MEG AND Donnie Stewart from Pyramid Hill are hoping the days of spending nine hours in the shed milking cows, will be a distant memory by the end of the financial year.
The decision wasn’t taken lightly as the Stewarts considered all their options but, in the end, they kept coming back to the fact their current 25 swing-over dairy limited future expansion.
The couple had been planning to build a rotary on the home farm for many years but droughts, floods, parking cows, uncertain water policy, and a rapidly changing northern Victorian dairy industry during the past two decades had prolonged that decision.
In the end, it was a meeting with their farm consultant about their future that finally got the ball rolling.
“He managed to get out of me what I really aspired to do, despite the uncertainty of water availability, into the future,” Don said.
The couple has an 18-year-old daughter Teagan who recently completed a Certificate III in Agriculture and is showing signs of being interested in the farm, while son Jed is tractor and machinery mad.
“We are looking to the future and to the next generation of our family business and even if the kids end up not interested and we are only milking for the next five years, then so be it; we will still get a return on our investment,” Meg said.
She said a new dairy would be an advantage when recruiting staff.
Meg and Donnie spent a lot of time considering the options before them, and where they wanted their business to be in the future.
They looked at turning the old dairy into a double-up rapid exit but decided against that because essentially, they would still be milking in a 22-year-old shed
They also looked at robots and while they thought the technology was great, future expansion was limited by the
number of robots they had.
In the end, they felt moving a second-hand rotary was their best investment.
“Construction of a brand new rotary from scratch was up around $1.5-$2 million and I would hate to think what a barn and robots would cost. A second-hand dairy helps limit our financial risk if we stop milking for any reason in the short term (five years),” Meg said.
“In the back of my mind there is always the option to install a robotic arm; the technology is there but perhaps the demand from the market is not yet. We like the flexibility of a rotary and we feel we can grow our system and our numbers if we want too,” Donnie said.
The couple also hopes to construct a 600-cow feed pad at the same time as it builds the rotary, with plans to build a shade shed over the next three years.
The feed pad will allow the Stewarts to cut and carry feed to the herd, and remove the need to irrigate pastures when water is limited.
The construction of a new dairy is the last piece of the farming puzzle for the family business.
The Stewarts have a sharefarmer on a 240 ha dairy farm at Yarrawalla.
A former 64 ha dairy farm at Calivil is now used to grow corn.
And they recently purchased a 380 ha fodder block.
“The purchase of 380 ha gives us lots of options down the track to diversify, and because it was between our two dairy farms it was just too good an opportunity to pass up,” Donnie said.
Like many northern Victorian dairy farmers, Donnie said water was the biggest issue the industry faced.
“Service and delivery for us is not a problem as we irrigate from backbone channels; it is the delivery costs and the reduced availability for agriculture in the future that is going to be the issue,” he said.
The Stewarts own a third of their total water requirements; normally forward purchase a third (not likely to happen at the end of this season); and buy a third on the spot market.
“We haven’t grown perennial pasture on this farm since 2006. We grow 30 ha of lucerne for grazing, but this year we decided to cut and carry to avoid the huge wastage you get from grazing,” Donnie said.
The lucerne has been put into silage, hay and green chop depending on the cut and the time of the year.
Donnie said he had decided to stop watering his lucerne altogether because of hot weather conditions and the economics of using $500 water.
“If it was 28 degrees and we had 2 inches of rain I would be still irrigating, but not when it’s dry and temperatures are in the mid 40s — the return just isn’t there,” he said.
The Stewarts are a bit unsure about how to tackle the approaching autumn, especially if conditions remain hot and dry.
“We might end up sowing all cereals if it stays this dry. We will irrigate everything once to get some subsoil moisture but there is no guarantee of water availability for spring irrigation of rye-grass, which is a great concern.,” Donnie said.
He said one of the future goals of their business was to get to a point where they support 500 cows without irrigation.
He is looking at a scenario of being an opportunistic irrigator when water is plentiful.
“That may be two or three years out of every five, who really knows?
“We need to develop the business to be robust enough to be non-dependent on water availability.
“We are hoping to have enough land to grow enough fodder with rainfall. Out here we have the scope to purchase land and be opportunistic to grow a lot of feed.
“We want a flexible system that will allow us to grow a lot of fodder when times are good, and conserve it for the years when things aren’t.”
This includes a feed buffer of at least a year.
Donnie said he wouldn’t be looking to upgrade irrigation infrastructure, anytime in the future even though they have done that on the share farm property. “I believe our capital is better spent on feeding and storage facilities, something we use every day,” he said.
Meg and Donnie have always been flexible in their approach to dairying. They have milked lots of cows, no cows, some cows and parked cows.
Since 2007 they have always had a contracted milk price.
“We haven’t always had the highest milk price but it does give us the ability to forward buy hay and grain, and budget and plan our business,” Meg said.
The couple run a predominately Friesian herd with a few cross breeds, but under the new system every cow will have the capacity to maximise dry matter intakes. A key focus will be pregnancy rates to ensure each cow in the system is converting feed efficiently.
They are in the process of changing their calving pattern to year-round and are just learning their way around the collar technology they installed in November.
It might be a busy six months ahead for the Stewarts, but they agree they are looking forward to the challenges that lie ahead and the opportunities the new dairy will bring them.
“We still get a lot of satisfaction out of the industry and we are looking forward to where this development will take us and our business,” Meg said.