On The Land

24 December, 2022

Dairy industry welcomes first new farmers in decades

Stacey Soley and Damien Ambrose made Tableland dairy history in August, when pushing against the stream of farmers exiting the iindustry, they chose to become the first people in decades to com-mence dairy farming in Far North Queensland

By Sally Turley

Stacey Soley and Damien Ambrose are thrilled to be back in the industry they grew up in with their children, Taylor (14), Danii (13) and Col (7 months).
Stacey Soley and Damien Ambrose are thrilled to be back in the industry they grew up in with their children, Taylor (14), Danii (13) and Col (7 months).

The statistics tell the story – on 1 July, 2000, the day the industry was de-regulated, the Malanda Milk factory was servicing a total of 185 producers.

Closing down a dairy farm is no easy task, but extreme dissatisfaction with the new system spawned an average, annual exit rate from the industry of just under six and a half farmers per year every year since 2000.

Including the eight producers who supply Millaa Millaa and Mungalli Creek Dairy exclusively, a mere 45 farmers, or just 25 per cent of the original number, remain in the industry today.

But an amazing thing happened on 2 August this year – Stacey and Damien’s newly acquired herd of milking cows arrived at their 195ha Malanda lease block and with three solid months of rebuild-ing the dairy from scratch completed, Damien milked his first mob of cows.

“We had already spent around a million dollars re-building the bales and buying a milking herd, so luckily we were able to lease around two thirds of Stacey’s family farm from her father,” he said.

“Having to buy the land as well would have put the project out of reach for us financially. I bought a second-hand set of milking machines from a local farm, pulled them out and installed them in our shed.

“I have a 16 a side swing-over set up at the moment, but that will be extended to 23 head a side capacity by February.

“A lot of people thought sourcing a herd of milkers would be a problem, but Malcolm MacGregor, who was farming nearby, had just sold his dairy operation to the Pearce family and I was able to purchase a selection of 120 younger cows from his 180-strong herd.

“I have picked up a few little mobs of heifers from other farmers in the area and I am now milking 200 cows and have a total of 240 head.

“Getting a Milk Supply Agreement from Bega and Dairy Farmers was also much easier than I expected, it was basically issued on a phone call. Because they were short of milk, they seemed keen to encourage young people into the industry.

“They haven’t placed any restrictions on how much milk I can supply and they are actually paying production incentives on top of the increased price per litre.

“Bega offers a ‘New Milk’ bonus of $0.15/litre (around 20 per cent higher price) for any increase in volume over what a farm produced in the previous year, which is a big incentive to ramp up numbers and production,” Damien said.

But Damien and Stacey are not relying on milk money alone to fund their enterprise.

Damien generates a second income stream by running Wagyu bulls over around half of his Friesian herd and selling the cross-bred (F1) progeny.

“I paddock rear the Wagyu calves to about 200-250kg and then sell them on to my buyer on the Darling Downs, who backgrounds them and then puts them into his feedlot,” Damien said.

“He is a long-term Wagyu breeder, so I buy my bulls from him and eventually I want to take the F1’s through to 400kg here to maximise returns on the premium rate he pays.”

Stacey and Damien both grew up on dairy farms – Stacey at Malanda and Damien milking 100 head on their 243ha Jandowae block, in Queensland’s Western Downs cropping and grazing region.

Both of their fathers had made the decision to leave the industry, Mr Ambrose selling out around 14 years ago and Steve Soley con-verting to beef production six-seven years ago.

Both pursued other careers – Stacey qualified as a school teacher and has been teaching at Malanda High before going on maternity leave to have their little boy, Col, and Damien did his apprenticeship as an electrician after leaving school.

“For years I did a lot of fly-in, fly-out in gas projects located around Dalby, Roma and Darwin. I have always wanted to get back into farming and have had beef cattle, mainly Santa Gertrudis, all through my life,” Damien said.

“When little Colin came along, I didn’t want to work away any more.

“My plan had always been to save enough money to buy a property and the Tablelands was perfect because I met Stacey up here and its climate and pastures make it an easy place to farm.

“We bought a 68ha block near Malanda, just before the big property price rises and we have been running our beef cattle there.

Stacey is a fourth-generation dairy farmer and loved her family farm. It took a while to convince her Dad to reduce his beef herd and lease the couple some country.

“But once we worked out a deal, I got stuck into refurbishing waters and fences and building a new calf-rearing shed for the re-placement heifers,” he said.

Just four pay cheques into their new venture, Damien believes dairy farming not only provides a constant, predictable cash flow, but it is several times more profitable than what a regular beef property would be.

“There is still heaps of infrastructure work to be done, laneways and upgrading laneways and I want to do more fertilising, mulching and pasture rotation to lift the quality of the grasses,” Damien said.

“I don’t know much about irrigation, but with two centre pivots not working, I guess I am about to find out.

“We were very lucky with our timing. We had already committed to becoming dairy farmers when Bega announced a lift in the milk price that has made that decision even more rewarding.

“Milking cows is not the struggle it was – you can actually make a bit of money now if you manage your expenditure carefully. We had a couple of good farmers who have mentored us through the entry process, answering all our questions and making us feel welcome.” Damien said.

Damien said they planned to be in the industry for the long term. He actually likes milking cows, which is just as well, as he has only had two days off in the last four-and-a-half months and that isn’t likely to change any time soon


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