Finding the off-farm/on-farm balance

The Miller family.
Having our business as number one priority meant that things could run more smoothly
The Miller family.

The Millers produce Droughtmaster X cattle at 23,328ha Coniston station, Windorah, Queensland:

We moved to Coniston two-and-a-half years ago. We knew that to succeed we needed a run of average or better seasons as well as some off-farm work to help get us started.

It didn’t take long to pick up some contract mustering here and there, but as for the good seasons, we lucked out on that one pretty quickly.

It soon became apparent that more off-farm work was needed in order to help us get through the tough seasons leading into this devastating drought.

Soon enough Andrew was getting three days a week mustering and was also picking up a bit of contract fencing here and there.

The fencing was great because it was more money than contract mustering and the dates were more flexible.

By the end of 2012, the amount of off-farm work that Andrew was doing had got to the stage where it had become our main business and Coniston was managed in whatever spare time was left.

It eventually became obvious that the amount of time Andrew was spending away was costing our business more money in productivity loss than he was making from the short-term off-farm income.

We then sat down and worked out where we had gone wrong and how we could manage our time better.

We blocked out the time on our calendar that we needed to put into our business to get it back on track, the time we were going to have off and after that, the time that was left over was available for off-farm work.

Fencing picked up a bit in the first half of 2013 and although Andrew was still spending a lot of time away, everything was a bit more in tune and we were more organised at home.

Having our business as number one priority meant that things could run more smoothly and time away was less stressful.

By September 2013, off-farm work was getting fairly hard to find.

People were putting their money into keeping their stock alive and not so much into mustering and new fencing.

Not long after this we embarked on our own feeding program which continued through until the end of February 2014.

By this stage our financial resources were all but exhausted. The feeding program had lasted longer than we had anticipated and the need for off-farm income was becoming particularly urgent.

Andrew was lucky enough to get a contracting job to repair fences on a property in the area. The money was good, the tractor and trailer would not be required (we needed them here to feed) and the work was flexible around our feeding days. So off he went.

After about six days it started raining. It was two weeks before he could get back up there and in that time, due to receiving 77mm at Coniston, we were finally able to stop feeding.

However, it doesn’t rain money and Andrew was back into fencing as soon as it had dried out enough.

We haven’t always had the off-farm/on-farm balance right and I find it difficult when Andrew is away.

Teaching two kids (school of the air), looking after a toddler and looking after Coniston on my own has its challenges.

Off-farm work also takes a physical toll on Andrew. However, this extra income has been critical to the survival of our business.

It has allowed us to implement the feeding program that helped out stock through such a severe time. It has seen our business through times that we could never have imagined we would be facing after only two-and-a-half years.

It offers Andrew a break from the depressing circumstances at Coniston and to have conversations with people that aren’t always drought-focused. It also allows him the opportunity to learn from other producers and how they run their operations.

The MLA Challenge has really helped us to focus on, and get a better understanding of, our business to get Coniston heading in the right direction.

Now that we have had some rain, hopefully all of the new changes we have implemented in the past 8 months will start to come into play.

We really look forward to being able to spend more time at home together, and for the days when any off-farm income can go towards holidays or boarding school fees rather than surviving a devastating drought.

MLA ChallengeMeet the participants in Meat and Livestock Australia's Challenge, where producers identify how much their business is returning, what's driving profit and how to put a plan in place to capture the business' potential over a 12-month program.


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