CARDINIA farmer John Gardiner knows that to remain viable in the dairy industry, sound business decisions go a long way.
He's been milking cows and breeding Holsteins under the Avonlea name as long as he can remember, after his parents Harley and Valmai established the stud way back in 1948.
The farm at Five Ways was home to many champion cows, many of which had been successful at International Dairy Week, but a rare opportunity arose two years ago that the Gardiner family could not pass up.
"We weren't in the growth corridor, but a turf company approached us with an offer to buy the farm," he said.
If the family opted to stay, there was always the chance that houses might have sprung up around their property and caused issues, such as environmental concerns.
"It was a business decision; we were thinking about the future," he said.
Prior to that happening, Mr Gardiner said the milk price also plummeted and caused him to rethink his options in the industry.
"I had reached a bit of a crossroads. I'd been working for a long time and when we were offered a deal for the cows, I decided to downsize," he said.
They continued to milk a small herd of 50, but the "down" time gave the long-time breeder a chance to re-evaluate his goals.
"It really allowed us to step away from the intensity of what we were doing," he said.
But surprisingly, Mr Gardiner found dairying was what he wanted to do after all.
"When you breed cows and you love that side, it's in your blood," he said.
Despite many of the challenges of the industry including unpredictable milk prices, drought and floods, he and wife Cherie decided to take the plunge and kick start their enterprise once again - this time at Cardinia.
The 170-hectare farm had already been purchased by the Gardiners six years ago to run dry cows on.
It boasted an old Herringbone, but was replaced with a brand new 50-bale rotary with automatic cup removers.
"We started milking in the new dairy in February last year," he said.
But the issue of building up numbers again to stock the property remained - because most had been sold off.
The Gardiners ran a score-8 (MN1) accredited herd, so they had to source cows where they could.
"Score-8 cows are available, but we did have to go interstate a lot of the time," he said.
Today, they are milking 160 cows all year round, but the goal is to reach 200.
And the cautious herd selection has paid off - perhaps because of Mr Gardiner's adept experience as a show judge.
Wellstrand Garrison Lucille was purchased from a top Western Australian stud in 2011.
And late last year, the impressive cow came up with the goods, winning the five year-old class in the Semex-Holstein Australia on-farm challenge.
It's one of the biggest competitions of its kind in the country, so Mr Gardiner was pleased with the outcome.
"The judge described her as a balanced cow, with very few faults," he said.
She had peaked at about 50 litres.
And as International Dairy Week fast approaches, the family are unsure whether the successful cow will go to the event.
"She'll have to step up to a six year-old class, and we are not sure what to do yet," he said.
Avonlea Holsteins plan to show eight head altogether, which are already being prepared.
The internationally-recognised event has been a regular feature on the family's calendar, largely because of the chance to compare their cows against others around the country.
But the marketing element of IDW was also a big drawcard.
"You always hope to be competitive, but there's the opportunity to promote cattle too," he said. "Even if you don't do well, there could be potential sales down the track."
Again, Mr Gardiner reiterates the importance of the making business decisions.
"Any animal is for sale," he said.
The stud has a long list of major show ribbons under its belt, including the 1993 IDW champion cow.
And while margins are increasingly getting "tighter", the dairy farmer admits he continues to be motivated by achievements. "We had a cow recently that peaked at 68L and another at 62L," he said.
"When you see that - that's really rewarding."