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Devotion pays dairy farming dividend

While some people see sharefarming as a stepping stone to farm ownership, Stuart and Karen Burr are happy with their lot as livestock owners.

The Burrs are in a 50:50 sharefarming partnership with the Cox family on a 250-hectare farm in Ringarooma in north-east Tasmania.

They started five years ago with the purchase of 330 cows and have progressed to owning 400 head.

With a nearby farm coming on the market, that number could more than double in the near future but if the steady-as-it-grows policy continues, that will also be fine for the Burrs.

“We don’t want to own land. We’re quite happy owning stock and just progressing by growing stock numbers,” Stuart said.

The long-term farmer sees opportunities for growth and less financial stress from concentrating on stock.

“There is much better equity growth in stock numbers than there is in land. At our stage we don’t want the big outlay of buying land and having that much debt. Having infrastructure can be good but there is a bit more risk involved.”

Stuart said the family wanted to avoid being trapped later in life by having land that might be difficult to sell.

After leaving school he started in the dairy industry as an apprentice, working on the farm for 10 years before spending four years in other jobs. He was lured back to dairy when he was offered a management role at a 600-cow dairy farm.

“I was doing shift work and didn’t really like that and the opportunity came up to manage the farm so we went back to dairy,” he said.

About five years ago the Burrs decided to take the next step and invest in the cows. It’s a decision they don’t regret. “We’re pretty happy with the way things have gone since we’ve been here,” Stuart said.

In fact, with the prospect of expansion on the horizon, he is optimistic about the future of the dairy industry.

“I think the outlook for the next 10 years is better than it has ever been as far as profitability goes.

“There will be a downturn in price sometime over the next few years, but long-term it’s looking pretty good. When prices are up we are able to pay off more debt and keep that under control so when the prices are not so good, we can manage.”

The Fonterra suppliers produce between 450 and 530 kilograms of milk solids per cow each year and are enjoying a strong season with improved prices.

“I’m proud just to do a good job and be doing well financially out of it. You can be as proud as you like but if you can’t pay the bills it doesn’t matter,” Stuart said.

They have mostly Friesians with about one-third Friesian-Jersey cross.

“From a sharefarmer’s perspective, Friesians have more equity,” he said. “They are a bigger cow and their calves are worth more. It’s all economics; 400 Friesian cows are worth a lot more than 400 Jersey cows.”

The Burrs aspire to produce about 85 per cent homegrown feed but that depends on conditions and milk price.

When the milk price is high they aim to boost production by supplying above average amounts of feed.

“If the milk price is better than what we’re paying for grain we’re happy to put more in to boost production. It’s a yearly strategy that depends on conditions at the time,” Stuart said.

The partnership has worked well for both parties over five years and is set to continue.

“The critical thing is to have a really good farm owner who is happy to support you in what you want to do and support growth on the farm. It’s important that the sharefarmer is able to grow,” Stuart said.

The current set-up gives the Burrs the flexibility they need for family life.

In fact, Stuart says the image of dairy farmers being stuck on the land is outdated.

“If you want a day off you can organise it when you want it. Being your own boss gives you that flexibility.

“There are busy times of the year and work that has to be done but generally you can arrange a day off when you want it. People working nine-to-five jobs don’t have that opportunity,” he said.

“I think the flexibility in the dairy industry is the best it has ever been. It used to be if someone went dairy farming they would milk every day and every night. People’s perspective of it has changed a lot in the last five to 10 years. Cow numbers have grown and with bigger herds you have more employees and more flexibility.”

That’s where he sees a role for the Legendairy communication initiative to build the profile and reputation of the industry.

“Anything that lifts the profile of dairying is good for the industry. Australians seem to think of dairy farmers as poor old souls but that is not the case and we need a good profile to attract more people so we can produce more.”

Stuart, 40, and his wife Karen have two boys, Hayden and William, aged 11 and 13, and work as a family team.

“The boys enjoy helping out on the farm, which is nice,” he added.

The family lives about 12 kilometres from the farm on a separate 20-hectare block.

“That has its advantages. If you live on the farm you’ll think of something to do. But, if you have a home to go to elsewhere, you can leave work behind – it has to wait until tomorrow.”