Water loss causes change in thinking

By Rick Bayne

USING WATER in the right place at the right time is the key to future success for a young Western Australian dairy farming family.

From Benger, two hours south of Perth, Mick and Sophia Giumelli are transforming their farm to reduce costs and the strategic use of water is making a big difference.

They milk 370 mainly Holstein cows with a few crossbreeds on just over 200 hectares. They are predominantly a summer milk producing farm with irrigation.

Production is good — clocking in at 2.8–3 million litres a year — but costs are high and the Giumellis are instigating changes to fix that.

Mick was raised on a dairy farm half an hour away from their current farm, which was purchased in 2006. The home farm is still used as a run-off block.

Staying in dairy has always been Mick’s priority. “I’m a farm kid and we’ve got four young children and we’d be ripping them off if they didn’t have those sorts of experiences,” he said.

To do that they need to remain financially competitive.

“We go for medium-sized cows, a multi-purpose animal that can easily walk, breed and eat. We’re reasonably happy with our production but we can do it better,” Mick said. “We’ve got quite a high cost system that we’re trying to improve.”

The farm is part of the DairyBase Farm Monitoring project and recently hosted a Western Dairy innovation day.

Mick says the farm monitoring is providing a lot of good feedback, helping them to assess their system and adapt.

“We’re on flat, heavy-clay soil so we’re bound to the times of year when we can produce milk. So far this season we’ve had 12 inches of rain and at this time of year it can get quite cold and miserable, so it can be pretty tough going. It’s not the best place to be operating cows in the middle of winter so we focus on a spring calving herd.”

They came from a dryland autumn-calving system and changed it to suit the country. Mick said the data and support from Western Dairy were helping them to reassess other options and calving times.

“We produce a lot of milk but we’re nowhere near the top 25 per cent of the state in terms of cost of production,” Mick admitted.

Their feed costs are significant, both in purchases and conserving. They have been growing maize to boost home-grown feed but with mixed success. “We’ve had some success but also some not-successful crops,” Mick said. “Maize is pretty unforgiving in terms of cost if you get it wrong and that hindered us on a couple of occasions.”

A Smart Irrigation trial has been conducted on the fam. “It’s not about costs per-se, it’s more about putting water in the right place at the right time and saving water which in turn saves money,” Mick said.

“Water is becoming such a precious resource, more so than it was 20 or 30 years ago. We’ve got to focus on doing the right thing with it because I think there’s going to be more and more pressure on how we use it. We’ve got to get smarter.”

The farm has an annual irrigation allocation of 440 megalitres. Last year they got 60 per cent of that; the year before 34 per cent. “We’ve got to adapt and manage around those things. It all relies on winter rain to fill up the dams,” Mick said.

They pay a rate on all 440 megalitres and then pay a delivery right, with cost per megalitre rising during a lower year.

The aim is to grow more dry matter with less water.

During the trial they grew 25.3 tonne crop of maize last summer on just under five megalitres of water per hectare of surface irrigation. “We considered that a pretty massive achievement as we don’t have any reliable summer rain and if there is any there’s not a lot of it.”

The maize had metabolised energy of 11.2 megajoules per kilogram of dry matter and a crude protein measure of 9.1 per cent. Water usage efficiency was 4.87 tonnes of dry matter produced per megalitre.

Mick and Sophia will continue to embrace new technology in their quest for better water efficiency. They have completed an EM 38 survey of the centre pivot area to test for soil types and moisture and nutrient levels.

“Those core samples give us an idea what you’re working with,” Mick said.

They are also reducing the level of purchased pellets and instead processing their own wholegrain to reduce costs.

Improving herd fertility is another priority. “We’re not making drastic changes but the Western Dairy monitoring showed we’re not a textbook herd in terms of fertility,” Mick said.

The six-week in-calf rate was lower than industry standards but overall conception rate was good at 54 per cent, a little higher than industry standard. The relatively young age of the herd – average 4.5 years – could contribute to that success.

“Our focus now is to get more in-calf earlier,” Mick said. “We’re working on cow transition, improving feed pre-calving and getting their weight and condition right, minimising milk fever and sub-clinical milk fever to avoid the metabolic issues that come with that.”

The 34-year-old wants to keep improving the farm and will continue to innovate. “It’s about using resources smartly and being prepared when things are tough, and then keeping options open for expansion and diversification.”