Bigger isn’t always better

By Rick Bayne

KEEPING THINGS simple and fresh has been a successful formula for Nullawarre farmers Jason and Abby Burleigh.

Never inclined to go beyond their means, the Burleighs have built a sustainable operation while successfully embracing the domestic fresh milk market.

With a focus on keeping their cows well fed from mostly home-grown grass, per-cow production has hit record levels this year while numbers have also increased.

For the recently ended financial year, they achieved 698 kg of milk solids per cow, up from 669 the previous year and 644 the year before that.

“I do a budget confidently on around 640 kg MS so anything above that is a bonus,” Mr Burleigh said.

“To do those numbers I was very surprised, considering it has been a tough year with a terrible autumn break after a long, dry summer.”

He attributes the success partly to studying the Feeding Pasture for Profit program.

“That’s one of the best courses that’s ever come out of Dairy Australia. It’s helped us to get the rotation length right and taught us about fully feeding cows.”

Mr Burleigh is the fourth generation on the land, which was first farmed by his forebears in 1906, and five-year-old daughter Chloe already shows interest in continuing the tradition. Jason and Abby purchased half the 130 ha farm from his parents Noel and Gail in 2011 and lease the other half.

They have a 36 ha out-paddock and last July invested in another 32 ha paddock, replacing a smaller leased block.

“It was a big investment as it needed a total revamp,” Mr Burleigh said.

“Every fence was taken down because it wasn’t set up the way I wanted with an access laneway on one side and the paddocks running off it.”

They now have heifers at one block and yearlings at the other.

This year they’re milking a record 245 cows, mostly Friesians, up from an average of 230 — but that’s not part of an intentional expansion.

“We’ve had a lot of heifers coming in, 74 this year, and we haven’t culled as hard as we normally do,” Mr Burleigh said.

“In the season it hasn’t been an ideal situation, but we’ve been able to feed them as good as any other year.”

Mrs Burleigh is adamant that’s the limit.

“If we go any bigger we’d have to have two in the dairy at all times. As it is now, if one of us has to do something else it’s quite easy for one person to run the shed on their own,” she said.

Over the years processors have tried to encourage the Burleighs to expand, but they are happy with the steady approach.

“A lot of people outgrow their farms,” Mrs Burleigh said.

“For us to go to that next level of 300 our dairy wouldn’t be big enough, the yard wouldn’t hold them and we’d have to put on a worker. We’re better off staying with what we’re doing.”

About five years ago they did take up one option suggested by their current processor, Fonterra, to dedicate 50 per cent of their production to the domestic fresh milk market.

A premium is paid to support out-of-season production costs, extra audits and requirements needed to keep the milk under 200 000 BMC.

“We said to Fonterra, if we could make $10 000 more then we’d come across,” Mr Burleigh said.

“It was going to be around $22 000 more so we signed and at the end of that financial year we actually ended up making a bit more than that.”

The milk goes into Woolworths and Anchor milk.

The milk quality awards at the dairy are testimony to the success of their product. And the fresh milk contract has helped the Burleighs to stay up-to-date with machinery and technology.

They harvest using their own machinery and, since he was 16, Mr Burleigh has done silage wrapping contracting.

“Harvest becomes fairly full on for us. I contract 6000 to 7000 bales a year, sometimes more. It’s a bloody good cow to have on the farm. The money I make out of it is reinvested in new machinery.”

The 22-a-side dairy is set up as a one-person operation, with stall gates, automatic wash system, cup removers and Cow Manager heat detection ear tags.

“We were one of the first in Australia to implement Cow Manager and it was the best thing we ever did,” Mrs Burleigh said.

“We were getting data we never had before on cows,” Mr Burleigh added.

“We ran heat detection scratchies for the first few weeks and they would be untouched, it was showing us cows on heat that had absolutely no other signs of being on.”

In the first year joining with Cow Manager they had an extra 33 per cent calve down in the first three weeks of calving. That has been maintained.

They are going all AI for the first time this year, after gradually moving away from bulls. They are also putting Wagyu bulls over the cows rather than Friesian or Jersey, as they diversify into beef as an investment for Chloe.

They sold 14 Wagyu calves through BeefCorp as a trial in their first year and will expand this year, and will also look at Speckle Park and Angus.

“Because we went up in land, an extra 30 acres, we decided to rear a few more calves and decided to try beef,” Mrs Burleigh said.

“Exporting heifers works for some people but not us. Why should we send our cattle overseas so they can use our genetics?”

“We’re targeting overseas markets with our milk but we’re sending our cattle over there. We’re shooting ourselves in the foot doing that,” Mr Burleigh said.

Apart from spreading fertiliser and some drilling that are contracted out, and purchasing wheat and hay, the Burleighs aim to be self-sufficient as much as they can.

“We’re in a lucky area. We have irrigation which makes life easier,” Mr Burleigh said. 
Pastures are about 80 per cent perennials, with the rest annuals and Italians.

Over the past four years they’ve expanded to water more area from effluent and the travelling irrigator, which they believe has helped boost production.

“We make everything as automated as we can,” Mrs Burleigh said.

“We don’t over-spend; we spend where we need to and make investments for the farm.”