Eye-opening international experience

12 Feb, 2018 03:58 PM
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The outcome I'd like to see is for dairyfarmers to have more of a focus on the profitability.

"When you're on a farm, you learn something new every day", that's according to Shannon Notter, who operates a dairy farm at Carlisle River in south-western Victoria.

It was a love of learning and new experiences that drove Ms Notter to apply for a Nuffield scholarship - a unique and life-changing scholarship to travel overseas to study a topic important to agriculture.

Gardiner Dairy Foundation funds a Nuffield scholarship for a Victorian dairy farmer annually. It is an investment in the energetic and progressive people of our industry.

The experience sees scholars attend the Nuffield National Conference in Australia before attending the Contemporary Scholars Conference - this year in the Netherlands - before a six-week, group travel experience called the Global Focus Program.

Scholars then travel to countries of their own choice that are relevant to their study topic.

Asked about her study topic, Ms Notter replied "The outcome I'd like to see is for dairy farmers to have more of a focus on the profitability of their business and the financial management side of things.

"How do we get people to educate themselves to focus more on that?"

The strong business focus which Ms Notter brings to farming has been evident throughout her career.

She happily left a job as a bank manager to seize the opportunity to manage the Carlisle River farm her parents purchased as an investment.

Not that managing a bank was all bad, she said.

"I really enjoyed working with share milkers and young farmers who were really progressing through the industry well and building their wealth really quickly," she said.

"Working with them was exciting."

The opportunities in dairy farming and the enjoyment of it mean that Ms Notter doesn't regret the change.

"It's about taking the opportunities that present themselves. I'd like to pay down debt on this farm and buy another one."

What sort of farm?

"Cows and grass are my focus," Ms Notter said.

"I run a 500-cow, seasonal calving herd of crossbreds.

"I try to maximise homegrown feed and its utilisation, and just try to keep things as simple as I can.

"I even try to minimise the amount of machinery needed.

"If I can harvest feed with the cows rather than a tractor, I'll do that."

The feed gap in hot, dry summers has led to some trialling of chicory in the feedbase, along with turnips, rape and maize.

That drive to try different things shines through Ms Notter's travel plans.

"It'd be easy for me to go to Ireland and NZ and the Netherlands. But places like India and China are big players in global dairy. I want it to be an eye-opening experience."

As well as learning and travel, Nuffield is about people.

The network of scholars is international and extensive.

There are Nuffield scholars from Canada, France, Ireland, New Zealand, Netherlands, Belgium, USA, Brazil, South Africa and the UK, where the scholarship program originated with the generosity of Lord Nuffield, who was the founder of the car company Morris Motors.

Sharing is important to the typical Nuffield scholar.

They freely share their knowledge and will ask you plenty of questions. The network is a particularly powerful resource for the new scholars who are looking for answers.

Brendan Hehir was awarded a Nuffield scholarship in 2016 so has firsthand experience of the power in the network.

Mr Hehir reflected on the experience of having travelling Nuffield scholars come to see his farm, saying "It's not just what you learn while you're travelling. It also the life of learning that follows."

Mr Hehir is a business partner with his parents in an organically certified dairy operation with a strong focus on direct grazing in Wyuna, near Kyabram, in northern Victoria.

They run 650 milkers, producing four million litres annually on a milking platform of 192 hectares.

He recently purchased a neighbouring property and is working at integrating that into the existing land.

"It's actually closer to the dairy than some of the existing paddocks, so it gives us an opportunity to increase our direct grazing."

Like Ms Notter, Mr Hehir has strong focus on the business performance of his farm and a background working in the corporate sector.

After completing a Bachelor of Commerce at the University of Melbourne, Mr. Hehir worked first as a gas trader and then financial analyst for AGL.

"I had to cut my teeth on all the finer points of the dairy operation in the five and a half years I've been home, but at the end of the day, I've come home to manage a business."

Mr Hehir has been using his Nuffield scholarship to investigate ways to maximise the spread between the price paid for milk and the cost of milk production.

"While everyone enjoys receiving a high price for their milk, these prices often lead to a step increase in the cost of production, at the expense of maintaining flexibility," he said.

"This increase then becomes entrenched in the production system and mind-set of the dairy farmer."

While his findings won't be finalised until September 2018, Mr. Hehir is confident that some of his preliminary thoughts won't change.

"The best operators I met overseas acted very quickly when circumstances changed, and their financial analysis was second to none," he said.

"They generally examined their budgets monthly.

"It wasn't just something they did annually to keep their banker happy. It was an active management tool. We all submit our BAS (business activity statements) quarterly, so most of the information is already there."

Meaningful learning experiences can be uncomfortable and Mr Hehir has one particular example that has stayed with him.

"I remember being in the UK on a dairy farm with a discussion group, talking about pre-mowing versus post-mowing. It's a topic that comes up every year in my discussion group at home, so I was determined to just put forward an opposing view so we got a really vigorous debate about it. It was uncomfortable at the time, but looking back, it was a wonderful way to learn and get to the bottom of their thoughts with their passion."

"I'd like to thank Gardiner and Nuffield for the opportunity. The amount of personal growth I've had is wonderful," Mr Hehir said.

Gardiner Dairy Foundation is delighted with the leadership development in the participants as an outcome of the scholarships.

Past recipients have gone on to contribute to the Policy Council of the United Dairyfarmers of Victoria and the Boards of Regional Development Programs, milk companies and even Dairy Australia.

If you are looking for an opportunity to grow personally and professionally, visit http://nuffield.com.au/ to read more. Applications are usually required by June.

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