April 14, 2016

How one woman wrangles an international agribusiness

Cattle breeder Margo Hayes is the powerhouse behind Vitulus Lowline Stud, an award-winning semen and embryo export business with customers in a string of countries, including the US, the UK, Thailand and Italy. We share a day in her life.

Margo Hayes and her husband, jazz musician and physician Dr Mileham Hayes, have had their fingers in multiple pies, including medical centres and a music-touring agency, over the past 25 years.

Since 2010 they’ve been based on 160-acres of grazing land outside the country town of Laidley, around 80-minutes from Brisbane. The property supports a herd of 120 head. Vitulus Lowline Stud, their award-winning semen and embryo export business has customers in a string of countries, including the US, the UK, Thailand and Italy

Working with cattle seemed a natural choice to Hayes, who was raised on the land, outside Stanthorpe, near the Queensland-NSW border. She’s chosen to focus her efforts on Lowlines and Auslines, two small cattle breeds, for ease of handling.

“My husband knew nothing about it, and I knew that I’d be the one wrangling them,” Hayes says.

Vitulus is a textbook lesson in diversification – in addition to breeding and showing cattle and exporting genetics, Hayes markets her own branded beef and travels internationally as a cattle judge. She’s a columnist for the Queensland Country Life newspaper, has written a book on small cattle for the CSIRO and hosts introductory courses for hobby farmers on livestock management and care.


Up with the sparrows

5am: I get up, have a cup of tea and then work out what I’m going to do for the day. I have a list – a never-ending list! I have a school-based trainee, John, who comes every Wednesday from 6.30 until 3pm, so it’s a day when we do things together. I’ve only got him one day a week, so I write a jobs list that needs two people. We often have a big cattle workday, whether we’re vaccinating or weaning or weighing or spraying, or whatever we have to do. It’s a great program – he’s doing a Cert 3 in Agriculture and comes to shows and learns how to break in cattle and all those sorts of things. It’s a good thing to be involved in because I can teach the trainees and I’m always learning too.

6am: I start by checking the cattle, and if I have to turn on bores or sort out pumping water, I set that up. When you’re doing cattle work, you want to get going early to get five or six hours in. Cattle don’t like working in the middle of the day – they don’t like moving in the hot weather – so if you’re going to do anything with them, you want to get it finished before midday, especially in summer.


Hitting the books

11am: We have a little break and then I’ll go and catch up on bookwork or marketing and admin tasks. I spend quite a bit of time maintaining my website and dealing with emails because when you export that’s how you communicate mostly. I was one of the first people in my industry to have a website 20 years ago, and that’s brought clients to me.

I wouldn’t have known where to go in Thailand, for example, to look for buyers for my embryos and live cattle. I’ve always been big on marketing … as a small producer you need to have a niche and a product you can differentiate because you’re never going to be able to compete head on with people who have 1000-2000 breeding animals. I’m always looking for additional revenue sources and ways to add value. Selling genetics is an excellent way to do this because you’re collecting semen and embryos from animals that you already have, you don’t have to have more animals to do it.

Exporting genetics involves a lot of planning – it can take years to organise. You have to make sure that there’s an established protocol between both countries for a start, so that they’ll accept your embryos or semen. Your cows need to be transported to a licensed collection centre; there are health checks and quarantine and vet fees. Collecting for a foreign market costs a minimum of $7000, so you also want to make sure that the person you’re doing it for is going to come through with the goods and pay for it! I also do a lot of planning for shows.

I attend about five or six a year. You also have to plan these a long time in advance because you need to present specific animals that meet the criteria for the classes they’ll compete in. Royal Shows are the most time consuming because you’re there for four to seven days, and need to take all the feed for your cattle and organise your helpers.

Avoiding the heat

1pm: After lunch, it’s the hottest part of the day, so we’ll do stuff like maintenance or sorting out feed, cleaning out the troughs or the tool shed, fixing up halters, all those kinds of things – jobs that don’t involve livestock. And when you have a farm there’s always something that needs fixing, always!

4pm: When it’s cooler, I go back and check the water and make sure the cattle have feed and if we’re moving stock around, make sure the gates are closed. I may need to mow the lawns or slash the paddocks. And I check on the dogs – I breed chocolate Labradors and have two litters at the moment. For the eight weeks, the puppies are here I have to be here all the time too because they need feeding three times a day. It’s just an aside, not a major income source for me. I like breeding animals – I love genetics, so it’s just a natural extension of what I do.

7pm: I normally wait until it’s dark to stop work and eat. My husband sometimes cooks on the weekend but in the week, he’s commuting to Brisbane. We work from dawn to dusk. The cows aren’t 9-to-5, and nor are we.


More from NAB: