Flexibility helps family through dry season

By Dairy News

PLANNING, BUSINESS flexibility and diversity has helped one western Victorian dairy farming family navigate a tough season.

The Martins at Irrewarra, north of Colac, have never fed in the bail and do not buy-in fodder.

This means they haven’t been impacted directly by escalating grain and fodder prices this season, but they have altered their business to handle drier conditions.

“We are not as exposed as other people, particularly because we don’t have a set number of cows and considering we don’t buy in silage or hay,” John Martin said.

“We have the ability to reduce our cow numbers, but we can’t do that year-in-year-out.”

He, wife Jodie, daughter Rachael, son Shaun and his partner Elsi Neave milk 110 cows, calving mostly in autumn, off 180 ha plus a 48 ha out-block. They also run beef steers, cows and calves.

This year, milking numbers were cut by about 60, but the family hopes to get back up to 200 in the autumn while maintaining self-sufficiency.

They plan to take advantage of the cheaper cow price and buy-in, but this would be dictated by the season.

During spring the herd consumes as much pasture as possible. The pasture base is predominantly perennials but due to dry seasons, the proportion of annuals and cereals has lifted from 15 to 25 per cent.

Throughout drier months, the feed ration costs about $2.91/cow/day for a total of 17.6 kg DM/cow/day or 16¢/kg DM.

This ration includes swedes, pasture silage, oaten hay, pasture hay and pasture.

The family has stored the most silage ever this year and, although last month it had not yet been feed-tested, John anticipated top quality.

The silage was made from a variety of crops and pastures, something John likened to a “patchwork quilt”. Up to 820 wet tonne of pit silage and 100 wet tonne of round bale silage was harvested, up 30 per cent on traditional years.

John attributed the boost in silage yield to fewer cows, the winter growing conditions — spring “let us down” with only 25 mm of rain in September — as well as additional strategically-applied fertiliser.

The family also cut silage off the wetter areas, normally harvested for hay.

Pit silage is packed in a unique way to ensure the herd consumes a variety of crops and pastures, including many deep-rooted perennials and legumes.

“We do a load of cereals — 60 per cent legumes and 40 per cent rye-grass — and do a layer of that, Then barley, Shaftal and rye-grass — a mixture,” John said.

“When we cut it with a block-cutter (to feed out) it is a like a poor man’s mixed ration. We don’t have a mixer wagon, we have a standard 17 cubic metre silage cart.”

This season 40 ha of summer crops will be planted. Depending on the season, a “substantial amount” of this area could be returned to perennial pastures.

Some perennial rye-grass has struggled to withstand years where rainfall has been less than the 550 to 600 mm annual average.

The ‘Wolverston Park’ operation has been in the family since 1918, with the land use evolving.

John and Jodie decided to go into dairying after buying their parcel of land about 18 years ago. They built a new dairy and, while they included provision for a feed system, decided to delay the installation because of cost.

The system was never installed and meant the family focused on breeding the right type of cow to suit the existing dairy — Friesian, Brown Swiss and their crosses — averaging 650 to 700 kg.

The herd produces 6000 to 6500 litres/cow/lactation, 230 to 250 kg of butterfat/cow/lactation and 203 to 220 kg protein/cow/lactation.

John said their lack of bought-in feed and increased farm gate milk price meant they could protect their profit margin despite cutting cow numbers.

The cow reduction was due to the season, but John and Jodie were also deciding if they would remain in the industry. As Fonterra suppliers, they were impacted by price cuts in 2016.

Following a family discussion — everything is discussed together — they decided to remain in the industry and will look to add sheep to the business.

“We don’t want to be fully-exposed to the dairy industry,” John said.

Their fixed-cost-base requires milking at least 170 cows consistently.

“Milking a lower number of cows means we are cutting costs, but we are really just marking time basically,” John said.

Farm labour is provided by the family, but the children will continue to work off-farm to ensure a diversity of income. John said this meant they could continue the flexible approach to farming, adapting to the changing climate and industry circumstances.