A bumper maize crop has not only provided a feed buffer for one northern Victorian family, it will now underpin its new way of farming.
Dehne and Sarah Vinnicombe with children Hollee, 12, Macey, 10, Teagen, 8, and Henry, 7, milk 420 cows year-round across 1012 ha at Calivil near Bendigo in Victoria.
Their business is almost entirely self-sufficient for feed, mostly operating a cut-and-carry type system with the philosophy of expanding their land to produce as much feed as possible for every “inch of rain”.
The family grew 58 ha of maize this season for the first time in eight years in a bid to bolster feed security and because it’s “very, very cost effective”, Dehne said.
“It means we can take a bit of grain out (of the herd’s diet) and that means we are out of the market, for that,” Dehne said.
“Another reason, is with wheat at such a high price, this (maize) is high in energy and we just need to mix some protein with it to make a total mixed ration.
“For the protein, we still have vetch, shaftal and rye-grass hay left over or there’s canola meal, which is bought-in.”
The maize was grown with 8 Ml of water per hectare as well as one rain event in January which was about 50 mm.
“We budgeted on around 8MG (a hectare) and had carryover water from last year which kind of helped,” Dehne said.
The crop yielded 24 dry tonnes to the hectare with 77 per cent starch — this was recorded off the silage machine — official measurements were not returned when Dairy News Australia visited.
Grain use is set to drop with the introduction of maize to the herd’s diet.
It will decline from 1.5 tonnes/cow/lactation to about 900 kg/cow/lactation when the herd receives about 10 kg/day/cow of maize silage.
Dehne and Sarah said another benefit of increased maize silage in the cows’ diet was the fact they could eat it all day, unlike grain which was fed in a “slug” in the dairy and “consumed in about eight minutes”. Cows digest maize all day and they are not at risk of getting ketosis, Dehne said.
This comes as the family embarks on construction of a 720-cow free stall barn, in a bid to “control” the environment and provide a consistent diet as well as conditions for their herd.
“If we put a barn in, it will be a stable delivery of corn (maize silage),” Dehne said.
“It is also about the weather — the rain, heat, climate change — we would have more control,” Sarah added.
“The feed would also be utilised better, less waste.”
The family grow all its own feed, and this would not change with the establishment of a barn, it’s just the cows will be housed, rather than grazing.
Currently they grow wheat, barley, vetch and rye-grass but they plan to phase-out rye-grass in favour of more water-efficient crops.
“We will be smarter with our water,” Dehne said.
“When we have annual rye-grass and permanent pasture as well as lucerne, you only get 15 tonneDM/ha. But when you double-crop with corn (maize), you can get 24 tonne/ha and then use that same land for vetch where you get 6–8 tonne/ha from 10 Ml of water. It’s about water use efficiency.”
The family has 1250 Ml of permanent water but is confident the season will turn.
“It does rain, it will rain again,” Dehne said.
“We carried our water over; we used the rules to our advantage.”
Into the future, the crops grown will depend on the seasonal conditions, water price and availability.
Dehne and Sarah believe in preparing their business, so it’s primed to take advantage of changes in trading or seasons.
“For example, if water is cheap again, we will put 200 ha of corn in,” Dehne said.
“If we are set-up with the barn, for example, there could be good subsoil moisture and cheap water — perfect for growing corn — we have the infrastructure in place to use what we grow, turn it on.”
Using the barn, rather than grazing livestock, will mean the Vinnicombes will have a set feed requirement for their herd each year.
“You will know, for example, you have to put 60 ha of corn in each year,” Dehne said.
“If water is cheap, you could grow three years in one year which would take us out of the market when the pressure is on.”
The Vinnicombes have set-up their farm to ensure they do not have to enter the market for feed or water when the prices are high.
“Right now, we are out of the market, grain is dear and water is dear, we have 12 months of feed in in front of us, stored away.”
Other benefits of the barn will include increased production, a result of a stable diet and conditions. The family is planning a 41 per cent rise in production to 12 000 litres/cow/lactation. This lift will require a slight change in breeding direction as well.
“We sold all the cross-bred cows, because in a free stall barn, you need to have the same cow in every stall,” Dehne said.
This means the herd will be all large framed Holsteins, the plan is to breed a cow about 700 kg liveweight producing 876 kg of milk solids/lactation.
Delivering production in excess of body weight is nothing new for the Vinnicombes. Their current herd average weight is about 590 kg liveweight and with average per cow production of 620 kgMS/lactation.
The recent herd test recorded production at 3.71 kg/cow of protein and 4.74 kg/cow of butterfat.
Cow numbers will also lift and the Vinnicombe’s have their sights set on filling the 720-cow barn throughout the entire year. They will continue to milk through their 30 swing-over dairy, milking the cows in groups rather than an entire herd.
As Freedom Foods suppliers, the Vinnicombes have a set, long-term milk supply contract which means they know what they will be getting for their milk in coming years.
“We haven’t felt this secure with a milk company as we do with this long-term contract,” Dehne said.
“We can buy water, or whatever it is, in advance, knowing what we are going to get paid, it is a flat price.”
Describing themselves as “on the outskirts” of farming in northern Victoria, they maintain confidence in the region, but stressed they had to change their business.
“We feel we have to change our practice to suit our water and our climate, and this is the best way to go forward,” Dehne said.
“We do feel that farming in northern Victoria is going to change.”
The Vinnicombes hope to complete their barn by Christmas.