The Stony Rises, near Colac, are aptly named. While the soil is rich with nutrients and the rainfall consistently good, the land is disrupted by a vast number of basalt rocks caused by volcanic activity from thousands of years ago.
Some of the hilly, heavily wooded land remains impossible to clear, but the outskirts of the Stony Rises is prime dairying country – if the rocks don’t get in the way.
In years gone by some of the rocks were turned into the region’s famous dry-stone walls. However, at nearby Pomborneit, dairy farmer Ben Bennett is one of those who has cleared his land to improve productivity. The property is surrounded by 18 kilometres of stone wall fences, a remnant of a trade all-but lost in the modern era.
But when Ben took over the farm, much of it was too rocky to grow good crops. He describes the decision to clear his paddocks as a “no brainer”.
“Why wouldn’t you do it? I’m standing now in a paddock where I’ve had a four-tonne Lucerne yield. I wouldn’t have got anywhere near that without clearing the rocks.”
Ben’s 300-hectare property is in an area previously closely-associated with dairying, although that has diminished in recent decades.
“The history of the area is in dairy farming – we’ve brought it into the 21st century,” he says.
The Bennett family purchased the property nearly six years ago after moving from New Zealand and spending a year working in the meat industry, while looking for a suitable property. At the time, it was heavily overgrown with weeds with mainly a day and night paddock in use for farming.
“There’s no money in cape weed, but we saw the potential. We were behind the eight ball from the start – there was no real pasture, just weeds,” Ben adds.
They also had to endure three years of drought and a bushfire, which burnt a third of their land.
“But after a lot of heartache we can see a light at the end of the tunnel,” Ben told Dairy News.
He says that low cost farming was essential and good pasture was the key to achieving that. “We’ve now got 90% effective land. Most of it wasn’t arable when we started.
“We aimed to get the farm to its critical mass. We don’t want to be buying in imports. We feed grain for six months of the year now, but aim to reduce that to five.
“It is critical to get support from your bank, which we did,” Ben adds.
“A mortgage is a real wake-up call and necessity is the mother of invention so you do what you have to, to make it work. They say there’s no gain without pain. Hopefully we’re through the worst of the pain.”
The Bennetts believe a gradual clearing of their land, using a rock crushing machine and planting of good pastures, with a particular focus on Lucerne, was the best way to develop their farm.
“We had the rock crusher in over four seasons, doing a bit at a time. We’d crush the rocks and convert them into the land and then plant the pasture.”
The farm is now heading in the right direction.
“I always say you have to farm for a drought, but if it’s not your creditors will be happy.”
The wet season during 2010 has helped. Although silage came off about two months later than usual, the farm is now flush with good yields.
“Last year we used about a third of the silage we produced and this year we’ve made three times as much and counting,” Ben adds.
“We’ve got so much hay we’re going to have to sell some. This goes against my principles, but helps the cash flow.”
Ideally, Ben would like to increase his herd of 400 cross-breed cows, but that has taken a back-seat until the farm’s cash flow improves.
Millicent-based Garry Davies – who calls himself the ‘Stone Killer’ – has been in the bulldozing business for 15 years. During that time he’s developed his own method of helping landowners to deal with troublesome rocks and boulders.
His 90-tonne roller does the bulk of the work.
“It’s pretty simple really,” he says. “We just roll the material and mix the crushed stones into the soil.”
The bulk of his work comes from dairy farms and he works on properties across south-east South Australia and Western Victoria. He has seen thousands of hectares of previously unproductive land transformed into prime dairying country.
“We turn very ordinary country into very good land,” he says.
The rock crushing business got underway when Garry was visiting a client who owned a vineyard in south-west South Australia, near his home base of Millicent.
“He was picking the stone up and moving it. He was on a hiding to nothing. I said why don’t you smash it and crush it and leave it there. We got the big roller and started breaking it up.”
Garry says the crusher would work for a variety of industries, but was particularly well-suited to dairying in areas of rocky terrain.
“Every place and paddock is different, but it can break through anything. You can do the limestone in South Australia or the volcanic rocks in Victoria – you can find two or three different types of stones in one paddock.”