Defined roles work in sharefarming partnership

By Jeanette Severs

RON AND Julia Hibma bought their dairy farm at Dennison, Victoria; and for the past six years have had a very successful relationship with their sharefarmers, Max and Tameeka Vera.

The sharefarming partnership is divided 50:50 for farm inputs and milk cheque. The sharefarmers benefit alone from livestock sales, but they also provide the labour and machinery.

The irrigation farm, which milks a self-replacing herd of predominantly Holstein-Friesian cows off an effective 105ha, is focused on growing grass and buying in fodder. A 25 ha outblock is used to raise heifers.

They have 150 autumn calvers and 250 spring calvers. The semen of Holstein A2 registered bulls is used with AI, followed by mopping up beef bulls — three weeks in autumn and six weeks in spring.

“We only keep the AI heifers,” Mr Hibma said.

He has a matrix for keeping cows in the herd.

“They need to have good fertility, be easy calving and of moderate stature,” Mr Hibma said.

“We use A2 bulls so we’re prepared if our region becomes an area where processors are looking for that type of milk.”

The herd averages 524 kg MS per cow annually.

The farm has a 367 Ml irrigation licence, with water from Lake Glenmaggie and a bore.

Last spring, they pushed irrigation hard to grow grass and harvest silage, in the hope there would be a spill of Lake Glenmaggie. Unfortunately, it did not happen.

Irrigators on the system fed by Lake Glenmaggie rely on a spill over the weir before Christmas, which can automatically re-set their irrigation entitlement for the remainder of the season. In the drought that has had parts of Gippsland in its grip for three years now, a spill was a hoped-for occurrence last year. It didn’t happen.

“We went hard on our wheel water hoping there’d be a spill,” Mr Hibma said.

“Being a dry year, we used 250 Ml before December 15, which was about two-thirds of our allocation.

“It was a calculated gamble and we pushed the system hard but we were able to cut silage between mid-September to mid-November.”

Last year they invested in moisture probes in paddocks, which helped identify when irrigation should be applied, so it was effective. Investments are part of the business regimen.

Adopting a business regimen to operating the farm, Mr and Mrs Hibma and Mr and Mrs Vera are accountable to an advisory board.

“I’d recommend it,” Mr Hibma said.

“Julia was doing this role but since we brought in independent expertise, it’s created a smoother relationship for us. And we all have clearly defined roles in the business.

“Any investments or projects we’re interested in, we run through that board. We have to validate the investment initially and report on it quarterly.”

Investments have included extending the centre pivot and underground irrigation infrastructure, as well as purchasing a second farm.

In 2014, an investment of $40 000 saw the dairy business partner with Southern Rural Water as part of a modernisation project, to replace Dethridge wheels and reduce evaporation and seepage from channels.

Earthworks included installing underground irrigation piping, rationalising paddocks and reducing laneways to one central access way with all paddocks leading onto it.

“We still have about 20 ha to flood irrigation, but 56 ha — about half the farm — is under the centre pivot and we also use bi-shift laterals,” Mr Hibma said.

A further $200 000 was spent installing a concrete feed pad with feed troughs.

Mr Hibma said while it was a significant investment at the time, it has paid off in reducing feed waste and improving cow health, paddock growth and worker efficiency. All the silage and hay is stored near the feed pad.

“The main saving is a 20 per cent reduced feed wastage; and reduced paddock damage,” Mr Hibma said.

“We’ve really been able to measure that in the past couple of weeks, while we wait for the mixer wagon to be repaired. We’ve been using portable hay feeders in the paddock and we can see the damage that’s happening daily to the pasture.

“And while everything gets eaten in the troughs on the feed pad, in the paddock the cows are a lot pickier about what they’re eating.

“Our hay is $430/tonne landed and the feed pad is saving us money, we’re losing with spoilage in the paddock.”

They have also noticed an improvement in animal health.

“The laneways stop the cows from becoming lame, as does the feed pad,” Mr Hibma said.

“We’re also getting quicker movement up the laneways by the cows.

“And after a rain event, because they’re getting silage on the feed pad when they come up to milk, it’s not spoiled like it would be in the paddock. And the machines are not on the paddocks, so they can’t contribute damage to the soil and pasture either.”

It is a focus on the numbers that has helped them get through the drought so far. Mr Hibma is happy to hear the recent forecast prices for milk at the farm gate.

“The opening price indicators are strong. I think it’s potentially $6.80 to $7.

“It’s a lot easier to justify keeping stock at those prices; it’s the same with the grain price coming down closer to $400/tonne,” he said.