Crossing an existing Holstein herd with Fleckviehs is the latest change to a business that has seen its fair share over the past few years.
The McCarthy family at Coragulac – Shane and Ann and sons Luke and Mark – have built a rotary dairy, installed a feed pad and changed to year-round calving for a flat milk supply over the past six years.
Now, they are moving towards a Fleckvieh herd to improve health and fertility, and boost protein levels.
Luke and one of the family’s employees (they also have an additional part-time employee) conduct all the AI themselves. They now have about 60 Holstein-Fleckvieh first lactation heifers in the herd but the entire herd is being crossed.
“We decided to go all out, not just do a small number,” Luke said
“So far we have found they have similar components and production but we are getting 10-15% more in calf as maiden heifers. We preg tested the other day and had six from 11 pregnant in our miking group from one joining. It’s a small number of course but hopefully we’ll get a similar result from more numbers in years to come.”
The family is in its third year of year-round calving, which was instigated after taking on a fresh milk contract with Fonterra.
“It’s a lot of work and it’s consistent, but we worked out the best return was to have the flattest milk supply possible,” Luke said.
“We don’t have a period where you’re milking 120 cows and get a break.”
They milk 450 every day through a 50-stand rotary which was built six years ago. It takes two hours to milk. Cows average 8500 litres annually (3.5 protein, up from the last few years, and 4.1-4.2 fat) and the farm produces over 4 million litres a year.
They join enough cows and heifers for three weeks to get around 60 cows and 25 heifers pregnant (“short and sharp,” says Luke) then have a five week spell, all year round. Before this they calved in February for 12 weeks and then August for eight weeks.
When they changed systems the cows did longer lactations initially. “They had a bit less milk at the time but there are no problems now,” Luke said.
They built a calving shed three years ago to accommodate the winter calving and the calving pattern means they have 35-40 cows at once in the calving shed, and 30-40 heifer calves are reared each group all under the one roof.
They lead feed springers on an outblock and truck them in to the calving shed as close to calving as possible. Outside calving periods, the shed is used to house ill cows.
“They come in here for a spell for a week when they’re crook and it makes a huge difference,” Luke said.
A new feedpad was built next to the new dairy at the same time about six years ago. It is 110m long with four feed lanes and can fit 500 head.
“We initially wanted one long pad with two lanes but couldn’t due to space, but this works well,” Luke said.
“We used to feed on the ground and the feedpad was always on the radar.
“It reduces feed wastage by 15-20% and saves paddocks as well. It took two years to pay off the feed pad through feed saved, and it saves time too. We hope to save more time by moving the silage pits and feed bunkers closer to the feed pad.”
Cows are on the feedpad after milking twice a day for 8-10 months a year and once a day for the remaining months.
They grow all required silage and work with a nutritionist to change the feed mix depending on availability of grass.
“For the last 18 months we’ve had a good consistent mix, but in a year like this, it’s getting difficult to get almond hulls so we may need to change it once our contract runs out.”
The feed generally comprises a mixture of silage, a bale of straw, almond hulls, crushed wheat and citrus pulp.
“We have a reliable source for citrus pulp. It’s a high energy co-product providing much of that energy in the form of digestible fibre, but it’s also a wet product so it holds the wheat, almond hulls and straw together, making it a palatable mix for the cows.
Manure from the feed pad has enabled them to grow more grass to make silage, reducing their by-product requirements. They spread effluent in autumn, which has boosted pasture growth.
They oversow between 300-320ha, including 50ha under irrigation. All dryland paddocks and outblocks are sown to annual grass and a mix of perennials and Italians are sown under irrigation.
“We sow Lightning annual ryegrass, which grows extremely well in winter and early spring. There is the cost of oversowing each year with annuals but with our dry summers only pasture under irrigation survives”.
A good season means they could get a second cut “from bits and pieces” but Luke believes annual rainfall has fallen from a long-term average of 600mm to 500mm so they can’t count on it.
The feed pad is scraped every morning and stored next to the pad, with manure from the calving and calf shed. Solids are spread twice a year and liquid is spread in autumn before rain.
It helped them grow an additional 1.2 tonnes of grass in autumn this year.
“We are an extra grazing ahead on paddocks that didn’t receive manure,” Luke said. “We use contractors and it’s dear enough to spread but worth it.”
“I was driving around and thought someone had missed half a paddock when spreading urea before I realised only half the paddock got manure.”
It has reduced the amount of urea they have to spread, as it is only applied where manure hasn’t been. Luke said they now only apply 70-100kg of nitrogen per hectare after each grazing.
With the infrastructure in place, Luke said the family is now focussing on improving pasture management and fine tuning all aspects of the business to reduce ever increasing costs.