Calving pattern suits business

By Jeanette Severs

Frank and Fiona Mills operate two dairy farms at Kilmany, in central Gippsland, milking 546 predominantly British Friesian cows (70 per cent), the remainder cross-bred with Jersey and Normandy genetics.

The farm has been producing milk for Parmalat for 16 years.

“Business with Parmalat suits our calving pattern,” Mrs Mills said.

The herd is evenly 50:50 split for calving from January 20 and August 10 respectively. The cows receive two cycles of artificial insemination and a stud British Friesian bull is used for mop-up joining for three weeks.

Heifers are all joined to bulls, with small heifers joined to Jersey bulls and bigger heifers served by Friesian bulls.

The Jersey-cross progeny are sold as poddy calves. The couple’s four children — Xavier, Aden, Rohanna and Logan — take on raising some heifers and sell them on point-of-calving each year.

Some of the remaining Friesian poddy bulls are sold to a regular client, with most retained to grow out for cash flow, grazing on land at Perry Bridge until they are rising-two-year-old. In a normal year, 400 head of mixed-age steers would be grazing on a dryland farm at Perry Bridge.

Mrs Mills raises the Friesian heifers for the herd.

The farms produced 3.6 million litres in 2017–18 financial year and this year are on track to drop production by 20 per cent across the board. Drought has hit the central Gippsland region.

“We’re servicing a $3 million debt and every month the milk cheque is $10 000 lower because production is down because of the drought,” Mr Mills said.

This season they entered the export heifer business for the first time, only raising 20 heifer calves for the herd. With first-calving heifers coming into the herd this year, they also sold old cows.

The number of steer calves retained dropped, with only 120 head growing out at Perry Bridge.

“As it is, I’m feeding them every second day,” Mr Mills said.

“They are eating seven-year-old rye-grass silage, mixed with straw bales.”

The entire herd of milkers is running through the dairy on the irrigated home farm, with heifers growing out on the dryland second farm and learning to strip-graze. It is a rationalisation move, to better use the workforce and continue to drive productivity. Recently Mr and Mrs Mills reduced staff numbers by two full-time milkers.

The couple have also made the decision to dry off cows that hit a lower production target of 12 litres/day.

“It’s so we’re not feeding grain unnecessarily. If they’re cows not-in-calf, we’re selling them. We’re also selling three-teaters, cows with black feet and those with mastitis,” Mrs Mills said.

Normally they would feed out 9–10 kg pellets/cow/day; that has been reduced to 5 kg/cow/day.

The couple drives production by utilising as much water as possible to grow pasture and make silage and hay. Their irrigation water includes utilising runoff through a series of drains connected to a 30 Ml lagoon, where the water is re-used through the pivot sprayers. The lagoon also holds irrigation water pumped out of the Latrobe River and distributed through the pivots.

They have 202 ha of country at Kilmany under irrigation, flood-irrigating 127 ha and three pivots covering 75ha. A 389 Ml water right on the Latrobe River is supplemented by access to drain water of about 300 Ml/year through CG Number 2 Nambrok. Both are year-round water rights.

That has enabled them to keep 86 ha of the farm for cropping country — 25 ha is planted for maize, harvested late March and 61 ha into rye-grass, harvested in October. All crops are harvested and stored as chopped silage; the silage is mixed with straw in the feeder wagon.

A contractor is employed to harvest the silage.

This year saw them buy extra irrigation water in March, released out of Blue Rock Dam, as the farm business experienced heatwaves in late summer and early autumn on top of the drought.

“We’d used all our entitlement and the drains were dry. We bought 200 Ml for an average $92/Ml. Normally we pay $26/Ml. But they did waive the transfer fee,” Mr Mills said.

“There’s potential for releasing more water from Blue Rock Dam. We’re hopeful the government will agree to releasing more water.”

The additional 200 Ml was used in three weeks, to grow pasture for the milkers to graze.

The couple recently used a Victorian Government rebate for installing drought infrastructure to purchase a concrete sump to increase pump efficiency.

“Rather than have to pump 24-hours-a-day, it’s now an auto switch on-off for flood irrigating 48 ha of pasture,” Mr Mills said.

The farm recently underwent an energy audit through Dairy Australia; installing an automatic pump was a recommendation from that audit.