IN 2010 Cowaramup, WA, was abuzz with talk of the new Millers Ice-Cream cafe, which offered icecream made fresh from local milk.
Two years later business couldn’t be better for the Miller family who opened another shop in Margaret River within their first year and were expecting a third opening in Dunsborough last weekend.
Paul and Trish Miller poured their heart and soul into their ice-cream business and according to Paul it looks like paying off.
“As with any start-up business everything we made money-wise, went back into the cafe,” he said.
“But we are heading in the right direction and we are more than amazed at how quickly it has taken off.”
It was never part of the plan for dairy farmers Paul and Trish to venture into hospitality but after facing continued setbacks in the dairy industry, they recognised the need to diversify their business.
The Miller family have been living and farming on their Cowaramup property for three generations and now run 150 Friesian Holstein milking cows, which produce 1.2 million litres of milk a year.
Although it sounds like a lot, Paul said in the past three years they have had to scale back their milk operation significantly.
“Three years ago we used to run 260 milkers,” he said.
“But as Challenge Dairy fell over we were forced to cut numbers.”
The Millers now supply milk to Harvey Fresh which takes 98% of their production, the remaining 2% goes into the ice-cream.
Paul said the last decade had been extremely tough for some WA dairy farmers.
Since deregulation in 2000 he said things had started to go downhill for the industry.
“It is now a free market but the price is heavily influenced by Coles and Woolworths,” he said.
“They both have far too much buying power and I think it is a disgrace the State Government allows them to continue to operate like they do.”
According to Paul it is a tough time to be involved in the industry which is what prompted his family to consider diversifying.
He said they had tossed around a number of different ideas including short-stay accommodation, viticulture, beef production or horticulture.
But with the assets they had they were already geared up for dairy and decided to continue down that line.
“I guess it was pessimism about the future that made us think to try to look for a second income,” he said.
“We are just lucky it has paid off.”
The Millers continue to spend their time between the dairy and the cafes but now employ eight staff to take care of the ice-cream making and the day-to-day running of the shop.
Paul milks twice a day and over the last few weeks has been busy making silage and cutting hay.
Although it had been a good season hay and pasture-wise, Paul said he was worried about what the summer would bring.
“I think it is going to be a tough few months,” he said.
“The milk prices are not where we want them to be and the grain prices are very high.”
As Paul buys in all the grain needed over the summer, he is looking at an increase of up to two cents a litre in cost of production.
“Electricity prices are another worry,” he said.
“With the milking, the milk cooling and the refrigeration for the ice-cream we are looking at a big cost.
“The summer will be tough for us and at best we are looking to break even.”
In normal circumstances the Millers run a replacement milking herd but during the past few years they have had to sell all of their heifers just to cover costs.
Traditionally they would keep 25% of their heifer calves for the replacement, looking for good overall breeding.
“They need to have sound feet and a sound udder and temperament is very important,” Paul said.
“When you have to deal with them twice a day any problem cows just aren’t worth having.”
Over the last 40 years the Millers had been using artificial insemination but two years ago Paul switched to more traditional methods due to a lighter workload with bull matings.
“The Friesian Holstein breed has done very well for us,” Paul said.
“They are good milkers and over recent years the export market for the heifers has been lucrative and kept us a float in the tougher times.”
Although a little on the unenthusiastic side, Paul said he believed with proper investment there was a future for the industry.
“You wouldn’t know it but the WA dairy industry is bigger than the viticulture industry,” he said.
“But viticulture is more romantic and appealing than dairy and dairy manufacturing had also been lost in WA.
“Most of the manufacturing has left the State leaving WA dairy farmers with no use or demand for their milk.
“We only make very small amounts of cheese and ice-cream here now and yoghurt is just starting to come back.
“The only way to drive the industry is through investment and I can’t see it coming from local people, it has to come from foreign investment.”