Providing practical information to help you protect your farm from biosecurity risks

Michael Blake

Putting money in your pocket

Michael BlakeYou would be hard pressed to find a sheep or cow in the country that would not trade places to live at Bally Glunin Park, near Hamilton in Victoria’s southwest.  This is home to Australia’s first Biosecurity Farmer of the Year- livestock category, Michael Blake, who also took home Wool Producer of the Year at this year’s Australian Farmer of the Year Awards.

Michael and his wife Cathy run a combination of 10,000 superfine Merinos, 2,000 crossbred sheep and 140 Hereford and Limousin cattle on their 1,800-hectare property.  And this year they are set to harvest around 200 tonnes of oats as part of their pasture renovation program and another 300 tonnes of oaten hay to be used on the property for fodder over winter.

Although this might sound like a fairly typical southern Australian farming operation, what is not typical is how Michael incorporates biosecurity and quality assurance into every facet of this highly productive and reputable farming business—from his superfine Merino wool supplying the niche Italian apparel and European Eco Wool markets, to his Meat Standards Australia (MSA) quality beef destined for Europe and even his own cereal and hay crops used on-farm.

Michael developed an interest in quality assurance after a stint working in the glass manufacturing industry. When he returned home to the family farm in the early 1970s, he adopted the relevant quality assurance practices to form the basis of a farm plan that would take the business to the highest levels of productivity, biosecurity, environmental sustainability and animal welfare.

With a genuine drive for excellence, Bally Glunin Park now complies with at least 12 quality assurance programs—many which were originally piloted on the property—in efforts to guarantee each product reaches the highest and safest standards when it comes to preparation, presentation and delivery.

To ensure that Bally Glunin Park remained weed, pest and disease free well into the future, Michael started operating largely as a ‘closed farm’.  Rams and bulls are now only ever purchased from reputable breeders and are always spelled in isolation paddocks and carefully monitored for health problems before being integrated with other livestock. He also makes sure his boundaries are well maintained and secure, and that all visitors enter the property through one controlled entry/exit point after seeking permission and having their vehicles washed at the local saleyards and inspected on entry.

Despite being adjoined by 15 neighbouring properties, Michael’s biosecurity program has kept the flock entirely free from external parasites since 1995 and has a high assurance level against ovine Johne’s disease (OJD).

“My immediate neighbours are very understanding.  In fact, we had an incident when one of our sheep got into the next door property through a creek system that had washed away.  He’s very much aware of where we stand and when he rang to tell me he had one of our sheep, I told him he was welcome to keep it because I didn’t want it back.”

To help prevent animal diseases, pests and weeds being brought onto the farm by contractors and employees, Michael has adopted strict measures to reduce potential risks.  He never allows shearing contractors to start in the middle of the day to avoid external parasites being carried in through shearing gear and clothing, and he makes sure livestock carriers only enter the property with clean vehicles.

“When we handle sale stock, the transport operators have to come here with clean trucks and no other animals on board so they’re not bringing in any outside animal contaminants.  That’s standard practice here, and in actual fact, an agency lost our business because one time they got complacent and sent some vehicles to pick up stock and they had other animals onboard.  They knew the protocol, so I made the decision,” he said. “It’s all about meeting the standards which don’t cost me anything to implement.”

The property follows a weed control program to minimise weed infestation, which includes growing all their own grain and hay for fodder, and only purchasing seed from reputable seed merchants and accredited growers—and always with the relevant assurance documentation.

Michael is the first to admit introducing biosecurity to a farming business is not problem-free. Even though one of his biggest challenges has been finding people who are willing to go the extra mile to keep with his stringent requirements, he now works with a number of contractors who share his high biosecurity standards.

With mounting consumer pressure on the agricultural industry to introduce sound and ethical food safety and animal welfare practices, farmers need to be looking closely at biosecurity if they want to remain competitive into the future.  Being a strong and active believer in farm biosecurity, Michael does not want it to be seen by others as ‘barb wire and locks’, but a new way of thinking that is achievable by everyone, and which will pay dividends in return.

“Biosecurity is principally about good housekeeping and good practices in your operation,” he said.

“The basic thing for me is deciding on how you want to satisfy your end user.  So for me it comes in two parts—one has been for my own self satisfaction and what I believe to be good farm policy practice, and the second part is dovetailing that to the end users’ requirements and building on that.

“We can all do this stuff—it really makes you feel good and it makes your operation operate even better.  You can also give credit to your products and in a lot of cases you will become the preferred supplier—and that puts money in your pocket because buyers will pay extra for your goodwill because they know they’re buying a product that doesn’t have risk associated with it.”

It has been Michael’s lifelong drive for excellence and his straightforward approach to biosecurity and farm hygiene that lead to his selection as Australia’s first Biosecurity Farmer of the Year in 2010—acknowledging him as a true champion for biosecurity, and the benefits it brings.