Once-a-day offers opportunity for change

By Dairy News

Twice-a-day, every day is a phrase often connected with dairy farming.

But some farmers are proving the traditional practice of milking cows in the morning and afternoon does not suit their business or lifestyle.

Hurdles such as labour shortages, cost pressures and a desire to grow cow numbers have all been reasons why some have adopted once-a-day milking (OAD).

OAD milking is the practice of milking cows once in 24 hours.

More common in New Zealand, Australian OAD farmers and consultants believe there’s been a rise in interest locally in the farm management practice.

Jeff Urie is the principal of Gippsland consultancy Ag Challenge and milks OAD.

There’s no statistics about OAD milking, but Jeff said OAD interest was growing.

“I suspect the major reason it is being talked about now, if you take milk price out of equation which is the biggest issue, the second biggest issue in my experience is labour,” he said.

In one of Jeff’s discussion groups the number of dairy farmers milking OAD has increased from two a decade ago, up to eight out of the total 10 farms in the group.

“The other thing driving people OAD, beside labour and lifestyle, is cost of production,” he said. “People are struggling to keep the cost of production low enough, especially in the last three years, so that they can break even.”

Jeff said costs such as debt servicing, living, taxation and capital works required at least 50 cents a kilogram of milk solids on top of the cost of production, with many farms needing $1 kg/MS and some as high as $2 kg/MS.

“Over the last 10 years (the farm gate milk price in Gippsland) has only averaged $5.40 (kg/MS), a lot of people out there have a cost of production over $5 (kg/MS) our group averages $4 (kg/MS),” he said.

Jeff said OAD milking wasn’t for everyone, advocating the practice only in the “right circumstances”.

This includes a couple nearing the end of their dairying career who aren’t financially able to retire but don’t want the commitment of twice-a-day milking or the hassle of employing staff.

Or farmers who have a herd as their main asset and want to grow it but are hamstrung by infrastructure. For example, instead of milking one herd of 200 twice a day, they milk two herds of 200 OAD.

“It is a way a sharefarmer can increase their asset without having to increase labour costs or capital expenditure,” Jeff said. “The same can apply to an owner-operator who could want to increase cow numbers but are limited by infrastructure.”

“On a short-term basis OAD is very useful in drought situations, there’s definitely a reduction in feed intake and a significant reduction in water usage. If water is an issue on a farm ….you use 30 per cent less water if you milk OAD overall.”

But OAD milk does have its challenges.

Jeff said it doesn’t necessarily cost money but there was less money coming in, due to a per cow production decline. He said some people counteracted this by increasing stocking rates.

In the first year, per cow production could drop anywhere between 10–20 per cent, he said. Jeff said farmers must also consider that a percentage of their herd — worst case 10–15 per cent — won’t adapt to OAD and would have to be culled. Combining these, he said there could be a 30 per cent drop in production.

“The first year is the hardest year,” he said. “There’s potential for people to get very close to twice-a-day cow production after four or five years.

“If you increase your stocking rate you get production back,” Jeff said. “I have some clients producing more solids per hectare than twice a day. If you get into that position it makes it as profitable as twice a day, but as a general rule it is not as profitable as twice a day, but then you have got to put a cost on lifestyle and a value on lifestyle.”

Jeff also said shed costs dropped by 45 per cent, issues with sore feet “all but disappear” and reproduction improved.

A desire to remain in the industry prompted Richard Humphris at Beech Forest in south-west Victoria to start OAD milking about six years ago. Still milking into his 70s, the business change was also driven due to the “fairly inclement weather” and typography of the farm.

He said an industry consultant recently said OAD milking was more sustainable during times of feed shortages.

“From my experience, it is much more sustainable when the chips are down, but you don’t really capitalise when things are really good,” he said.

An unexpected benefit of OAD milking has been improved conception rates.

“It provides a faster start-up, after calving, if you are seasonal (calving) like we are,” he said.

“Milking 200–220, you have 180 in in the first four weeks.”

Stuart Griffin operates a seasonal-calving family farm at Westbury in Gippsland in its third season of OAD milking.

“For us it was about working smarter, not harder and having a lower cost of production and really have a focus on profitability over outright production,” he said. “That’s not to say high production can’t be profitable.”

The family started by milking the heifers OAD and then transitioned the entire cross-bred herd. They boosted numbers from 420 to 520.

Stuart said the benefits included time management, “more flexibility to do things” as well as improvements in animal health.

The farm has also been able to employ a staff member who, without OAD milking, wouldn’t have been able to return to working in the dairy industry. The Griffins milk two herds in the morning, the first at 6 am and the second at 8–8.30 am with staff swapping between.

Stuart said the production decline was an initial challenge.

“We were aware of that and it really does pay to get someone involved with experience with OAD milking, Jeff and our discussion group really tested the numbers to make sure we weren’t living in la-la land,” he said.

“Also, if you have mastitis or udder health issues with two-times-a-day milking routine, you may run into problems with OAD.”

Stuart also said there were challenges milking more cows through the same size dairy. The Griffins upgraded their plate cooler to handle the higher milk-flow rates.

The last couple of years has been tough for the Griffins, like many in the dairy industry, with dry conditions forcing the purchase of additional feed at high prices. Stuart said this OAD meant they had lowered the amount they would spend on feed, but they also had lower production. Going forward though, he’s confident the cost per kilogram of milk solids will decrease and they plan to stick with OAD for now.

All farmers Dairy News spoke to called for Australian research into OAD milking, especially analysis of OAD milking using imported feed.

When asked about conducting local OAD research, Dairy Australia said it has conducted co-funded economic modelling with Agriculture Victoria. It also said the basics of implementing OAD on-farm were “fundamentally similar in Australia and New Zealand” and therefore it used DairyNZ research to inform and assist at OAD milking events.

Key reasons why farmers consider OAD milking:

• Less time spent milking cows

• Reduces staff pressure

• Feed shortage

• Stock health (lame cows, light cows, heifers, milk-fever-prone cows)

• Reproduction (non-cyclers, heifers, or whole herd in a feed shortage)

• Small dairy shed for herd size

• Farm layout (walking distance to shed)