Bull runner, dairy farmer, cattle trader

Bull runner, dairy farmer, cattle trader

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This Gippsland farmer has 700 bulls, trades $4 million in dairy cows each year and, with his brother, runs a dairy herd of 500 milkers comprised almost entirely from other farmer's rejects.

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He has 700 bulls, trades $4 million in dairy cows each year and, with his brother, runs a dairy herd of 500 milkers comprised almost entirely from other farmer's rejects, while helping out at the roadside shop selling fresh produce run by his partner.

And, if he knows fear, Jim Arbrecht doesn't show it.

"This isn't steep," he said, as your poker-faced lowland journalist braced against the turn up the dizzying slope, "but this hill country is treacherous when it's wet and I totalled a ute in that gully feeding out hay here."

The gully came to a pinch one or 200 metres below us on a hillside offering spectacular views across the Trafalgar flats all the way across the valley to Mt Baw Baw.

Just as I was thinking it was a wonder he'd survived, Mr Arbrecht confessed to having written off six vehicles on the property, and falling off his two-wheel Suzukis "often".

"I have three of these little utes just in case one is out of action, like the one I drove into the gully," he said.

"I'd kill myself on a four wheeler."

It was a relief to know there are some boundaries for the entrepreneurial dare-devil, who runs about 1200 hectares across central Gippsland.

The diversified business comprises dairy farming, bull hire and cattle trading.

With Jim, 68, running the cattle trading and bull hire operations and brother Lindsay, 70, the dairy farmer, it's obvious the two complement each other perfectly.

Mr Arbrecht buys cattle at Gippsland saleyards every week - a lucrative enterprise turning over $4 million a year - and many of them end up in Lindsay's dairy, since the Arbrechts don't rear a single calf.

"You should only rear calves if you do an excellent job of them and there's no substitute for time if you're raising calves," Lindsay said.

They sell calves at the Warragul saleyards and Jim buys in 'chopper' dairy cows rejected by other farmers.

"A lot of very good dairy cows end up at the saleyards just because they didn't get in calf at the right time," Mr Arbrecht said.

"Lindsay feeds them really well, we put them in the herd and if they don't come back to 18 litres a day in a week, we sell them again."

Mr Arbrecht reckoned about 85 per cent of the 500-cow dairy herd, which produces a very respectable 510 kilograms of milk solids annually per cow, was bought as a chopper.

Milkers are fed 1500kg of dry matter (DM) in the bail and consume 8 tonnes DM of pasture on the rainfed farm, which averages 1060 millimetres annual rainfall.

The rainfall is quite reliable but in the good years, it can be as little as 800mm and, in the bad ones, 1270mm.

"Dry years are the best years," Lindsay said.

"I'm predicting this one will be a disaster.

"We've already had 12 inches and the slopes get wetter than the flats."

The soil is a red clay over a rock base and it holds water exceedingly well.

But it didn't seem to bother the hundreds of bulls roaming the top paddocks.

The bull rental and sales part of the business worked well for a few reasons, Mr Arbrecht explained: first, it was handy for the dairy, second, hiring out bulls to other farmers was profitable and third, they could always be grown out and sold for meat.

"Bulls grow into money, especially when someone else is feeding them," he said.

The only mistake he's made was to buy too many Jersey bulls.

"Jersey bulls didn't go so well because everyone's been after Friesians," Mr Arbrecht said.

"My advice to dairy farmers is to rear as many calves as you can because whether they're export heifers or crossbred dairy beef, they'll do well."

Those days spent up on the foothills with the bulls or spraying weeds brought an enormous sense of satisfaction for Mr Arbrecht, who loved ridding the picturesque landscape of ragwort and blackberries.

Lindsay, too, enjoyed making an infrastructure improvement on the farm every year.

Perhaps the most successful of all of them was the decision to install a 100 kilowatt solar system on the dairy.

The system was financed with a seven-year lease and leaves an electricity bill that is usually in credit.

The lease costs $1900 a month and, as the power bills for the rotary dairy had been around $3000/month, the Arbrechts have been ahead by more than $1000/month since the system was installed three years ago.

But there was a note of caution; getting approval from AusNet for the surplus power generated to enter the electricity grid had been a vital step that took time.

"Solar is the best thing since sliced bread but it can only work if you can sell it back into the grid," Lindsay said.

"You need to have very smart people working for you.

"Solar is wonderful but it's not simple."

A combination of ingenuity, entrepreneurialism and hard work has paid off for the Arbrechts but, at the same time, there's nothing puritanical about it.

"Our consultant, Matt Hall, says we can push a lot harder but we resist," Lindsay said.

"We reckon we could do 10 per cent better but that would mean a lot more work."

Jim Arbrecht agreed.

"I'm not pretending to be a top operator," he said.

"Only your health is important, so long as you enjoy doing what you do."

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