South East dairy farmers Ben and Michelle Walker are working towards owning their own dairy farm, thanks to a share farming agreement with Chris Procter.

The couple, who were recently named Young Farmers of the Year at the 2023 South Australian Dairy Awards, say share farming is a great way for young people to get ahead in the dairy industry.

Originally from New Zealand, Ben and Michelle moved to Australia seven years ago to manage a dairy property.

“Growing up, my parents were dairy farmers in Canterbury, New Zealand. I went to university there and then worked for a great farmer, trying to learn as much as I could. Michelle is also a dairy farmer and we met in New Zealand,” Ben said.

“An opportunity popped up to manage a dairy farm in Australia and Michelle and I pounced on it. Eventually Chris approached us about share farming on one of his properties at Mount Schank and we’ve been here for almost four years.”

Ben and Michelle now own a herd of 800 milking cows and have three full-time staff and a casual worker. They own all of the farm machinery, including feed out equipment, mowers and motorbikes, as well as farm tools and any other non-fixed assets.

Chris Procter owns the land, houses and dairy shed, and takes care of building repairs and improvements. “We have a 50:50 share milking agreement in place with Chris, whereby we share certain costs like irrigation, bought-in feed and fertiliser, and we share the income from the milk,” Ben said.

“Then costs associated with animal health are 100% ours because it’s our herd. And we employ all the staff ourselves. We also pay for some of the operating costs in the dairy, such as electricity, detergent, teat spray and all the rubber ware – basically, we pay for the consumables.”

The dairy is a 50-bale rotary and is set up with technology such as automatic cup removers and automatic teat spray.

“We’re lucky as the dairy is a good size and it’s got the technology to be efficient. We can milk with one person in there, so it’s very labour efficient, which is a big advantage for us as we’re paying the staff costs,” Ben said.

In terms of improvements to the dairy, Ben said large purchases involved a conversation between them and Chris. “Chris is very open-minded and supportive, so we know we can approach him about changes to the dairy,” he said.

“But we follow the keep-it-simple philosophy and focus on trying to be good dairy farmers and not overcomplicating things with lots of moving parts. We’re focused on doing the basics well.

“We’re producing a food product, so food safety and quality is a massive priority. We want to be sending a high-quality product and hitting quality premiums with our milk company, the Union Dairy Company.”

Ben and Michelle receive daily milk quality reports from Union through an app. “We can look at all our metrics for cell count, fat to protein ratio, milk solids percentage and so on, and graph it all and compare it to the week before, or season before, to get a clear understanding of how we’re tracking with quality,” he said.

“We also get alerts on our phones for any issues that pop up. It’s quite easy to manage, which is one of the things that I love about dairy farming. You can tell straight away when something’s working or if it’s not working, as you get immediate feedback from the cows – they’ll tell you if it’s a cow health problem – and also from what falls into the vat.”

Ben and Michelle’s cleaning program is also quality focused, with some automation making life a bit easier.

“You’ve got to have pride in your milk room and dairy shed. We put a lot of emphasis on keeping the place hygienic and presentable. We do this with the whole farm, as we’re on a main road and we want people driving past to get a good impression of dairy farming,” Ben said.

“We’ve got a great team who are all over the cleaning program. We have a strong focus on learning, and we do weekly and monthly checks. Even though the wash system with the dairy plant and the milk vat is all automated, things can break down and we need to make sure it’s functioning correctly. You can’t just push the button and walk away.”

Ben said being on top of cleaning and hygiene also made it easy to prepare for audits. “Most of the stuff they ask for in audits makes sense to be doing anyway if you have a pragmatic approach. To be honest, I think if people don’t want to focus on milk quality and food safety, they should be thinking about doing something else,” he said.

Ben and Michelle’s focus on quality also extends to their breeding program. They breed their own replacement stock on an adjoining block which they lease, with Michelle managing the artificial insemination program.

“We run our young stock between the lease block and the dairy farm. It’s fantastic to be able to have control of our own young stock, because our biggest asset is our animals,” Ben said.

“Michelle is an AI technician, and she was breeding commercially on dairy farms in New Zealand, so that’s a huge advantage for us. We were able to hit the ground running here and do all our own breeding work and AI.”

Eventually, Ben and Michelle, who have a young family, would like to buy their own dairy property.

“The opportunities in dairy here are massive. We couldn’t make the same progress if we’d stayed in New Zealand,” Ben said.

“We’re in a good phase in the industry right now where milk prices are good, and margins are healthy. The South East region of South Australia is a brilliant place to milk cows and we’re lucky to be one of Chris’s share farmers. He sets up his farms to be efficient and he’s fantastic to deal with.”

Ben said share farming was a great model for older farmers thinking about taking a step back.

“And it’s a great way to get young people involved with some buy-in. It opens doors for young people and gives them opportunities to get ahead as it’s quite difficult to save enough money to buy a farm these days,” Ben said.

“Share farming can be a real win-win scenario and I think it’s a great model for South Australia.”

Ben and Michelle Walker.