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From the Navy to the dairy

After a combined 14 years in the Royal Australian Navy, Tim and Clare Boone were keen to get their feet back on solid ground and a dairy business seemed like a good option.

Five years ago the Boones bought their 80-hectare farm at Killabakh, north of Wingham in New South Wales. Tim’s parents bought a small lot next door and the Boone family leases a further 20 hectares.

However, they soon found out that bringing life back to a disused dairy was not an easy task.

“No-one had lived here for 25 years,” Tim said. “The owners just came up once or twice a year to look at the mountains. The house was pretty tired, there was no fencing, pasture was non-existent and the dairy was eaten by white ants.”

Recently married, Tim had just left the Navy and Clare had a year of her contract to complete. They lived in Sydney for 12 months, travelling on weekends and in extended blocks to get the farm into shape.

“It was an old walk-through dairy and it took us a year to get it operational. We didn’t even have a roof on the dairy at the start,” he admitted.

Tim had lived on his parents’ dairy farm at Campbelltown during his last two years at school and had helped out since returning from the Navy.

“After being in the Navy for a while I was keen to run my own show and not have to follow orders. A farm is a good place to start a family and raise kids.”

But Tim admits he and Clare were relative novices when it came to dairying.

“When we first started I knew how to milk cows and that was it. In terms of running a profitable business I didn’t really know what I was doing. I’ve been slowly learning bits and pieces from a lot of different people over the past few years and putting it all together into something that works for us.”

Tim was influenced by an article advising new farmers not to try to change everything immediately but to ask nearby farmers about what works in the area and then gradually introduce ideas.

“We tried to go to as many events as we could and got to know local farmers and ask them questions about different things that were appropriate at different times of the season, particularly in relation to pastures and soils.

“My dad is a dairy farmer and gave us quite a few tips. We couldn’t do it if we didn’t have a lot of support from family and other dairy farmers.

“One of the good things about this industry is that dairy farmers aren’t competing against one another and everyone is keen on the industry being strong so they help out.

“In the last year I’ve started to realise more about where I need to spend money to make money.”

The farm now has a 16-a-side herringbone milking system built from second-hand material sourced from old dairies that were no longer operational.

“Renovating wasn’t the easy way but it was the cheaper way,” Tim said. “Now we talk about whether we should have taken on more debt and got it running faster and have the cash flow running, but when the milk price was bad a couple of years ago I was really glad we didn’t have high levels of debt.”

The farm had no fencing or pasture work done when the first cows arrived.

“It was pretty much milk the cows and then quickly try to build a fence for a paddock that night. It was full-on and a big learning process,” Tim said.

The farm was mostly carpet grass and has been progressively updated with kikuyu and ryegrass.

As pasture improves, herd numbers have built from 50 to the current 120.

“Trying to match the number of cows with how much tucker we’ve got has been a key for us. We’ve still got a fair bit of country that isn’t really with pasture so we just run the heifers on that.”

The Boones keep all their heifers and aim to build numbers to around 150, which would allow them more flexibility.
“I don’t aim to be a mega dairy for lifestyle reasons and that’s why we think 150 cows would suit. Efficiency is the thing we chase, not cattle numbers.

“With a little more money coming in, we could also afford to put someone on for a couple of days a week and we could get away a bit more. It is a constant job, but it allows me to structure my day around family, which would be impossible if I was doing a 9-to-5 job.”

The farm milks mostly Jerseys and supplies Murray Goulburn.

“We like the co-op mentality so we weren’t keen to go to the multinationals,” Tim said. “It made a big difference for us when Murray Goulburn came to our area. It was the first time since we’ve been dairying that companies were actually trying to get you on board and chase milk.”

The Boones take pride in regenerating the old farm.

“A lot of people around here say it’s really nice to see it up and running.”

Tim is positive about the industry and supports the Legendairy communications initiative, which is raising the profile and reputation of dairying.

“It’s a really positive sentiment and it’s critical for the community to know that if they want a strong agricultural sector in Australia that milk doesn’t just turn up at the shop.”