. The New South Wales part of the property is effectively a little piece of Victoria that just pokes out across the river. During the COVID lock downs it has been quite interesting dealing with that. At one stage, technically we had to pick which staff member could go and get the cows in, in the afternoon. Because, not everyone was allowed across the border.

Drew Radford:

The fact that the border is a river is problematic unless you've got a bridge, surely?

Brett Findlay:

Yes, we built a bridge back in 1996 and that was money well spent. Otherwise, it would be quite difficult to utilise that country across in New South Wales for grazing on a regular basis.

Drew Radford:

Brett, dairying is in your blood. Your dad was a dairy farmer, was this his piece of land to start with?

Brett Findlay:

My great, great Grandfather actually bought "Towong Run", which was all the Victorian side of our valley, back in 1860. But then the family lost the place and my great Grandfather retained a chunk of it next door to where we farm now. My Grandfather bought the original block in 1939, it was an ex soldier settler block from World War I. And then during Dad's time on the farm, he was a pretty aggressive purchaser of land. And he built up about 400 acres, about 160 hectares at home where we milk. And another 900 acres on the other side of Corryong, which we use as an out paddock area.

Drew Radford:

That's a remarkable family history in that area, and being like most farmers, you've probably got fairly detailed weather records that date back, do you?

Brett Findlay:

Reasonably, yes.

Drew Radford:

Are they the sorts of things you occasionally glance at and say, "Well, it's not quite like what we used to get."?

Brett Findlay:

Where we are here, we get a fair bit of variability, both between and within seasons. So it is part and parcel of managing a farm in the Northeast that you've got to be prepared for things to be good or bad and, and farm accordingly.

Drew Radford:

We'll drill down into that a little bit more in a moment, Brett. But the dairy property you have, how many are you milking to start with?

Brett Findlay:

We regard 380 as about Par. So we've actually got a few more in, we're just over 400 at the moment. Generally, about 380 is about optimum numbers.

Drew Radford:

From what I understand, you're very focused on producing your own fodder.

Brett Findlay:

That's probably a typical Northeast trait. We like to be pretty self-sufficient in forage. We're a long way from most places and truck drivers don't generally like driving over the big hills, they charge us extra. So yes, the more self-sufficient we can be in forage, the better off we are.

Drew Radford:

Brett, is irrigation a very important part of making sure that you're able to produce that feed?

Brett Findlay:

We have a small amount of irrigation, we get a pivot that irrigates about 40 hectares and traveling irrigators that do about another 25. But the majority of the farm is rain fed and we can't irrigate it.

Drew Radford:

Growing as much as you can, whenever you can. But what about storing it? It is silage part of the process for you?

Brett Findlay:

We make a lot of silage. We tend to do round bales, mostly because the majority of my silage is made on the out paddock area and carted 20kms home to feed to the dairy herd. We've played around with pit silage, but transporting it is very problematic and the bales just work better for us. The downside there is we've got a limit on our storage time. We can only store for about two years. We have, on occasion, buried round bales in pits. The country on the out paddock is not very good for pits. It's decomposed granite country and they leak very badly. So, you're only going to get pretty degraded fibre out of the pits. But if you're in the middle of a drought and fibre prices have gone through the roof, you're paying through the nose for hay, it's worth having it.

Drew Radford:

Brett, if you're trying to grow as much as you can, I imagine nitrogen is pretty important to your farming process.

Brett Findlay:

Absolutely. We find nitrogen gives us very good value. I've always been an aggressive seeker of information and a lot of the time you find stuff that's interesting. And other times it's like, "Yes, well I've heard this before." And then occasionally someone's lips will open and some nugget will drop out. And I can vividly remember our consultant saying to us, "Why do you use all the nitrogen in the Spring? Why don't you use it through the Winter and grow the grass and feed it directly?" And that was probably one of the big steps forward we made during the farming career. Is we're probably less inclined to use nitrogen to grow more silage. We're trying to grow more grass through that... If we've got moisture and we've got a chance to grow some grass, let's give it every chance to grow, by providing it with some nitrogen.

Drew Radford:

Brett, you said you're an aggressive seeker of information. I was reading through one of the case studies that was done with you. And I was actually quite surprised at the list of apps you are constantly trolling through to seek weather information.

Brett Findlay:

Most of our profit is derived from growing grass and getting it down a cows throat, turning into milk. That's the most profitable thing we can do on our farm. So reading the weather and working with the weather and making the best use of the conditions is a big part of that. So, yes when I open my browser, most of the favorites in the bookmark bar are weather sites and I'm on there on a virtually daily basis. Watching what's going on and trying to pick, do I need to order some more nitrogen? We get most of our nitrogen in 8 tonne bins. So there's a bit of planning ahead. You need to ring up a few days in advance and make sure it's there on farm when you need to be putting it out.

Drew Radford:

You mentioned earlier, increasingly trying to manage around more frequent dry seasons or more extreme dry seasons. So I imagine nitrogen and growing as much as you can is part of that, but what else are you doing to try and do with that Brett?

Brett Findlay:

Plenty of silage, for those times when we just can’t grow it. We also feed a fair bit of grain in the bale to the dairy cows, it's variable. We tend to peak during the Winter when we've got large numbers in and growths slow. Between grain and silage, irrigation gives us another string to our bow. Particularly early in the Autumn, if we can get pastures up and running or keep them running through the Summer and have them ready to go in the Autumn. The other thing we do is... I always like to know what the next group of culls are. If I've got to sell 20 cows, which ones are they? We herd test 7 or 8 times a year. I like to know, they're the next group that are probably not quite there yet. We've got grass and we can keep feeding them, well good. But if things start to tighten up, they'd be the first ones to go. And after that... When you sell those, you start looking for the next lot.

Drew Radford:

Brett, you said irrigation is not a huge component, but you do, do a bit. And I understand that's quite a bit of work that's actually involved in making that work for you. Are you're looking at trying to change your irrigation set up to be more effective and less work involved?

Brett Findlay:

The topography limits our options for irrigating. So the pivots are very time efficient. I can irrigate for the day in about 20 minutes. Drive over there, start it, stops on a timer. If I want to do more, the traveling irrigators I can put on probably not quite enough water for a great deal of work. And we've been looking at changing that system, perhaps to fixed or big gun sprinklers. So they fixed risers with movable heads. There's a fairly significant capital outlay in that. And also a fair bit of time involved in doing it. We've been meaning to do that project for the last two Summers. And with the fires last year, and then this year we get caught up with a project at the dairy and there's only so much you can manage to do in the off season. So it hasn't quite happened yet.

Drew Radford:

Brett, you mentioned the fires there. Obviously, a traumatic thing to go through, that's an understatement and you had experienced some losses, but has that brought any changes to the way you're running the property?

Brett Findlay:

Probably not a whole lot. One thing we did see back in the millennium drought years. 2006 -2007, was a really bad year for us. And I saw some farmers who, for the next 10 years or so, they farmed for 2006. But we never had that season again. So you've got to take into account your farm for average conditions and then you have a plan for dealing with the variations on that. So the bush fire was quite traumatic and disruptive, but it's 56 years or something since it happened last time, it may be less time until it happens again. But from a management point of view, there's a limited amount we can do to protect ourselves against that.

Drew Radford:

Brett, you made a really good point there about farming for previous conditions. You talked about herd management there and looking at culling and also trying to keep your feed up to as great an extent as you can. But is there anything else that you're constantly keeping an eye on to try and be that step ahead, rather than managing for the year that's been?

Brett Findlay:

I try and keep an eye on what's going on with markets and what the price is likely to be. That's obviously a factor in the economics of producing marginal milk and more milk from supplementary food. We've tried to refine our system to work, as well as we can get it to work, with the conditions that we generally face.

Brett Findlay:

As a species where we're inclined to look at maximum settings as being the best thing, but actually on a farm what you're looking for is optimum settings. What's about the right cow number? What's about the right feeding rate? Let's sit somewhere there and then move a little bit, depending on the conditions. If we've got a low milk price and high feed inputs, we'll probably milk a few less cows. Get rid of those choppers a bit earlier. What we've seen in the last couple of years is probably the opposite, where we've got good seasonal conditions, relatively low grain prices and a good milk price.

Brett Findlay:

Last Spring, after the fires, we'd lost a few cows with mastitis and various things, through the disruption of the fires. And we did look pretty hard at buying some cows, but we figured by the time we got them into the herd and up and running, we probably weren't going to see a lot of benefits. And we had a lot of heifers coming in this Autumn. So we knew we'd be back up to the numbers by now. We suffered a little bit for production for that reason through last Spring, but we thought it was the best choice to make under the circumstances.

Drew Radford:

Brett, I do understand one of the things the fires did bring into focus was electricity, power management. You were without power for a while, and running a dairy and dealing with 400 cows, power is pretty important I would imagine.

Brett Findlay:

That was a bit of a challenge. Even though we have two of the largest power stations in Australia, just over the hill. Literally just in the next valley and the next valley over after that, Murray 1 and Murray 2. So even though we're quite close to those power stations, we have no direct connection with them. We're on the end of a long transmission line, so blackouts are a bit of a feature of life up here. Most people have got a generator at the dairy for backup power. So yes, that proved to be really crucial during the fires. We had 13 days without power and there were people who went for twice that long. The house was less well set up. So yeah, we have looked at our options. We're looking at solar and a Tesla battery on the house. But the Chief Financial Officer is not overly excited by that project yet. So we haven't quite got that one up and running.

Drew Radford:

Longer term then Brett, are you're looking at renewables just for the house? Or would that be something you would consider across the operation, or is that just too big a scale at this point?

Brett Findlay:

One of our dilemmas is power for the irrigation. So that consumes quite a lot of power. The problem is, with spray irrigation, the time when you're going to generate the most power is also the least efficient time to be actually utilising that for irrigation. The heat of the afternoon, when you've got high evaporation rates. That's the dilemma. And the moment... Battery capacity is quite expensive, you're looking at about a $1,000 a kilowatt hour. Generating the power, storing it, and then utilising it overnight is not really economic. Houses are relatively straightforward, they don't use that much electricity in the scheme of things. It's those bigger scale, the irrigation. And if we're moving to a carbon neutral future, how we provide that mobile power for tractors and vehicles, that's probably one of our bigger dilemmas.

Drew Radford:

Looking down the road to the future, do you see any major differences to the way you're running things now say compared to maybe in 10 years’ time?

Brett Findlay:

It's a case of taking it as it comes. We'd like to think that we're going to give our kids a chance to take over the farm one day. But my wife and I met relatively late in life, so we're facing that issue of a fairly large intergenerational gap. And we're becoming more dependent on employed labor, which is not ideal. That's something we've got to face in the future, I'm not sure what we're going to do, going down that path.

Drew Radford:

That sounds like a difficult thing that you're managing is as you get older and working out where the farm is actually going. What would you like to see though in terms of production on the property? Do you see any greater changes in, you mentioned carbon neutrality, but there seems to be a long way to go there and you're also focusing on even planting more trees just to try and provide more shade I understand?

Brett Findlay:

The trees are a work in progress, we'd probably like to plant more than we have so far, but that's one thing that I look at when we're looking at carbon neutrality. Access to that technology to get us from where we are now, to being carbon neutral. The path ahead is not always clear as to how that's all going to fit together. In terms of productivity, we've sort of reached that steady state. We've been running for about the last 8 years on a pretty similar level of production.

Brett Findlay:

We had an interesting experience about 15 years ago, we had the opportunity to join a discussion group, about a 100kms away, that was very long established. They had been meeting every 2 months over a period of perhaps 20 years. So they had a very good idea of how their farms ran physically, but they also did business analysis, so they understood one another's farms, physically and financially.

Brett Findlay:

We pretty quickly saw the similarities, they'd worked at what worked for conditions that were similar to ours. Trying to get as much grass down the cows throat as possible. We aim about 3 tonnes of dry matter per cow, per year. About 2 tonnes of grain and a tonne of dry matter of silage. And that produces high 500 kilos per cow. By running a modest stocking rate and not pushing too hard and having a reasonably high level per cow production, you've got the ability there to absorb bad seasons. You can always... You're not pushing the limit on cow numbers. You can take a bit of a hit for a per cow production without really disrupting the system too much. That showed us where we could go and move more towards that model over time.

Drew Radford:

Brett Findlay, you've done a remarkable job there building the property to where it is. And I really liked the description of optimum capacity. All the best for the road ahead and thank you for your time in joining me in the AgVic Talk studio.

Brett Findlay:

No worries Drew.

Speaker 1:

Thank you for listening to AgVic Talk. For more episodes in this series, find us and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. We would love to hear your feedback, so please leave a comment or rating and share this series with your friends and family.

All information is accurate at the time of release. Contact Agriculture Victoria or your consultant, before making any changes on farm.

This podcast was developed by Agriculture Victoria. Authorised by the Victorian Government Melbourne.

Episode 10: Challenging seasons drive on-farm change with Chris Nixon

Speaker 1:

Welcome to AgVic Talk, keeping you up to date with information from Agriculture Victoria.

Drew Radford:

What do you do when the land your family has been farming for generations, is hit by the longest drought on record? It was something Chris Nixon was forced to confront when his reliable country in East Gippsland recently experienced a prolonged drought, which also included their driest year on record. To find out how he dealt with it, and the long-term changes it's brought for running the property, he joins me in the AgVic Talk's studio. Chris, thanks for your time.

Chris Nixon:

My pleasure, Drew. I hope we enjoy the talk.

Drew Radford:

I have absolutely no doubt we will, Chris. Now, first of all, describe where do you farm?

Chris Nixon:

I farm on the Snowy River flats in Orbost, in far East Gippsland. So we're about 400, not quite 400 kms from Melbourne towards Mallacoota.

Drew Radford:

So, I could imagine that would be pretty much prime country really, wouldn't it?

Chris Nixon:

The Snowy River flats is considered the third most fertile river flats in the world behind the Amazon and the Nile Delta, so it's pretty spectacular, but unfortunately there's not much of it. So, very tightly held in the district, but we're not far from the coast. We're only four kms from the coast and the mountains are behind us. So, surrounded by national parks, we're in a beautiful end of the world.

Drew Radford:

Now you said they're very tightly held. I understand your family's got a long history in that region.

Chris Nixon:

Yes, we settled here in the 1880s, so we've been here a very long time. I'm the fifth generation and it looks like I've got the sixth generation coming behind me.

Drew Radford:

And Chris, mainly dairy, or is it a combination for you?

Chris Nixon:

We run 500 dairy cows, milk 500 dairy cows, but we also have a substantial beef holding, which we run on behalf of my family and my wife's family. The beef operations is about four times the size of the dairy.

Drew Radford:

So in regards to the dairy then, Chris, in that part of the world, are you able to grow most of your feed?

Chris Nixon:

The only feed we do not grow, except for times of drought, and we've had plenty of those in the last few years, is grain. We import all our grain. Freight costs are horrendous. It's 50 or 60 bucks from Melbourne and depending how far it's come to get to Melbourne, it's a lot of money. But we grow all our own silage. We grow a lot of maize silage, grass silage, oaten silage and we are pretty well self-sufficient in silage and hay in most years, other than drought years.

Drew Radford:

I want to drill down into that silage stuff in a minute. But you mentioned, you grow it, except in drought years. You have had pretty much three tough years, haven't you? Some of the worst on record, if not the worst.

Chris Nixon:

Definitely one of the longest droughts on record and the first year was the driest year on record. We only had 400 mm of rain for the entire year. In a normal year, we get 800 mm of rain. So it was nearly three and a half years before it started raining in March, April last year. So yeah, very tough period of time.

Drew Radford:

That sounds like a great understatement, Chris. So how do you then go about managing that? If buying feed in is so expensive, and you can't grow what you need, what's your next step?

Chris Nixon:

We did things slightly different to most people. We decided to cull cow numbers. So we'd calve about 500 cows down. We would then work out what the season looked like, how many cows we could run. So in that first drought year, we only ran 400 cows. I did try selling a few cows, older cows and a few stale cows and carry-overs and stuff and bought a few in, but they didn't last under the scenario. And they all disappeared out of the herd within two years. So that was a bit of a disaster for me, but so we calved 500 cows down. We decided we can milk 400 cows and we'd just sell the other hundred cows. So we culled most of them. It really did clean out the herd for a lot of things. We've dramatically changed how we run our herd since the drought started. And we used the opportunity of destocking to get rid of a lot of problem cows.

Drew Radford:

So in some ways that sounds like you've reassessed the way you run the property now, as opposed to running it for maximum. Is it more of an optimum setup? Or-

Chris Nixon:

That's probably a good call. The advantage of calving the 500 cows down, was that we could get our 200 odd heifers every year. You don't need much feed to grow a heifer on. So we grew out 200 heifers every year. So that's how we maintained our 500 cows, by the time you get a few empties and whatever. We did a few things. Any cow that got mastitis more than twice, was sold. Any cow that got lame and she had bad feet, she was sold. Any cow that didn't get in calf was sold. Now the last one has been a big game changer for us because we fell into the trap of carrying carry-over cows, the old extended lactation theory. They got pregnant. They came into the herd the following season, two years down the track, and we were slowly building infertility into the herd.

Chris Nixon:

So what this drought has done, we have actually reduced our joining of the dairy cows now to eight weeks, which is very short. And our six week in calf rate is 65%. That only leaves another two weeks for the bulls to work, and we have been getting some quite high empty rates at 24%. Now that sounds like a disaster, but when you've got 200 heifers coming in, it all works out quite nicely. So we're putting maximum pressure on fertility and making sure that we've only got highly fertile cows in the herd.

Drew Radford:

And at that level of 400, even with the dry years, you were pretty much self-sustainable with your own feed supplies?

Chris Nixon:

Yes. We do have a 80 acre fodder block about 10 km away from the dairy. Under irrigation, we grow maize silage and oaten silage.

Drew Radford:

You mentioned irrigation there, Chris, but I was reading, you had to put bores in, so that you actually had stock water. Is that a first for you during that period?

Chris Nixon:

No. The bores have already been here, but they collapsed under the long dry period and they were old and we had to upgrade it. The dairy itself doesn't have access to river water, so we can't pump water out of the river on a regular basis. We can't irrigate from the river on the dairy. So that's why it was important for us to get a block where we could get access to irrigation water, and grow some feed.

Drew Radford:

Chris, you're talking there about silage and how important fodder obviously is, but I'd imagine it became even more of a precious commodity during that dry time. I understand you put in a feed pad to try and deal with that and get maximum results. How did that work?

Chris Nixon:

A fellow dairy farmer in Orbost had built a feed pad out of what we call GEOHEX, which is a polycarbonate type product, comes in about half metre long sheet, and his was going for about seven years. So we followed that plan. We built a feed pad that can carry 500 cows with concrete troughs and this GEOHEX down on the ground and using really fine gravel, or in our case, crushed rock to fill it all up. It's into its third season now. It's been a wonderful addition to the farm because during those dry years, we had to make sure we was using every skerrick of silage that we were feeding out. And we just didn't quite appreciate the losses that we were getting just traditionally feeding it out in the paddock. So we saved a lot of feeding, we estimated that we probably nearly paid for it in the first 12 months in the amount of silage we saved feeding out.

Drew Radford:

Yeah, I was reading, it was about a third, you reckon you've saved. That's a dramatic amount of feed.

Chris Nixon:

Probably not quite such a high amount when it's really, really dry. But in the wet years, when it's wet, like at the moment it's really wet, they're not walking that silage into the ground and packing it all up. So the savings is enormous, yes.

Drew Radford:

And there's a great video too. I've actually seen that online. It's only about a minute long, of the construction of that. It looks really simple, but incredibly effective.

Chris Nixon:

Where we built the feed pad, it was just south of the dairy, the country there, it's on peak country and it's moved. So because of the GEOHEX, it's not concrete, it hasn't cracked or broken up. It's held up to it really, really well. So yeah, it's been a wonderful addition and we had 174 mm of rain last week and the farm's probably two thirds under water. So at the moment it's the only thing that the cows are really getting, so it's fantastic.

Drew Radford:

It sounds like you've been through really both sides of the swing of the pendulum over the last few years. You talked in detail there about how you're managing your herd now. Have you got any other strategies in place for dealing with those extreme variations in climate, particularly drier years in the years ahead?

Chris Nixon:

Well, it's just being able to make a decision and run with it. One of the biggest advantages we had in the drought was that we decided to de-stock relatively early. It was only mid-autumn, April, and we just said, "We can't go on like this." And we made the decision to start selling cattle. And we sold a lot of cattle that year. In the beef herd, we sold nearly 50 per cent of the beef herd at that point in time. And we sold a good 25 per cent of the dairy cows at that point in time. Now we could have got a late autumn break and we could have done lots of things, but we decided to sell. The long-term rain forecast wasn't looking that flash, so we sold. And that took so much pressure off what fodder reserves we had. We could extend through until the harvest off the fodder block later that year.

Chris Nixon:

So, it really did save us a lot of thing and that was the flexibility of it. So I've learnt that if we farm to what available fodder supplies we have, we don't have to buy too much in, other than grain, we can still turn a profit, just watching our costs, being careful, you can still turn a profit. And we have learnt that through these three and a half years of drought.

Drew Radford:

So Chris, almost from, well, not quite bust to boom, in regards to the rain, I understand you've now got more grass almost, that you know what to do with.

Chris Nixon:

Well, we did have until this week where we had 174 mm of rain just in the last few days. So it's all semi-flooded, but the last 12 months was a boom. And it's reflected that in our production has gone through the roof. We're probably up nearly 30 per cent for the year, year on year. So it's wonderful. And the tight calving pattern and all those things that were instigated during the drought, are really starting to pay dividends.

Chris Nixon:

I'll go back to the fertility one. Our heifers that calved this year were the first line of heifers that came through this tight joining period. And while the herd had 24 per cent empty, our first calf heifers only had 17 per cent empty on an eight week joining period. So, we're starting to see some real gains in fertility now. We're four, coming up to five years into this tight calving pattern. We don't have to hang on to those cows with bad feet. We don't have to hang on to those cows with bad udders. We can get rid of them because we've got the numbers flowing through the system and it just makes life so easy.

Drew Radford:

Chris Nixon, thanks so much for your time. And so very pleased that you've had a welcome reprieve from those three exceptionally dry years.

Drew Radford:

If you want to find out more about how Chris has dealt with the varying climate over those years, and also running his farm now, subscribe to Milking the Weather.

Drew Radford:

For now, though, Chris Nixon, thank you for joining me in the AgVic Talk studio.

Chris Nixon:

My pleasure, Drew, anytime.

Speaker 1:

Thank you for listening to AgVic Talk. For more episodes in this series, find us and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. We would love to hear your feedback, so please leave a comment or rating, and share this series with your friends and family.

All information is accurate at the time of release. Contact Agriculture Victoria, or your consultant, before making any changes on farm.

This podcast was developed by Agriculture Victoria, authorised by the Victorian government, Melbourne.

Episode 9: Dealing with stress during difficult times with David Cherry

Speaker 1:

Welcome to AgVic Talk, keeping you up to date with information from Agriculture Victoria.

Drew Radford:

It's been a difficult year for many farming communities. Some have had to deal with everything from drought, fire, right through to the pandemic. The physical impacts of these are often easy to see. However, the mental effects on those living through it are not always so easy to detect. Recognizing those and dealing with them is important for not only your own mental health, but also ensuring that you're in the best position to make good decisions for yourself, your business and also your loved ones. David Cherry is a psychologist with over 35 years’ experience. 25 of those have been spent practicing in the agricultural sector. He's recently been running a series of workshops to help regional Victorians deal with challenging times. He joins me in the AgVic Talk studio. David, thanks for your time.

David Cherry:

Thank you.

Drew Radford:

David, we can usually see the impacts of flood, drought, fire and so on, what is harder to tell though is how challenging times affect the individual in terms of their mental health. What signs should people be aware of?

David Cherry:

The things that people should look out for in themselves are loss of energy, worry, sometimes quick mood changes. It might be anger. It might be feeling tearful or crying. It might be using alcohol to a greater level than they might've done in the past or using it too much against their own interests, and also possibly being inclined to make poor decisions and impulsive decisions. So they'd be some of the things that I would think about that a person would look for in themselves and indeed look for those same sorts of things in others.

Drew Radford:

You mentioned there David impulsive decisions and often mental health particularly with blokes is pushed away in the corner, but poor decision-making impacting on your business. That's a really tangible thing that I imagine a lot of people could relate to and understand, but not until it's pointed out to them like this in regards to mental health.

David Cherry:

Absolutely, okay. So, you made some really interesting points there. So people under stress and people who may be experiencing poor mental health are inclined to make, or sometimes make poor decisions against their own interests. You made that important point. And the other thing I just want to add too what might lead you to be concerned about your own mental health is if other people express concern about you. So, I would always encourage people to listen to others. So, if other people express concern that perhaps you need some assistance, I'd always encourage people to pay attention to that.

Drew Radford:

David, you've mentioned a range of things to be on the lookout, but what about those broader things that we talk about like anxiety and depression?

David Cherry:

Sure. If an individual feels that they are anxious a lot of the time, if they're worried a lot of the time, if they feel depressed or miserable or low in energy, I always encourage people to seek assistance and they might seek assistance through their GP, their local community health centre. So, you may be aware that at the moment, individuals are able to access up to 20 sessions with a psychologist through their GP after they got a mental health plan. And as I understand it, that help or assistance can be provided remotely.

Drew Radford:

David, what about another thing to be on the lookout for, is poor sleep an indicator that maybe something else is going on for you?

David Cherry:

Absolutely. So look, it's interesting that you mentioned sleep because sleep, as you would know, is an important pillar of health and I'd encourage anybody who experiences a sleep difficulty any time in their life to get assistance sooner rather than later. So what I mean by sleep difficulty is having difficulty getting off to sleep, having difficulty remaining asleep or awaking and not feeling refreshed. So many sleep difficulties can be assisted or improved or changed quite quickly. And as you've said, Drew, sometimes poor sleep is an indicator of poor mental health or may contribute to poor mental health. So always encourage people as soon as they experienced any sort of sleep difficulty, get assisted sooner rather than later. And it could be through a GP, it could be by approaching a counsellor or a psychologist.

Drew Radford:

David, you mentioned their sleep being an important pillar of mental health. What are some other things that people can do to maintain their mental health and look after themselves on that front?

David Cherry:

Things that assist all of us in maintaining good mental health are social connection, time with others. Ideally, we'll all have at least one person in our lives that we can talk to about things that worry and upset us. So, that's one important thing that contributes to mental health. Second thing is getting regular exercise and you may be aware that with increased mechanisation in the agricultural sector, that some people are getting far less exercise than they might've done in the past. So, getting enough exercise, that's really, really important.

Another really important thing is getting regular physical check-ups, including regular dental check-ups. They're some of the things I'd say. In addition to that, ideally all of us has at least one activity that completely absorbs us and relaxes us and might take us away from our daily worries. It could be gardening, it could be swimming, it could be spending time with friends. Any sort of activity that completely absorbs you. Crafts are also really useful for many people. So, these are some of the things that are really important for people. Another really important thing, which is easy for nearly everybody in the agricultural sector, is time in the outdoors and being in the sun and being in nature. Those things are really, really important.

Drew Radford:

You mentioned there David, the importance of absolving yourself in an activity and also the importance of actually social interaction can be often difficult. The social interaction part though for primary producers and it requires really that extra step.

David Cherry:

I think many people, primary producers, work very long hours because they're committed to their business. They're committed to looking after their families. They're committed to their communities. And that may mean that sometimes they don't look after themselves as well as they could. So, taking time for yourself and connecting with others is an important part of looking after yourself so that you can continue to contribute to the wider community and run your business as effectively as possible. Taking time for yourself is really, really important, both for yourself and also to help you continue to make your contribution to others, family members and the wider community.

Drew Radford:

That's such an interesting way to actually look at it and a logical way to look at it, David Cherry, because usually it's sort of, put up the shutters and all I'm ok, but actually now I'm not being effective in all these other areas that are important to me if I'm not looking after myself.

David Cherry:

Absolutely.

Drew Radford:

David, we often see people that we are concerned about. We go “Well, maybe things aren't going so well for you” or wonder if they're not going so well for an individual. How should you go about dealing with that?

David Cherry:

I think it's important that people are prepared to say to somebody that they may know that they're concerned about just to simply ask them how they're going. And then if the person says, "Well, I'm not going all that well," or say something, "Really worried about this,' it's just to learn what the person's concerns are and possibly suggest that they might seek assistance with that concern professionally, either from a GP, either if it's financial issues from the rural financial counsellor community health centre. So finding out what a person's concerns are and then suggesting that they seek assistance and doing it tactfully.

And the way you might do that tactfully, is rather than say, "Look, I think you need to go here and get this." You might say, "Well, I know other people who've had these concerns or these worries and they have been helped by going here and doing this.” So rather than saying, "So, you need to do that," you might tell, "I know of other people who've had these concerns and they have been helped by doing this."

Another important thing is that the language that you use when you're discussing another person's concern is important. Some people are happy to discuss feeling stressed, but they're not happy to discuss feeling anxious or depressed. So, you might say, "Look, many people are stressed in these times because it's difficult, they have been helped by going here." I wonder if that might be useful to you. So being tactful and being mindful of the language that may be acceptable to the other person, I think is important.

Drew Radford:

David, any tips then on how people can look after themselves during tough times when they're feeling stressed?

David Cherry:

One way that people may be able to help themselves is to use the difficult time to develop themselves, to develop their self-awareness and to develop new thinking skills and new behaviour skills. For example, for people who may be anxious, it's important to become aware of when your anxiety may be building so that you can take steps to reduce your anxiety. For example, by examining your thinking and changing it where possible to reduce your anxiety. I'd always encourage people, if they're going to learn new skills, to do this with the support of others. For some people, anxiety can be reduced by adopting new behaviours. For example, by meditating regularly. Another way people can help themselves, ideally with the support of others, is to learn new thinking skills and it might be important for some people who are depressed to learn to be less self-demanding and possibly less demanding of others. Another important new behave that people may be adopt, in particular for those people who are depressed and or anxious can be spending time with others or spending time engaged in enjoyable activities. And a really good resource for people who want to develop their own awareness, their self-awareness or develop new thinking skills or new behaviour skills is the Beyond Blue website.

Drew Radford:

David, some great insights there for dealing with difficult times. Thank you so much for joining me in the AgVic Talk studio.

David Cherry:

Thank you.

Drew Radford:

If this podcast has brought out any difficult emotions for you, please find someone you can talk to or call the Beyond Blue service on 1300224636, MensLine Australia on 1300 78 99 78 or Lifeline on 131114.

Speaker 1:

Thank you for listening to AgVic Talk. For more episodes in this series, find us and subscriber wherever you get your podcasts. We would love to hear your feedback, so please leave a comment or rating and share this series with you friends and family.

All information is accurate at the time of release. Contact Agriculture Victoria or your consultant before making any changes on farm.

This podcast was developed by Agriculture Victoria authorised by the Victorian Government Melbourne.

Episode 8: Maintaining ground cover to secure sandy topsoil with Ron Hards

Speaker 1:

Welcome to Ag Vic Talk, keeping you up to date with information from Agriculture Victoria.

Drew Radford:

Imagine farming on some of the most fragile land in the State and being able to say, after the worst rainfall figures on record a mere 25% of your 250 ml average, that you harvested a viable crop from 50% of your farm seeded area. And a further 25% was used as fodder. It's the remarkable story of Ron and Nick Hards, who farm in the Millewa at Yurara in the Northwest corner of the State and key to their success has been passionately protecting their topsoil. Ron Hards joined me in the Ag Vic talks studio and told me his journey into topsoil preservation began with switching to no till farming.

Ron Hards:

We had a fairly good long progression into no-till. We tried to reduce tillage for start with chisel ploughs and prickle chains and sowing on 14 inch spacings and that sort of thing. But only on cereals, we didn't venture into legumes at that stage, it was something that not very many people had done. We started off there probably 30 years ago, Drew doing that. We progressed through that and we did a lot of trips, with the Landcare Group, did a lot of trips through into South Australian and southern Victoria, where they were using no-till knife points and press wheels. And we started to get itchy feet, if you like, we could see how they were doing it, the reduction in bare fallows and stuff like that. It became very attractive to us.

Ron Hards:

So in about 2002, we actually changed our machinery. We thought there's no point in half doing it, we would change our machinery and make at work. At the same time, we employed an agronomist. We were sick of dust, bare fallows, erosion, and basically driving tractors. Because when you're doing a reasonable amount of tillage and bare fallows you were just finished one run and you just go back and start again. It really was extremely expensive and it wasn't getting us anywhere. So, we changed to no-till, and that of course involves boom sprays and chemicals.

Drew Radford:

So, did you see results change pretty much overnight, Ron? Was it a seasonal change or did you have to tough it out for a few seasons to start to see the benefit?

Ron Hards:

Yeah, look, we did Drew. It took a while. I think the soil's actually got to change with you. It does certainly change, become more friable. It certainly absorbs moisture better. You can see a thunderstorm goes through and there'll be water all over the stubble and within an hour so it's all gone. It's just soaks straight in and you don't have puddles in your paddock and water doesn't run like it used to. It changed the composition of the soil and certainly opened it up and it lets the moisture in right where it falls, which is a great advantage, I think.

Ron Hards:

And I'd think probably three or four years, we could see the difference. We could see the crops were improving and our control of weeds and what have you was getting better. I suppose we concentrated mainly on cereals for about seven or eight years. We had a little go at canola for three years. The inputs in this district were about the same as anywhere else, but the outputs are certainly less. So the profits weren't there with canola, so we dropped that out of the system and moved into vetch and peas and chickpeas and lentils and what have you to get the rotation a bit longer and open up our farming practices. We often do a fair bit of hay as I said.

Drew Radford:

So, in terms of the results that you are getting Ron, you've had a couple of the driest seasons ever on record. And from what I understand, you were able to harvest a viable crop from about 50% of your seeded area and further 25% was used as fodder. Could you have imagined those sorts of results 30 years ago before you changed your farming practices?

Ron Hards:

No, no Drew, I went through the 82 drought and know exactly what that sort of situation was. And I think actually the drought last year was probably worse, lower rainfall of what was in 82 when we virtually got nothing in that year, so a lot of crop didn't even come up in 1982. I think we harvest a little bit of seed off one paddock. Whereas last year it was the driest on record, as I said, and one paddock actually went 1.4 tonnes to the hectare of wheat. We did harvest some barley and some oats, but aren't even patches on the paddock. There was flats that didn't have anything on them. It was covered, but no viable crops.

Ron Hards:

And then we used a lot of the vetch and other product for fodder with the sheep. So certainly we had a little bit of drift on the paddocks, but they never actually scoured out. There was enough root matter under the vetch crop to actually hold the soil pretty well in place, even though there was some dust coming off of it, it wasn't doing any great damage to the soil. So we were pretty happy with last year and that was the biggest test we'd ever had since we started no-till.

Drew Radford:

No-till seems to be the foundation of all of this, Ron, but you seem to have some fairly firm rules about how you run the property these days to make sure that you can deal with drought. Maintaining ground covers, obviously part of that whole equation there but beyond that, you also have a fairly fixed plan. What are some of the key parts of the plan? Because I understand sowing early to deal with wind is really important, isn't it?

Ron Hards:

Yeah. I think so. Look, we sit down in January with our agronomist and do a paddock plan and that's after a visit straight after harvest. We certainly inspect all the paddocks then, but January is the main time, we do the paddock plan and endeavour to set out what we're going to do for the season with that visit. Weed populations in paddocks, count and previous crops and the rotations and so forth. And we set up a system from January through, the seasons through the year, of what we're going to sow where. In which paddocks and what the rotation is going to be.

Ron Hards:

And if you've got a plan like that, it makes it fairly easy to make snap decisions at the time when you're going through the seeding process, you know where you're going and what you're doing. And I think it helps knowing, by having that plan and trying to stick as closely as we can to it. We did change a little bit in the drought. We actually dropped two or three paddocks off altogether and didn't sow them. And starting seeding, we usually start late March with sowing vetch and fodders and just work through without too many stops. It makes it easy to run the program when you've got a plan set out.

Drew Radford:

Ron, I understand one of the other things that you've done in terms of protecting your ground cover is actually just slow down on your property in terms of vehicle speed.

Ron Hards:

Yeah, I think any form of cultivation needs to be done at a reasonably slow pace. 10 to 12 Ks seems to be an ideal speed. It doesn't shatter the soil so much and certainly with no-till knife points and press wheels, you need to be going at this speed that way you don't throw soil too far because the soil carries the chemicals with it too. And you'll end up with chemicals on top of your seed in the next row and that's something we need to avoid. So that speed is around about where we sit all the time. We've only got one pass a year with the seeder and we normally sow between the rows as well. So, I try not to interfere with last year's stubble. So your crop actually comes up and is protected between last year's stubble rows and with no-till knife points and press wheels and with guidance we've got these days, so, it makes it pretty easy to do that. And I think that that helps too.

Drew Radford:

I understand sheep are also part of your mix but it's also, I imagine a fine line in terms of how long you keep them on a paddock when things are marginal?

Ron Hards:

It is Drew, and I think that's one of the little mistakes we made last year. We left sheep in a paddock for probably only a couple of days too long, but it did make it a bit more vulnerable and we lost a little bit of soil, but in normal terms we run the sheep very conservatively over the stubble paddocks. Usually we buy in lambs in September, October and run through until Autumn the following year. So, they're not here consistently, but there is a fine line between stock and cropping and you're trying to do what we're doing and we're cropping most of the farm. You've just got to make full use of your containment areas. And that means a little bit of hand feeding in the containment areas. But I think it pays in the long run if you can containment feed for a couple of months of the year and maintain all your ground cover and your paddocks and get the crops up and moving without any haircuts with sand moving. I think you're far better off.

Drew Radford:

That requires very close monitoring then Ron, if you're talking literally a couple of days, the difference between damage to the top soil and getting the sheep off?

Ron Hards:

Well, it was Drew. There was actually some quite good feed on a couple of sand rises and the sheep insisted on staying down in the flats where obviously the feed was sweeter. And I thought, I'll just give them a couple more days and they'll clean those rises up, get the seeds off and so forth, but they didn't. They decided where they want to go, I can't make them go where they don't. And yeah, so it was a mistake. But it was a mistake you learn by.

Drew Radford:

Ron in terms of weed control, as part of your plan, how does that work?

Ron Hards:

Look it's very important. That's probably one of the main things with the rotations Drew is to maintain your weed control. Grasses are a curse right throughout any cropping area. And if you can keep those grasses under control in your legume phases, and sometimes we might run two legumes in a row, peas and vetch or, peas and lentils or whatever, however we do it to get two grass control phases in your legume crops before you get back into cereals. At the moment, we've got a couple of paddocks that are under a four year break. So we'll have peas and then we might follow those with vetch and possibly then, you might go to another, even two vetch crops in a row and then an oat and hay crop that you can spray out before you cut it and get the weeds in. So, you get your four year break in that way.

Ron Hards:

So it's a fairly intensive system and monitoring is a big thing. We probably monitor weeds in paddocks three or four times a year and make sure that we know what we've got and it doesn't take very much grass in one year if you let it seed and let it go through and do another crop. It's very quick to take over and so you've got to watch it very closely and make sure you've got it under control.

Drew Radford:

Ron, you touched on rotations a bit, but how important has it been in terms of getting nitrogen levels up since turning to no-till farming?

Ron Hards:

Yeah, it just an added benefit though I think from no till where all the legumes you put in a really good dose of natural nitrogen into the soil and you can certainly see the benefits in the following crops especially when you go back to cereals. You know I think its invaluable the fact you can do that absolutely free, just transitioning nitrogen from the air into the soil. It is great.

Drew Radford:

Your move to no-till and preserving your topsoil has been a big learning curve, who has helped you in that process?

Ron Hards:

There has been several things as I said earlier, we did a lot of trips into South Australia with the Landcare groups looking at what farmers were doing in other places. But, in the last twenty years there has been a huge amount of research gone on in the Mallee. Mallee Sustainable Farming with the three states involved, South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales has been extremely important, not only their research, but their extension that we can see what we need to do. And also with the help from the Department of Ag in Victoria and the CSIRO have been extremely important as well. I think these three organisations certainly need some accolades for getting us to where we have got.

Drew Radford:

Ron, you talk of losing topsoil is not only damaging for your productivity, but also for your own wellbeing. What do you mean by that?

Ron Hards:

Oh, look, there's nothing worse than sitting inside or in the shed on a windy day and watch your paddocks go past. It's pretty distressing. I think the last year where we've seen dust storms go through the Mallee, particularly in our area here in the Millewa and Mildura was getting pretty fed up with it actually. Because normally your strongest winds are from the South and South West and in the West and they're right in line for it. So, Mildura was blacked out a couple of days. Doesn't do your image much good when you go to town next time, tell them where you come from. So, I think, we owe it to everybody to make sure that we try and keep things where they are and you can't grow crops on soil if it's gone. I think that's the most important, most valuable asset that you've got is your soil and the top 10 cm is probably the most important part of your farm and if it blows away, well, you start from scratch again and it takes a long time to get that country back, if ever, if you take that top soil off.

Drew Radford:

Ron, it sounds like you're doing a fabulous job with you and your son, Nick, keeping your topsoil in place. Thank you ever so much for joining me in the AgVic Talk studio.

Ron Hards:

Thanks Drew, appreciate your time.

Speaker 1:

Thank you for listening to AgVic Talk. For more episodes in this series, find us and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. We would love to hear your feedback, so please leave a comment or rating and share this series with your friends and family.

Speaker 1:

All information is accurate at the time of release. Contact Agriculture Victoria or your consultant before making any changes on farm.

Speaker 1:

This podcast was developed by Agriculture Victoria authorised by the Victorian Government Melbourne.

Episode 7: Managing through dry seasons is all about preparation with Peter Young

Speaker 1:

Welcome to AgVic Talk, keeping you up to date with information from Agriculture Victoria.

Drew:

Most farmers at one stage or another contend with dry seasons and drought. How they cope though often comes down to being prepared and awareness for the support systems that can be accessed to help them through. That was the case for second generation Gippsland farmer Peter Young, who produces wool, lamb and beef on their 550-hectare farm at Briagolong, some 60 kilometres west of Bairnsdale. After three tough years, there've finally been some good rains and things are looking up for Peter, who now joins me in the AgVic Talk studio. Peter, thanks for your time.

Peter Young:

My pleasure.

Drew:

Peter, you and your family have been farming in that part of the world for some time. How long exactly?

Peter Young:

Dad took possession of this property on the 1st of October 1950.

Drew:

So in that time, you've probably seen quite a few variations in seasons.

Peter Young:

Yes, we've seen the whole lot, I reckon.

Drew:

So dry seasons weren't particularly uncommon for want of a better term.

Peter Young:

They're nothing new.

Drew:

But three years ago you had more of an extreme one, from what I understand.

Peter Young:

In the three years up until end of January this year, it would have to be the worst one we've had.

Drew:

What did you actually see Peter, in terms of declining rainfall?

Peter Young:

Down to less than half. The major bit was that it was in dribs and drabs that were never enough to get anything going. So it was very difficult to grow a fodder crop or grow any grass because you might get 10 or 15 mills and then nothing for another three weeks when the ground's already dry.

Drew:

What sort of impact then did that have on your operation? You've got 550 hectares there with a lot of animals on it. What was the impact on you?

Peter Young:

Initially, we had enough fodder in reserve, but it meant over time that we had to continue to sell livestock and continue to buy feed.

Drew:

So how much livestock did you end up having to sell off Peter?

Peter Young:

We got rid of one third of our sheep and three quarters of our cattle.

Drew:

They're fairly significant numbers.

Peter Young:

Yes. It has a pretty big impact on the bottom line, I know that, especially when you're buying feed at the same time.

Drew:

During that time, did you and your wife Alison start thinking about, well, okay, how are we going to manage this if this continues on?

Peter Young:

Yeah, we sure did. One of the best bits of advice I received was to actually make a decision. It doesn't matter if you change it later, but if you make the decision, for example, to sell a mob of sheep at the end of October, you always felt a lot better because you had actually made a decision. Putting it off and hoping and all those things didn't help at all. But to actually make a decision and say, right, it's now end of September, if it hasn't rained within the month, significant rain within the month, X number of sheep are on the truck. And that's what we were able to do. Still didn't want to do it, but at least you'd made a decision and you stop worrying about it.

Drew:

But also, did you look beyond that in terms of what other assistance you might be able to get to help you keep on going or even modify the property to deal with dry conditions?

Peter Young:

Well, initially the first assistance that was available was the farm household assistance, but more pertinent to the longer term was some of the resilience assistance that was available, things like stock containment areas, water reticulation, things like that.

Drew:

Were they difficult processes to go through Peter? And also something unusual for you to go through too, because had you ever needed to seek that sort of assistance in the past?

Peter Young:

Well, no, we hadn't. The hardest part initially was with the farm household assistance FHA, getting all the required information together, it was quite extensive. Later on when the systems got themselves sorted out, it was a lot simpler to apply for help or to ask for help. By the time we got to the resilience grants, it was relatively straight forward.

Drew:

I understand Alison, your wife had a big part in terms of working through some of those processes.

Peter Young:

Yep. She's the one that understands that a lot better than me. And I'm sure there's a lot of wives who do the same thing as part of a partnership.

Drew:

Outside of that too, what about Rural Finance? Were they able to help you work your way through these processes as well?

Peter Young:

Rural Finance were excellent in their assistance for some of the support programs, like the emergency water grants and things like that, they were really good.

Drew:

So Peter, in terms of the Victorian Government drought support, what did you do to try and help set up the property better to cope with the ongoing dry conditions?

Peter Young:

Although we have good water here, we ended up with about, I think a dozen dams that were empty. We had them cleaned out, took the opportunity to clean them out. So that was part of it, so that they would actually hold more water in the future. And we also put in that extra water bore and integrated reticulation scheme so that we can put water into dams, water into troughs. The water bores are connected and then the stock containment areas were able to hang off the side of that as well, with good water in there.

Drew:

So Peter, in terms of moving ahead, if the conditions had remained dry, would have you been able to continue farming at your de-stock level with these modifications?

Peter Young:

Well, they certainly would have helped because at the time it was looking dry. We've still got the extra fodder that we bought over the summer, but we haven't had to use it yet. So, if we were preparing for another, at least six months at the time that we received some long-awaited rain, shall we say.

Drew:

I imagine that would have been a significant change for you. I mean, it's an obvious thing to say, but how did that make you feel going from feeding and constantly planning to deal with dry conditions, how did that affect you personally?

Peter Young:

I guess there were several effects. One, a great relief. At last, it's rained. The paddocks aren't brown and dusty. They've now got a little bit of green on them. Once we had sufficient feed to put the stock back out on the paddocks, the thing that took me a little while to adjust to was this fact of, I don't have to spend half a day, every day feeding livestock. So, the pressure was off, but you had to decide what you were going to do. I know that sounds ridiculous, but when the drought was on, you knew what you had to do every day. Once we weren't doing that, it took a while to adjust to say, Well, I'll need to repair that fence or do this job or do that job. So mentally, that was a bit of a shift.

Drew:

Have you been able to connect though with your community as much? You would have been hoping for the relief that the rain brought and maybe that would bring some sort of sense of normality, but now we’ve got the current situation and also your broader community recovering from bushfires. So, I imagine things at present aren’t quite what you may have imagined them to have been when you got past the drought.

Peter Young:

Yes. One of the changes I noticed during the drought was even though everybody was flat out doing what they had to do to survive, every now and then you'd get a random phone call from somebody just to say, "How are you going?" Previous to that, we would be just busy doing whatever and we'd meet at workshops or other organisational meetings of any kind, have a quick conversation then, but because we're all so busy, I noticed and I tried to do it myself, ring somebody just, "Oh, I better ring Billy Blogs, see how he's going." So that was one significant change. And now with the coronavirus of course, well, there's no face to face contact, so the telephone's still pretty important and meetings on Zoom are good, but they're not quite the same.

Drew:

No, it's not the same as that face to face contact at all, Peter. And I understand also you used to open your property up for field day type events as well. So, you're not getting that interaction either I'd imagine.

Peter Young:

No, no. And nor are the people who would often attend those field days, discussion groups, whatever. And I was happy to share what we do in the way of, oh, well we put in a bit of summer crop or a bit of this or a bit of that, trying to generate some feed for the stock. Happy to share what we learnt and pick the brains of others and put it all together, hopefully.

Drew:

In terms of sharing what you have learnt over the last few years, if there was a key message or two to somebody listening to this, going through similar, tough, dry times, what would a key bit of advice be Peter?

Peter Young:

Keep talking, make that phone call. Even if you're not feeling that flash, find out how your neighbour’s going. And if he's a good listener, he'll pick up that things aren't going too well for yourself. So, it's an opportunity to download. And also, there's plenty of professional help, either medical, financial, planning and counselling type things, if you feel you need it. One of the things I guess has changed is that it's not weak. It's not a negative thing to ask for help. It can still be difficult.

Drew:

Well Peter, it sounds like asking for help has been absolutely crucial for you setting your property up for a future to continue on following 70 years now in that patch of land.

Peter Young:

That's right. Yeah. Be a bit negative, we're better prepared for the next drought. We will have another drought. That's the thing, Drew. Even though we've got a fantastic season at the moment, all the water holes are full. The grass is growing, the sheep are fat and the cattle. It's now that we need to prepare for the next drought, and we will have one, I guarantee it.

Drew:

Peter Young, it sounds like you've been on a very significant journey over the last three years. And it sounds like you are well and truly prepared for another drought. Let's both hope that that's a very long way away. Thank you ever so much for your time in joining me in the AgVic Talk studio.

Peter Young:

My pleasure Drew.

Speaker 1:

Thank you for listening to AgVic Talk. For more episodes in this series, find us and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. We would love to hear your feedback, so please leave a comment or rating and share this series with your friends and family.

Speaker 1:

All information is accurate at the time of release. Contact Agriculture Victoria or your consultant before making any changes on farm.

Speaker 1:

This podcast was developed by Agriculture Victoria

Episode 6: Using soil moisture monitoring to help manage seasonal risk with Dale Boyd and Bec Marshall

Speaker 1:

Welcome to AgVic Talk, keeping you up to date with information from Agriculture Victoria.

Drew Radford:

Should I apply fertilizer or not? If so, how much? They're questions all producers face. But, imagine having detailed, real-time soil moisture analysis at your fingertips, that gives you insight to if your crop is readily going to take up that fertilizer, or not. For over a decade, a number of soil moisture probes across Victoria, have been gathering that sort of information, to help give farmers confidence in their decision making. To find out how it all works, I'm joined in the AgVic Talk Studio, by Dale Boyd, Seasonal Risk Agronomist with Agriculture Victoria. Dale, thanks for your time.

Dale Boyd:

Thanks Drew.

Drew Radford:

Dale, what is the Soil Moisture Monitoring Network?

Dale Boyd:

The network is what Agriculture Victoria set up as technology in 2010, to see if we could assist dryland farming systems to understand the seasons better, with soil moisture probes. Now, climate change and extreme seasonal variation have been very challenging for farmers to manage, but we just thought by putting in this technology in the ground, farmers then would have a way of measuring it, and if they can measure it, then they can start to manage the variations that we do see in year to year with rainfall.

Drew Radford:

In terms of the monitoring, is that monitored across a range of depths or is it just a standard depth in the soil that the monitoring's done?

Dale Boyd:

One of the critical components to the success of the Agriculture Victoria Network is that, 10 years ago, technology being well-established and utlised in irrigation environments, but not so much in dryland, where we couldn't apply water, so our strategy was to put these moisture probes down deep into the profile. Our form of measurement is to measure from 30 centimetres down to a metre, and with sensors every 10 centimetres, which gives us a good resolution of what's happening down through that soil profile.

Dale Boyd:

The other advantage with the position of that probe down deep is that, with cropping systems, there's the annual sowing of the crop, where you're looking to sow over the top of the probe. So, it's representative with a good plant population similar to the rest of the paddock. So, by having that probe down so deep, the sowing tines can safely go across the monitoring point, without damaging the probe or the cable itself.

Dale Boyd:

It's good to really emphasize that it's a deep soil moisture that we're really looking to track, because between zero and 30 centimetres, it can fluctuate pretty dynamically. But, it's about this time of the year, September, where those deeper soil moisture reserves are so critical to get us through, and get those yields that might've been set up through that winter period.

Drew Radford:

Is that a real-time feed?

Dale Boyd:

Yes, it is. We're getting data recorded every hour, and then the upload of the data from the paddock occurs on an hourly basis as well, providing we can get a solid mobile network communication connection. Every hour, which is fantastic. It's not only good for soil moisture, but also rainfall. We match up a rain gauge with the monitoring point, with the moisture probe. I think that's been a bit of an eyeopener as well, to be able to get the hour by hour recordings of rainfall. We can actually determine rates of infiltration with the intensity of rain. Generally, the rain's been pretty steady, but some events, particularly in summer, they can get up to 25 mm, even a bit greater in that hour period. Some of these soils probably struggled to take in that amount of rainfall within that hourly period, but it's a good measurement point.

Drew Radford:

That's a lot of data coming in very quickly, real-time analysis. Does the data ever surprise you?

Dale Boyd:

Initially. Everyone was pretty surprised how effective some of these crops were at extracting deep soil moisture. Probably in the past, things might've been underestimated in terms of soil moisture conditions, and that's probably due to just those shallow assessments, that might've been done with a shovel. So, by having this real-time measurement, or certainly being able to observe at certain points of time moisture getting down, right down to depths, a metre potentially even more in those really wet years. But, when we've got a great biomass of crop growing above that soil surface, we've also got that pump happening with that well-developed root system. I think that's been a real eye opener.

Dale Boyd:

The other thing that can surprise people is, just the effect of cutting crops for hay. We do find that the crops can be using moisture quite well during that day period. Then, from the remote assessments of the data, I can actually pick up to the hour, of when the crop was actually cut, because when the leaf area is removed, the crop stops photosynthesizing, stopped using water, and it's just quite a dramatic change. Some of the farmers have been a bit surprised how I've been able to remotely assess what they were doing on farm.

Dale Boyd:

There's a few other things, that certainly they've been eye opening, particularly summer weed escapes, and just the damage they can do in terms of quickly extracting moisture, and down to depths as well. Really, this is all the deep moisture that you'd really like to conserve, and have for the following winter crop, and not lose that through summer weeds. So, there's been a lot of learnings and probably a few eye opening experiences along the way.

Drew Radford:

You said you started this in 2010, so you've got a decade's worth of data. What time of the year then is soil moisture monitoring most useful, in terms of the data?

Dale Boyd:

That's certainly a long data set, and it's probably shown that the information is quite informative in all parts of the season, but when we've worked with the farmers and industry, and determined what they thought the most useful part of when they could examine the data, it was identified as spring. Personally I think early winter can provide some early guidance on how the season's progressing, and then moving into spring then, we have obviously seen it being quite dynamic, that if you've got crops with yield potential, they will certainly use a lot of water if it's stored in those deeper levels, within the soil profile.

Drew Radford:

Okay. Well then, how do producers actually apply that information, in terms of the monitoring data you've got?

Dale Boyd:

For the farmers and the producers to best utilise, the soil moisture probes, it's really about understanding the seasonal conditions for that reference point.

Dale Boyd:

So, the thresholds are the upper limits of the outmost maximum capacity that those soils can hold, and then also the lower limits. So, how dry those soils can actually be dried down to, with crop growth and development, which generally gets to those lower limits in that spring period.

Drew Radford:

A person with firsthand experience with those limits, is Bec Marshall. She and her husband Ash, run a cropping farm at Normanville in Mallee country, about 60 kilometres from Kerang. They've been using the soil moisture monitoring information for nearly a decade.

Bec Marshall:

We really use it to help us make major decisions during our growing season, and even pre-growing season pre-sowing the crop. It's probably one of the big confidence givers.

Drew Radford:

What information from it are you getting, that gives you confidence?

Bec Marshall:

Just a really good snapshot of actually what moisture we have stored in our profile, which then we can sort of translate across to what sort of yield potential we might already have, the potential going into the season with our crops. That can really provide a lot of confidence around rotation going forward, how hard to push things in terms of nitrogen inputs especially.

Drew Radford:

How long have you been using soil moisture information in your business?

Bec Marshall:

I think maybe it was 2011 or so. There's actually been a local probe installed in our area, just in our neighbours farm at Normanville, and Ash and I really started following that from the start, and using that information to provide confidence with what we were doing here. Then, I suppose maybe three years ago, we went and started installing our own moisture probes set ups on our own farm, just so we could get that really fine-tuned advice for us.

Drew Radford:

Has that made a difference over the last three years, now that you have even more data coming through, to know really what's going on, on your property?

Bec Marshall:

Yeah, I think it has. It's been great for our learning certainly, just to be able to learn what's actually happening in individual paddocks. Our farm is reasonably spread out. We've probably got 20K's difference from top to bottom, North to South sort of thing. So, that does vary quite a bit during the season, and also a range of soil types. So, we've been able to really learn a little bit more about what's happening there, and really get that information that's tailored for us.

Drew Radford:

Okay. So, give me a bit of an example then, in terms of looking at the soil moisture, and then what sort of decision you might make off the back of that?

Bec Marshall:

The major one, well, there's lots that we might make. I guess one of the major ones we looked at this year was our top dressing, how we're applying nitrogen during the growing season to feed the crop. That's where soil moisture has been really handy for us, just having that knowledge of what's actually in the profile. You can actually have quite a dry growing season, not be receiving a lot of in crop rain, but have quite a full profile underneath. Just having the confidence around feeding that crop, to make it reach its full potential, I suppose.

Drew Radford:

So what would actually happen there, Bec? Without that information, would you hold off actually applying the nitrogen, because you're unsure it's dry, and it's not going to be taken up? Is that-

Bec Marshall:

Potentially, you could find yourself in the situation. Without that information to provide the confidence that your crop might actually have a better yield potential than what you're thinking, just based on your current rainfall, yeah. So, you might end up under feeding that crop nitrogen, and it doesn't reach its full potential. So, it can be that real signal, I suppose, to go harder in the right season, or also, it can be the reverse too. If you don't have the moisture in the profile, you could, as often happens in the Mallee, have a really fantastic looking crop early on in the season, and absolutely nothing in the profile, and just also needing to pull things back a little bit and not go too hard. So, there's the reverse here as well, I guess.

Drew Radford:

That is Bec Marshall from Normanville. If you're a producer and you're interested in finding out more about soil moisture monitoring, Dale Boyd says, there's a range of information that's readily available.

Dale Boyd:

Go to the agriculture.vic.gov.au webpage and search for soil moisture monitoring, and you'll come up with all the links and the background description of the Dryland Cropping Program. They've also developed recently, with the assistance of the Dry Seasons Program, a new dashboard. That's on extensionaus.com.au/soilmoisturemonitoring all in one word. That dashboard's been a really great development because, it not only provides an indication of the crop or pasture that's growing, because that obviously has a very big influence on soil moisture increases at the start of the season, but also the rate of depletion that you might see in late winter, and coming into spring.

Dale Boyd:

So it's good to have that description of what's happening, because obviously, these reference points are quite important, and if farmers and industry are going to take more note of them, there's obviously an indication of why they're being depleted at the rate they were, due to what is growing at that reference point. So, both sources have good information.

Drew Radford:

Dale, it's a phenomenal amount of information, and an amazing resource for producers to access. Seasonal Risk Agronomist with Agriculture Victoria, Dale Boyd, thank you for joining me in the AgVic Talk Studio.

Dale Boyd:

Thank you very much, Drew.

Speaker 1:

Thank you for listening to AgVic Talk. For more episodes in this series, find us and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. We would love to hear your feedback, so please leave a comment or rating, and share this series with your friends and family.

Speaker 1:

All information is accurate at the time of release. Contact Agriculture Victoria, or your consultant before making any changes on farm. This podcast was developed by Agriculture Victoria, authorised by the Victorian government, Melbourne.

Episode 5: Balancing wet winters and dairy farming with Craig Dwyer

Speaker 1:

Welcome to Ag Vic Talk, keeping you up to date with information from Agriculture Victoria.

Drew Radford:

If you mention managing seasonal variability, most people start thinking about strategies to deal with dry times. For some though, the opposite can be the problem, which is the case for dairy farmer Craig Dwyer from Bullaharre, just out of Cobden in South West Victoria. In this location, excessively wet winters can be a real problem when juggling the needs of a dairy herd against maintaining healthy paddocks.

Drew Radford:

To find out more, Craig Dwyer joins me in the AgVic Talk studio. Craig, thanks for your time.

Craig Dwyer:

No worries, Drew. Anytime at all.

Drew Radford:

Craig, the focus of our discussion is dealing with seasonal variability, but in terms of seasons, I understand you just had a pretty good one.

Craig Dwyer:

Ah, yeah, we've been pretty handy, given the spring kinder of lasted all the way through until, effectively, New Year. We did dry off a fraction and then had a very, very early break. Yeah, our down period was probably only about six weeks. I would have said last year, combined with a nominally high milk price, was probably one of the best ones we've ever put together.

Drew Radford:

For a lot of producers, the biggest seasonal risk is not enough rain for you though. I understand it's almost the opposite.

Craig Dwyer:

We can get very wet. We are a wet farm. We do have a lot of heavy black flats and a creek running through the middle of the property with kind of around that 850-millimetre rainfall average per year. Yeah. It's a management challenge in a wet winter. The winter we're going through right at the moment, up until this point in time has been very, very kind to us. Given that June was quite dry and July probably... I know others have had it, unfortunately too dry for them, but July's been ideal for us. The only thing that could have made it better was probably a little more sunshine.

Drew Radford:

What do you put in place, Craig, though, to manage the potential of a really wet winter?

Craig Dwyer:

We ensure that we've got enough grass cover on the property before we actually open the farm back up to the milking cows. We try to have grass cover levels at 2,500 kilos of dry matter to the hectare, and then once majority of the farm is at that point, we'll allow the cows to start grazing. Generally, with our calving pattern, we're calving around the 15th of May, so therefore we do sacrifice the cows off into a couple of paddocks to allow that grass cover to get ahead, to give us a feed wedge. Then once that wedge is established, we strip graze them around the farm to keep the rotation as long as possible.

Craig Dwyer:

It's around that 60 odd days before we're back in the same paddock again, which becomes a challenge though, in the middle of winter, when you potentially have to throw open... Most of the farm's divided into 10 acre paddocks, and when it does shockingly wet, we do have to throw the gate open and give them one complete paddock where you'd at least try to get two, if not three feeds out of the one paddock.

Drew Radford:

I understand also, you've been doing quite a bit in terms of pasture management, because it wasn't a dairy farm before, am I correct in that?

Craig Dwyer:

Well, it was a dairy farm through from about the early '80s up until 1999, but a very underdeveloped farm. Let's put it that way. It was just 22 paddocks with 22 dams. No trough infrastructure, or water infrastructure and very minimal lane ways, and that sort of thing. Then it was a beef farm from the late '90s all the way through until we bought it in 2012, but we leased it out for three years before we moved on to it ourselves.

Drew Radford:

So, to cope with the demands of a dairy herd, other than the infrastructure requirements, have you had to do a lot in terms of pasture development to support that herd?

Craig Dwyer:

Yeah. We've renovated virtually the whole place, Drew, back into the more newer varieties of perennial grasses. I'm not a big fan of the annuals, sowing annuals in, and then having to do the same thing again next year, I know you can get bulk feed off it, but I prefer to stick in the perennials, and given our wetter rainfall, or more likelihood of a reliable rainfall here, perennials seem to hang on better, that I've found. Yeah, we've renovated the whole farm over a period of five years, and upped the fertility base too, to support that grass. Yeah, I think we've almost got the place up to the right spec that we need for it to be producing as good as we could possibly get it.

Drew Radford:

Okay. You've got the pasture to a certain level, but you're still dependent upon fodder to a certain amount, aren't you?

Craig Dwyer:

Yeah, we do. We do buy in. We endeavour to cut as much silage as possible off the place, but we do buy in up to about 300 ton of cereal/clover hay that we have with a long-term relationship with a hay grower. Not far down the road for us, reasonably close. We've had that guaranteed for a few years now, so we do have that fodder up our sleeve to manage either a ridiculously wet winter, or a longer dry spell while we're trying to establish that pasture cover over the farm. It kind of swings both ways.

Drew Radford:

Are you having to store that on farm, or have you had to change infrastructure to deal with that?

Craig Dwyer:

We've just built a hay shed in May this year. It was purchased late last year, but unfortunately due to builder commitments and then some wet weather here through the early part of the autumn, we were unable to get it up until middle of May. At which stage the weather had already turned, and the hay that we had purchased this year had to be stored outside, so there wasn't much point putting slightly damaged hay into the new shed and being slightly damp as well. We definitely have upgraded the infrastructure, because it was the one thing that was missing on this farm, was a decent hay shed, and over this coming summer or this coming hay season, we will be reassessing our fodder requirements, and getting probably as much hay into that shed as possible.

Drew Radford:

Craig, in regards to assessing those fodder requirements, what are you actually looking at? I mean, what sort of planning tools, apps, or seasonal forecasts help you make those decisions?

Craig Dwyer:

I've already made decisions on which paddocks will be renovated for this coming spring. We'll put in a fodder rape crop into paddocks that have been either badly damaged by pugging, or have the most tired grass species in them, as in the ones that were probably sown five years ago. If they've got some ongoing issues, either from cricket damage, or pugging, etc, we'll renovate them, so those decisions have already been made for those paddocks that will probably get pulled out of the rotation.

Craig Dwyer:

Then we'll try and get those fodder crops in early to give us a feed wedge, to keep the cows milking through until hopefully at least February. Off some of that green feed, because we do pump our effluent water back over those crops to try and get a potential second, maybe even a third grazing off them. If the season's really kind to us with a little bit of rain fall and not too many stinking hot days, but we will also just bank on buying 200 ton of hay on this farm, pretty much every year without fail. I'd prefer to be over insured on the hay side of things by having that fodder on farm rather than having to go to the hay market, potentially, when everybody else is, if there is a shortfall. Hay in the shed, or hay on farm, we consider money in the bank here. It's plan for the worst and hope for the best.

Drew Radford:

Is that more of a seasonal plan that you've got in place as opposed to looking at seasonal forecasts and thinking, "Oh, maybe I need a bigger buffer, or even a smaller buffer"?

Craig Dwyer:

I do look at the forecasts potentially for the seasons coming. I did note the BOM this year predicted a very, very wet winter. That didn't eventuate here, thankfully, for a wet farm like ours. Yeah, I don't put a 100% faith in them. As I said, we will get as much fodder on farm as we can, and as our cashflow allows, anyway, and given that this hay shed is now here, and we'll probably try and keep that as full as possible over the journey. This season's shaping up like... The cereal guys up slightly north of us are having a cracking year at this stage, so if that continues, hopefully there'll be a fair bit of hay about, and the price might be back a little. The guys up north, New South Wales and Queensland, they've got some green grass about, so hopefully their requirements for fodder will be less, so the demand may not be there as there has been, but who knows, you throw a bushfire in there and the demand can go through the roof again.

Drew Radford:

Craig, looking further ahead. What plans have you got for your property to try and insulate it as much as possible from the extremes of either seasons?

Craig Dwyer:

Probably the next capital expenditure will be on some drainage, so we can avoid damaging some of that pasture that we're putting into the wetter paddocks. That'll allow us to get a little bit more traffic over those paddocks without doing as much damage. The drier side of things, we have got a lot better at the water storage on farm, given that there was 22 paddocks, 22 dams. There is a reticulated trough system to every paddock. Some of the dams have been cleaned out, so our capacity for storage on farm's a lot better. We've also put culverts in and redirected some drains to ensure that we do catch the surface runoff that we do get. Our effluent side of things, we're using that nutrient base, and the water that comes with that to go back over the fodder rape crops.

Craig Dwyer:

We're setting ourselves up as best we can here. We don't have any irrigation water, or any underground water here, so we're entirely reliant on runoff, so it is a very precious commodity that we have to try and manage better into the future.

Drew Radford:

Craig Dwyer. It sounds like you are doing a very detailed job of managing it, and in the process laying substantial foundations for the future. Thank you very much for joining me in the AgVic Talk studio.

Craig Dwyer:

No worries, Drew. Appreciate that. Let's hope the season's favourable for everybody.

Drew Radford:

For more agriculture Victoria information on dealing with climate variability, you can subscribe to both The Break, and the Milking the Weather newsletters. Both of these you can find through the Agriculture Victoria website. Also, you can get in contact with your local dairy extension officer who can direct you to relevant information and advice to help you get started in understanding how your business can adapt to climate variability.

Speaker 1:

Thank you for listening to AgVic Talk. For more episodes in this series, find us and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. We would love to hear your feedback, so please leave a comment or rating and share this series with your friends and family.

Speaker 1:

All information is accurate at the time of release. Contact Agriculture Victoria, or your consultant before making any changes on farm.

Speaker 1:

This podcast was developed by Agriculture Victoria. Authorised by the Victorian Government, Melbourne.

Episode 4: Getting a foot in the door using drones on-farm with Clay Gowers

Speaker 1:

Welcome to Ag Vic Talk, keeping you up to date with information from Agriculture Victoria.

Drew Radford:

Imagine having a clear vision for making your farm more productive and less labour intensive, but not having the resources to even let you take the first step in making that happen. That was the story of Clay Gowers. A farmer from Carwarp in North Western, Victoria, who was certain drones could play a big part in improving productivity on their family property. He joined me in the Ag Vic Talk studio to discuss how he's now on the path to making his dream a reality.

Clay Gowers:

At the minute, what we do agronomically is we just drive around the paddock, just visually look and see if we've got an issue with any of the paddocks. I think our agronomists have told us to visually see a difference between that plant and that plant. It has to be a 10% difference and 10% is quite a lot when you start talking yield at the end of the day. So, what my plan would be, would be to fly my drone, be able to map a paddock. You get a bit better of a bird's eye view and you get the paddock as a whole. Whereas when we drive to the paddock, we drive through a bit of a corner or maybe through the middle and then out, you don't get a full idea of what the paddock's doing in every spot as you'd be driving around the paddock all day.

Drew question: So, it’s this ambition for drones that’s led you to apply to a Young Farmers Scholarship. Tell me about why you think then this would be a good fit?

Clay Gowers:

I'd always wanted to learn more about different farming processes. And I suppose I haven't really been able to fund learning different skills and all that sort of stuff. Some of the things you learn cost a little bit of money. So, I haven't probably thought it as a big priority financially. So I haven't sort of taken a step, but being able to get the scholarship has allowed me to take that scholarship money and be able to put it into an area where I'm really interested in, but haven't had the chance to sort of make that leap forward.

Drew Radford:

So, what is it you've put it into?

Clay Gowers:

The scholarship's pretty much broken down into two halves. So, you have up to $5,000 to study and up to $5,000 to implement. So, I've put my studying $5,000 in, which is the Upskill portion, I've put that into drone mapping. So basically, learning how to incorporate drones into the farm, to help map paddocks and gather data. And then the second half of my scholarship will be helping me to fund into a drone. So, it should pay for, I think, two thirds of a agricultural mapping drone, and then I'll fork out the last little bit to sort of help implement that into our farm.

Drew Radford:

Okay. So, you're getting into drones Clay.

Clay Gowers:

Yep.

Drew Radford:

But why do you see drones as an important tool for the future of your farming needs?

Clay Gowers:

So, it's just to get, I suppose, a better view of your paddock as a whole, as most farmers know, no paddock is equal from one side to the other. You've always got dead spots. You've always got hills that are either overproduced or under-produced and they address... I suppose, fertilizer side of things, they're addressed differently. And then I suppose if it comes to infestation of bugs or mice or any other kind of pests, you're able to visually see the damage faster and being able to address it earlier is always going to be a benefit.

Drew Radford:

Are you aware of drones being applied this way in other farming practices?

Clay Gowers:

I have on some small scale. I know that Agriculture Victoria, I believe in the Horsham Research Facility, they are doing tests on crops, but obviously that's a smaller scale. I believe there is a farmer in the Sea Lake, Manangatang area that is doing it. I have to look into that a little bit more, because I really want to go and visit him to sort of see how he's implementing it and how he thinks it works. And I suppose pick his brain of things have worked, things that haven't. But as for large scale, I don't know a lot that's going on in that space. But definitely if anyone, I suppose knows of anything can contact me, I'd definitely be interested in listening to what they got to say and even visiting the farm and I'm eager to learn. And I can see this space being a space that's... it's not going to get smaller. It's going to be one of those things where 10, 15, 20 years, farmers are going to be saying, "When did you get started implementing drones?" Not if you have but when you have.

Drew Radford:

So, you're going to be a bit of a pioneer in this space, in some regards Clay.

Clay Gowers:

That's the sort of the plan. Yeah. I already have a keen interest in drones anyway, but being able to implement this into the farm, it'll be learning from my mistakes and trying to work out well, what can we do better? How can we implement this technology in a easier or user-friendly way? Or I suppose it’s sort of very early stages in drone development in general. And then, yeah, you're trying to apply it into a professional space being in agriculture. There's always going to be some learning points and yeah, ways to drive that technology forward. So, I'm excited to see where it can go.

Drew Radford:

I guess the scholarship then has given you a chance to hyper accelerate your vision and pursue this technology because otherwise what would it have been. A bit of a have a go-show. Go and buy a drone and see what you can do with it. Whereas now you're going to be professionally trained and have the money to buy a piece of equipment that's fit for the task.

Clay Gowers:

Yeah, definitely. It's interesting that you sort of bring that up. I actually, previous to even hearing about the scholarship, I remember having a chat to my dad about maybe getting something like this to help with our spraying program. And I jumped online, looked at the price, said, "Yep, no way." And then shut the computer again, even just an entry level ag drone and I just looked at it and I thought I can't afford that, but I don't even know how to use it. I don't know anything about it. So that's going to be more training. And I just remember being overwhelmed the first time I saw the price of some of these ag drones, that can vary from five grand up to 40 grand. So, it was quite overwhelming. And then I suppose when the scholarship came out, I thought, well, why not use this as a chance to learn from people in the industry and try to, I suppose, implement this technology in a way that sort of never been implemented before, so.

Drew Radford:

Clay, you've given a bit of an outline in terms of a bird’s eye view opportunity it's going to give you in terms of looking at your crops and what may be occurring across the entire operation. Have you got a vision for other areas that may lead into for you?

Clay Gowers:

I believe in the short term, the next, let's say 10 years, it will be mainly focused on crop health. So obviously, like I said before, getting that bird's eye vision, being able to scan paddocks for the crops' photosynthesis. So obviously the green scale of the crop. And then obviously that's going to tell us if the plant is sick, if it needs either addressing because... And then finding the reason why it's sick. Could it be pest infestation or nutrients and addressing that issue. So, I believe that in the short term the main focus will be all for crop health and agronomic strategies and all that sort of thing. But I believe the long term will be people talk about drones. The first thing that comes to their mind is something flying in the air. But the definition of a drone is just anything that's unmanned.

Clay Gowers:

People talk about driverless tractors. I know in America they're testing driverless tractors at the minute. The biggest stumbling block is going to be obviously getting that over the line safety wise and OH&S. But I believe the future of farming is going to be more, less physical people in seats and more automated technology to have driverless tractors, driverless sprayers, driverless quad bikes, utes, all that sort of thing. So that then the farmer is more of a management of operations instead of sitting in the seat or having to employ five people to sit in each of these tractors. I think from a future visionary standpoint, I believe that the farmer is going to be more managing these machines and focusing on tasks that require hands, like filling up trucks again, or maintenance for breakdowns and all that sort of thing. I do believe that will be the next push. When that is, whether that's in 20 years, 30 years, 50 years, I believe it will be in my lifetime. I'm 27 at the minute so that will be either implemented or not far off being implemented.

Drew Radford:

Clay, as you said, you're only 27, but you're obviously seeing a change in terms of labour being available on properties. Is that part the driver also you think for this need for drone technology? Just simple access to people to do the job.

Clay Gowers:

Yeah, potentially. I know we usually employ people for harvest and sometimes for sowing. It is sometimes hard to get some people to say... Especially if they've got part-time job or another job to say, "Come work for us for two months. And then you can go back to your job." Most people don't want to do that. You need to almost find someone who either is looking for a job is only working let's say part-time and they can cut their other job back. So, to find that sort of person who's actually good quality people can be difficult to find because we... As we were running multimillion-dollar machinery, we don't want to just chuck anyone on there that doesn't really know what they're doing. We actually sort of almost filter through people before you even ask them. And then obviously those people are probably qualified or got jobs elsewhere.

Clay Gowers:

So, I don't believe labour acquisition is going to be the driver of it. I think it'll just be technology, making things easier so that you are working smarter. You're not working harder. You're putting your resources where they need to be instead of just sitting in a seat. I find sometimes during harvest and sowing, I'm just sitting there babysitting this machine, making sure that if something goes wrong, I'm on top of it. But 90% of my day is sitting there just watching. And if you could take out that portion and just have a machine that could literally drive itself and then if something goes wrong, it stops. And then you get a notification on your tablet or smartphone or whatever it may be, saying, unit such and such is encountering an error. And then you have to go and obviously solve that error. So, I just think that, that would... It makes you use your time more efficiently instead of sitting in a seat unproductive basically, is sort of my vision on it.

Drew Radford:

So, Clay potentially, is this scholarship putting you on the pathway of where you really think farming is going to be? I mean, your vision is moving farming towards a very high-end technical skill set as well as a high-end agronomic skill set as well.

Clay Gowers:

Yeah, definitely. The technology is here now to implement what I'm talking about. It's just got to be, I suppose, trialled and have issues sorted out and then obviously progress. And that period is going to take a long time. Right now, in America, they've got tractors that will drive themselves and you just set up your parameters. Here's the boundary, here's a tree. They'll go around it, not a problem. It's not that will be an implementation. It will be the part that the neighbour worrying about if it's going to drive through his house. It's going to be the safety side of things that will take a long time to get over the line to then start implementing. So, I suppose I've got my scholarship side of things, which is obviously is amazing. And I'm so excited to get started and start flying my drone around and start using it on our farm effectively and being able to make better agronomic decisions faster.

Clay Gowers:

But I can also see this other side of it where the future is going to be so incredibly interesting and the direction that it's going to go, really, it could go anywhere. But where I can see it going is just going to make life a lot easier. It'll be almost the same instance when GPS started being installed on tractors. Some people had them, some people didn't, but the people that did have them, they found the technology useful. They could see how it was saving the money with fuel, with chemicals, with not overlapping. So, they were saving more money and that paid for their unit in return. I can see this as another instance where once you implement it, it will save you more money and it'll pay for itself anyway. And then in 20 years, people will be saying, "It was the best thing I ever did. It saved me money. And when did you get your drone?"

Clay Gowers:

I believe this will be sort of the next step we'll be mapping. And then obviously in the future for the forward, it will be unmanned tractors and sort of progressed in that direction.

Drew Radford:

Well Clay, it's a very exciting future that you envisage. And I think you're probably on track for seeing it become a reality. How far are you through your training now with your scholarship in terms of the first part of the scholarship?

Clay Gowers:

I've pretty much only got one last portion of it. I'm doing my training down in Warrnambool and I've done the... basically the mapping and data gathering side of things. And then the third part is just a more in-depth learning how to fly larger drones and comply with aviation laws and things like that. I haven't been able to do that section of it due to coronavirus. I was pretty much set in to go just before it all started. And then obviously everything's sort of flared up. So that's sort of been put on the pause for the moment. And so once pretty much I can sort of get down to Warrnambool and organize that again, I'll be heading down there. And then once I've ticked that off pretty much, that's my Upskill portion of the scholarship covered. And then the next step will be the invest side of things, which will be where I'll be looking at purchasing an ag specific drone to help with my mapping.

Drew Radford:

Well, I'm sure you've been trolling the internet, looking for the perfect drone. Clay Gowers, thank you very much for joining me in the Ag Vic Talk studio and all the best with the remaining part of your scholarship and the exciting future road that it's going to take you on.

Clay Gowers:

No worries. Thank you, Drew. Thanks for having me on.

Drew Radford:
For more information about the Upskill and Invest Young Farmers Scholarship and other Young Farmer resources visit vic.gov.au/youngfarmers or search Young Farmer Business Network on Facebook.

Speaker 1:

Thank you for listening to Ag Vic Talk. For more episodes in this series, find us and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. We would love to hear your feedback, so please leave a comment or rating and share this series with your friends and family.

All information is accurate at the time of release. Contact Agriculture Victoria, or your consultant before making any changes on farm

This podcast was developed by Agriculture Victoria authorised by the Victorian Government Melbourne.

Episode 3: Spring pasture management of fire affected pastures with Fiona Baker

Speaker 1:

Welcome to AgVic Talk, keeping you up to date with information from Agriculture Victoria.

Drew Radford:

Spring is a crucial time for pasture management. What factors, though, should producers consider, if the land was burnt in last summer's fires? There's a range of things to take into account, and a person with experience and insight to this is Agriculture Victoria Livestock Extension Officer Fiona Baker. And she joins me now in the AgVic Talk studio. Fiona, thanks for your time.

Fiona Baker:

Not a problem.

Drew Radford:

Fiona, I'd like to take a bit of a step back. What sort of effects can fire have on pastures? And I imagine there's a range of things to consider, from fire intensity all through to the type of pasture.

Fiona Baker:

Yeah, so the intensity of the burn has a big impact on the potential for pastures to recover down the track. So really hot burns where we see an ash-bed being formed, we basically don't see pastures come back from that at all, and they tend to need to be renovated and started over again. But, generally, what we see on most farming situations is a much lower intensity burn, either a very cool burn or a moderate burn, and where we've got a cool burn going across, we see pretty much the whole pasture recovering. Where we've got a moderate burn going across, we can lose up to 50% of the pasture species out of those areas and they may not grow back, but it really is dependent on the pasture species that are present as well. Are they native pastures? Are they some of our improved pastures, ryegrass, cocksfoot, phalaris? And also the age of the pasture, we've noticed, makes a big difference as well.

Fiona Baker:

So, from the fires that we saw recently over January 2020, we saw that brand new pastures that had been resown the previous year, they were basically less than 12 months old, regardless of the species they generally struggle to come back. And what we saw with well-established pastures that had been there for quite a while, whether they were native pastures or introduced species, so your ryegrasses, cocksfoots, etc. If they were older than 12 months old, we've seen quite good recovery from most of those pastures. So it really does depend on that intensity of burn and the species as well.

Drew Radford:

Fiona, how, then, do the producers know if they actually do need to resow?

Fiona Baker:

One of the best things they can do is just to get out and have a look at those pastures. Have a look about how much bare ground they can actually see in those pastures, because too much bare ground leaves it prone to erosion, but also allows a lot of weed invasion in those pastures. And that's probably the last thing that they want to happen. Post-fires, they often have to bring in quite a lot of feed in terms of hay in particular, and sometimes silage, but hay's a large risk in terms of bringing in weeds, in terms of seeds that might be in that hay itself. So, the more bare ground that they've got in their paddocks where they're feeding hay, the more likely they are to get those weeds up and growing, causing issues down the track.

Fiona Baker:

So if they can have a look in their paddocks and just see how many species that they actually want in their pastures are actually present, versus bare ground, that will give them a fairly good idea.

Drew Radford:

Well, Fiona, drilling down a little bit further then, what's the best way a producer should go about making that assessment to resow?

Fiona Baker:

Getting out and wandering across the paddock. I guess it depends on how big the paddock is. So you can either do it on foot, or you can do it off a bike or a horse. If you're doing it by foot, I tend to do it every 10 or 20 paces, have a look down at the toe of my boot and see what's there. Is it bare ground? Is it a grass that I want growing, or is it a weed? And just making a little mark on a bit of paper in a notebook, or something along those lines, and do that as many times as you can across a paddock. Generally, I like to say do it a minimum of 20 times, ideally 50 times, across the paddock at 50 different spots to do the assessment. And then all you have to do, if you've done it 20 times, is multiply it by five.

Fiona Baker:

If you've done it 50 times, multiply it by two to get a percentage. And that gives you an idea of how much bare ground you've got, or how much of the desired species you've got. If you've got less than 70% of the desired species, so more than 30% bare ground as well, that's probably a trigger to say you possibly need to think about resowing. If you do that assessment in spring, it can be a very good time to do it, and that will give you an idea about whether you really need to have a good look in that autumn period. If you have good rainfall over the spring and early summer months, your desirable species of grasses, in particular, might actually tiller and thicken out in those pastures. Which means, basically, you may not need to resow in the autumn, but if we have a particularly dry spring and summer, those bare patches may actually increase in size and you'll definitely need to do resowing in that autumn period.

Drew Radford:

Fiona, you've talked a little bit about spring there, but what are the key grazing management strategies to think about this spring, following the fires.

Fiona Baker:

It's the common grazing management methods that we use during normal years, regardless of whether there's been a fire or not. Ideally, we want to graze to what we call "leaf stage" as much as possible. So, particularly, our introduced species like ryegrass and cocksfoot and phalaris, they have leaf stages that they prefer to be grazed at to make sure that they stay in the system. Ryegrass prefers to be grazed at two and a half to three leaves. Cocksfoot and phalaris prefer to be grazed at about the four-leaf stage. And if we do this, we actually maximise the amount of leaf we grow, but also the amount of root that's being grown below the soil surface.

Fiona Baker:

This really sets that plant up to be in your system long-term. If we keep coming back and grazing those plants too quickly and too early, and they don't get out to that leaf stage, we actually damage the root system underneath. They can be prone to being pulled out quite easily, and they also struggle to access moisture deep down in the profile. So, we actually shorten their growing season. Most grass species will actually tiller out, which is making new little plants off to the side of the main parent plant, and this is how our pastures thicken up over time. So, we need light to be able to get down to the base of those plants, to trigger off the tillering process.

Fiona Baker:

But most plants also won't start tillering until they get near that leaf stage for grazing. Ryegrass generally tends not to think too hard about tillering out until it's about that two, two and a half leaf stage. Cocksfoot and phalaris, probably about the three leaf stage before they think about tillering out. Then we want to also make sure we don't graze down too hard. So have the appropriate residuals left behind.

Fiona Baker:

If we graze down below 1000 kilograms of dry matter per hectare, we can actually start to damage the plant itself because it's actually got energy reserves in that last little bit of stubble. As well as energy out of the roots, it uses energy out of that remnant stem, or the residual, to start powering out those first new leaves before they can use the sunlight to capture it. So, when you're thinking about 1000 kilograms of dry matter per hectare, that's just three centimetres in height. If you can leave three centimetres’ residuals behind, that will set the pastures up really well for good, strong, healthy regrowth.

Fiona Baker:

Some of the other things we might need to think about over spring, particularly if we have got some weeds growing in what were those bare patches, is thinking about controlling those weeds with a bit of herbicide. Some weeds can be spray grazed, and that's just where a light application of herbicide is applied. There's usually a withhold period to keep the stock off, which is usually around seven days, and then you can put the stock in to graze the pasture, including those weeds.

Fiona Baker:

I guess, one other one that just sprang to mind, then, is if they do have some annuals or they don't have a lot of stock in their system, they've got some bare open patches, is it might be the kind of year where you might want to let grasses go to seed and drop that seed into the pasture to help thicken it up as well. The majority of thickening up of pasture happens through that tillering process, but recruitment from seed does happen as well. So, it might be one of those years, post-fire, that people might consider doing that.

Drew Radford:

Fiona, you mentioned, there, "post-fire". If farmers are in a position to cut fodder after a fire, what do they need to think about?

Fiona Baker:

Yeah, it's a good one. So where a lot of people may not have bought the normal number of stock back, but if they've had half-decent rainfall which has generated good pasture growth, they might be finding that they've got surplus feed on hand that they want to cut as fodder. In particular, what you really want to think about if you have cut fodder or are going to cut fodder, is as soon as you cut that hay or silage off those paddocks, is to replace the nutrients. Because what we're doing when we take off hay or silage off a paddock, is we're pulling phosphorus, potassium and sulphur out of those paddocks. If we were going to feed the hay and silage straight back onto those paddocks to stock, they recycle those nutrients and replace most of them back, but more often than not we'll cut off one or two paddocks and then feed it out somewhere else.

Fiona Baker:

So we're actually moving those nutrients to another area. If we want those pastures to grow back really strong and healthy, we need to put back that phosphorus, potassium and sulphur. And there's usually about 3 kilos of phosphorus for every one ton of dry matter removed in hay and silage. When we're looking at potassium in hay, there's roughly 15 kilos for every one ton of dry matter removed. So that potassium, in particular, we're removing quite a lot out of the system. We can actually cause a deficiency quite quickly if we don't replace those nutrients. So, it's just something to really think about.

Fiona Baker:

If we want those pastures to recover... They've already been through a very stressful period in terms of being burnt. We just want to make sure that they're well set up, as much as possible, to take into use the rainfall that comes in this autumn period that's coming forwards. Get those pastures really up and firing and growing, ready to have animals brought back into the system.

Drew Radford:

Fiona, looking a little bit further ahead over the horizon. Do people have to wait until autumn to resow?

Fiona Baker:

No, not really. Some people will try spring sowing, particularly of ryegrass, cocksfoot, phalaris. That can be difficult if you think it's going to rain over that late spring and early summer period. You can generally get away with a bit of spring sowing, but what we usually recommend is wait until autumn to resow, because you're more guaranteed a rainfall event to allow germination to happen. If you do need feed going through that spring and summer period, there are other options, such as summer fodder crops like chicory and some of the brassicas. And they can actually be used over that late spring, summer and early autumn period to fill that feed gap. Then, in autumn, you can move into putting in your actual pasture itself, your perennial species. So, there's options to think about, and probably talking to a local seed agronomist is a very good idea. Just to identify which species are best suited for what you're trying to achieve with your animals, as well as what you're trying to achieve in your pasture rotation.

Fiona Baker:

If you've got a lot of bare ground at the moment through this spring period, it probably is advisable to put some sort of fodder crop in. Just so you've got a good ground cover over that summer period to minimize any soil erosion, and then go into your pastures in that autumn period. But if you've got good ground cover already, and you're thinking, "Maybe I don't need a huge flush of feed over summer," you can actually hold off until autumn to do your resowing.

Drew Radford:

Fiona Baker, Agriculture Victoria Livestock Extension Officer. Thank you for joining me in the AgVic Talk studio.

Fiona Baker:

Not a problem. Cheers.

Drew Radford:

For more fire recovery, pastures and feeding livestock information, producers can visit the Agriculture Victoria website.

Speaker 1:

Thank you for listening to AgVic Talk. For more episodes in this series, find us and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. We would love to hear your feedback, so please leave a comment or rating and share this series with your friends and family. All information is accurate at the time of release.

Speaker 1:

Contact Agriculture Victoria, or your consultant, before making any changes on farm.

Speaker 1:

This podcast was developed by Agriculture Victoria, authorised by the Victorian Government, Melbourne.

Episode 2: Managing a dairy farm in a variable climate with Kevin Fitzsimmons

Speaker 1:

Welcome to AgVic Talk, keeping you up to date with information from Agriculture Victoria.

Drew Radford:

Climate variability is an issue for all producers, but when you produce something daily like milk, it becomes a very big focus of your planning. Kevin Fitzsimmons is a dairy farmer for Merrigum in the Northern Irrigation region. His family has farmed there for three generations, but he says since the millennium drought, running profitably has never been more difficult. He joins me in the AgVic Talk studio to discuss how he manages climate variability.

Drew Radford:

Kevin, thanks for your time.

Kevin Fitzsimmons:

My pleasure, Drew. Thank you very much.

Drew Radford:

Kevin, you face challenges like never before. Once you were a farmer, now you're a water trader constantly focused on the market. On top of that, you've got a variable climate as well to deal with. Are you still passionate about what you do?

Kevin Fitzsimmons:

Yeah. Look, I am passionate about it. I actually really love what I do. We have not been on a holiday for three years, but I don't feel like I need to go on a holiday. I get up every morning at four o'clock, seven days a week because I love what I do. To me, I feel like I'm in paradise. And when I say that to people, they sort of look at me a bit strange, but maybe it's just because it's what I've always done. It's what I know. And I don't know any different, I guess. Although I had worked off farm years and years ago, but I really genuinely love what I do. I love my cows and I like to look after them as best I can.

Kevin Fitzsimmons:

It is hard when you've got to make those decisions. Well, we've never let the cows go without, so I've never had hungry cows. We've always gone and bought the feed or bought the water or done things to feed and look after them. So, yeah, it's just what I love to do.

Drew Radford:

Kevin, for those that don't work in the industry, they probably think that because you're on irrigated land, you wouldn't have to worry too much about climate variation. That though is a fair way from the reality though, isn't it?

Kevin Fitzsimmons:

Yeah, it is. Basically, we have our water allocation, but we really need double the amount of water that we need to farm profitably. So, we've got to go into the temporary market and buy that water. At a certain point, that water becomes too expensive to make a profit out of. So, we've then got to obviously, to buy grain or hay and those costs have been high as well but get a better return out of that than the price of water.

Kevin Fitzsimmons:

One mega litre will roughly grow you a ton of food and at 5-$600 a megalitre, it's too high when you can buy grain around 400 or hay at 350, a ton, dollars a ton, that represents a better value. It's still not economical, but to try and get through as best we can. That's how we've dealt with it and going forward, hopefully, water price will come down, but with the water market, water prices seem to be continually high and that's a concern going forward. So, unless we have a wet year, but the next year could be dry again. And then all of a sudden, it's back up again.

Drew Radford:

So you're constantly juggling, Kevin, then really in regards to how much water can you afford or have access to, to water your land. And look, for those that don't understand, you're not just watering pasture and keeping it green to graze cows on, you're actually growing pasture and stocking fodder away. Aren't you?

Kevin Fitzsimmons:

Yeah. We are, and we've actually changed the composition of what we grow. We don't grow as much pasture now because of the cost of water, cost of putting it on in the summertime when there's so much evaporation and productivity drops off, as far as growth rates go. It's just not economic to put it on. So, we're probably changing to more crops and growing more annuals which is shaftal and ryegrass, things like that, which we water in the autumn. So, we've got feed through winter and probably takes two, maybe three watering’s in the autumn. And then it might take another couple of watering’s in the spring time to finish off depending on whether we get spring rain.

Kevin Fitzsimmons:

So that could be a maximum of six watering’s on those annual pastures where, as summer pasture, it could be anything between 15 to 20 irrigations and you don't get that much more tonnage of feed. So things have changed because of the water situation of how we operate. And we adjust our numbers as to what we can feed and cost, obviously that drives either profit or reducing the loss that you're going to make that year.

Drew Radford:

So what other things are you doing, Kevin to try and constantly juggle, I guess the cost of water against what the climate is actually doing, because you're looking to the skies to try and bring you, I suppose, cheaper water for want of a better description. What other things are you implementing on your property to try and deal with variation of climate and access to water?

Kevin Fitzsimmons:

Well, what we've just done in the last four or five months, we've installed a pipe and riser system. So that eliminates well evaporation, seepage, so all our water is now piped around the farm. And that was put in place, obviously with the rationalisation of the irrigation system and the modernisation. We've got rid of open channels, Goulburn Murray Water have rationalized some channels on our farm, and they gain the water savings. So, there's a saving there and they we're able to incentivise us, I guess, to put in a pipe and riser system. We had to put in some cash ourselves but in the long run, obviously that's increased our efficiency. Haven't actually used it yet. The system will start operating again, 15th of August is when the system opens up again, the irrigation season.

Kevin Fitzsimmons:

But yeah, the results are...and I have actually used, we had a recycle system I need to move water from one into the others that we were going to run out of water at the dairy and that we're able to run water from one dam to another that had water in it. So, they had water at the dairy site which I could never, ever do before. So, it's worked really well that way. And obviously I can water paddocks more efficiently. I can get the water on quicker. I've got a higher flow rates and the water will come on instantaneously on those paddocks. Whereas before I'd probably have to wait three or four hours for the channel to fill up before I could get water onto those paddocks.

Kevin Fitzsimmons:

So that's where we're heading now. And the water savings on that, well, we haven't monitored that yet but on other sites that have had them in, the water savings there have been quite impressive. So, we're hopeful that that's going to make us more efficient, more profitable going forward. And obviously for the next generation and the generations after we can keep staying here.

Drew Radford:

I get the impression Kevin, that a lot of your work is actually about debt management and also borderline being a stock broker or water broker?

Kevin Fitzsimmons:

You're dead right. It's definitely been since the millennium drought about debt management. I suppose prior to 2000, things just ticked over from one year to the next and it was pretty easy, but it has been about managing that debt and trying to find... every year has been different, I guess, because our biggest inputs, obviously, our grain, hay and water. And we look at those each year and try to manage that and see what the season is going to do.

Kevin Fitzsimmons:

We obviously monitor what the Bureau are forecasting and if they're forecasting like they have in the past, El Nino’s, we know water prices are going to be dear so we try and lock in our hay early so that we've got that there, so we're not exposed to the water market. So, we're always looking probably six months in advance to seeing what we can plan, how we can get through it for that next six months. And that's how we're managing it. It is a juggling act and it has been for quite a few years. So, we'll just see how it all pans out now that we've modernised our operation here. And we're also leasing land, so it can grow, be more self-sufficient and grow more feed. And we do all our own hay. So, we're trying to be as self-sufficient as we can and not being exposed to those markets where prices can just crucify you really, I guess.

Drew Radford:

I understand also, you've changed your watering regime in terms of trying to get a different root growth happening with some of your pasture. What was your aim there and what did you do and what have you achieved?

Kevin Fitzsimmons:

I guess we always have topped in the past and that keeps the plant at a certain height. Last year, because we knew we were going to run out of water because we were putting the pipe and riser in, we didn't top. Basically, what happens on top of the ground, happens below the ground. But we made the decision that we're going to have a compromise and have a bit more growth on top and a higher residual that will keep the moisture high. You're not going to get the evaporation. So, it stretched out our watering. And also, the roots obviously are forced to go down to chase that moisture as well and that worked pretty well. Obviously, when we put the pipe and riser in, we weren't able to irrigate the whole farm went dry. And we bought a heap of food back last spring because we knew that was going to happen.

Kevin Fitzsimmons:

But in the past, that is what we've done. Yeah. We tried to keep that residual a lot higher than what is normal in normal happens. So yeah, it's a lot of experimenting I guess, and trying to work out as things change from season to season. And as I said, we look six months ahead and try and forecast and see what's going to happen for that season. And then we'll make our plan accordingly.

Drew Radford:

So Kevin, what other things have you done in terms of changing infrastructure around your property to try and deal with hot weather and variation or excessive wet?

Kevin Fitzsimmons:

In 2016, we had a very wet year, which we hadn't experienced for a while. And we sacrificed paddocks, and we just had hay rings in paddocks, and we wasted a lot of feed. I said, "I'm not doing that again." We had an area where we built a recycled dam and there was a bank of dirt there and it was built up, but it hadn't been gravelled or anything and probably a hectare in size. So we ended up graveling all of that, about 6 inches of gravel over it. And we put hay rings set up on that. The cows will come off the dairy and they'll go straight onto the pad and get feed off there. And it's just made things more efficient. And even when we have had a wet period they've gone on there. There's minimal damage to the paddocks, they're not getting plugged up. We can grow better quality feed on those paddocks that aren't out of production because they had been wrecked and ruining the soil structure.

Kevin Fitzsimmons:

So that's been a big saving there and we're obviously not wasting the feed either. As far as, we put shade cloth on the dairy. We used to have a lot of problems obviously here in the Goulburn Valley and in Australia in particular, I guess. We're exposed to the sun. We used to have a lot of cows that... When I say a lot, probably one or two every few years that would go down with, get severe sunburn. So yeah, we put that on there. The cows coming into dairy even on really hot days and it creates its own breeze under the shade cloth, the temperature is so much cooler. And the cows come in there and they're not panting or anything like that, they're calm.

Kevin Fitzsimmons:

So that's made a huge difference as well. We're always looking for what's best for the cow, how she can be as comfortable as she can. And also it's a workplace thing as well. So, there are things that we've implemented and quite happy with how that's worked out.

Drew Radford:

You've got a lot going on with your property in terms of juggling water and pasture and growth and running a dairy full time as well. What about calving, have you changed that around at all to try and spread the workload across the year?

Kevin Fitzsimmons:

Yes, we have actually. When my parents were running it, we were just a spring calving herd. When I took over probably 30 years ago now, we went to spring and autumn. And we have, probably the last 15 years ago, we actually went to three times a year calving. So every four months, we calve and a lot of that came about, I guess, through fertility of cows. Initially with spring calving, if you didn't get a cow in calf, she had to be a really good cow to milk through for another 12 months, otherwise we would lose our cow, just send her to the abattoirs. And to me that wasn't profitable. So that's why we went to autumn calving.

Kevin Fitzsimmons:

So it was a six month interval calving, obviously the same problem. The cow had to be good enough to carry through for another six months to get back in calf again for the next cycle. And the industry is addressing that fertility now through selecting for high fertility bulls and we've been on that program now for the last three years. And that has made a big difference as well to getting cows in calf. We have a short calving period of six weeks at each joining. Whereas in the past, in the spring time calving, we'd join for three months. So, you'd be calving for three months. So, it was a long drawn out affair.

Kevin Fitzsimmons:

So, by going to three times a year calving and having shorter calving intervals, it has evened the workload out because you're not going flat out at one particular point in time. So yeah, one calving will come along, we will rear those calves and they'll be out through the system before the next one comes along. We're not overburdened with a heap of calves at one particular time. It just evens a work load out for everybody.

Drew Radford:

Kevin, you mentioned, you're always looking to the future and trying to plan ahead. What sort of tools are you using to do that, apps and websites and information?

Kevin Fitzsimmons:

We do a lot with... Always looking at the forecast and whatever information we can get through Dairy Australia. They put out a lot of information. There is a lot of information out there if you want to go and look for it to plan ahead. It's very good information that you can make decisions around. And at the end of the day, every farm is different, I guess. And you take out the information that you want, that suits you and your operation, obviously we're a family farm. There are bigger operations out there as well, which would have different structures. We're trying to keep our operation as simple as we possibly can. And that suits us. It's intensive enough the way it is and enough pressure, the way it is with what's happening with climate change and the Murray–Darling basin and everything else. So, we just try to keep that as simple as we can without complicating it too much.

Drew Radford:

It sounds like you are really focused on setting the property up to continue on for the next generation and for your son to stay firmly at the helm.

Kevin Fitzsimmons:

Yeah, well, we are. My parents set it up for us and I'm eternally grateful for them. And I want to be able to do the same for my son and have a farm that is sustainable going forward. To me, it's a legacy. We're obviously trying to make a living out of it as well and survive and be profitable and have a good lifestyle. But we also are thinking of the next generation, as the generation before were thinking of us. So yeah, going forward, it is a priority for us that my son has got a future in the industry and obviously his family, if they decide to come back as well, have a future as well. That's our goal.

Drew Radford:

Well, Kevin Fitzsimmons, it sounds like you are well and truly on the path to achieving that goal. Thank you very much for your time today and joining me in the AgVic Talk studio.

Kevin Fitzsimmons:

My pleasure, Drew. Thank you very much.

Drew Radford:

For more Agriculture Victoria information on dealing with climate variability, you can subscribe to both, The Break and the Milking the Weather newsletters. Both of these you can find through the Agriculture Victoria website. Also, you can get in contact with your local dairy extension officer who can direct you to relevant information and advice to help you get started in understanding how your business can adapt to climate variability.

Speaker 1:

Thank you for listening to Ag Vic Talk. For more episodes in this series, find us and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. We would love to hear your feedback, so please leave a comment or rating and share this series with your friends and family.

Speaker 1:

All information is accurate at the time of release. Contact Agriculture Victoria or your consultant before making any changes on farm.

Speaker 1:

This podcast was developed by Agriculture Victoria authorised by the Victorian Government Melbourne.

Episode 1: Turn a dream to farm into reality with Sarah McLean

Speaker 1:

Welcome to Ag Vic Talk, keeping you up to date with information from Agriculture Victoria.

Drew Radford:

Trying to get into farming from scratch is not something that happens often these days, as the price of land and equipment is prohibitive to most 20-year-olds. This was exactly the situation faced by Sarah McLean, who grew up in a fifth-generation farming family. She knew the possibility of running the family farm was a long way off, so she left to become a neuropsychologist, a career that would let her start saving for her own property. Along the way, she has pursued every opportunity to help make her dream become a reality, and one of those was successfully applying for the Young Farmers Scholarship. I'm Drew Radford, and Sarah joins me in the Ag Vic Talk studio to discuss pursuing a dream that many would've shied away from.

Drew Radford:

Sarah, thanks for your time.

Sarah McClean:

Thank you, Drew.

Drew Radford:

Sarah, you and your husband, Byron, have done it the hard way to become farmers. There aren't too many people that start from scratch these days.

Sarah McClean:

Yeah, that's right, Drew. I was actually born into a farming family; however, having two siblings, basically I didn't want to wait until any sort of succession plan because I didn't want to farm when I was 60, I wanted to farm when I was young and could still enjoy it. My husband wasn't born into a farming family at all, he actually was born in Geelong, in the middle of town, though he was always interested in farming, so he worked on some local properties and things like that from a young age.

Drew Radford:

But you left the farm to become a psychologist, though, so did you give up that dream at some stage?

Sarah McClean:

I always had the dream, I guess I just didn't really know how to follow that dream and do it when I was young. Everyone said that it's not possible and it costs too much money to buy your land, and then you've got to buy your cattle and machinery, so you can't really set up. Most kids where I grew up, they all left the family farm to get a profession.

Sarah McClean:

I remember when I was really young, a doctor asked me what I wanted to do, just my local GP, and I said I wanted to farm. They said, "Well, how are you going to do that?" I was about 12 at the time, and I said, "Oh, I guess I'll get an education and try and save up a bit of money so I can buy some land." So it was always in the back of my mind, and I always did like psychology as well. I worked with horses, and I think that sort of got me thinking about, I guess, the mind, actions, behaviours and mental state. So, I went to Melbourne and I studied neuropsychology, which was eight years in Melbourne.

Drew Radford:

That’s quite a step away from farming, what was involved in terms of getting you back on the land?

Sarah McClean:

I guess it was always in the back of my mind. As soon as I qualified, I got a job in Warrnambool, that was the closest large centre to where my parents were, to try and get back on the land. Then I guess I was trying to figure out how I was going to buy my first parcel of land. Originally, I was thinking maybe just 20 acres or something so I could have my horses, and then, when I met Byron, he originally wanted to go back and work on a station up at the Kimberley somewhere. As we got talking about different models, he had had the same background as me and said that he always thought that he would never own his own place, because that's what you're told: unless you inherit it, you don't get it. Then we saved hard, we worked hard, and then we managed to buy our first block of 90 acres.

Drew Radford:

That's a long path just to get to your first 90 acres. You've grown it from there, though, haven't you?

Sarah McClean:

We're up to about 700 acres now. We bought 90 acres, and a lot of people said, "Oh, I wouldn't be bothered with 90 acres." We could run 25 cows all year round, and their calves, and sell the calves as weaners, but you still need all your machinery, you still need all your tools, so it's a bit of expense for not much profit, but doing that helped us establish relationships with the bank. Though I'd grown up on a farm, there was actually so much I didn't know about running a business. It's a bit different running it yourself than having mum and dad to lean on and give you guidance of what's happening.

Drew Radford:

So, in regard to the bank, Sarah, and also the knowledge of running the business, is that where applying for the Young Farmers Scholarship comes in for you, to help build that knowledge?

Sarah McClean:

Well, originally, I'd suggested that Byron apply for it. I'm not really sure why I did that, I think it was just the gender stereotype thing. He ran out of time, and I said, "Well, if you're not applying for it, I will." I applied to do a course run by RCS, it was Grazing and Farming for Profit, and it's a pretty broad course. It covers business, land management, and the people aspect of your business. So, I didn't really think I had a lot of chance, because I only had 90 acres, in getting that. I just really hadn't considered myself as a farmer at that stage, I thought it was too small, but it really set the scene in a lot of different interest areas that I have now.

Drew Radford:

Actually, access to the scholarship helped you access doing the course. How else has the scholarship been beneficial?

Sarah McClean:

It's been beneficial in a lot of ways because the course helped me get a real framework in terms of my business, and it also introduced me to land management techniques and looking at soil health rather than just putting stuff on the land because it's what we are told to do. Also, different grazing techniques to get the most out of your land. The other thing that I guess opened my mind up a little bit was the people side of business. We hear a lot about farmers and mental health and people struggling on the land, and there's a bit of a story that goes with farming that, yes, it's tough, yes, it's hard, and you just have to suffer. Where, the courses I did makes you step back and go, "Okay, you've also got to work on your relationship," that's with your family, with yourself, with the land, and I guess be happy farming. It's not a narrative that we often hear in the farming sort of world, is, "Oh, look, they're farming and they're happy," but ultimately we all must love doing it because you wouldn't do the long hours otherwise.

Sarah McClean:

The second part of the scholarship is a infrastructure-type grant. I originally had put in my application that I wanted to do some tree lines and plant trees, which I still am planning to do, but in the more short term, the more pressing issue was to get a new cattle crush. Before the course, I would have said that that was unnecessary because I had an old crush. The head bail didn't even work; it was quite dangerous. I remember at one stage I was quite heavily pregnant with my second child and I was trying to put a fencing post in behind a heifer that was calving when she was having trouble. I had my young daughter on the outside of the yard, just the other side of the crush. Anyway, the heifer kicked the fencing post, knocked me backwards, and briefly knocked me out, and I had a bit of a mark under my chin. From that it gave me a bit of a scare, and I realised probably the biggest risk to my business is me getting injured, and to make sure that I would actually be set up properly and in a more safer way would actually be important in my business, where before I'd said it was probably a bit of a luxury. So, I ended up getting a new cattle crush, which is amazing.

Drew Radford:

So, it's actually sent you down a path of farm safety as well?

Sarah McClean:

Yeah, that's right, and I didn't think about that aspect too much. Obviously, I'm always making sure that my kids are safe, and then, when I realized that, "Hey, if I'm knocked out in the cattle yards, I actually can't keep my kids safe," because my daughter was only 18 months old at the time and while I was alert I could actually watch her and she was quite happily just playing where she was, it was a bit of a wake-up call that the people in your business is probably the most important thing in your business, aside from grazing, and financial, and all the rest.

Drew Radford:

You've got a lot going on, Sarah. You're a mum, you're still practicing as a psychologist, you're trying to build up a farming enterprise. Was taking the scholarship on just a real opportunity, really, to start going down a different path?

Sarah McClean:

With the business that we've got and starting from scratch, you have to invest in yourself. Using the scholarship money, I did the RCS course because otherwise it's hard to justify, when you're trying to start a business, spending that sort of money. Now I see that that would've been the best money I could spend, even if it was my own money, but just getting that money out of your pocket in the first instant is difficult. I've also done a KLR Marketing School. I've recently just done a dog and stock handling school with Neil MacDonald. We're now studying Next Steps, which is like a mentoring program for your business. Some people would say, "Oh, it's just extra time. I don't have time for all that stuff," but if I didn't do that, then it would make my job so much harder and I probably wouldn't, even if I had the opportunities that have come forward...

Sarah McClean:

For example, the biggest part of my farm is actually lease land. There was a lady down the road that was looking to get out of farming, and she saw that I obviously tried to educate myself, I had the background in farming, and was actually doing it on my own. She gave us the opportunity, so credit to her because most farmers who are looking to lease their land would go for, say, an established farmer or a larger company where there's a bit more security. She took a bit of a chance on us because, number one, I guess we'd already shown that we were farming, and, number two, she did want to give the opportunity to a younger person. If you've got young people farming your community, that has flow-on effects for the local school, the kindergarten, the sporting teams, and all the rest, compared to just giving a lease to an already established, usually older farmer within the area.

Drew Radford:

Sarah, your commitment to farming seems to be very, very deep because you're also a member of the Young Farmer Advisory Council as well. What made you pursue that?

Sarah McClean:

I think, basically, because I'd been told that you can't start farming from scratch. I also have an interest in farmer mental health and in sustainable farming practices, and, I think, unless you're involved to some degree or you have some sort of platform to have that voice, that you can't really comment too much about what's going on in politics or what programs are offering or what there is available. Where, if you've actually got that platform to speak your mind, then you can really contribute and help other people and maybe make it a little bit easy for the next lot of farmers that come along as well.

Drew Radford:

Are you continuing on with the council? It sounds like you've got an enormous amount going on in your life as is.

Sarah McClean:

Yes, I'm continuing on in the next term. That's another three-year term. I'm going to be the chair of the next advisory council. I think it's nine members all up for this next term.

Drew Radford:

Congratulations with that and everything else that you've got going on ahead of you. Sarah, how far do you think you are from your dream and becoming a full-time farmer? Back to that question, I guess, that the doctor asked you when you were 12 years old.

Sarah McClean:

To be honest, the progress that we've made since buying that first block has surprised me, it's been a lot quicker, so I'm hoping it's not too long. Obviously, as I said, the biggest part of our business is lease land, so that's a risk to our business because you can lose a lease at any stage. I guess we just need to expand a little bit more to minimize that risk before we can look at doing full-time farming, but hopefully in the next five years.

Drew Radford:

Sarah, lastly, what would you say to somebody who's listening to this and contemplating applying for the scholarship?

Sarah McClean:

I would say don't contemplate, just do it. There's not much to lose in doing it. It takes maybe an hour or two of your time and it can really set you up to do what you love doing. It doesn't matter what level of farming business. Don't be put off if you think that your business is too small or it's just in the ideas phase. Even having it written down, even if you don't get the scholarship, putting your dream down on paper can be of a benefit anyway too.

Drew Radford:

Sarah McLean, you're doing an amazing job of pursuing your dream of being back on the land in between running a farm, being a mum, a neuropsychologist and also Young Farmers Scholarship recipient. Thank you so much for joining me in the Ag Vic Talk studio.

Sarah McClean:

Thank you very much, Drew.

Drew Radford:

For more information about the Upskill and Invest Young Farmers Scholarship and other Young Farmer resources visit vic.gov.au/youngfarmers or search Young Farmer Business Network on Facebook.

Speaker 1:

Thank you for listening to Ag Vic Talk.  For more episodes in this series, find us and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. We would love to hear your feedback, so please leave a comment or rating and share this series with your friends and family.

Speaker 1:

All information is accurate at the time of release. Contact Agriculture Victoria or your consultant before making any changes on farm.

Speaker 1:

This podcast was developed by Agriculture Victoria, authorised by the Victorian Government-

Introduction with Dougal Purcell

Hello and welcome, I'm Dougal Purcell from Agriculture Victoria. We are really excited to bring you Ag Vic Talk.

In a first for Agriculture Victoria, we bring you this AgVic Talk podcast series. Follow along as we bring you stories, information and advice from around our great state of Victoria. In our first series we will be covering contemporary problems and solutions for bushfire recovery, drought and dry seasonal conditions, weather and climate as well as hearing some fantastic inspiring stories from our young farmers.

For episodes in this series, find us and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. We would love to hear your feedback, so please leave a comment or rating and share this series with your friends and family.

Page last updated: 21 Sep 2021