Negotiating dry conditions in the east

By Jeanette Severs

Mark Laity at Wiseleigh, Victoria, runs a one-person dairy, milking 160 cows off just a bit more than 160 ha of dryland country.

Mark and Susan, with their children Chloe, Nigel, Lauren and Tori, are the second and third generations respectively living on the farm, in East Gippsland.

Mr Laity milks 160 cows, a mixed Friesian and Jersey herd, producing 800 000 litres annually, in a 10-a-side herringbone dairy.

The self-replacing autumn and spring calving herd receives artificial insemination on one cycle, using semen from top Australian Index bulls.

“I focus on keeping straight lines of Jersey and Friesian,” Mr Laity said.

Cows are either carried-over or joined to a stud-bred Angus mop-up bull.

Steers are sold as poddy calves to an existing client list or grown out and sold as 12-month-old weaners through local saleyards.

Mr Laity sows 6 ha of maize annually, part of the crop to be harvested green as chopped feed and the remainder made into silage and stored in a bunker.

“I normally cut all the fodder we need — 300 rolls of silage and 500 rolls of hay,” he said.

Grain is bought in, to feed 1.5–2 kg/cow in the bail.

The past couple of years of drought have had a significant impact on production and management. Even though the very hilly farm has considerable catchment, poor rainfall has led to failed crops and pasture, dried-up dams and the need to buy in fodder.

The usual summer crop of millet and sorghum germinated poorly this year. The maize paddock was sprayed out but not sown in December because no rainfall and a lack of water in the dams meant the intended crop could not be irrigated.

“In 2017–2018 we got through because of hay stores from previous years,” Mr Laity said.

“In 2017 we harvested 60 bales of silage. In 2018, we harvested 30 bales of silage. I haven’t made hay for the past two years.

“So we’ve had to buy in a lot of extra fodder in the past year.”

While Mr Laity has been able to source silage locally, he also received a half-truckload of hay donated by Need for Feed, and a $1500 voucher from Buy a Bale paid for freight on other fodder. A donation from Red Cross has helped pay his rates.

He booked a bore to be drilled for stock and domestic water late last year; unfortunately, the drilling was unsuccessful.

“At 30 metres down, they struck sand which jammed the drill bit — they were using a rock drill,” Mr Laity said.

“The borers need to come back with a mud drill and alternately drill rock then mud to, hopefully, try and get to water under the rock — if it’s there.”

Fortunately, he has been able to use an existing 2Ml irrigation licence to pump stock water from what appears to be a spring-fed hole in the otherwise-dry Deep Creek.

Mr Laity accessed a Victorian Government drought funding initiative to buy a monoscrew pump and some piping to reticulate this water from Deep Creek into troughs. The funding program allowed for a $5 000 rebate if the farmer spent at least $10 000 on pre-approved irrigation infrastructure.

His options for the winter include continuing to buy hay and maintain the reduced daily grain portion for the cows.

“Our daily production is down to 10 litres/cow, because they’re on rations,” Mr Laity said.

In the next few weeks, he will sell older cows, with heifers coming through.

“We’ve been using heifers to try and keep milking a young herd,” Mr Laity said.

“There’s 10 good cows I can take off straight away. I could reduce the herd by 40-50 cows, because I have young heifers coming through.

“I’ve got to milk 160 cows to be viable.

“But lightening the herd numbers could be a good thing with the season, to take pressure off the land and grow pasture.”

A priority after the drought is oversowing most of the paddocks.

“It depends on what the season does. If we get rain soon, I’ll direct drill and oversow with annuals to get quick growth; I’ll sow perennials in spring,” Mr Laity said.

The couple applied for Farm Household Allowance in February this year.

“The paperchase of all the details they want and supporting documentation is overwhelming – if it wasn’t for the help we’re getting from the rural financial counsellor, we wouldn’t bother applying,” Mr Laity said.