People and pastures are key to success

By Jeanette Severs

MANAGING PEOPLE and grazing pressure are key operations in the Vagg dairy farm business, in southern Victoria.

Gordon and Sylvia Vagg have a farm manager, family members and other employees in their Leongatha South business.

Along with themselves, they employ a part-time production manager, Paul Cocksedge, senior farmhand and assistant manager, Rick Courtier, and a part-time casual farmhand — Charlie McInnes, who is studying at Dookie College — on a rotating milking roster.

Their sons — Samuel, an agronomist, and Benjamin, qualified in soil science and farm management — bring their expertise to the farm business on a part-time basis. Daughter, Rebekah, uses her business degree to collaborate with Sylvia in human resources management, along with off-farm businesses in farm services and education.

Apprenticeships, university study, workshops and short courses in the vocational system are all on offer and supported. Part of the Vagg couple’s ethos is a sound understanding they are competing for staff with other industries.

“We ensure we train and educate all our staff and we place great store by that,” Sylvia said.

“We work hard on having respectful relationships and honest communication from the principals and between everyone. We encourage staff to give regular feedback. We minimise the impact of work on people’s private lives.

“From our point of view, successful dairy farmers have to be focused on animal health and production and people management.”

Benjamin manages the milking roster so everyone gets a regular weekend off. Everyone except Sylvia interacts regularly with the cows.

“On-farm management decisions are made by Paul. He attends a monthly discussion group and he’s also responsible for breeding decisions and pasture rotations,” Gordon said.

“We’ll do everything to maximise pasture growth rate. We aim to graze at the 2.5 leaf stage.”

The 75 per cent Jersey self-replacing herd of 380 cows produces 485 kg milk solids/cow off an effective dairy area of 128ha, with 112 ha used to raise young livestock and for fodder production and a beef herd.

While they grow out their own heifers, they also raise some bull calves to two-year-olds for a small clientele.

A beef herd that includes the cross-breeds from the dairy enterprise are also raised and fattened — steers are sold and many of the heifers are joined to a Blonde d’Aquitaine bull to incorporate muscle.

“We sell their progeny as vealers and fat cattle,” Sylvia said.

“They’re our grass-toppers after the dairy herd, to keep our pasture in the best possible condition.”

The Vaggs use split-calving for continuity of cash flow, to support their commitment to employing staff.

Pasture management includes forage crops and making hay and silage. This year, 64 ha was harvested for pit silage and 1400 rolls of silage was baled.

“Our aim is to produce all our own fodder on-farm and be able to sell excess,” Sylvia said.

“We have a steady base of customers looking for 12-month-old hay.”

Turnips, forage oats and sorghum support broadacre pasture.

“Our focus is as much home-grown feed as possible. We build a system that maximises spring growth to get through to autumn,” Sylvia said.

“This increases our flexibility for grazing and silage, as well as wintering cattle. I like to have a spare silage pit, in case of a poor year.”

The farm topography varies from grey loam rising to red soil.

“The red dirt gives us early silage and feed, whereas the grey dirt, with a heavy clay loam base, gives late crops and pasture,” Gordon said.

They have used the Fert$mart program to inform effluent use.

“We empty the effluent ponds over summer to minimise run-off,” Sylvia said. Up to 40 ha is irrigated with effluent water.

They use GPS to analyse and record fertiliser and effluent use, and fertigate using a travelling irrigator. They use a foliar spray that maximises take-up of soil nutrients by the plant root system.

“We don’t over-sow pasture. I put the poorest paddock into a crop the following year,” Gordon said.

“Soil temperature limits pasture production over winter, which in turn determines how much concentrate is bought in to meet our milk production targets.”

Winter soil temperatures have been recorded at 7°C in August, a temperature that will inhibit rye-grass growth.