Walking in a family tradition
As Stephen Henty walks across his dairy farm at Cohuna in northern Victoria, he can’t help but muse over the family ties that have connected the land for more than a century.
His grandfather, Cecil Henty, was one of the original farmers in the area, purchasing the farm in 1909 in a tendering process shortly after the land was split into irrigation blocks.
Stephen’s mother, Mary, kept the farm going in difficult circumstances after the early loss of her husband and Stephen’s father, Jack.
Today it’s Stephen and his wife Margot who keep the farm thriving.
“It’s nice to know the land you walk on has been walked on for three generations by the same family,” Stephen said.
“That’s insignificant compared to 40,000 years for Aboriginal people but it’s still not bad.”
However, it’s the family who have made the 90-hectare farm special.
“I’m only here because my mother was strong to keep the farm going after dad died and I’m only here now because I have a strong wife,” he said.
Stephen grew up on the farm and despite being only 15 when his father died he never had ambitions to do anything else.
“Fortunately, my father was able to pass on some of his knowledge prior to his passing. I was only a kid,” he said.
Stephen was at boarding school when his father died but he continued his education and went on to Dookie Agricultural College before returning to the farm in 1973 aged 22.
At school Stephen was given a questionnaire to indicate what sort of career would suit him.
“I vividly remember making sure I picked the right answers so I would end up with being a farmer,” he said.
All his holidays were spent on the farm helping his mum.
“I probably didn’t understand the business side of it. To me being a farmer was like being on holiday, because that’s what I did. It wasn’t until I came home and started that I realised there was a bit more to it.”
Over the next 40 years, Stephen and Margot adapted and moved with the times.
He says the farm’s dairy and machinery were fairly rudimentary in 1973 but progression has been constant.
“The only way we can stay in the game is to stay ahead of the cost-price squeeze,” Stephen said.
As irrigation farmers, their biggest challenge is water.
“We have to be more productive with less,” Stephen said. “The pressure wasn’t on us quite as much back when I started.
We’d milk 30 to 35 cows per hour. You need to milk many more than that now to be competitive.”
They now milk 220 to 230 cows, mostly Holstein but with some Jersey crosses, in a 16-double-up herringbone dairy.
Production has been consistently over 600 kilograms of milk solids per cow for the past decade, with only minor falls during the drought.
“Because we’re irrigation farmers we like to measure success not only in milk produced but pasture consumed,” Margot added. “Except for the drought years we have been consistently above 10 dry matter tonnes per hectare.”
New technology has helped them keep ahead of the game, improving land and water resources, plant and animal genetics, and most recently replacing old infrastructure with new equipment to make irrigation easier, more efficient and more productive.
“When I first came home our water orders were put on a bit of paper and stuck into a box on a bridge. You’d give four days’ notice and you may or may not get it when you wanted it. Now it’s all done online with 24 hours’ notice. The whole thing has changed.”
According to Stephen, however, the main reason for success isn’t new-fangled equipment and systems but a productive family partnership.
“The main thing that kept me farming was that I married Margot, who has grown into dairy farming. She was a school teacher and didn’t have a dairy farming background but has become an avid dairy farmer and spokesperson for
“It’s always easier to do a job that your partner likes.”
Margot had grown up on a beef farm and was teaching geography but was quick to fall in love with the dairy lifestyle.
“It’s the most challenging industry both intellectually and physically,” she said.
“There’s so much detail and you have to manage so many systems at once. It’s an amazing juggling act with the pastures, mechanics, irrigation and animals.”
Stephen has played his part in the industry by advocating for dairy research and development and supporting Dairy Australia’s regional development programs. He remains adamant Australia needs to do more research and development across all agricultural industries to ensure the country can meet world demand for more food.
Margot has been heavily involved in water services, including a Goulburn-Murray Water farmer representative group and as a director of Waterpool Co-op.
“My interest in geography led me to have an interest in the management of water as a resource,” she said.
The Henty farm has significantly reduced its loss of salt into the Murray River.
“We farm on a very saline high water table,” Margot said.
While the property has been operating as an irrigation farm for more than 100 years, it is the past decade that has been the most productive and environmentally sustainable in its long history.
Margot is also a strong advocate for women in dairy.
“Women are very much part of the team in dairy,” she said.
“They contribute physically as well as doing the books. One of the strengths of dairy is that it’s a team effort. It’s better to have two heads thinking of things than one.”
Stephen said he’s had the good fortune of coming onto a family farm and staying a long time.
“We’ve been able to live comfortably. You’ve got to work at it but there’s the potential to do well. There are a lot of people who’ve done very well out of dairying.”
Their three children work in research science, health promotion and physiotherapy and are unlikely to come back to the farm.
Stephen said: “We’re still healthy enough to do the work, but the succession planning is a dilemma. Ideally we need to find a 30-year-old couple with kids who want to buy a dairy farm. We could take them on for a couple of years and show them the ropes and then slowly scale down.”
Stephen and Margot have one long-term employee, Stephen Baker, who does the morning and night milking, and a new apprentice, Damian Boyer.
The Hentys are strong supporters of the Legendairy initiative to raise the profile and reputation of the industry.
They describe themselves as “full-time professional dairy farmers”.
“Some people don’t realise that it is such a demanding industry that requires professional people,” Margot said.
“In the census there were 6000 dairy farmers in Australia but there were 60,000 professional sportspeople - and who gets all the publicity? We are a very small part of the nation’s population so it is a privilege only a few people have.”
“Legendairy is important for the industry and the products we produce,” Stephen added. “Anything to talk up the industry is good.”
It doesn’t take much to get Stephen to promote his own produce, which he says gives him a kick-start to the day and helps him to wind down at night.
“I’m a great consumer of the products,” he said. “I like a milkshake, flavoured milk, butter and cheese varieties and yogurts. We have to be mindful, we’re producing something that is beneficial,” he said.
“Despite food fads and junk food trends, dairy is a real food that is good for you, and something to be proud of producing.”
They are also positive about the future of the dairy industry.
“In this area at least we’ve got 12 months to make our income, unlike the croppers who can go from a good crop to nothing,” Stephen said.
“The messages we’re receiving about Asia and China are positive. We’re told if they drink two glasses of milk a day, we won’t have enough to supply them.”
So Stephen and Margot will keep on making that milk.
“It takes over your life,” Margot said. “Once you get involved you either fight it or roll with it. I went with it.”
“If the alarm wakes you up, it’s always a good start to the day,” Stephen added.