Managing drought while preparing for rain

By Dairy News

THE JENNINGS dairy farm at Bruthen is more likely to experience a flood than a drought.

Minor flooding of the Tambo River and its backwater after heavy rainfall is interspersed with semi-regular widespread flooding in the region. But the East Gippsland family is into its fourth year of drought.

Peter Jennings said he spends half his time managing for current conditions and half his time preparing for after they receive drought-breaking rain. Or, as happened in January, a heavy rainfall of 100 mm in one cast.

Peter and Sue, their son Andrew, son-in-law Adam Hasler, daughter Ingrid, full-time worker Brian, and several full-time casual milkers, make up the workforce.

The herd of 400 self-replacing split-calving mostly Friesian cows produces an average 7000 litres daily, in a 14-a-side double-up herringbone dairy.

Mr Jennings runs bulls in the herd and favours British and Canadian Friesian sires.

“The British Friesian and Canadian Friesian bulls throw good solid cow genetics,” Mr Jennings said.

“I run my milking herd as a meat herd. If she’s not producing, she’s off. I see the results of using those bulls in my steers; they do well in the store cattle market. And there are always a few heifers that make the grade for the export market.”

He currently has 42 heifers of last year’s drop of 120 classed and tagged for export.

“That buys a few bales of hay,” Mr Jennings said.

Peter Jennings checks the growth of kikuyu, a grass he relies on for pasture on his hill country.

Calving begins on March 1 for three months and August 1 for four months. Heifers calve at 2.5-years-old.

The dairy farm is 53 ha of irrigation country, under lateral sprays with a 200 Ml water right, and 150 ha of dryland country. About 11 ha is irrigated a couple of times a week out of the effluent pond. There are also 109 ha of dryland outblocks, where steer and heifer calves are raised and dry cows graze.

Split calving takes advantage of balancing a traditional spring peak and winter deficit cycle, although Mr Jennings said that was a questionable strategy in the ongoing drought circumstances.

“I’d have to say half my focus is on getting through daily, half my focus is on capitalising on when it rains,” he said.

That means fertilising regularly, growing maize crops, keeping young cattle, trading heifers and steers and keeping the milking herd in good condition.

“It’s making sure you have the livestock, the pastures and the infrastructure ready for when it rains,” Mr Jennings said. ‘”I’ve ensured we’re ready for the rain.”

He regularly sells old cows and “odds and bods”, buys heifers and keeps young cattle.

“When it rains, we’ll keep feeding everything,” he said.

“We need a big flood-type rain to turn things around. In the meantime, we’re just continuing on with the normal drought we’ve had for the past three years.”

The herd of 400 self-replacing split-calving mostly Friesian cows produces an average 7000 litres daily.

The milkers get four square bales of home-grown silage, three big bales of cereal hay and 5 kg of pellets daily. They also get the opportunity for green pick whenever it’s available. Dry cows get one bale of hay daily and heifers receive two bales of hay every second day.

“The cereal hay is $340/tonne delivered,” Mr Jennings said.

“In 2018, hay was $220/tonne. Last year we ended spending some of our reserve to buy hay, but we were probably a bit smarter in what we were doing and the milk price has doubled this last year.

“But we’re in record milk price. We’ll keep buying hay.”

A Saputo supplier, he receives more than $7/litre, from a herd producing 7000 litres per day, or 120 000 litres per month. Then there is the labour cost.

“For me it’s important to keep condition on the cows,” Mr Jennings said.

“You can’t half-do this job. You’ve got to get your production out of your cows.”

Sowing a bit of everything

In September last year, Mr Jennings sowed Sardi 7 lucerne into 2.5 ha on dry flat country. In early November, he harvested six bales of wrapped silage and sprayed for hog weed.

He oversowed an existing two-year-old stand of Sardi 7 lucerne with Shogun rye-grass, to bulk it out if rain came. That cut 16 silage bales on January 8 and would be cut again on February 10.

The lateral shift sprayers irrigate a clover and pasture mix, which was showing signs of stress in January. Irrigation was closed on Boxing Day and had been restricted by flow during December, although he irrigated every day in September to November.

“The paddocks have a good super history. They get two rounds of pasture booster, one each in autumn and spring, single super is broadcast once a year and 0.5 tonnes urea follows the cows,” Mr Jennings said.

There are eight plantings of maize, sown a week apart from November 1 to the middle of January. Germination has been variable across all the crops, with variations in height because of the lack of rain.

“We feed the maize as a green chop. Maize is a satisfying crop to grow because it grows so fast,” Mr Jennings said.

“You’ve got to get some pleasures in life. Growing maize is mine.

“We’re good at chopping maize. We harvest it daily and feed that day. The cows eat a crop a week, which is why we sow each crop a week apart.

“The secret to maize, is you’re growing grain in a cool, green crop.

“Growing maize is also about spreading your risk across the farm. It’s as good as anything to have something growing.”

Rainfall of 100mm in January meant the plans to take advantage of rain paid off for the Jennings dairy farm, providing pasture to graze and reducing the amount of fodder fed out.

Kikuyu is oversown with rye-grass and paspalum. Mr Jennings keeps a kikuyu paddock going on the flat country and his hills are kikuyu grass oversown with rye-grass.

“I keep a kikuyu paddock on the flat because you’ve got to have a bit of everything in your mix,” he said.

“And I keep kikuyu in my hill paddocks. This part of the farm is sandy country and kikuyu is a good grass to have here. But, like the paspalum, you’ve got to keep it short.”

On January 20 this year, 100 mm of rain fell. Pasture bounced and maize growth took off, helped along by unseasonal humidity.

“We started drying off cows early, on January 1 for March 1 calving, to take pressure off the silage and fodder,” Mr Jennings said.

“We had 1000 rolls of wrapped silage and (end of January) we have 13 bales left. We were feeding for maintenance and production.

“We’re now back to milking 260 cows and they’re still producing 6400 to 6500 litres.

“Rain makes so much difference. Two weeks later, the cows are grazing green grass during the daytime and they only get one big bale of cereal hay in the morning.

“They were totally reliant on silage and we’re not feeding any silage now.

“The in-calf heifers and dry cows are getting one bale of cereal hay a day with green pick and access to the laneway for grazing.

“The last crop of maize was sown just before 100 mm of rain fell, so this crop will race out of the ground — it had enough water laying to help it germinate.”

With the ground still dry, Mr Jennings is hoping for rain and his plans include sowing oats in mid-February and rye-grass in March.