A support group's input has helped a farm business weather the vagaries of the dairy industry.
There’s no shortage of hills and valleys on Dan and Cindy Knee’s dairy farm — and there’s been plenty of ups and downs during their two years as Focus Farmers.
The Toora North couple has just completed its time under the Focus Farm microscope and has been riding a roller coaster of events for the entire two years.
Focus Farms are funded by GippsDairy and Dairy Australia using dairy service levy funds and provide an experienced farm consultant as a facilitator as well as a support group made up of fellow farmers and local service providers.
A bumper first year was followed by the poor spring of 2015 and the subsequent milk price fall. Add in the birth of their daughter Lexi and another baby on the way and it’s been a big 24 months for the Knees.
The couple took over the lease of the property from Dan’s parents, Bruce and Rae, at the start of the Focus Farm period.
Since then, the Knees have purchased an additional 43 ha to create an effective milking area of 187 ha on which they currently milk 420 cows.
Focus farm facilitator Matt Hall said the Focus Farm period had provided an invaluable insight into a farming operation in good and bad times.
“Their first year was a reasonable to good milk price and a good season to go with it, and they made a significant cash surplus — everything went right,” he said.
“The next year the milk price opened at $5.60, which was a very workable price, which would have meant a cash surplus of around $130 000, but then we got one of the most difficult springs that I have ever seen, which brought a number of challenges around trying to get enough silage and planting additional crops, some of which failed because of the dry conditions.
“In the end it resulted in a negative cash flow of around $50 000.”
While the tough season and reduced milk price has tested many farmers, Mr Hall said the Knees should be commended for keeping one eye on their long-term goal of owning the farm in 10 years, while being able to adjust their farm business plan to suit current conditions.
“The key insight that I have had from this Focus Farm is that you can plan all you like, but things out of your control can ultimately determine the outcome,” he said.
“Dan and Cindy employed a lot of tactics that they had to, but I still don’t think they ever forgot the big picture.
“Tactics are for the short term and they can sometimes lead you a little bit away from your long-term goal, but they have not forgotten their main goal which is to buy the farm in 10 years, which is still very possible.”
Speaking at their final Focus Farm field day, the Knees said despite the challenges that had confronted them, they felt more confident in running their business than they did two years ago.
“We’re a bit more confident in what we are doing,” Mrs Knee said.
“It’s certainly helped me, because I started fresh two years ago and I’ve learnt a lot about finances in that time.”
For Mr Knee, developing his farm skills has gone hand in hand with improving his business acumen. He said the Focus Farm experience had helped him make better and more confident decisions.
“We are definitely better business people,”
“There’s been a few things that people have suggested, like chicory and other crops, that we have tried that have worked really well.
“Even having the support group supporting our ideas has been really helpful.”
GippsDairy extension co-ordinator Tony Platt said the Knee Focus Farm had offered an insight into a young farming couple and how they dealt with two very different years.
“For all those following this Focus Farm — and we had very strong turnouts at all the field days — this has been a fascinating look at what it takes to build a dairy business and how to deal with the obstacles that are often in the way,” he said. “GippsDairy would like to thank Dan and Cindy for opening up their farm business, and the support group for sharing their knowledge, experience and time during a busy couple of years.’’
The remaining Focus Farm field days will be held at Bruce Manintveld and Fiona Baker’s farm at Mirboo North on Thursday, August 11; and at Tim and Grit Cashin’s farm at Leongatha South on Friday, August 19.
The final Focus Farm field days will include information from the Tactics for Tight Times program, with an emphasis on winter and spring management strategies, as well as financial planning for 2016-17.