Not just a dairy farmer

Don’t tell David Conheady that you’re “just a dairyfarmer”. The Noorat, Vic, dairyfarmer has survived tough times in the past few years but the last thing he wants to hear is anyone denigrating the industry he loves.

“The old adage used to be ‘you’re just a dairyfarmer’ but nowadays to run even a 200-cow farm is a multimillion dollar business,” he said.

“You have to be good at what you do.

A staunch supporter of the Legendairy communication initiative to raise the profile and reputation of the industry, Mr Conheady has no hesitation in talking up dairying.

“People who run dairy farms are legends,” he said.

“To run a farm you have to be an accountant, an employer, an employee, have OH&S (occupational health and safety) skills, have science for the pastures and know all facets of business.

“It’s a very profitable business and the people who do it are very good operators. People need to know that.”

Mr Conheady also recognises the importance of dairying to the economy.

“Local communities don’t survive if there’s no money in agriculture,” he said.

“We’re the premier dairy region in Australia and to stay that way we need to talk about the good things, not the negative things.”

This type of attitude mixed with strong business acumen helped Mr Conheady and his wife, Rebecca, win the 2014 Great South West Dairy Award for Best Farm Business Manager and Best Young Farmer.

It’s the first time a farmer has won two awards in the same year.

David farms with his parents, John and Anne Maree, at Noorat and has come through the toughest times they have experienced in the industry.

They milk about 350 mainly Holsteins off 174 hectares and have another 120 hectares of out-paddocks.

In recent years they bought two adjoining properties.

“We’ve doubled our land size, doubled our cow numbers and tripled our debt,” David said.

The purchases were just before the global financial crisis.

“It looked like it was going to boom,” he said.

“We paid record money for land in the Noorat area and then the GFC hit and the price dropped by 30%. It got pretty nasty.

“If I couldn’t work off-farm we wouldn’t have still been farming.

“Last year nearly killed us financially and emotionally.”

David, who has a Bachelor of Science from the University of Melbourne, also works as a ruminant nutritionist with Ridley Corporation.

However, he says that dairyfarming is a long-term industry and shouldn’t be judged on one tough year.

“You have to be long term and have support in hard times and advice to manage through the good times,” he said.

“What we need is consistency.”

David is proud to have looked adversity in the face and come out a stronger farmer and family man.

“The proudest achievement for me is being able to farm with my family and get through last year,” he said.

“It’s not often you can work in an industry with your parents and ride through the good times and the bad.

“Last year was tough but we stuck together, dug in and got through it.”

David’s ability to steer the farm through tough times impressed the judges for the farm business management award.

“The key driver for us is repaying debt so profitability is a big issue; having pasture utilisation and accurate levels of supplementation,” he said.

Although originally a reluctant nominee, David says the award helps to put a positive spin on dairying.

“I don’t farm for awards; I do it because I believe in the industry,” he said.

“If we can get people motivated again, stop talking doom and gloom and start talking about profitability and getting our local communities going again, that’s a great result.”

While David and others would like more consistency in the industry, he is appreciating the good season.

“A good price always helps but a good season is even better,” he said.

“We’ve had a wonderful time since July last year.

“When people can’t pay debt local communities die.

“When you go through local towns in the last 12-18 months a lot of businesses were shut as a repercussion of the agricultural sector going badly.”

He said risk management strategies were important for all farmers.

“If you’re able to increase your pasture harvest you can better manage those seasonal curves that work against you,” he said.

“You have to spend your money on growing grass and utilising it.

“Everything comes back to profit margin and being able to grow a lot of grass.”

David is on the Fonterra Supply Forum and pushed hard for equalisation pricing mechanisms with flatter prices to take the emphasis off out-of-season milk production.

The 36-year-old said his award as the best young farmer in the region reflected a problem for the industry.

“That says volumes about where the industry is at,” he said.

“If 36 is considered a young farmer we’re in trouble. I think we’ve missed a generation.

“The last 10 years we haven’t had enough young people get involved in the industry.

“Unless you have a family-owned farm there is no way to get involved.

“Some of the schemes being put together by milk companies will help as a stepping stone.

“We need more milk and the only way to get more milk is to get young people involved and motivated.”

Despite the troughs, David said dairying “is in my blood”.

As the father of a young daughter, he would love to see his family follow in his footsteps.

“It’s who I am and what I believe in,” he said.

“You’ve got to get out of bed early, be prepared to carry debt and be prepared to work hard.

“If there’s enough money in the job and the challenge is there for young people they will come back.

“We have to make it accessible.

“We can change the perception that you don’t just milk seven days a week.

“It’s an exciting industry to be in.”

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