A commitment to curiosity and adaptability is paying dividends for the partnership behind Benmar Farm.
Combining "how they want to spend their time, with a good measure of exploration and philosophy thrown in", first-generation dairy farmers Karyn Cassar and Carissa Wolfe have built a dairy business unlike most, supplying Norco Organic.
What differentiates their dairy business from others, they say, is that they've had the freedom to experiment with "how to change the picture".
Located at Hannam Vale, on the NSW Mid North Coast, Benmar Farm was purchased by Karyn and Carissa in 2013.
They farm on 180 hectares, of which 81ha is cleared.
The 81ha carries all livestock, including milkers, dries, replacement heifers, and calves.
They also agist replacement heifers.
The milking herd comprises 75 per cent purebred Fleckvieh and Fleckvieh-cross, a European dual-purpose breed, with the remainder being traditional dairy breed crosses.
Grazing management is critical to the productivity of the land and the cows at Benmar Farm.
"Our pasture goal is to grow what would traditionally be balanced by a dairy ration, so looking at the nutritional gaps in a year-round subtropical pasture system and asking the question 'what can I grow here to fill that gap?'," Carissa said.
"Our grazing goal is to maximise the 'milkability' of our pastures year-round, which means neither over nor under grazing."
When rearing calves, their goal is for every calf to have an intrinsic value and purpose in life.
"We don't have the land resource to rear 100pc of our calves, but because of the beef value of Fleckviehs, we aim to sell all our male calves direct and a good portion of our heifers," Carissa said.
"Because of the longevity and health traits of the Fleckvieh breed, together with our breeding goals, we have very low herd turn-over.
"Our breeding goal is to have each calf born to be more adaptable than its mother - starting with structure, health, and production traits."
Every cow is assessed in each category and matched with a sire that will complement or strengthen those traits.
They examine milk production, lifetime production (longevity), forage utilisation, health (e.g., mastitis), and structure (e.g., confirmation, udder longevity).
Breeding targets include in-calf at less than 90 days, no more than 1.5 services per conception, with an average in-milk of 140 days and calving interval of 12.5 months - all accomplished without a sync program or the use of hormones.
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Karyn and Carissa have one employee, and the management of Benmar is shared equally between the two.
"Each area of specific management has one or the other taking the lead; for example, breeding/genetic management is part of Karyn's role, and animal health management is mine, with delegated decision-making, but both of us choose the goals," Carissa said.
"The day-to-day operations are performed by Karyn and the employed staff, while I get hands-on regularly around her other duties."
Neither Karyn nor Carissa grew up on dairies.
Karyn completed her dairy apprenticeship at Kangawarra Illawarras on the NSW South Coast, where she grew up on a stud beef hobby farm, honing her love of genetics and animal typing, while Carissa grew up in Montana, United States.
Before she caught the dairy bug, Carissa worked in the corporate world as a financial systems developer in management accounting.
They combined their expertise to form a business in Oregon, US, servicing the dairy industry, which they operated for a decade.
Carrisa says this was done with the aim of exchanging their provisions for learning from successful dairy businesses; "the thinking and decision-making processes as much as best practice".
"Start-up businesses, in general, have grave survival statistics, and we were making the challenge more difficult by choosing to be first-generation dairy farmers - we wanted to build our best chance of beating those statistics when we started our dairy," Carissa said.
In the US, Carissa also trained under Organic Valley Milk Co-operative's staff veterinarian, and Karyn performed contract work for the Department of Agriculture's Statistics branch.
The standard dairy system in that region is free-stall housed TMR herds, with an average herd size of 800 for conventional and 300 for organic, which made up 30pc of the herds.
"One of the unique systems we utilise is certified organic farm management - unique because such a small percentage of dairies here use this system - which has provided a method of impacting our milk value and diversified the markets we have access to," Karyn said.
"When we think about what experience we each bring to the business, it's not only technical skills but also personality, mindset, and shared vision, together with seeking diverse experiences, making the team what it is.
"We both believe curiosity and adaptability are critical to a successful life, whatever you do, and continual learning is one of the action parts of that."
The fundamental farming principles at Benmar Farm have evolved over time.
Karyn and Carissa maintain respect for and the self-sustainability of the resources under their care: natural resources, economic resources, and animal/human resources.
"Sustainability to us is the concept that use doesn't deplete the resource; rather, use generates more," Carissa said.
"If any of these three 'legs' are unsustainable, it impacts the sustainability of the entirety.
"For example, if we managed our land in an unsustainable manner, it would deplete the financial and animal/human resources; if we managed our finances in an unsustainable way, it would deplete the land and animal/human resources."
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