Year of contrast for Wiseleigh dairy farmer

This season is a huge contrast to the past few years for Mark Laity, of Wiseleigh in East Gippsland.

Mark is the second generation on the farm and continued to milk through last summer’s bushfires, which destroyed most of his property — after managing to maintain his herd and production during the previous four years of drought.

He milks 165 mixed Friesian and Jersey cows off 163 ha of dryland country, producing 800,000 litres annually in a 10-a-side herringbone dairy.

The self-replacing, autumn and spring calving herd receives artificial insemination on one cycle, using semen from top Australian Index bulls.

Empty cows are either carried-over or joined to a stud-bred Angus mop-up bull.

In spring, Mark sold 10 cows after they recovered from mastitis and replaced them with nine heifers and 10 cows on point-of-calving. It increased his milking herd by five cows.

Mark sows 6 ha of maize annually on some creek flats, harvested green as chopped feed and the remainder made into silage and stored in a bunker.

“I normally cut all the fodder we need — 300 rolls of silage and 500 rolls of hay,” he said.

Grain is bought in, to feed 1.5 kg to 2 kg/cow in the bale.

The past few years of drought have had a significant impact on production and management.

Even though the very hilly farm has considerable catchment, poor rainfall led to failed crops and pasture, dried-up dams and the need to buy most of the fodder fed to his cattle.

In 2017, he harvested 60 bales of silage; in 2018, he harvested 30 bales of silage — in 2019 he was unable to harvest silage.

“We bought a lot of feed to keep the herd milking,” Mark said.

“In 12 months, I had to buy 500 bales of silage, at approximately $50,000 delivered.

“Probably the worst 12 months was in 2019. Daily production was down to 10 litres/cow because they were on rations.”

He also focused on retaining heifers and young cows in the herd, bringing numbers down as necessary by selling older cows, taking pressure off the land.

“But I’ve got to milk 160 cows to be viable,” Mark said.

He also received a half-truckload of hay donated by Need for Feed and a $1500 voucher from Buy a Bale paid for freight on other fodder.

Mark accessed a Victorian Government drought funding initiative to buy a monoscrew pump and some piping to reticulate water from Deep Creek into troughs. The funding program allowed for a $5000 rebate if the farmer spent at least $10,000 on pre-approved irrigation infrastructure.

He was hoping the drought would break in 2020 — which it did — and his first priority was over-sowing pastures.

Before that happened, the East Gippsland bushfires destroyed most of his fences and burned tanks and the bare ground, running across his farm on the night of December 30, 2019.

Mark had just finished evening milking and feeding the cows when the fire came out of state forest onto his property.

“When the fires hit, I was already feeding fully,” he said.

“The first job on New Year's Day was building a new fence along the roadside so we could bring the cows from the block across the road to the dairy.

“We cleared away the burnt fence, put the posts in and Nigel [his son] had strung the wires by the time I finished milking.”

Mark and Susan were initially reticent about taking donations of hay and silage, or people offering their help with erecting fences — believing there were other people in worse conditions.

“We were convinced to accept donated hay and silage — it came from South Gippsland, the Colac area and around Warrnambool, Mark said.

“Fencing wire was also donated from Colac. It was generous of people to donate feed and fencing.”

With 4 km of the farm boundary connected to state forest, the Victorian government replaced the burned fences with vermin exclusion fencing.

“We paid for the remaining 1 km boundary,” Mark said.

A $75,000 grant helped fund the clean-up activities — removing burnt posts and fallen trees, and shifting destroyed water tanks. A neighbour’s brother came from the Latrobe Valley to help and has stayed on into this year.

“Malcolm Answer arrived with a crew of workers and an excavator, and he hasn’t gone home,” Mark said.

“He’s still helping fix things. He dug a big pit and I buried silage this year for the first time.”

Some dairy farmers from Maffra and Dennison donated two days of their time to run wires to erect new fences.

A downpour of 50 mm in one hour in February last year saw his dams fill with silt and ash from the bushfires — so Malcolm and the excavator came in handy to pull down the sides of dams and drain them, before digging out the silt. As well as repairing fences again.

“We lost the pumphouse on the creek but Nigel was able to save the pump,” Mark said.

“There was debris against the fences and snapped wires. We dug about eight feet of silt out of one of the dams.”

While the drought is not over, it has eased with rainfall at the right time in the past 10 months.

Mark re-sowed 40 ha in autumn last year, with permanent rye-grass and clover. Ongoing rainfall meant he harvested silage in autumn for the first time in his farming career.

“When autumn hit, the kikuyu jumped out of the ground.

“We never get excess pasture to harvest in autumn. I made 200 rolls of silage.”

In spring, he harvested 400 rolls of silage.

“I still had 100 rolls of silage from autumn and some of the donated hay and silage.

“The 400 rolls harvested in October was surplus to our annual needs. I buried it in the new silage pit, and purchased another 100 silage rolls to go in the pit.

“It’s about 12 months’ of feed, for the next drought.”

On New Year's Day he sowed his summer maize crop on the creek flats and plans to sow another 40 ha of permanent pasture into some of the remaining burnt paddocks this autumn.

Pasture was knee-high 30 days post-grazing in mid-January. The season has turned into one of his best.

“The herd is producing 15 litres/cow at the moment and we’re drying off the autumn calvers.”