Sustainability not just planting trees

By Stephen Cooke

SUSTAINABILITY IS not just about shelter belts and planting trees, it’s about the financial stability of your business, according to Yandoit dairy farmer Robert Morrison.

Mr Morrison, his wife Belinda and their son, Nick, won the Natural Resource and Sustainability Management Award at the recent Great South West Dairy Awards.

The Morrisons, who farm at Yandoit near Daylesford, were recognised for ‘their excellent resource management practices, including extensive protection of remnant native vegetation and good nutrient management such as effective utilisation of limited amounts of dairy wastes and irrigation water’.

The Morrison family first settled the land they currently farm in 1856, with Mr Morrison’s grandfather establishing the farm irrigation system. Although they have a water right of 102 Ml, they only use 20 Ml a year to water lucerne.

“We have kept accurate records of the way the watertable behaves,” Mr Morrison said.

“The irrigated lucerne keeps the herd going through summer and provides valuable protein in the diet.

“With past seasons drier, hotter and windier, we need to look at growing more feed in spring to fill the gap. Instead of just watering lucerne, we may start another couple of annual paddocks in the autumn.

“Now more than ever we need to be right on the ball in terms of staying one step ahead of the game. We need seed and fertiliser ready to go to take full advantage of the rain events whenever they occur.”

Mr Morrison said they could have wet summers and dry winters, with major rain events occurring at any time.

“If we don’t get rain in spring, we need to look at summer crops and what will grow here.”

The area has been described as marginal land (or “Merino sheep country”) by some.

“It’s not, because it comes down to management,” Mr Morrison said.

“You need to work within your parameters, including soil type and rainfall. We tissue test then apply trace elements after that.”

The Morrisons have recently invested in a new hayshed and silo to help protect themselves against drought, but believe investing in soil health is just as crucial.

“You’re flying blind unless you soil test, and fertiliser is too expensive to apply where you don’t need it,” Mr Morrison said.

“Every time the tanker drives down the road, nutrients are lost to the farm and they have to be returned to the soil.”

Mr Morrison paid credit to the work achieved by plant breeders with drought-tolerant species.

“To do their work justice requires correct soil conditions and that’s up to us.”

Lucerne is irrigated and sorghum can also be grown successfully, receiving some nutrients from the effluent pond.

Lucerne is cut for silage then strip grazed through summer. The herd can be grazing lucerne until as late as June.

The farm comprises 150 ha and they milk 110 cows off 41ha, producing 500 000 litres a year. Cows produce 30 tonnes of milk solids annually, with protein of 3–3.2 and fat of 4–4.5.

They begin calving in autumn and calve through until spring. They aim to calve 40 per cent in autumn, 20 per cent up to spring and 40 per cent in spring.

“If a cow doesn’t get in calf, we don’t stress. We give high producing cows that don’t get in calf time,” Mr Morrison said.

“We used to be autumn calvers but we don’t know when feed will come — autumn or spring — so it splits our risks.”

He uses a Gallagher Australia tumble wheel system for strip grazing and back fencing, saying they are far superior to pig tail post fences and can be shifted in a matter of seconds.

“This revolutionised our grazing management in so many ways and was a major leap forward.

“We balance the green feed with roughage, giving cows the fibre they need. We grow good quality feed high in protein, and buy in roughage, which is local and cheap.”

They direct drill the a large portion of the farm with annuals.

“Our management enables us to gain considerably more feed than we could have without management.”

Pastures are predominantly annual clover and rye-grass, with some perennials.

“We like the quantity of the annuals as we need to grow as much feed as possible in a short amount of time. We don’t have the rain of south-west Victoria or the irrigation of northern Victoria, although they can’t rely on that either at the moment.

“We used to be in 24 inch (576 mm) rainfall and it’s probably 22 inches now (528 mm). In a dry year we might have two to three months of rain and we need to make every drop count.”

The Morrisons have fenced off a creek running through their farm to restrict access from their herd, and planted a wildlife corridor of natives, including wattles and local species of eucalypts. The corridor runs through three farms, providing a haven for native wildlife, including an endangered species of bird, and providing protection for their herd as well.

Nick began work on the farm after school, keen to continue the family tradition. He receives 10 per cent of the milk cheque.

“It’s important that he’s connected with the productivity of the place. It shouldn’t just be a wage or a promise that one day this will be his,” Mr Morrison said.

A new effluent dam and feedpad were recently installed near the dairy, helping improve both the environmental footprint and profitability. The feedpad is lined with bark slivers, which capture the effluent. This is then pushed into a compost heap.

Cows enter it after every milking all year round, feeding on silage and then fibre. Removing the silage feeding from paddocks has reduced pasture damage.

“It’s been a good way of capturing nutrients and dispensing it further away from this general area,” Mr Morrison said.

Five hectares of Moby barley is planted each year, over-sown with clover and rye-grass. Once this is ensiled, compost is spread on the paddocks, which are then sown back to pasture. Leftover compost is applied where soil tests dictate it will be most beneficial.

Lucerne is also over-sown with chicory. “If lucerne is struggling we’re not afraid to drill into it to boost winter productivity.”

Each year the Morrisons put aside the equivalent of a load of grain into a Farm Management Deposit.

“I’m always worried about the perfect storm of low prices and poor seasons,” Mr Morrison said.

“We haven’t had to draw on it yet. There’s only been one year where we haven’t turned a profit on the farm.

“Some say a farm this size shouldn’t exist but we farm according to the environment in which we’re accustomed to.”