Cutting costs to increase returns

By Dairy News

ROB AND Jenni Marshall have tried various business models for their milking twice-a-day dairy farm at Lardner.

They have employed apprentices and farm workers, they have worked as sole operators and used relief milkers and contractors; and they have utilised a farm business consultant.

At the moment, they are using a farm business consultant, relief milkers when they want time away from the farm and agisting heifers in a new arrangement.

A contractor comes in to harvest the silage, because harvesting always coincides with calving and joining.

The management program is focused on utilising assets and reducing inputs and costs.

“We’re not high producers, but using a pasture-based system, our production is up 15 per cent per cow but farm returns are down 20 per cent,” Mr Marshall said.

“So we’ve been focusing on cutting costs and inputs.”

Lardner is a historically reliable heavy rainfall district, with 1000 mm of annual average rainfall. In most seasons, the district is well set up for dryland dairy farming.

The Marshall’s 121 ha dairy farm is on rolling land, with natural springs in some paddocks and a creek running through the flat country (although not available for irrigation).

Production normally peaks around 1.8 million litres, milking in a 20-a-side herringbone dairy.

Calving begins in late July and, with a joining period that incorporates three weeks of artificial insemination followed by mop-up bulls, goes through into September.

Heifer calves are raised and bulls sold as bobby calves.

The milking herd of 320 self-replacing Friesian cows is currently down to 270 after a recent culling period.

“Anything that didn’t have a future in the herd, we got rid of,” Mr Marshall said.

He is relying on 72 heifers he raised to join the herd at the end of this year.

“This year we were focused on rearing heifers to build up the herd,” he said.

After years of growing heifers out on an agistment block, Mr Marshall recently changed that program. His decision had a lot to do with changing down to a two-person operation.

“We didn’t have the time to go check on them every day,” he said.

Now, heifers are raised until 12 months old on the dairy farm, then relocated under management onto an agistment block until they are ready to calve.

“It’s his responsibility to manage them, check their water and watch grazing pressure,” Mr Marshall said. “We do the herd care and organise vet care.”

After an initial foray into chicory in 2015 and 2016, the Marsalls sowed 15 ha of the crop this year, for grazing and to take pressure off the pit silage. That 15 ha is on top of a 4.6 ha crop sown last year and a 6 ha crop at the end of its cycle.

Apart from a high energy grazing option, the chicory crops have been part of a pasture renewal program to combat cockchafers.

There was also 100 dry tonnes of silage left over from 2016.

“In 2017, we cut 150 per cent silage and only 120 per cent has been eaten,” Mr Marshall said.

“We three-quarters filled the pit last year and we’ve used the lot.”

He started feeding pit silage in February this year and has used a “favourable grain contract” to offset minimal growth in autumn.

This year’s silage harvest has produced only one-third of the farm’s needs, but the spring break and November rain has him hopeful of achieving the usual quotient.

Using the farm consultant is like holding a mirror up to business decisions. It is the second time Mr and Mrs Marshall have utilised a consultant for their farm business.

“We’ve been meeting with him for five months now and I find it builds your confidence in your own decision making,” Mr Marshall said.

“You’re holding up a mirror and reflecting your decisions onto that person.

“But they also bring expertise and knowledge from other farms. For instance, we changed our mineral fertiliser mixture, based on his input.”

Mr Marshall is also planning an underground mains reticulated pipe system, to better utilise the effluent pond’s contents.

“So we can spread the effluent further and, because of where the pond is located, still use gravity to distribute it.” The effluent pond is on rising land.