MICHEAL AND Nicky Lawry are into their second year of transitioning their dairy business to an organic enterprise. The Calivil dairy farmers are looking forward to the challenge, which they believe aligns firmly with their own beliefs.
“Organics better defines what we stand for as a dairy business and a family,” Mr Lawry said.
“We want to produce quality not quantity and be proud that the milk that we produce is rich in nutrients and good for our health. I am not interested in large factory farming producing a bulk product with little regard for the animal’s health.”
The couple began dairying in 1998 after purchasing a 65 ha dairy farm off Mr Lawry’s parents. They moved to their current farm 10 years ago and have expanded to their current size of 465ha, 300 ha of which is irrigated. They supplied Murray Goulburn for 18 years and loved being part of the co-op structure, but disillusionment with management forced them to move to Parmalat 11 months ago.
“Parmalat has been good as it has felt like we are being treated with respect, honesty and integrity again, but we will move to suppling ACM when we are fully certified,” Mr Lawry said.
The decision to turn organic hasn’t been taken lightly, and Mr Lawry said the support offered by ACM was one of the deciding factors for the transition.
“They have monthly meetings and discussion days where we can bounce ideas off each other and learn what others are doing and that will be really helpful. They also offer professional, organic-specific support.
“Once fully certified we have a three-year contract with a guaranteed milk price and that is also comforting to know.”
The couple has made a move away from permanent pasture and decided to go with annuals sown down with lucerne. The use of irrigation is mainly to extend the natural growing season through spring and autumn. The business cuts its own silage. The herd continues to rotate around the paddocks throughout summer with the silage fed out under the electric fence lines to fill the summer feed gap.
Although the cows are consuming very little pasture throughout this stage it ensures the cows are on clean ground and nutrients from manure and silage are more evenly distributed over the farm. Due to the high cost of purchasing organic grain, Mr Lawry will use part of his irrigated land to grow organic cereal grain for his herd.
“Growing crops organically will be another exciting challenge with much to learn and will hopefully be refined over the coming years.”
They are very much learning as they go, and have been trialling many different fertiliser, fodder and animal health products with varied success.
“I am confident that we can refine a system that works — if nothing else I will get quite good at chipping and slashing weeds,” Mr Lawry said.
“We realise that some aspects of becoming organic will be more labour intensive than more common farming practices so we will need to rely more on non-family labour.”
Finding labour will be a challenge.
“We have always found it frustrating trying to find good staff but we have been very lucky to have found some great staff over the years,” Mr Lawry said.
“We need people that fit in with our beliefs and are constructive, caring and importantly a good Micheal Lawry is looking forward to converting his dairy business to organics. He is into the second year of conversion and he firmly believes the decision will create a sustainable future for his business and family role model to our children — the reason we farm is to provide the best possible environment for our children to grow up in.”
They took a chance on employing Sharlene Crage from Dingee four years ago.
“It takes a lot of time to train staff and so we wanted to employ someone who lived in the area as they would be more likely to stay with us for longer and Sharlene was very enthusiastic,” Mr Lawry said.
“She didn’t have any dairy knowledge at all, but sometime it is easier to train someone rather than retrain them and she was prepared to learn so we took a chance and it has been great.”
Mr Lawry said even though he had been on the current farm for a decade, every year he was improving the system and learning himself.
”When you stop learning you start dying so I hope to keep learning for a long time yet.”
Once fully certified, he plans to keep herd numbers at around 300 but is flexible with the idea of reducing numbers to as few as 200 if this is required for the system to work.
“We have gone above 300 cows in the past but to the detriment of the cow’s health and happiness.”
When swapping to organic, herd health is probably the area that is the most challenging to work through, in particular treating cattle.
“We currently have a low cell count but controlling mastitis, especially during calving, will be a concern because we currently have antibiotics to fall back on,” Mr Lawry said.
“We used an organic product that worked very well for us last year but not so well this year, it will be an evolving problem.”
He said prevention was going to be critical and something that all staff members were going to require diligence with. The family has spent a lot of time refining the calf rearing system and is conscious of contamination from off-farm or calf to calf.
“Once you take a calf off its mother you are solely responsible for it,” Mr Lawry said.
He insists work boots and hands are washed and disinfected before setting foot among the calves and after going to the calf scales. Feeding equipment is washed thoroughly after every feed. If you wouldn’t drink out of it don’t expect the calves to.
“I am a strong believer in prevention rather than cure and stopping bugs coming in is a huge focus for us.”
The calves are kept in pairs in small pens for the first two weeks for close attention before moving into the calf paddocks in groups of 15. At about five weeks of age they are transitioned to once-a-day feeding while having access to high quality hay and increased grain mix up to 1 kg/day.
Calves are weaned off milk and onto pasture at 12 weeks of age but continue on the same diet of hay and grain for a further 12 weeks. The cows are calved twice a year in spring and autumn and are joined for eight weeks.
Mr Lawry said moving to organics had, in the end, been a natural progression for their business.
“I used to hate using chemicals on the farm and I truly believe we are moving to a more sustainable future for us and our farm.
“At the moment it is a learning process but I think through organics we will be able to find our way back to sustainable profitability and a more balanced and enjoyable lifestyle.”