BALANCING the commitments of a young family with four children aged six and under and running a 370-cow dairy farm enterprise at Benger, WA, is the tightrope Mick and Sophia Giumelli walk daily.
Mick, 34 and Sophia, about to turn 32, met at Dardanup Primary School and became sweethearts when Sophia was 17, four years before they took on the 220-hectare dairy farm in 2006.
To add to their daily balance challenge, the couple agreed to host the Dairy Innovation Day this month.
The annual event organised by Western Dairy saw about 300 people – dairy farmers, researchers, service and equipment suppliers and industry representatives – go onto their farm where the couple explained in detail to an audience how they run their business.
“It was a good excuse to clean up the farm a bit,” Mick joked after the successful day.
Third-generation dairy farmer Mick was a Farm Weekly Young Gun back in 2011, a week after the birth of his eldest child Jackson and at that time he was still focused on growth – experimenting with introducing Jersey and Montbeliarde bloodlines to his predominantly Holstein herd, chasing hybrid vigour and improved milk composition.
He was producing 2.3 million litres of milk a year and had just spent $60,000 the previous year buying extra water because restrictions in a drought year had cut his 449 megalitre irrigation licence allocation from Harvey Dam.
Three children later – Penelope 5, Juliet, 4, and Declan 2 – Mick and Sophia are much more focused on balancing family and farm commitments, or as Mick put it “work-life balance”.
“We look at getting away (for family holidays) a couple of times a year, we socialise as much as we can, our focus is getting things right on farm so they’re right off farm,” Mick said.
Sophia agreed: “We love dairy farming but it’s got to fit our life too, we have to make time for family – like Mick taking Jackson to Auskick on a Friday night.”
Their approach was summed up by friend and Western Dairy agribusiness team leader Kirk Reynolds as “plan, preparation and prioritise”.
The Dairy Innovation Day audience heard how the Giumellis’ herd numbers had hit 420 but were back to 350-370 cows producing 2.8-3m litres a year – depending on the quality of fodder they preserve – at an average of 7700L per cow on a dairy platform of 2.4 cows a hectare.
The average age in the herd is 4.5 years, the cows are fed a total mixed ration, which includes three tonnes of grain per cow a year and are milked in a well-maintained 18-year-old, 20-a-side rapid-exit dairy.
Eighty five per cent of their cows calve in spring so the Giumellis produce most of their milk over summer when their processor, Lion Dairy and Drinks, needs it most and it is targeted to Lion’s requirements.
The focus is, again, a balance between quantity and quality.
Base payment has changed from a milk solids per litre value to a straight cents per litre value, Mick explained, influencing their decision to find a balance rather than chase outright quality at any cost.
They employ a full-time morning and afternoon milker who has been with them eight years, while a casual worker helps Mick with feed and the mixer wagon and in the past three years either a rural exchange or backpacker is employed during the busiest part of the year.
“We couldn’t quite cover it,” Mick said.
The Benger property includes 73ha of irrigated area, mainly by centre pivot installed the year after they moved onto the farm and now, according to Mick, of questionable value and by surface flow or flood irrigation for fodder crops.
They have learned not to rely on receiving their full water allocation and have been experimenting with maize and lablab as one of two WA farms participating in the national Smarter Irrigation for Profit project which involved 3000 irrigators in the cotton, sugar and dairy industries.
They lease some of Mick’s parent’s 170ha dry land farm at Ferguson and another 64ha property at Ferguson to run their herd replacements, dry cows and some beef cattle, trucking fodder from Benger over summer as it is needed.
Mick said the move from dryland dairy farming to irrigated farming at Benger with his limited experience in 2006 had been a “massive learning curve”.
But now the focus had shifted from outright growth to growing the financial margins.
Mick’s father Peter told the Dairy Day audience he gave his son and daughter-in-law two years to make a success of it when they asked to lease the Benger property after the family had purchased it.
Mick admitted they made plenty of mistakes, but learned from them and the one thing they did get right from day one was a plan to make dairy farming as easy as it could be.
“By making dairying easy, it has allowed us to take time off farming so we can spend it with the kids and together,” Mick said.
“I’ve always had a vision to set the farm up so it was user-friendly.
“I’m a compulsive developer, I’ve always got something I want to concrete – which is one of my greatest shortcomings on the balance sheet at the end of the year – but I’ve always wanted to set this up so it’s really easy to do.
“We’re pretty proud of the way it’s gone.”
While Mick took over the running of the family’s dairy farm enterprise from his father, Sophia, a qualified nurse with a degree from Edith Cowan University who grew up on a Dardanup Angus beef cattle property, took over looking after the farm finances from her mother-in-law Margaret.
A Giumelli family trait is to be involved and to take advantage of any help or information available – Mick’s father was a Nuffield scholar in 1975, a Junior Farmers president and a member of the Dairy Industry Authority.
Mick has continued that trait with Western Dairy and Dairy Australia training courses and Sophia has joined him, completing farm business management courses.
Between them they have been heavily involved in training and on-farm research projects, including participation in Feeding Pastures for Profit, Farm Business Management Fundamentals workshop, Dairy Business discussion group, Smarter Irrigation project, Farm Business Analysis workshop, Dairybase statistical collection, ESKi (Employment Starter Kit initiative) and Developing Dairy Leaders program.
“We pay for it (through the dairy levy) so we might as well utilise it,” Mick said of the training.
What does the future hold for Mick and Sophia?
“Our very, very long-term hope is to get ourselves into a position to be able to give our kids the foot up that we were given by both our families and which we are continually grateful for,” Sophia said.
“There’s no expectation of the kids going into dairy farming, if they want to go into it that’s good, but it’ll be their decision,” she said.