THIS is the story of a family farm that over five generations has evolved to become one of Victoria’s first organic dairy farms.
“Our farm was originally a vineyard which was wiped out by the phylloxera virus,” Bernie Mannes said.
“After that the family started an apple and pear orchard, but in the late 1940s that started to go backwards. The family diversified into dairy farming in the 1920s and we’ve been selling milk to the Bendigo population since 1929.”
The Mannes family dairy farm at Strathfieldsaye, which is run by Bernie and his two brothers Tony and Paul, has been selling milk to the Sandhurst Co-op, now Parmalat, for some 90 years. The drought tested the Mannes’ mettle but being connected to the Coliban pipeline has been both their saving grace and curse.
Mr Mannes said water prices were becoming progressively more prohibitive and that they now paid $340 per megalitre. After the City of Greater Bendigo, the Mannes’ farm is Coliban Water’s biggest private water right holder.
“One thing about the drought, though, we discovered we didn’t need as much water as we thought,” Mr Mannes said.
“We now grow much of our own feed.”
The Mannes’ farm consists of 1200 acres with 200 acres on the home block, of which 50 acres is irrigated. While they have diversified into beef growing and poultry (not to mention the local school bus run) the core business of the family farm is the dairy. On average they milk between 80 and 90 dairy Shorthorns.
Significantly, the dairy farm is paid premium milk prices because of its Level A Certification from the National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia (NASAA). This certification allows them a premium milk price rate from Parmalat which is worth 20 per cent to 25 per cent of their total income from milk sales.
The message here, as far as Mr Mannes is concerned, is that organic farming does pay. When they gained the certification in 1993 they were only the second Victorian dairy farm to do so. Many farmers find it challenging but for the Mannes family it has been a relatively straightforward path to follow.
“We started by cutting out the use of antibiotics and replaced them with homeopathic methods,” Mr Mannes said.
“Most farmers use antibiotics as a cure-all but we’ve found that our homeopathic methods not only work but they are much cheaper than antibiotics.”
After consulting a vet who used homeopathy and doing a homeopathic course, Mr Mannes now uses about 20 or so remedies which he makes up himself. These remedies consist of herbal tinctures which he adds to water and subsequently feeds out to affected cattle. “I was paying up to $2500 in antibiotics in 1993, and today the remedies cost me somewhere like $300 a year,” he said.
“And the remedies really do work. You can’t tell me cows are aware of the placebo effect.”
To gain certification NASAA requires there to be no artificial input into the farm. Rather than use super phosphate to manure their feed crops, the Mannes family uses composted chicken manure as fertilizer. They are contract growers for Hazeldenes with six broiler sheds. Fifty percent of this fertiliser is used on their own farm and the other half is sold.
For weed eradication, Bernie Mannes relies on grazing management. Paddocks are grazed or mowed so that only the right species grow. If all else fails and thistles surface, he says he gets out a shovel and knocks the bejesus out of them.
“Using sprays on weeds is akin to tackling a small problem with a sledgehammer, the chemicals do more harm than good.”
The Mannes’ farm is still only one of a handful of dairy farms that are fully organic. Most of these are attached to the Victorian Organic Farmers’ Co-Op in South Gippsland.
Mr Mannes said milk prices were currently holding steady but global market trends lead him to expect a drop soon.
But whatever the marketplace or nature may throw at him, Mr Mannes won’t be retiring anytime soon.
“What’s there to retire from?” he asked.
“I don’t consider I go to work. I love what I do. Being outside in the paddocks, working with animals, being my own boss. The only thing that will stop us is, ironically, progress.
“We’re only 12 kilometres out from Bendigo and a couple from Strathfieldsaye, so the houses are getting closer and closer to us. One day we’ll probably be swallowed up.”