Pushing production during the drought

By Jeanette Severs

WHEN DAIRY News Australia interviewed Bete Bolong dairy farmer, Chris Nixon, about how he was managing the East Gippsland drought at this time last year, he had made decisions with the lost expectation of a spring break.

As the drought continues in its third year in 2019, Mr Nixon said his focus in the dairy farm business had been on maintaining production per cow, while making de-stocking decisions to reduce herd numbers.

Chris and Helen Nixon, with farms in the Orbost and Cann River district, own two spring-calving Friesian dairy herds and a spring-calving Angus beef herd. Fodder to support the dairy business in 2018 cost them $660/tonne including freight.

In the past year they have benefited from one delivery of donated fodder — paying the freight cost of $100/tonne. They also paid the freight cost on a delivery of donated almond hulls. Both feed deliveries were organised through the Victorian Farmers Federation.

In the past year, the Nixons have made decisions about improving drought resilience across the farm, including building a feed pad a year ago and cleaning out all dams about 18 months ago — work they paid for themselves.

In recent months, they accessed Victorian Government grants to improve water efficiency and re-sow pastures.

In August last year, they sold most of their remaining Angus cows and 11-month-old steers and heifers, retaining a core breeding herd of 100 cows and 110 of the best heifers. Mr Nixon had already fed out 5000 tonnes dry matter of silage, along with hay.

“We don’t have the pasture and we’ve fed out the silage we put away in a bunker for conditions like this,” Mr Nixon said at the time.

In August last year, the Nixons installed a polycarbonate and gravel feed pad, at a cost of $140 000 that has paid for itself within the past year.

By Christmas last year, they had sold 100 dairy cows and gradually reduced the herd to 405 milkers.

“We have de-stocked 40 per cent across the farm in the last two years,” Mr Nixon said.

“We started 2018–19 with 520 milkers and by June 30 this year, we were down to 405. I took the view that milking extra cows would increase feed costs. De-stocking the herd by 25 per cent has reduced dairy production, but I’ve maintained cow production at 7000 litres/cow/year.

“I’ve kept all the heifers, because being smaller, they’re cheaper to feed. Our drought strategy is to keep all heifers and join them — if the season breaks, I’m halfway back into full production.

“But we’re assuming again this year, it’ll be a tough spring.”

The cost of freight to Orbost precluded him continuing to purchase hay throughout this year; although at the time of this interview, he had ordered two truckloads of cereal hay, specifically to calve the cows down.

“Because of the heifers we kept, we’ll calve down 500 females — cows and heifers — this spring,” he said.

What has worked in the past year, was utilising a peat swamp that had dried up — he sowed 60 ha of maize and harvested 44 ha of it as chopped silage at 25 tonne/ha; and 16 ha was retained for grain, yielding 7.4 tonne/ha.

This was in addition to an irrigated block of 30 ha of maize, which is double-cropped to produce silage in spring and a winter cereal crop. It produced a mixed result.

“We were very happy with the result of sowing maize in the peat swamp,” Mr Nixon said.

“But of the 30 ha irrigated crop, that yielded 0–25 tonne/ha, depending on where the irrigation went — or not.”

An annual crop program, the 30 ha paddock relies on regular spring and summer rainfall to produce its best yield. The irrigation only covers part of the paddock.

He is looking to again utilise the peat swamp to opportunistically sow maize.

“It’s dried up for the first time ever in this drought, so we decided to use it,” Mr Nixon said.

“Because I grew so much maize last year, costed at $110/tonne DM because of the yield, we’re not so reliant on feed.

“We’ll risk another summer crop on the swamp if it stays dry.”

Constructing the feed pad in August last year, well before any government assistance was being meted out to Victorian farmers, was an investment gamble, but Mr Nixon said the new infrastructure had paid for itself in its first year.

Because he has been reliant on feeding out chopped maize silage with the wheat ration on the feed pad, he has been able to add canola oil to the feed mix — and waste is 25 per cent down on feeding silage to cows in the paddock.

“It cost $140 000 to build the feed pad — not including the cost of our own labour nor most of the gravel, which came from the farm,” Mr Nixon said.

“The geohex was about $70 000 and the concrete troughs were $35 000. We bought in screenings and there was some contractor costs.”

He chose the geohex polycarbonate base, overlaid with gravel, after watching the use of a similar feed pad on another farm at Orbost.

“I watched how it stood up to use over three years,” Mr Nixon said.

His trigger points for decision-making for the rest of this year are built around whether there will be a spring break.

“By the end of August, it needs to be wet and raining before the gale winds begin in September and October,” Mr Nixon said.

“If we haven’t had rain by the end of August, all surplus cows will be gone from the dairy — carryover cows, those who slipped calves and late-calving cows.”

The next trigger point is the end of September, when he will be able to estimate how much maize silage will be harvested in October.

“Because I grew so much maize last year, costed at $110/tonne DM because of the yield, we weren’t reliant on feed,” he said.

“With the freight costs to Orbost at $100/tonne, it precludes buying in feed; you have to be as self-reliant as possible.

“We maintained feeding wheat at 5 kg/cow/day, as well as the maize silage.

“By the end of September we’ll be making decisions based on August rain or no rain.”

He also currently has 1000 bales of hay, available for the beef heifers, that was harvested at Cann River over summer — that fodder could be used to support the dairy herd.

“Because we sold 500 beef cows over the past year, if we have a spring at Cann River, we’ll be able to cut hay and silage.

“Last year, summer rain meant we were able to harvest 1600 bales of hay. So, at the moment, I’ve got 1000 bales of hay up my sleeve, if I need it at Orbost,” Mr Nixon said.