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Young WA dairy farmer keeps kicking goals

Fifth-generation dairy farmer Zak Hortin used to hide on school days because he loved helping out on the family dairy farm so much.

“I used to give dad a hand in the mornings, then come time for mum to pick me up I’d be hiding to make sure there wasn’t enough time to get ready for the school bus,” Zak said.

“I was more worried about what was happening at home than at school.”

His parents eventually called his bluff midway through year 11.

“I thought I was going back to school, but dad said ‘I don’t think you’re going back this term – you’re not doing anything at school, so you may as well stay home and work properly’.”

It’s a decision that worked out well. Now aged 25 and farming full-time, there’s little Zak needs to hide from: he loves what he does, and it’s easy to see why.

“It wasn’t hard to keep him here and I guess the promise of eventually taking over the business is a big drawcard,” father Rob said, who runs the farm with wife Leanne, Zak’s great-uncle, name, and six staff.

“From age eight he had a phenomenal memory for cow numbers. We had an ID system in the dairy and if that stuffed up, Zak would know the numbers of all the cows off the top of his head.”

Zak started off with calf feeding, but his role has quickly expanded on the 1650-hectare property in Kronkup, 20 kilometres west of Albany on the Western Australia south coast.

“In the last three years I’ve become more involved in the financial side of the business and taken on more responsibility in choosing how we make decisions on things like fertiliser and feed,” he said. “I also spend a lot of time dealing with herd health and calf management.”

The business has grown up a lot too; it started as a mix of potatoes, pigs and dairying before converting to a 200-cow dairy in the 1980s. In 2009, the family built a new 50-stand rotary dairy and started milking 500 cows. Add in 800 beef cows, and it’s a sizable business.

But it’s a lifestyle Zak wouldn’t trade for anything.

“My mates always wanted to hang out here on weekends so we were never around town,” he said. “They were a bit like me; loved animals and the freedom out here.”

The property overlooks the ocean, where he spends his free time fishing and diving, and it’s a short ride into town, where he’s built a reputation as a pretty good football player on the Albany-based Railways Football Club’s top team.

“We’ve won two of the last three premierships. We ran into some injuries last season and didn’t make the grand final, but we should be a bit better this year.”

They’ll be relying on his boot: he kicked 68 goals in 17 games last season to claim honours as the league’s top goal-kicker. But he’s humble about the title.

“I kicked a lot more points than goals,” he said. “I enjoy the social side of it and just being able to run around and keep fit. I finish work an hour early to get to footy training twice a week – I love the farm but it’s important to take time off it too.”

He’s also the team’s sole dairy representative; even in the area, farming numbers run low.

“There aren’t many around my age. There’s only four big farmers left in our area – a spud farmer, a couple of beef farmers and us. The rest are pretty much hobby farmers.”

Zak is keen to see the dairy industry celebrated in the AFL’s Legendairy Farmer Round match between Collingwood and Adelaide on 11 April, which may include a couple of his former Albany teammates, Marley Williams and Brenden Abbott, who now wear the Magpie black and white.

“Anything that can get the industry out there is good and footy’s the biggest sport in Australia,” he said.

“We get a lot of visitors that stop in from Perth to show their kids what a dairy cow is and where milk comes from. It’s about more than just milk production though – animal welfare and good practice are so important.”

The Hortins are doing their own bit for the state’s dairy industry, hosting this month’s Dairy Innovation Day on behalf of Western Dairy, the regional arm of industry services body, Dairy Australia. 300 farmers will converge on the property to see what the Hortins have been doing.

“We’ve just built a feedpad. It’s a good chance to focus on the transition we’re making from doing our own nutrition to getting in a proper nutritionist and getting some better results,” Rob said. “We go to the Innovation Day every year, and you pick up bits and pieces that fit your business.”

Zak agrees, saying the event is a way for farmers to come together, see what others are doing, and keep learning.

“A farmer is a plumber, an electrician, a welder… There’s not much they can’t do. You don’t have to be brilliant at everything but you have to give it a go. Farmers have some of the broadest skill sets around.”

They’re also goal kickers, and that’s something Zak plans to be doing well into the future.

“I’m hoping the industry keeps ticking away, and there’s still a dollar in it for everyone, he said.

“I’m looking to spend the rest of my life here. I’ll just keep on keeping on!”