Loving the best of both Worlds

By Rick Bayne

MICHAEL HAWKER likes having the best of both worlds on his family farm north of Heywood in south-west Victoria.

His herd is a mix of Jersey and Holstein cows and crossbreeds, and he enjoys the benefits of both breeds.

When it comes to infrastructure and farming practices, Mr Hawker has a mix of new and old. On the one hand, the introduction of sexed semen and transition feeding has given the farm a major boost; on the other, he’s waiting to replace a dairy which is hitting retirement age.

The farm has been in growth mode over recent years, and the shift to sexed semen and transition feeding has helped facilitate big improvements.

This year the farm peaked at 730 cows, ranging from pure Holstein and pure Jersey to a cross between the two.

Mr Hawker, who farms with his parents Francis and Leanne and sisters Tennille and Kylie, expects to reduce numbers but improve quality.

“We snuck up because there were strong indications from processors that we would see four significant step-ups for the year, which hasn’t transpired at this stage and it doesn’t look promising,” he said.

“We’ve come back down a bit; 730 on this farm is probably pushing the limits, so we’re looking to take a more conservative approach.”

Mr Hawker hopes to maintain production this season by keeping the best cows. The emphasis during the growth phase was on improving breeding, using three rounds of sexed semen.

“We still use a bit of conventional semen that has been stored in the tank but everything we purchased for the past two or three years has been sexed semen.”

The move has been a success, improving in-calf rates, timelines, herd health and production.

About eight years ago the Hawkers were calving for 10 months of the year; now they’re down to 12 weeks. This year the bull had only three weeks with the herd and managed to get 50 cows in calf.

“Previously it was long and drawn out process,” Mr Hawker said.

“We were trying to re-build numbers but now where we’re in a comfortable zone. We’ve got plenty of stock on hand and good numbers coming through.”

In the first year of using Ultrasex semen the conception rate improved.

“Once we got the results from the first trial we were going down the sexed semen path. The first year we were five per cent better on conception rate compared with conventional.

“It shouldn’t be that way according to the studies, but I could see we weren’t going to be worse off with conception rate by using sexed semen and we’ve gone up a couple of notches since then.”

There were a number of on-farm changes that paved the way for introducing sexed semen, particularly transition feeding.

“We’ve gone from basically feeding cows hay to proper transition feed of pre-mix pellets and we’ve moved on from that now and we’re using a total mixed ration.

“The biggest change we’ve made was transition feeding. That’s had massive improvements with the flow-on effects of seasonal production and fertility. It opened up the ability to use sexed semen across the herd and I’m not sure we would have done so well if we didn’t have the transition diet.”

The Hawkers tried a couple of products that didn’t suit the system and eventually landed on a Ridley pellet that worked. Last season they progressed to total mixed ration.

“I saw some potential benefits and it wasn’t going to cost a huge amount more and it worked quite well,” Mr Hawker said.

“It virtually eliminated health problems and last year we only had to assist 10 cows with calving, which was phenomenally good.

“We also went from bagging pellets into little troughs to a front-end loader bucket of the mix going straight into the feeders. It made it an easier process.”

Mr Hawker is happy with the herd quality. “We’re about to start seeing the fruits of good genetic breeding and being able to select our cows on traits rather than just trying to keep the numbers there to keep the milk flowing.”

The number one trait he looks for is profit.

“We like something that will give a good mix of litres and components, but probably components a bit more than total litres.

“We want a cow that’s going to do what we’re here to do — make money — and one that’s not going to give us headaches with lameness or poor udder health; a good all-round cow.”

The mixed herd offers many advantages.

“Generally we want a well-rounded cow that’s not too big. We’re trying to find larger-frame Jerseys to make it easier for them to compete at the feed pad.”

Although he hasn’t crunched the numbers on which cow is best on the farm, he likes maintaining the mixture.

“It’s a bit of a personal preference. I like both and it still works. Holsteins generally give more litres, the Jerseys generally better solids — so we have best of both worlds and both have strong points.”

It’s not a stud farm and while they like to breed nice cows, Mr Hawker doesn’t plan to start showing or registering the herds.

“We like to breed a nice herd; we don’t want cows that only give milk, they’ve got to look reasonable.”

Overall the mixed herd averages about 4.2 to 4.6 fat and protein ranges from 3.5 to 3.7.

“We’re happy with that but over time we’ll continue to make slight improvements as we improve the herd,” Mr Hawker said.

“We’ve kept the number of cows here because they made a margin; now we’re picking the cows that are going to make us the best margin.”

The milking area covers about 400 ha with mostly older perennial pastures that continue to be over-sown, with a small percentage renovated annually.

As a dryland farm they don’t do a lot of summer crops but do have maize, which provides a lot of feed and is relatively cheap.

“It is a bit risky but I haven’t yet seen a crop that didn’t grow from weather conditions, although I’ve seen a paddock eaten by cockatoos.”

Mr Hawker’s top priority is a new dairy, but he’s playing a waiting game.

The 34-unit walk-through was last modified in 2001 with additional bails, but the main building “well and truly pre-dates me”, Mr Hawker said. They milk about 450 cows in 90 minutes, but that’s with four labour units.

“I’d love a new dairy but that requires some nice milk prices for a while to get me over the line.

“A nice new rotary would save labour and time and allow me to feed cows on an ID feed basis, but the milk price crash wasn’t that long ago and it reminds you of the dangers of being too exposed.”