CONSIDERING the heights of success Erica and Nic Dibden have reached in the dairy industry, it is hard to believe they started out milking from one Jersey cow embryo.
From that zero base, the couple have now grown their business to a total herd of 550 Jerseys (300 milkers) on 240ha, while sourcing supply from a nearby herd of 400 cows.
The milk supplies their Tilba Real Dairy factory, opened in 2012 in Tilba in southeast NSW at a cost of $3 million. The factory processes 1 tonne of yoghurt a week, as well as 5000 litres of milk into cheese (including award-winning cheddar, parmesan, brie and camembert), in addition to one tonne a week of club cheese (with milk curd for this product out-sourced).
When the couple began bottling milk in 2012, they started at just 100 litres a day, and are now bottling 10,000 litres daily, with that figure set to double in 2018 with the opening of their new $1 million milk processing room in February.
Nic and Erica will this year launch a local TV advertising campaign to promote the brand’s pasture-grazed, clean, green image, with turnover expected to triple in coming years.
“When we reach that point we probably won’t grow any bigger. That will be a handy, sustainable level of business,” said the 57-year-old father of six.
“I started with nothing and had to earn every dollar to expand. It’s a very expensive business to get involved in.
“At one stage we even sold 300 cows in order to get enough cash to finish the factory and then had to slowly build up the herd again.”
Nic grew up on a beef farm and trained as a builder before following his calling into dairying, starting from a zero base at the time of dairy deregulation.
He and Erica — who has no farming background — started milking 10 cows on 120ha, moving to their 240ha farm in Tilba 17 years ago.
THE self-replacing Jersey herd now calves year-round, predominantly using artificial insemination, with the Dibdens’ two farm staff using heat pads to determine when cows are ready for joining.
Genetic selection is based on the A2 protein.
“With A2 I’m hedging my bets. A2 is the fastest growing milk in Australia. There’s not a lot of science to it, but there’s a perception it’s better, so why not do it.”
The Dibdens have a 13 swing-over herringbone dairy.
Butterfats are about 4.8 per cent, protein 3.8 per cent, and the average daily yield per cow is 5500 to 6000 litres.
Nic aims for a cell count of 150,000 cells/ml.
About 120ha of the farm is renovated annually, with ryegrass and oats in winter, as well as about 15ha of sorghum or corn, and in summer kikuyu grass.
About 350 tonnes of grain is fed annually in the dairy — ground up and made into their own feed — including Manildra pellets, which are made from left-over wheat solids used in an ethanol plant.
Pastures do not use synthetic fertilisers, instead only organic inputs.
“We want to feed the soil biology rather than fertilise the grass,” Nic said.
Their volcanic loam soil has an irrigation entitlement, but it is rarely used because of the high cost. They instead rely on the area’s annual average rainfall of 1270mm.
NIC said the decision to value-add came from dissatisfaction with the price paid to dairy farmers, with Tilba Real Dairy now paying their own farm — and their additional suppliers — 72 cents a litre.
“That’s why we started processing. Just to try and get some sort of control over where our milk was going and some stability in the price,” he said.
“The price the factory now pays is making a significant difference to running the farm. I don’t think we’d still be milking if we didn’t make the move.
“I reckon the dairy industry is in a sad way. The biggest co-op is going broke, farmers are being paid as little as possible, so they are leaving in droves and production has dropped from 13 billion litres to eight billion nationally.
“At some point there will be a major, major milk crisis. I guarantee in two years there will be a significant shortage of milk in this country.”
Erica — whose passion is food — began making cheese in her kitchen in 2000 and six years later won a $50,000 Dairy Australia scholarship to study cheesemaking in Australia and Europe.
From 2006 to 2012 the Dibdens ran a small factory, bringing in fresh curd to make into club cheese.
In 2012 they retrofitted a century-old building into their current cheese factory, built with no grants, but with the National Australia Bank considered a partner in the business.
Nic said because they opened the factory when supermarkets were pushing cheap $1 milk, initially they began just making cheese and yoghurt.
THEY started dabbling in small quantities of bottled milk, marketed as pasteurised but not homogenised, “tasting like old-fashioned milk”.
“We took one of our first milk batches to a supermarket in Bermagui and he said he wouldn’t be able to sell it at the price we were asking and before we got home he’d called us to say he couldn’t believe it but he’d sold out,” he said.
“We charge $5 for two litres of milk — more in Canberra where it’s $7 — and we knew some people would pay for quality product.”
Milk is now 60 per cent of Tilba Real Dairy’s turnover, with all their products sold mostly wholesale to supermarkets — including Woolworths — south to Eden, west to Canberra and up the NSW north coast.
Nic also continues to attend three farmers’ markets a week “because every new customer we get at a farmers’ market is worth the investment”.
He said that at some point in the next 12 months they will need to introduce a new supplier in order to meet demand.
Nic said their success was partly based on an “extreme work ethic” and learning from mistakes.
“If you do the same today as you did yesterday then the results will be the same. To change it you’ve got to do something different,” he said.
“We’ve known what we want to achieve and have not stopped until we got there.
“I never give up and I have always had a vision, especially to promote this industry.”
By: SARAH HUDSON
Source: The Weekly Times