Drought stress takes toll

By Jeanette Severs

THE DAIRY is silent and the cows are sold on Ron and Vicki Cornall’s Clifton Creek farm.

Rising two-year-old and one-year-old heifers will be sold in stages over the next year.

The pressure of milking every day for diminishing returns and trying to source enough fodder to balance the production system, is over. This is the outcome of East Gippsland’s three-year drought.

Ron and Vicki Cornall set trigger points for decision-making. But that did not stop the stress of wondering: ‘what if the rain comes the day after we sell the milking herd?’.

In the end, they received a good price for their herd, sold as a dispersal at Koonwarra saleyards to eager South Gippsland dairy farmers looking for well-bred cows to come straight into their dairies.

“We milked in the evening, gave them their usual ration, then loaded them onto the truck,” Mr Cornall said.

“They were sold the next day and the feedback we’ve received is they were very welcome additions to other farms.”

This is a story about making decisions in a well-respected management and production system.

The ex-Murray Goulburn, more recently Saputo, customers milked an average of 230 cows in a 36-bail rotary dairy.

The 202 ha farm and 40 ha lease block had an effective 150 ha milking area and included 80 ha to rear calves and make pit and baled silage.

Forty years of breeding using artificial insemination had moved an original Jersey base to a mainly Friesian herd of seasonal calvers; calving began late May.

The 36-bail rotary dairy, with automatic cup removers, was among the first installed in Gippsland, in 1993.

“We spent 2.5 hours milking twice a day and the old 12-a-side herringbone needed upgrading,” Mr Cornall said.

“The best thing about the rotary was feeding in the bail; and 20 years ago I was still amazed that first-calving heifers were keen to get on the platform.

“It’s a smooth, low-stress process for the workers and the cows.”

Over 40 years, the herd grew from 120 to 270, averaging 230 cows in a self-replacing herd. Annual production was around 1.3 million litres.

Mr Cornall was part of the Bairnsdale district dairy discussion group for 40 years, enjoying the benefits of sharing knowledge with others in the industry.

“It was also good for social support, particularly during five major droughts, milk price fluctuations and disease crises,” he said.

He was also involved in Landcare, where he learned about soils and managing and improving pastures while protecting the environment.

“We were probably more like a sheep farm milking cows,” he said of his dryland system, on steep hilly country.

Irrigation was from on-farm dam storage, dependent on rainfall for filling, and utilising effluent to lift fertility across the paddocks.

“Two of the things we lacked most on this farm was fertility and water, so we learned to selectively irrigate it,” Mr Cornall said.

Looking back, he said production stress began in late 2015, although he made pit silage as usual. But a failed spring in 2017 meant there was no extra silage in the system.

In March this year, he sowed cereal crops for winter grazing and spring fodder.

With no run-off rain this year, the idea of fodder was discounted. The only carry-over was a rye-grass crop on the creek flat.

“We’ve always built our management around a buffer of two years reserves of fodder,” Mr Cornall said.

“We fed out the 2015 pit silage this year, beginning in winter and finishing in September.

“By then we’d hit our staged trigger point plan.”

They had already reduced the herd size to 160 cows and fodder was getting more expensive and harder to source.

They considered the options in that plan and discounted leasing or parking the herd, looked at the Bureau of Meteorology forecast for the rest of the year and talked to their livestock agent.

In October the milking herd was sold

Mr Cornall is already seeing the benefits of not milking twice a day.

“I loved getting up early but now I can get more done, without truncating the afternoon to begin milking,” he said.

The Cornalls will now invest their time and energy into the heifers and a beef herd.