When Scott and Nicole Wells went searching for a dairy farm four years ago, they couldn’t go past a picturesque 95ha property on Lilford Rd, just south of Kyabram Fauna Park.
“When we were looking to buy a farm we wanted to tick the box on a few things, like a decent dairy, a comfortable house and good soil and this property had all that,” Nicole said.
For Scott, it was that rich soil – used so productively by generations of previous owners - that sold him on the farm.
“You can be a good farmer on poor soil but it’s a whole lot easier to be a good farmer on good soil,” he laughed.
Scott grew up on a dairy farm near Shepparton and worked in the dairy industry. Nicole does too, as a field officer for Murray-Goulburn Co-Op. However until the farm purchase, her experience with livestock had been more of a hobby than a job.
“I called myself a collector of cows basically,” she said. “I didn’t have a dairy farming background but I loved working with them and was buying and breeding cows with no clear plan.
“Scott is more interested in the crops side of things so it has all come together at Kyabram.”
The farm purchase wasn’t all perfect. It had some irrigation limitations which didn’t exactly tick the box like the farm’s other features.
There were positives: the on-farm GM Poly Aquator software and Padman Stop outlets serving part of the property were installed about a dozen years ago and remain perfectly serviceable today.
However the five rusty dethridge wheels on a 1km irrigation channel running through the middle of the property, managed by Goulburn-Murray Water (GMW), were at least 50 years old – and showing their age.
“This Goulburn-Murray Water channel still had the old wooden control bars, it leaked and struggled to get the water delivery at busy times or just whenever anyone else was irrigating,” Nicole said.
“The vanes on the wheels were so rusted out, you could see right through them!”
The Wells found GMW staff were helpful in providing timely, quick fixes to maintain irrigation flow but say it became apparent these were all temporary measures.
With modernisation making inroads across the Goulburn-Murray Irrigation District, there was a reluctance to invest in “new” dethridge wheel-era technology and rebuild an old channel that required such manually intensive maintenance.
“When we bought the farm we weren’t relying on modernisation,” Scott said. “It had been talked about but basically the traditional irrigation supply still worked, even though delivery across the wheels ranged from as little as 4ML a day to 10ML, with delivery varying according to demand.
“It worked, but it made farm management that much harder.”
Discussions began and by winter 2016, the Connections Project and GMW, project manager Julie Murrell and Scott and Nicole had settled on a plan to bring their farm into the future.
It was designed to bring modernisation to the farm gate in a way that would provide the farm improvements Scott and Nicole wanted and were willing to pay for.
The result has seen dramatic change.
Nine weeks of construction work saw GMW decommission 2km of irrigation channel, remove the old dethridge wheels and add a new meter and regulator while the Wells completed their own on-farm works – shifting from open gravity irrigation to a pumped pipe system comprising 3.5km of underground pipes and 50 outlet risers feeding lasered paddocks.
With help from their project manager and contractor Paul Colman, they were also able to integrate their existing irrigation infrastructure with new technology.
Nicole says the pipeline was designed to deliver a minimum flow rate of 10ML a day at their furthest outlet, about a kilometre away from the pump. It is delivering almost twice that rate of flow now.
"We were elated with the result,” Nicole said. “We can water larger areas so much quicker; some paddocks took 8 to 10 hours to water and we weren’t sure of the result, now they take as little as two hours.”
Scott is excited about the coming season. The works, which were finished in early March, show great promise for irrigation management over summer and he is brimming with ideas of what he will grow, why and where, next summer.
Nicole is busy building a herd that has now reached more than 200 cows which collectively produced more than 1.2 million litres of milk this financial year.
However well-organised their farm layout, they have maintained a “wild” wetland in the middle of their property. Their re-use water storage isn’t any old farm dam. It is an oasis for bird and turtle life and a testament to the Wells’ love of their environment and lifestyle.
“Most farmers really care about the environment,” Nicole said. “They understand it.”
For Scott, that also means maintaining and improving a property that had been a productive dairy farm long before he was born.
“I think of us as only being temporary custodians of this land. I hope it will still be a dairy farm many years from now.”
Lessons learnt along the way
The Wells are still relatively new to farming and readily admit they are on a learning curve. However for farmers looking to modernise, they pass on a few lessons they’ve learned from their experience:
- Go and look at other irrigation systems that have been modernised. “See it in action to see what you’ll be managing,” Nicole said.
- Go and see a farm under construction. For the Wells, whose improvements were made in January and February, this meant having fences removed, trenches dug and channels filled in while managing their farm. “Knowing what is involved will help so you don’t sweat the small stuff,” Scott said.
- Don’t skimp or cut corners along the way: “We could have and we’re glad we didn’t,” Nicole said.
- Be flexible. “That applies to the planner, the contractor and yourselves,” Scott said.