Raising More Than Cows on Dickson Farm
by Madeline Schultz, firstname.lastname@example.org
Bryan and Jo Dickson are raising four daughters on their dairy farm in southwest Victoria, Australia. The four teenagers, Rachel, Jacque, Anna, and Leah, have fun on their family farm. “The cows love people and we love the cows. They are a part of you when you grow up with them,” shared Rachel.
Emu Banks farm has long been a family business. Bryan and Jo worked on the farm 20 years and bought nearby land before purchasing the farm from the elder Dicksons in 2018. The couple’s sweat equity earned them ownership of the cows. Bryan’s parents invested in this farm in 2002 for the next generation. Now Bryan and Jo are growing the business for yet another generation. Bryan’s brother, Chris, is also involved in the family business.
Perhaps the Dickson’s greatest strategic business decision was the early adoption of genomics to increase the value of breeding stock and productivity of the herd. Working with the University of Melbourne, the Dicksons began testing bulls in 2006 and soon followed with heifers. Since 2015, every heifer on the farm is tested. “This drains the cash flow, but the cows are more consistent and it eliminates the non-workers,” stated Bryan. The family used to sell breeding stock to Asian countries based on a four-way pedigree. Now, they export 250 high quality heifers each year based on genomic value.
Bryan and Jo’s dairy herd consists of Holstein, Illawarra, Brown Swiss, and Jersey dairy breeds. Illawarra are a unique Australian breed developed from Milking Shorthorn, Devon and Ayrshire genetics. The family spends about three hours twice a day milking 650 to 700 cows with a 60-cow rotary parlor system.
The Dicksons run 950 dry and milking cows and 600 heifers on 647 hectares (1600 acres) of rye grass pastures. They also raise 20 hectares (49 acres) of corn silage. This gives them a stocking rate of roughly 1 cow per hectare. In good years, farmers in the area can stock 1.7 cows per hectare. “That’s too much of a risk in the bad years,” explained Bryan. He also minimizes risk by carrying over 4,000 tons of pasture silage and enough hay for one year of drought. The farm does not have suitable underground aquifers or rivers, so irrigation is not an option.
Bryan hedges grain prices on the Chicago or Kansas City exchanges, even though the basis goes crazy. He was able to buy wheat last year at one-third under the price some farmers in the region paid. Managing feed cost is critical for the farm’s success.
In challenging times, Bryan and Jo are grateful for the support of the people around them in the dairy industry. One activity they have benefited from is a farm management discussion group. Everything is confidential within the group and this close network has helped them gain efficiencies.
Fire in Australia is one risk that is difficult to manage. High temperatures and high winds led to the 2018 St. Patrick’s Day Fire that ravaged 40,000 hectares across Victoria’s southwest. The fire stopped short of reaching the main farm buildings and cows; however, it did burn down the family’s blue gum (eucalyptus tree) plantation. It also burned the farm’s peat ground, lowering more than 100 hectares (40 acres) of peat by two feet and rendering the ground useless. With the help of insurance proceeds, the family is currently replacing and expanding a heifer shed destroyed by the fire.
Jo and neighboring farmer, Donna Edge, lead a Holstein Australia – Western Victoria committee on youth. For the past five years, they teamed up to offer a camp for young dairy enthusiasts from 8 to 16 years old. The youth can bring their own calf to camp if they would like to. Everyone learns dairy cattle grooming, showing and judging skills. The kids compete in three days of team events. For Jo, leading the camp is a high priority. It takes a lot of time to organize the volunteers, kids, and financial contributors. Watching the kids building their confidence and creating connections in the dairy industry makes it all worthwhile. “By the third day, the camp brings the kids together so much you can’t get them apart,” shared Jo.
The Dickson daughters enjoy going to the International Dairy Week (IDW) in Tatura, Victoria. The local camp experience comes in handy when the girls compete in the International Youth Dairy Challenge. “Town folks come to IDW to learn about cows, too, and they really like learning about them,” said Rachel. “We’ve grown up with animals our whole life and it sets you apart. I wouldn’t have it any other way,” she added.
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