Farming complexities explained

Philip Hopkins

RUNNING a farm is becoming increasingly complex, especially if you specialise in both beef and dairy.

The pressure is on to expand, and
economic and climate issues abound. Just ask East Gippsland farmer Chris Nixon.

Chris and his wife Helen have combined their family operations to create a big farm, from properties at Orbost, Cann River and Wulgulmerang.

Three decades ago, he milked 175 dairy cows and had 240-odd beef.

“Today, I milk 500 cows and run about 2000 beef between the two farms, so obviously I know a lot about debt and interest rates,” he quipped.

“I’m a keen student of interest rates! When first farming in the late 1980s, interest rates were at 18 per cent – the ‘recession we had to have’. What people don’t understand about interest rates and inflation, is that inflation historically is not beaten until interest rates are higher than the inflation rate. There is no such thing about a soft landing, especially when there are governments ‘racking up’ huge debts.

“We are struggling with some of the highest energy prices in the world. People are hung up about climate hysteria; we will save the world with one per cent of global emissions. We have six coal-fired power stations in Australia, with two to close in the not too distant future. China this year is building 106 gigawatts of coal stations – only China, not even India. We only have 6GW of coal-fired power. We think by closing these stations we will save the world. It’s ludicrous beyond belief that people are falling for this stuff. You can’t have sensible debate – you’re a denier. Millennials are falling for this.”

Being a big enterprise, the Nixons have developed a loose management structure with managers at the properties and a couple of other employees.

“We try to empower our guys in the various places to make decisions. It works quite well; they get to enjoy having good management input to run farms, they get a sense of ownership, and it’s good for Helen and I,” he told Gippsland Farmer.

“I can leave them to it and they will make good decisions.”

Over the long haul, Chris has found dairy a much better industry to be in than beef.

“Even though we are a bigger beef operation, the last few years have been a golden patch for beef and that was 35 years in the making. I probably won’t see it again in my lifetime,” he said.

“We do find that dairy is traditionally a more stable industry if you watch your costs; beef is more up and down. Normally when beef is up, dairy is down. The start of the year when both were up were very good – I haven’t seen that before and probably never will again.”

Chris said beef was driven by the export market. A big depressor for exports had been that America and South America had been destocking due to drought conditions.

“The American herd is about twice the size of the Australian; basically, they have depressed manufacturing beef price,” he said.

With America going through a destocking phase, beef sold must wash through the market place. Cool stores that were full, have emptied since Christmas, “so I expect the fat price in Australia, the finished price in Australia, will improve.”

‘Plant-based meats’ are another challenge for the beef farmer.

“Any disruptor is never any good. Part of the issue with plant-based meats is, they pretend to be something they are not. There is no way they will get the amount of micro-nutrients and nutrition out of a plant-based thing grown in a lab with a test tube of stainless steel, rather than naturally animal-eating pastures in a natural environment,” he said.

Disconnect between country, city

“THAT’S a hard story to sell, the natural advantages of beef compared with plants.”

Chris said beef issues were too often looked at “in a snapshot”.

“For example, methane emissions in cows as a major greenhouse gas does not tell the whole story of carbon in cattle; it’s headline grabbing, easy to understand, but does not tell the story of the life cycle around animals in grazing and pastures,” he said.

“Methane from animals is a natural part of the carbon cycle, the water cycle, for all of us to exist. Carbon and H2O and methane (CH4), they all work together through the carbon cycle and the water cycle – society ignores this and goes for headlines.”

In fact, animal agriculture is healthy for the environment.

“It’s quite dry here at the moment. We do DNA tests on the funguses that grow in our soils; when bacillus fungus in your soil improve, your animals are a lot healthier,” Chris said.

“We get much higher carbon sequestration in the soil and we get a higher rotational-phase farm system. Most farmers do. You get a quite high build-up of carbon in your soils and with healthier, biological agents like fish, kelp and seaweed – all sorts of weird and wonderful stuff.

“A healthier soil gives you a much healthier plant, which gives you much healthier animals, so a human population that eats those animals will be healthier as a result, you won’t get that response by growing ‘plant meat’ in a lab.”

Chris said they spray the farm twice a year with a seaweed fertiliser.

“We stopped using nitrogen fertiliser on dairy; we are getting a much more balanced pasture. It’s about natural systems working in balance to get a much more friendly outcome for the animals and plants.”

Finding new and better ways to farm is an ongoing process.

“I’ve changed how I farm – this is probably the fourth major change. It’s never-ending, there is always a new idea that could work, but some things have not worked well,” he said.

His current program he calls “Yakult in soils”, a ‘probiotic drink’.

“We are trying to get the different funguses in the soil more active; by doing that we are releasing the phosphates and the different trace elements in the soils that plants need for healthy existence,” he said.

The Nixons sell cattle to markets at Bairnsdale and Omeo but most go to Greenhams in Moe for processing. They keep dairy and beef separate.

“There is no cross-over, with animal health issues around disease. We run closed herds on both beef and dairy,” he said. Since the drought, the emphasis has been on getting costs out of the dairy operation through the three big drivers – herd fertility, mastitis and feet.

Having tried every beef breed – Angus, Hereford, Simmental, Charolais – the herd is straight Angus with no crossbreeding. Dairy is predominantly Friesian Jersey genetics.

Their milking machine is a 50-stand rotary that requires two people in the shed – “one cups on, the other cups off” – with milking taking about two hours twice a day. They now send milk to Bega in NSW after the implosion of Murray-Goulburn.

Chris understands the dairy processors’ problems.

“It’s not their fault, they are in the business to make money,” he said.

The problem now is, there is not enough milk. At deregulation, Australia was producing 12 billion litres of milk, only one billion litres behind New Zealand, but now NZ was 20b litres and Australia eight billion litres.

“In the last 10 years, we have lost 7000 dairy farmers and now have only 3200 dairy farmers across Australia. With the shrinkage of the milk pool, processors can’t keep their factories open, the overheads will kill you, so I don’t blame the processors, they have other issues,” he said.

Drought hit northern Victoria – “Rochester and Cobram all suffered”.

“The northern irrigation districts were 3.5b litres of milk, now they are flat out doing a billion,” he said.

The reasons included the Murray-Darling Basin plan and how water is traded.

“The removal of so much water for environmental flows has probably gone too far; industry has to contract to the amount of water they’ve got,” Chris said.

This crisis, along with high living costs, was symptomatic of poor government policy, of which the closure of Victoria’s native forest industry was a big example.

“Orbost is surrounded by 3.5million hectares of bush and they have closed down the timber industry because people are worried about a possum or a glider in the tiny logging coups,” he said.

“The voters are in the city and have no understanding of the size of the forest, there is bush all the way from Melbourne to Mallacoota. Timber closes, we get timber from overseas to build a house, there are not enough plantations, the paper mill closes – paper has to come from overseas,” he said. “Costs go up.”

Bushfires are a permanent risk to farmers.

“I’ve been burnt out three times in the past 20 years. We got smashed in 2003 and lost 450 cows in fire,” he said.

This was followed by fires in 2014 and Cann River in 2019.

“Here at Orbost, the bushfire risk is real, it’s huge. The management of the bush is probably the worst it has ever been. Before the 1960s, fuel loads in the bush were put under more control than today.”

Chris said since the 2019 fires, Orbost to Buchan is basically black wattle.

“You can’t walk through, it’s so thick. That is an explosive time bomb waiting to go off,” he said.

“There is no fuel reduction burning, we have lost forest contractors from the bush – 27 in East Gippsland. Who is going to fight the fires? It’s a huge issue that people don’t understand.”

Chris said the bush confronting the early settlers was nothing like what the bush looks like today.

“There was Indigenous burning. Monaro tribes used to come down to the coast and go back to the High Country and burn when moving on. There were not huge landscape fires, more a cooler, trickle burn. They burnt more regularly, so you didn’t get the huge fires of the past 20 years,” he said.

“It’s a numbers game. Politics is won by those who turn up.”

Melbourne would soon have six million people, with half born overseas or with a parent born overseas.

“They do not understand the environment we live in, they have preconceived ideas of how things were from back home,” he said.

“For the environmental movement, all fire is bad philosophy, they have a poor understanding of how the bush works. The new generation thinks landscape fires are normal. Trying to get debate is difficult.”

Chris is a politically aware person; not surprising, given he is the son of National Party maestro, the former federal minister Peter Nixon, who is still going strong at 95.

“I did stand against my cousin, the independent Craig Ingram. That was my one and only foray into politics. I was involved as VFF (Victorian Farmers Federation) livestock president in 2009-11, but withdrew into anonymity,” Chris said.

That has led to frustrations.

“It has got to the point where I’m involved with National Party to try and help formulate better policies, as junior vice-president of the operational wing of NP in Victoria,” he said.

“It’s early days yet, there is a lot to do. We have this disconnect between city and bush.”

Gippsland Farmer

The Gippsland Farmer is a monthly agricultural newspaper reporting on rural news and distributed FREE and direct to an area covering from Cann River through to South Gippsland. For more than 40 years Gippsland Farmer has reported on a range of issues and industries including dairy, beef, vegetables, sheep, goats, poultry, organic farming, and viticulture.