Sacrificing land for research trials is a sound investment

By Rick Bayne

FOR THE past 30 years the Croft family at Mepunga has been giving up part of its farm for research. From early trials on turnips to today’s research into new cultivars and nitrogen efficiency, the farm has been a constant source of new information.

For current owner Daniel Croft and his father Graeme before him, sacrificing a bit of land is a good investment for the industry and for their business.

“I don’t mind running well-run trials,” Daniel Croft said.

“I get the data back on our land which is good for us.”

For the past 30 years, Daniel Croft and his family at Mepunga have been giving up part of their farm for research.

The farm recently hosted a field day for Notman Pasture Seeds and Cropmark’s trials on how 70 different current and future season perennial, Italian and annual rye-grass cultivars are performing. Next February there will be a field day showing Dairy Australia and University of Melbourne nitrogen efficiency trials on both irrigation and dryland.

“There’s quite a benefit with the nitrogen trials showing when we have to put it on and when we don’t,” Mr Croft said.

“I think we get more benefi t than the land we give up because if we get it right we grow a lot more feed over the whole area.”

Mr Croft and his partner Stacey Byron took over the farm in July from his parents Graeme and Sally Croft. Their milking platform is 207ha with 100ha under irrigation. They are milking 700 cows at the moment, although that can grow to 780.

“We have split calving and bring in 160 heifers a year so we can raise numbers and drop them off  fairly quickly,” Mr Croft said.

Their average stocking rate of 3.5 cows/ha is fairly high but comfortable with Jerseys.

“We’ve got 430kg Jerseys producing 500kg/MS so the conversion rate is pretty good,” Mr Croft said.

They work to a milk solids per hectare formula. They currently produce 350000 solids over the 207ha.

“You need to work off  liveweight and conversion,” Mr Croft said.

“You feed them and you want the best converters. It would be a lot easier milking and calving 500 Friesians compared to 700 but we like the conversion.”

Daniel Croft and his partner Stacey Byron are currently milking 700 cows. 

He is happy with production but is constantly looking at cost savings.

“The factories aren’t going to pay us more; we’re a price taker not a price setter so we have to look at the costs.”

Two years ago they added a 117ha outblock, including 22ha under irrigation and there’s an additional 10ha pivot on the way. Last year on the 22ha they pulled 300 tonne of turnip crop to feed dry cows.

This year they’re putting in 18ha of maize.

“Turnips you can’t bring back; we can grow the maize and bring it back home for under $200 a tonne. That’s a cost saver,” Mr Croft said.

The outblock is helping to maintain the stocking rate, especially with 3600 rolls of silage this year.

“That covers the whole year. Normally we don’t do that much but I’ve got the potential to use the feedpad and I can keep numbers at 780 if I can do it efficiently enough.”

Last year with the outblock in use for the first time they produced 2600 rolls, surpassing the previous average of 700.

“Now we’ve had it two years and the grasses are pretty right, it’s going to mean we won’t have to buy in any feed,” Mr Croft said.

“We’re only buying 100 tonne of oaten hay and about 1400 tonne of grain—about two tonne for each cow.”

The feedpad was added last year to get good use of the silage and to protect the farm during winter.

The feedpad was added last year to get good use of the silage and to protect the farm during winter.

“The feedpad gives you options; we lead feed on it with our dry cows too.”

They calve 350 in August and February. Because the farm is on a fresh milk contract with Fonterra, they never get below 500 cows.

“The fresh contract appeals to our milk flow. We’ve always got carryover cows and enough cows to meet our quota,” Mr Croft said.

“We’ve got to make sure we don’t go below the line they draw for premiums. In February it gets a bit tight and when you’re about to calve in August it’s the same. You dry-off  the cows a week later if it gets tight.”

The farm has light, sandy soil and water drains quickly. Persistence isn’t an issue under irrigation and Mr Croft is happy to confirm he’s never been bogged on the farm.

The dairy is a 50-unit one-person rotary, upgraded about eight years ago. Mr Croft or one of his three employees can milk 300 Jerseys in an hour, with another on-hand to get the cows in and feed them. He has done the figures on converting to once-a-day milking.

“They say you lose a third of your production but you cut your costs down a fair bit. With the power issues that might be an option; irrigation cost is also going to be an issue.”

He finds the Jerseys easy to handle, as well as being good feed converters.

“Graeme says Jerseys are like a four-cylinder car; Friesians are like a V8. You’ve got to feed the V8 to keep it going and it’s high maintenance, whereas the Jersey will just tinker along and do a little bit.”