Vella Family, North Queensland
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Vella Family, North Queensland

Category Client Stories

Ray and Leah Vella

In a testament to hard work and exceptional vision, in just one generation Queensland’s Vella family has grown its holdings from a modest 16 hectare cane farm, to a significant and highly diversified farming powerhouse.

Ray and Leah Vella, together with Ray’s parents George and Jane, sister Patricia and wife Rata run the operation, which has a geographic spread from Rockhampton through to Mackay and Proserpine.

While George and Jane are now enjoying a well-earned step away from the business, Ray, Leah and their own three children, Kurt, 15, Kayla, 13 and Beau, 10, plus Patricia and Rata continue to progress their legacy.

And the key to much of the Vellas’ success has been the implementation of holistic grazing practices – helping rejuvenate and maintain both soil health and business growth.

The purchase of “Bald Hills” in the Rockhampton region in 2000 provided Ray’s first foray into holistic grazing – and an opportunity to flex his unbridled vision.

Bought as a bare, run-down 7,000 ha block, enjoying 20 kilometres of coastal frontage and bordered by the Styx River and Herbert Creek, Ray and Leah spent almost two decades developing the unique property into 46 watered paddocks and three major laneways.

They also constructed two new sets of cattle yards and developed a 500 head capacity feedlot pen.

It was an extensive infrastructure feat, but one that has paid dividends, particularly during recent drought years. 

“We have our cattle on a seven day rotational grazing system and the soil response has been incredible, we’ve been able to keep our organic matter nice and healthy, and as a result our paddocks enjoy better moisture retention and we can run more cattle per acre,” Ray said.

A key factor to the Vella’s rotational grazing success has been grass budgeting, a ‘game changer’ enabling them to formulate how many beasts per acre they can run based on their monthly grass stock.

“We measure each paddock size through Google Earth, then based on our grass budget we can break down how many cattle we can run per acre over a certain time frame.”

“Being acutely aware of our stocking rates ensures we never overstock, but it also affords us specific and valuable parameters in which we can work, so we know how far we can push for maximum profitability, without jeopardising our soil’s production capability.”

A focus on improved genetics across their Brahman and Brangus herd has also increased operational efficiency, with bull selection now based on genomics and estimated breeding values.

“We are now using cattle management and recording technology to our advantage, we can improve the carcase traits and eating quality across our herd and ultimately secure premium markets to sell our produce into.”

“Increasingly our consumers want to know where their food comes from, and rightly so, and we’re really proud to have built traceability into our operation to ensure that Australian beef is some of the world’s cleanest, and tastiest on offer.”

Eight years ago the Vella’s launched their own Brahman stud, and whilst currently retaining their bulls, they aim to sell them in the near future.

“Breeding our own bulls ensures we can now trace the full genetic history of our stud stock, and our pregnancy rates have lifted as a result – which our bank manager loves,” Ray chuckles.

Using an artificial insemination program and IVF programs across his commercial and stud herds, Ray admitted it took ‘a good two years’ to start realising the optimal genetic traits desired, but now thanks to data-based, scientific decision making the Vellas are breeding highly functional, low maintenance cattle.

Better genetics, Ray said, also ensured he could ‘turn off’ cattle more quickly, taking pressure off pastures in dry periods.

The culmination of over a decade’s worth of work improving genetics and pasture management across “Bald Hills” was put to the test over the drought of 2018/19 – with the business coming out on top.

The Vellas were able to retain 4,000 head during this major drought, and are now enjoying the spoils thanks to record cattle prices and a terrific season.

Ray and Leah Vella

“We knew that if we could retain our herd, the results would be phenomenal once the season turned, but I’m not sure anyone expected prices to go as high as they have.”

The Vella’s also identified an opportunity through the sale, and lease back, of “Bald Hills” two years ago to the Australian Defence Force – enabling recent expansion into a large scale grazing and sugarcane operation in the Proserpine district.

Ray is now implementing a rotational grazing schedule across the property, and said that thanks to a higher rainfall average of 1,200 ml per year the property lends itself to more intensive cell grazing.

“We plan to subdivide the 3,800 hectares of beef country into roughly 50 fenced and watered paddocks over the next 5 to 10 years, and I’m confident we can emulate the success we’ve achieved on ‘Bald Hills’, with a goal to eventually run 5,000 head.”

The property is diversified into sugarcane also, and features well-developed water infrastructure facilitating flood irrigation.

Being spared of further infrastructure developments Ray admits is a relief – yet it hasn’t quenched this quiet achiever’s thirst for opportunity.

“The goal for the cane farm is to incorporate a feedlot and a mixed cropping rotation including corn and soybeans to further strengthen the property’s soil profile, and potentially increase sugarcane production above the current output of 75,000 to 80,000 tonnes.”

Rabobank rural manager Paul Kennedy has supported the Vella’s through every step of their expansion journey, with Ray crediting Paul for encouraging him to take the time to find the right property at the right time.

“We looked at a lot of properties and it was great to have Paul as a sounding board, and in the end we were so pleased we waited for Proserpine, everything aligned.”

Ray laughed that with Paul in his phone on speed dial, it’s an astute reflection of the ease within their relationship.

Returning to the third generation family farm at just 15-years-old, Ray believes his future in farming was never in doubt.

Yet describing his initial farming management style as largely ‘old school’, he unequivocally credits completing a Nuffield Scholarship in 2012, sponsored by Meat and Livestock Australia, for turning his fortunes around – literally.

“My Nuffield learnings really were life changing, and the catalyst for our move towards holistic grazing. Nuffield gave me the confidence to make decisions for long term outcomes, and I don’t think I’ll ever stop developing properties, there are just so many opportunities to improve our land, and our profits.”

“So much about family farming is inter-generational – it’s not about a quick buck, and I’m grateful to my parents for their great vision, and now I’m proud to be planning and looking after the environment for the next generation.”

In addition to “Bald Hills” and the Proserpine property, George and Jane remain at the original Walkerston property, which has expanded further into cane and beef production, whilst Patricia and Rata run a sugarcane property at Mackay. 

And while the Vellas may run a modern, sophisticated operation, old-fashioned values remain at their core.

“Running a business of this scale, I believe you need to value your family, employees and contractors’ contributions with respect and recognition, and to stay humble while being successful.”

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