Chases rain, gets more than he bargained for

Daryl Hoey moves dairy farm south chasing rain and gets more than bargains for

Business Management
SOUTHERN LIGHTS: There were plenty of surprises in store for dairy farmer Daryl Hoey after moving from northern Victoria to South Gippsland.

SOUTHERN LIGHTS: There were plenty of surprises in store for dairy farmer Daryl Hoey after moving from northern Victoria to South Gippsland.

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Moving his dairy farm and his family from one side of the state to the other chasing rain didn't frighten Daryl Hoey but he wasn't prepared for what South Gippsland threw at him.

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Moving his dairy farm and his family from one side of Victoria to the other chasing rain didn't frighten Daryl Hoey but he wasn't prepared for what South Gippsland threw at him.

"I've never had a day in my life when I haven't wanted to be a dairy farmer," Mr Hoey said. "August certainly challenged that."

Mr Hoey left Katunga, Vic, which has an annual average rainfall of about 450 millimetres, for the relatively reliable 938mm rainfall at Wonthaggi, Vic.

But last season was cruel.

January to April were dry, recording only half the normal rain, and then the heavens opened in May, saturating paddocks with 170mm.

When August brought another 150mm, half the farm was under water and another 40 per cent cut off from the dairy, leaving the cows just 10pc to graze.

"We were certainly told before we bought the farm that it floods but it's not until you've actually had to deal with the floods and seen how much water is on the farm that you realise the extent of the issue," he said.

It took such a toll, Mr Hoey's parents came down from Queensland to lend a hand.

The rest of the family was still in northern Victoria five days a week and would be for six months.

Mr Hoey's wife, Lani, was teaching and their son finishing his schooling.

The move had been a very quick one.

"The thought process all happened driving home from Melbourne from a meeting in December," Mr Hoey said.

"I had seen what the spike in water prices was that day and was working out in my head what that would cost us to restart in the autumn.

"I drove home and said to Lani, 'We have to move or we have to look at moving'."

Ms Hoey "didn't have any objections" and Mr Hoey himself, no qualms.

"I view all those things as a business decision," he said. "So emotion doesn't get to play much of a role.

"It was a case of this is what it was going to cost to stay, this is what potentially it was going to cost us to move, and it made a lot of sense.

"Just get on and deal with it, make the decision and work it out."

After a month of inquiries, the Hoeys looked at four Gippsland farms and had an offer for their Katunga property.

The couple had a carefully-considered shopping list.

"The three non-negotiables were a good house, a dairy as good, if not better, than we had, a farm that was going to be easy to manage, and we definitely wanted 300-plus cows," Mr Hoey said.

Three-and-a-half months after their exploratory trip, the herd of 330 milkers, the young stock and Mr Hoey moved into Wonthaggi.

Moving brought all the expected challenges for Daryl Hoey, plus a few more.

A simple diary blunder meant the cattle trucks arrived a day late and a Metro tunnel closure sent many of the cows on a detour that stretched the four-hour trip another hour.

Even so, the entire herd was milked twice that day, from 2am at Katunga until 6.30pm at Wonthaggi.

In fact, the biggest adjustments, apart from the weather, had concerned people rather than cows.

Mr Hoey doesn't miss the routine around managing irrigation but he does miss some certainty.

"Up north, it's certainly got drier and more variable but it's just a case of, if you can afford to add water, you just add water, and you, to an extent, control your seasons," he said.

"You control with your startup, you control your spring, your water for as long as you can, depending on your budget and access to water.

"Moving to an area where you are 100pc at the mercy of the climatic conditions and I have no control over, it is an adjustment."

On the flipside, that rainfall brought a confidence that meant locals were less active in advocacy and had also changed the nature of Mr Hoey's industry involvement.

"Probably the biggest struggle is going from a position where you're so heavily involved in the industry, chairing the Basin Plan task force from ADF for nearly 10 years, to almost just being Daryl Hoey, dairy farmer from Wonthaggi, though I still do have a role at ADF," he said.

"It's been a big adjustment from spending probably two-thirds of your time working on industry issues, whether it was off-farm or just on the phone or thinking about it, to now having 90pc of my time spent on-farm thinking about farming."

Mr Hoey has joined two discussion groups to forge new friendships and relearn how to grow grass without irrigation but said it would take time to rebuild the network of trusted advisors and friends the family had built at Katunga.

But nothing, not even the August-that-was, could dent his love of dairy farming.

"I have always enjoyed farming that much that, to me, farming does provide me with some of my work-life balance," Mr Hoey said.

"It mightn't necessarily provide it for the rest of the family.

"But I just do enjoy milking cows and growing grass and farming that I can get relief just by doing that."

The story Chases rain, gets more than he bargained for first appeared on Stock & Land.

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