THE TINDALL family from near Casterton has learnt to farm to their environment, not to a script, and they don't mind improvising from time to time.
In an area dominated by beef and sheep farming, the Tindalls have used technology and good farming practices to survive and improve.
As one of only five dairy farms in the gently sloping valleys around Coleraine and Casterton, they enjoy mild winters and dry summers.
Lachlan Tindall, who farms with his father John, feels depressed when he sees a green tinge on southern farms over summer, but smiles when he can move cows freely over winter.
It started as a Soldier's Settlement farm in 1948 and has gone from two people milking 60 cows to one person running a rotary dairy that milks 650.
They farm off a 445 ha dairy block with a 365 ha out block, along with a connected beef operation on 525 ha.
Like many farmers, the past few years have been tough, but the Tindalls find ways to innovate and improve.
Lachlan described the past four years as a perfect storm of negativity; they were caught in the Murray Goulburn collapse, battled drought and low prices and endured a collapse in the Wagyu beef market after buying a new farm.
“We've been flat out surviving the past few years,” John said.
It's still tough but this year has shown signs of improvement, with dairy leading the way ahead of beef.
“We got rain in the spring at the right time and we managed the pastures better through that period, and because the milk price is better, we've had the ability to pay more for fodder,” Lachlan said.
“At our last cheque, we were about 240 000 litres up for the year.”
Their Bega milk price of $7.05 and lower feed costs are helping the Tindalls to turn the corner.
The farm has medium-framed Friesians and despite the dry conditions (they average 600 mm but only got 400 mm last year, albeit at the right times) they maintain a 1.4 cows per hectare stocking rate, about the south-west average.
“We don't want big cows; they do a lot of walking and we don't have the feed for big cows,” Lachlan said.
They bought a neighbouring farm to diversify into beef and to grow more fodder. They buy in about 2.2 tonnes of grain or concentrate mix per cow, and around 400 to 500 tonnes of vetch or lucerne hay a year.
Experience has shown deep-rooted Mediterranean perennials like Phalaris and Cocksfoot work best on the land, with rye-grass no longer viable on the dairy block.
“We use annuals as renovation tools or patch-up tools, as well as oats,” Lachlan said.
“If a paddock needs renovating, we rip it up and put oats through it for one or two years, which helps with weed control and then, if need be, put annuals in; but I've gone away from putting annuals straight after oats because you get a bit of a seed build up and when you go back to Phalaris and Cocksfoot, it will smother it.”
John said he tried rye-grass for years but it never worked.
“We've got a paddock of Cocksfoot that was sown in 1982 or '83 and it's still like a fresh pasture. Nothing kills it — it's drought-proof, crickets, grubs, grasshoppers. They just bounce back,” John said.
About three years ago they trialled splitting a paddock three ways to see what would happen with different strains of rye-grass. As expected, none survived after 12 months but typically the Tindalls are happy to give new things a try.
The need for a lot of inputs is exacerbated by autumn calving.
“There's never any grass but we want to cash in on the early lactation milk by feeding them better,” John said.
“Calving when it's dry is very easy; we only lost one per cent of calves last year.
John has always followed the philosophy that you need to farm to your environment, not a script.
“We've been doing that subconsciously for the past 20 years,” he said.
One of the big improvements over the past decade has been the six-week in-calf rate, now sitting a bit over 70 per cent.
What did they do to fix it? A lot of sitting.
“We used to do six weeks of AI,” Lachlan said.
“We'd take it in turns to sit there on the AI platform watching cows come around. If they came past on heat, we'd draft them out.”
Last March they were approached by Genetics Australia to use Herdinsight collars just prior to joining.
While John calls it “bovine bling” for the pretty red straps, the collars have been helpful.
“We weren't expecting a better conception rate because we were already right up at the top, it was more a lifestyle thing,” he said.
The conception rate was the same as the previous year even though the cows were in lesser condition and the Tindalls expect further improvements in coming years.
The biggest selling point for most people is conception rate, for the Tindalls the main payback was lifestyle — Lachlan being able to go motorbike riding and John and Glenys able to holiday for a week in July, something that couldn't happen before.
They also make it easier to monitor cows from afar.
The dairy has been upgraded with a Jantec system including auto teat spray, cell count monitors, and inline milk meters.
“The computer tells staff what to do. One man couldn't milk 650 cows without technology,” John said.
They say the system is “hi-tech but simple” and they have been trialling a new software product.
“I'm happy to be a guinea pig for trials so we can see what works and what doesn't,” Lachlan said.
This year the farm is tracking for 8000 litres or a bit over and around 600 kg/MS.
About eight years ago they employed independent nutritionist Total Result Ag Consulting and put the focus on margin, rather than straight-out production.
“Since then, we've gone from about 5500 litres to 8000 with no extra infrastructure and we're milking more cows,” Lachlan said.
They also use agronomist Andrew Speirs as part of their confidence in the advice of experts in their field.
For the first time they did genomic testing of calves last year, mainly to ensure they keep their best lines and export the lesser animals.
“Our starting baseline was higher than normal but we're not big genetics people,” Lachlan said.
“We're more interested in feeding cows properly and having a healthy herd to get more milk out of them. I don't see the point of having bigger, flashier cows until we're getting more out of what we've got.”
Always looking for ways to make things easier, the Tindalls use an excavator to load silage, cutting the previous tractor time from 45 to 10 minutes.
Their focus on animal health has seen the introduction of a heavy vaccination program.
“We've had issues dealing with IBR and rotavirus in the past so six-seven years ago we started a vaccination program that has eliminated all those problems,” Lachlan said.
They vaccinate just prior to calving to get coverage on both animals.
Last year Lachlan did a trial on about 20 cows just using Teatseal instead of blanket Dry Cow treatment. It worked well and mastitis and cell count were about the same as the previous year.
This year around 85 per cent of the herd will be Teatseal only, and only those with mastitis or high cell count will get both Dry Cow and Teatseal.