A passion for breeding

Sarah Luke

WHO would’ve thought that little Trevor Henry from Tinamba, the 12-year-old boy pleading with his father to help matchmake bulls and heifers, would one day be accepting a national award for breeding excellence?

An all grown-up Trevor recently travelled to Tasmania to attend the Holstein Friesian Association of Australia annual meeting, and accept his Holstein Australian Master Breeder award.

Considered by some as a pinnacle award within the agricultural industry, the Master Breeder award recognises the long-term achievement of those who have bred at least 300 registered animals during a minimum 20 years.

Assessed on classification and production, Trevor’s herd almost doubled his 1075 point threshold requirement, scoring a staggering 2110 points.

But the award is just another feather in the avid dairy farmer’s cap.

Based on the Australian Breeding Values system, which assesses a herd’s genetic merit and performance, Trevor’s herd has consistently scored in the top 10 herds in the country for the past decade.

The same system ranked three of Trevor’s bulls in the top four highest Australian bred bulls.

The system uses genomic testing — taking a hair or tissue sample to analyse the productivity of an animal.

An incredibly impressive feat for Trevor, but hardly surprising, given his lifelong dedication to genetic progress.

“Breeding cows has been a passion — obsession — of mine, since I was very young,” he said.

“I was very lucky — I think dad just gave up because I pestered him so much up until that point, and said, ‘right, you know what you’re doing, you pick the bulls you want to use on the cows’.

“If there were 10 cows in season and I wanted to use 10 different bulls, he’d say to the AI technician, ‘these are the bulls that these cows are going to’.”

Trevor’s grandfather arrived in Tinamba as a sharefarmer in 1949.

“He was using AI and herd recording back from the late 50s— to take up what must’ve seemed a very strange and new technology back then, and lean into it … we’ve got recordings back to that time, which has allowed us to build the strength in our herd,” Trevor said.

In 1957, one of the first AI calves born in this district took its first steps on the Henry farm.

After his grandfather died in 1957, Trevor’s father — affectionately referred to by Trevor as “a great cow man” — and two uncles bought the farm.

Trevor and his wife Tracy McConnell-Henry bought his uncle out in 1999, then Trevor’s parents’, and they have been sole owners for the past 15 years.

The Henrys milk between 450 and 500 cows, with about 300 calves and yearlings across about 360 hectares.

Proving family farms are still alive and well in the region, Trevor now runs the farm with his son, Oakley, and his nephew, Damien, while Tracy and daughter Coco have also been known to lend a helping hand when needed.

Trevor said his drive to produce genetically superior animals was born out of his eagerness to contribute to the progression of agriculture in a world with an exploding population and demand for food outstripping supply.

“I think we’ve come quite disconnected as a society as to where our food comes from and how it’s produced — to what it actually means to feed everyone,” he said.

“[Through AI] you’re trying to create the most efficient animal that’s the most productive, yet the least impactful on environmental, socio and political areas.

“We assess cows on their resistance to disease, how resilient they are from a health perspective, and we try to make them as healthy structurally as possible so they don’t have to see the vet regularly.

“There’s minimal antibiotics being used in our production system, so it doesn’t then impact down the line with our health.

“We’re trying to maximise every kilogram of feed we get to get production out the other end.

“You’re contributing in a small way to hopefully enhance and make things better.

“I think that’s what most of us try to do; it’s just we all find our own little niches to try to contribute.”

Despite his triumphs, like many in the area, Trevor’s had his fair share of tribulations.

He said borrowing money to pay feed bills so the cows remained in good working order was just a reality now.

“We’re eternal optimists — we [farmers] probably should all be signed up for gamblers anonymous because we keep punting and punting on the weather,” he said.

“When feed costs go up so dramatically —I think this time last year we were paying around $340 a tonne for grain, and now we’re paying $480 — you can’t avoid paying it, especially when you’ve got a production system in place that relies on a certain amount of feed coming in.

“Tonnes-wise, we’re feeding less, which means a bit less production, but dollars-wise, we’re paying out more per month.”

Trevor said sometimes, it could feel like blow after blow for the dairy industry.

“We went through the droughts in the early to mid 2000s, then we got hit by the global financial crisis — I think the dairy industry was one of the worst hit, we had a 40 per cent price drop mid-season.

“So that was hard, then we got hit by another drought, and then we got hit by the Murray Goulburn [price drop], so you do feel a bit punch drunk.

“You try to farm to the conditions as best you can — it’s just what you’ve got to deal with.

“You get up, and you keep going.”

Trevor knows his situation is all too common locally, something he saw first-hand during his 10 years on the Macalister Demonstration Farm board, with four years as chairman.

He was then appointed to the Genetics Australia board in May 2010, promoted to deputy chairman from 2013 to 2015, and then became chairman in November 2015.

Trevor’s role at Genetics Australia allows him to draw on his lifelong passion of breeding cows and contributing to the dairy industry.

“I firmly believe in the Australian cow, of all breeds, and what she can achieve,” he said.

“She’s a unique animal that’s been bred from the best of overseas genetics, coupled with the best local genetics.

“We’re ahead in all production traits, we’re now matching in all fertility and health traits to the rest of the world, so we’re producing a world class animal.”