Business thriving for farming couple

Zoe Askew

MAFFRA dairy farmers Brad and Jenna White have profited greatly from Phase 1 of Southern Rural Water’s Macalister Irrigation District 2030 (MID2030) modernisation program, showcasing what many more farmers can anticipate upon completion of the Newry pipeline.

Brad White grew up in Gippsland, born into a generation-long farming family, dairy on one side and wine on the other. He studied agriculture at Melbourne University, spending six years in Melbourne and Dookie before returning to Maffra, where he would meet Jenna.

Jenna grew up in Canberra; farming, too, runs through her veins. Her father was raised in Sale, hailing from a farming background. Jenna studied paramedics and nursing, obtaining a position with Rural Ambulance Victoria after graduating from university.

“I then met Brad, moved to Sale and became a farmer,” Jenna said.

“I still work as a paramedic and have done so for nearly 15 years.”

Brad and Jenna manage four properties, milking a 480-head seasonal-calving, self-replacing, Friesian-cross dairy herd and have invested significantly to improve water efficiency and increase production.

The Whites were encouraged by Southern Rural Water’s $159.7 million MID2030 modernisation program to implement on-farm improvements that enabled them to add 40 cows to their herd and buy an extra farm.

“We wanted to expand and would have struggled to do so without the improved security around irrigation flows delivered by the MID2030 Stage 1B project,” Brad said.

Jenna said the increase in land and cow numbers, irrigation was becoming a burden on time and energy.

“Brad had to do all the irrigating himself, but it is a much simpler task now, with better water efficiency,” she said.

“The upgrades have allowed us to better drought-proof the farm.

“Agriculture is cyclical. It might be raining now, but we could be in a drought next year, and the changes we’ve made will be worth it when times change.”

The Macalister Irrigation District is the largest irrigation district in southern Victoria, with secure water supplies augmented by good rainfall, productive soils, a strong dairy sector and developing vegetable and cropping industries, estimated at an economic contribution of more than $500 million per year.

Southern Rural Water identified that more investment was required to allow farmers to implement best-practice water use, invest in on-farm efficiency, and boost agricultural output while becoming more climate resilient.

The MID2030 modernisation program was divided into phases; Phase 1A was completed in 2017, and Phase 1B in 2020.

In 2020, as part of Stage 1B, Southern Rural Water removed old Detheridge wheels, installed a new pipeline and upgraded and automated existing channels across the Riverslea section.

“These works gave us confidence to invest in pipeline works on our farm, install and automate the associated pumps, build a holding dam, install a pipe and riser system, and install centre pivots,” Brad said.

“Irrigating is now a less time-consuming and much simpler task, and we’ve been able to achieve much better water efficiency.

“Water is the lifeblood of this region, and its importance as a resource cannot be underestimated,” he said.

“We constantly need to be doing more with less, so wasting water through ageing infrastructure is not smart. The area will benefit hugely from the extra water available through modernisation and the incentives it gives progressive businesses like us to invest in on-farm efficiencies.”

Dairy Farm Monitor is a joint Agriculture Victoria and Dairy Australia initiative that collects financial and physical data from dairy farms in Gippsland, South-West and Northern Victoria.

Despite results from the 2021-22 Dairy Farm Monitor Project revealing farmers believed succession planning, input costs, milk prices and climate change are major challenges affecting the sector, the Whites are optimistic about the future.

“I don’t think agriculture has ever been without these things, it’s just part of the game,” Brad said.

“The biggest change for the industry is that farmers are not just farmers anymore; they are business managers who need to be skilled in HR, finance, technology, as well as all the basics needed to manage the farm.

“These skills and an in-depth understanding of how your business operates make managing the volatilities of the industry far easier, allowing more optimism for the future.”

Jenna said for them, there had never been a better time to be in dairy farming.

“We’ve spent a lot of time and effort building up and training a great team and investing in systems and technology that helps us keep costs under control,” Jenna said.

Brad said he had yet to experience a better time than now in his farming career.

“I understand the reasons people are leaving, but for us, it is a good place to be,” he said.

“The business is in a position now where we can have a comfortable lifestyle with plenty of family time. Managing our team well and keeping costs under control are our priorities now. These two things allow freedom within our business, allowing us time to get away from the farm and being financially secure.

“We love the land; we love the space and freedom it provides us and our family,” Brad exclaimed.

“Dairy farming specifically is what I know and grew up with; there are difficult aspects to it, but it provides a steady and secure income which makes planning and budgeting easier.”

According to the 2021-22 Victorian DFMP report, participants received the fourth-highest financial returns recorded in the project’s 16 years.

Agriculture Victoria Farm Business Economist, Natalie Nelson, said the average profit in 2021–22 from the 80 participant farm businesses was 45 per cent above the long-term average.

“This strong performance was influenced by a nine per cent increase in average milk price to $7.37 per kilogram of milk solids,” she said.

“However, the increased milk price coincided with higher input costs and supply constraints, including labour, feed and fertiliser, which impacted the overall 2021-22 farm business margins.

“For dairy farms in the irrigation areas of the Goulburn Murray and Macalister Irrigation District, favourable seasonal conditions and lower irrigation costs assisted in strong performances,” Ms Nelson said.

Jaydo Construction Pty Ltd, Southern Rural Water’s construction partner, has begun work on the Newry pipeline component of the MID Phase 2 Project in Gippsland.

The MID Phase 2 project is replacing 100-year-old channels with new pipelines and automated outlets and will deliver about 4300 megalitres in water savings and increase delivery efficiency to more than 90 per cent.

The project includes the installation of the Newry pipeline, including associated outlet upgrades, reconnection works and decommissioning for Newry customers.

Transitioning to a reliable piped supply means water is not lost from leakage or evaporation and increases environmental outcomes with a reduction in farm runoff into waterways.

This will drive vital investment in on-farm efficiencies, improve farm productivity and support local businesses to be more climate resilient.

Southern Rural Water managing director, Cameron FitzGerald, was excited to start construction on the Newry Pipeline Project.

“This major infrastructure upgrade is a win for Gippsland and will markedly increase both water delivery efficiency and customer service levels,” Mr FitzGerald said.

Jenna said anyone anticipating modernisation should be “very excited”.

“If you’re willing to make changes on your property, the gains to be made from it are huge,” she said.

Gippsland Farmer

The Gippsland Farmer is a monthly agricultural newspaper reporting on rural news and distributed FREE and direct to an area covering from Cann River through to South Gippsland. For more than 40 years Gippsland Farmer has reported on a range of issues and industries including dairy, beef, vegetables, sheep, goats, poultry, organic farming, and viticulture.