Answering the call when opportunity knocks

By Dairy News

JAMES BREEN didn’t want to be left wondering what might have been when the opportunity came to return to the family dairy farm two years ago.

James returned to work on the family farm at Beeac with his parents Pat and Helen following a career as a stock agent with Charles Stewart and Co.

James and his twin brother, Richard, who also works on the farm, are fourth-generation dairy farmers. The farm has been in the family since 1896 and Pat and Helen’s decision to take on a 192 ha lease block, in addition to the 440 ha family farm, provided the impetus for James to return.

“There was always going to be extra work as a result,” James said.

“The original idea was to buy cattle and stock it. I think if I hadn’t come back, I could have wondered what would have been.”

They milk 220 autumn-calving cows, predominantly Illawarra with some crossbred. James, who has an Illawarra stud, said the breed was a hardy animal, which suited their low rainfall country.

“We get paid for fat and protein and the Illawarras,” he said.

They have a milking area of 160 ha and 360 ha for dry stock and fodder production.

“We grow a lot of lucerne as it suits the area. It handles the heat and doesn’t need much rain.”

The average rainfall is 480 mm and, with the cold winters, the autumn break is crucial. Their farm is one of the last dairies towards Ballarat before it becomes cropping and sheep country, so fodder growing is an important part of their operation.

“If we miss rain here we’re done. That’s why stored fodder is so important.”

They have 61 ha planted to lucerne. They have the right pH for lucerne and it grows well. It is grazed and then fenced-off in August. They usually get three cuts from it and bulk it up with oats or red wheat. The first cut last year produced two months’ worth of feed.

Oats or annual rye-grass is then sown into the lucerne paddocks.

They planted their first turnip crop last year — planting 12 ha in 4 ha lots.

“We had a farm adviser who suggested turnips to get extra milk in December through to February. Cost wasn’t overly high and although there was extra input the cows were happy and produced extra milk. The crop also helps rejuvenate the soil,” James said.

They wanted to try sowing millet and red clover after the turnips but it was too dry this year, so annuals and some clover were sown instead.

“We’re keen to try the millet but it will depend on the season.”

With an extra hand on deck, James is keen to see the farm running “at full steam”. The focus is on improving pasture by locking up paddocks and doing more strip grazing.

“We put in a lot of annuals because of their quick response on earlier country.”

Clover is planted with annuals for nitrogen. They also plant Shaftal clover and sub-clover, as well as Tetila and Winter Hawk. The home block is on volcanic country but the soil mix changes quickly over the farm.

They are also trialling new planting techniques to improve seed to soil contact. They run a multi-disc over the paddock, then harrow, then the roller again. They then use the drill followed by the roller again.

Cows receive 2 tonne/grain a year and they were purchasing between 400 and 500 tonne a year before they leased the adjoining block.

Milkers receive three bales of lucerne, three of silage and three of clover and rye every day. They will receive more of that this year as it will be a short growing season with the best rain falling mid-May.

They are also raising all bull calves to maintain grazing pressure and to diversify their income. The majority of their income is still earned through the milk cheque.

“They keep it chewed down and we’ll grow the bull out to 12 or 18 months depending on the season,” James said.

Prices have dropped of late and the former stock agent said 10 to 12-month-old bull calves were currently fetching about $500 at market.

A good season means they receive additional income from hay sales. They also sold $50 ,000 worth of hay last year but have had to keep it all this year for their herd because of the late start to the season.

The size of the milking herd has been reduced from 240 down to 220. Production has risen and the empty rate has fallen to 5–6 per cent.

They calved 30 cows in spring as a trial with a few that didn’t get in calf.

“We didn’t make as much as autumn cows. We didn’t have the grass to keep it up to them, and there was no fresh pick. We’ll stay where we are as it fits into the good milk bracket, too.”

James is building his Illawarra stud and currently has 120 registered cows. He purchased a cow four years ago that won the 5YO class and Best Udder at International Dairy Week in January.

He has completed an AI course and is doing some outside work with HICO to improve his skills. He will perform all AI on the farm.