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Northern success proves Peter was born to farm

Bruce Springsteen might have been born to run but northern Victoria’s Peter Letcher was born to farm.

When it comes to dairy farming, Peter believes you’re either born one or not, even if you grew up in the city as he did.
“You either are or aren’t a farmer, it doesn’t matter where you come from. I don’t think you can be made into a farmer,” he said.

Dairy farmers can grow good pastures and nurture healthy cows to make good milk, but according to Peter there’s no way to grow a dairy farmer if someone doesn’t want to do it.

Luckily he did and he’s never regretted his fulfilling career choice.

A city boy raised in the suburbs of Auckland in New Zealand, Peter always had his mind on a dairy career and has defied his metropolitan roots to become a successful farm owner in northern Victoria.

There was never any question about his career choice and today, in his 53rd year, Peter’s still enjoying and growing in the industry.

Although his parents lived in the city, Peter had rural connections and from an early age would visit his grandparents’ dairy farm in New Zealand.

He admits it’s tough and challenging but he still enjoys the lifestyle, the animals, the work and the financial incentives of being a dairy farmer.

The excellent farming conditions and moderate land prices of northern Victoria have helped Peter and his wife Diane to achieve their dreams of owning a farm, not once but twice.

“We were sharefarming in New Zealand and moved to Australia in 1995 because we couldn’t afford to buy in New Zealand,” Peter said.

They tried Tasmania for five years before moving to northern Victoria where they found the Murray Dairy region to be the perfect environment for buying and expanding.

After sharefarming in Tongala, they bought an 80-hectare farm at Numurkah in 2002. They have since added a second 150-hectare farm at Strathmerton and now milk 180 to 200 autumn-calving crossbreed cows.

Peter’s not alone in migrating from New Zealand to the rich farming area.

“There are quite a few guys from Auckland who have dairy farms in northern Victoria. I know three or four,” he said.

There’s good reason for the area’s popularity. Milk production in the region grew by 1.4 per cent in the 12 months leading to the end of June on the back of improved seasonal conditions, higher farmgate prices, local investment and farmer confidence, and it is widely recognised as one of Australia’s premier dairying regions.

“It’s a fantastic place to farm due to the low cost of land and reliability of water. In the last 10 years of drought you’d probably question that, but generally the reliability of water is brilliant,” Peter said.

The Letcher farms are 100 per cent irrigated which gives them year-round surety.

“We can guarantee what we’re going to grow and we’re growing plenty of good ryegrass,” he said.

The reliable water supply has also allowed them to change from spring to autumn calving, which has helped boost production.

“We’ve got no complaints. Northern Victoria has always been good to us and allowed us to grow. Even during the drought we were able to grow.”

So confident are the Letchers that when the home farm’s production reached a peak they bought a second farm 25 kilometres away.

Now they are considering selling their home farm and buying a bigger one and hope onsite managers continue to develop and eventually enable them to retire.

“As an industry the main thing we have to deal with is volatility and I think the whole dairy industry needs to be rationalised,” Peter said.

“Milk price is something we can’t change. We look after things we can control and don‘t worry too much about things that are out of our control, such as milk prices.”

Peter is rightly proud of the farm’s growth, which has been achieved while watching costs and growing healthy pastures and cows. “We want to grow 60 to 70 per cent of our feed on-farm,” he said.

The Letchers call on expert consultants to make sure they are heading in the right direction.

“They look from the outside in where we look from the inside out. They see some important things that we might miss,” Peter said.

He also advocates industry involvement to help find the best pathway to success.

Peter started the Numurkah dairy discussion group at the tail end of the drought and although he has stepped back from a leading role he continues to enjoy the benefits of working with other farmers to discuss issues of relevance.

He is on the local Focus Farm committee where best practice farms are used to showcase dairy success stories and was a forum delegate for his supply company, Fonterra. “You can only get out of it what you put back in,” he said.

Peter is also supporting the Legendairy communication initiative to raise the profile and reputation of the industry.

“We’ve tended to sit back and do nothing when we should be out there trying to build a profile. A lot think we’re just dumb people with overalls on; we’ve got to get out there and show them what’s really involved.”

Peter still starts his day with dairy, milking every morning and enjoying the fruits of his labour.

“I have a tub of yogurt every morning ‘cause I’m getting older. It is a proven good food.”