Teaching the next generation
It’s been over two years since Kimberly Jones replied to an ad for a part-time dairy farm worker job on Ian and MaryAnn Hortle’s farm in Moriarty, 15 minutes east of her home in Devonport, Tasmania.
Then aged 19, the granddaughter of dairy farmers had limited knowledge of dairy farming. But her interest had been simmering since Year 10 and she made an immediate impression on the Hortles.
“We could tell by the letter she wrote and her interview that she was keen to have a go,” Ian said. “She had a good attitude. It was obvious the instinct was there.”
Their own two adult children have also been part of the business: daughter Alana was working on the property at the time and son James, with his wife Alison, manages cropping, dry cattle and yearlings on their 180-hectare property nearby.
The Hortles completed a family succession planning course two years ago and began to implement it. But with James and Alana starting their own families and farm management responsibilities limiting Ian’s time in the dairy, plans changed quickly.
“What I realised with succession planning was once you’ve done it you can’t think ‘that’s the end of it’,” said MaryAnn, who manages the farm’s finances and works with DairyTas, the regional service arm of Dairy Australia. “In our case, things have changed so much we’ve had to revisit it from a different angle.”
That angle involved bringing in Kimberly, who is now full-time. Over the past 30 years, the family has employed extra labour on the 92-hectare property, helping Mr Hortle to move from milking 150 animals on his own to the current herd of 220 registered Holsteins.
“Admittedly it wasn’t easy to start with but having good labour who are actually interested in doing what they do, with the handling of stock and managing the cows and looking after their welfare. Kimberly has developed great skills in these areas,” Ian said.
Kimberly has quickly latched onto Ian’s passion for breeding.
“Longevity’s an important trait for us. It means the cow will be around for a good few years,” he said.
“We always use AI and always look for improvement when we choose a bull. We get the cows type-assessed by the Holstein Association classifier, and that’s what keeps me going. When a cow’s due to calf, then you think ‘that’s from a good bull’ and you’re down there pretty quick to see what it is.”
“I really love watching our cows get classified because it’s not just about them being milk makers. You don’t just move on when she doesn’t work anymore,” added Kimberly.
“A lot of people say to me, ‘Oh you just milk cows’. No, I don’t just milk cows. I know each individual cow that’s in the dairy,” she said.
“I’ve brought a lot of friends to the dairy and shown them around. Most of them have been quite interested, partly because they think the calves are cute – which is true – but they’ve gotten a better appreciation of what’s involved and that it’s not just about the milking.”
Upskilling is a philosophy the Hortles have impressed upon their staff and children. Kimberly recently finished her Certificate II in Agriculture through the National Centre for Dairy Education Australia.
“I always strongly encourage accredited training,” said MaryAnn, who is a teacher by training. “James has a Diploma of Agriculture and Alana has Cert IV. It’s part of having a teacher as a mum or a boss! Everyone who works here does the quad-bike course as well.”
As Kimberly has built her own skills on the farm, her responsibilities have grown too. She now helps to train new staff, including farmhand Chloe Stagg, who started full-time earlier this year. It’s provided the Hortles with more flexibility and lifestyle balance.
“Ian and I had a 10-day break this year and we were happy to leave Kimberly in charge of the dairy and staff. It was a big step but it worked really well,” MaryAnn said.
Off the farm, the Hortles are doing their part to change community perceptions about dairying through Dairy Australia’s Cows Create Careers program.
“I have certain farms that are really great advertisements for the dairy industry,” she said. “I do some trips with careers officers from the Department of Education and it challenges what they might traditionally think about dairying.
“I get upset about the perception that ‘you’re too smart to be a farmer’. I’ve been trying to break down some of that misinformation because careers officers are a wonderful resource in schools. If they understand the industry it’s a step forward.”
In August 2014 the Hortles put some of their calves into the Latrobe High School as part of the Cows Create Careers farm module, which emphasises student learning about dairying.
“Students have to look after them, feed them, measure their growth and complete other tasks over three weeks,” MaryAnn said. “Kimberly has been involved in talking to the students about her pathway in dairy and why she likes the job.”
“It’s a really good way to introduce kids to the dairy industry,” Kimberly echoed. “Dairying isn’t considered as much as it should. This is helping to bring it to the attention of the kids as a career. I think it’s a good thing that I’ve not really come from a dairy background and I’m not that much older than them either. It gives them something to relate to.
“I see the importance of young people being role models for other young people,” she said. “It’s especially important in the dairy industry that young farmers are accessible, so other young people can see what they can do with their career in just a few years, not just really far into the future.”
Back on the farm, it’s easy to see the Hortles’ influence has rubbed off.
“The biggest benefit about learning from Ian is that he loves it,” Kimberly said. “It’s not just about making money. It’s not just a job and I’m allowed to have fun doing it. That’s really important.”