Farm growth an organic journey for Tasmania’s Lambert family

By Dairy News Australia

MARK LAMBERT has come a long way from the days when he left high school to milk 80 cows on 40 ha on part of his parents’ farm at Sunnyside, near Railton, Tasmania back in 1996.

Over the ensuing years the farm has grown to encompass 390 ha of red volcanic soil on undulating land with an average rainfall of 1000 mm a year.

The 520 cows are organic, and Mark and his wife Roslyn are busy meeting the challenges of raising a large family and running a large-scale organic farm which up until recently, was the largest on the island.

“Tasmania is a great place to farm organically, the natural climate means we can reliably grow nearly all the feed we need for the cows,” Mark said.

The journey to conversion wasn’t quick, in fact it took about 10 years to become fully certified.

“I wasn’t happy with the advice I was receiving from the department of ag, so I began looking for information on various things which led me to a biological style of farming,” he said.

“Over time we realised we only had to go a little further to become totally organic — I was always open to organics but it did take me by surprise in a way, I wasn’t aiming to be an organic farmer when I set out on this journey. But I am very happy with how we farm now.

“When I started the process there wasn’t even a processor in Tasmania to supply and then suddenly when we were two-and-a-half years into the conversion there were three processors actively looking for milk.

“We chose to supply ODFA because they have a great spread of products and are a great company to get along with.”

Mark said changing his mindset was the biggest challenge he faced during the conversion.

“Things are the same, but also very different. There was a lot of products I couldn’t use which opened up to a whole new world of things I could.”

Getting the soil pH right has been the foundation for success on the Lambert farm. Initially the farm’s soil had a pH around 5.6 to 5.7 while today it is sitting around 6.5 to 6.7.

“If you get the soil foundation correct everything else starts to fall into place after that,” Mark said.

Using products such as lime, dolomite, bioag superb and Greatland Pasture Tea have been the key to raising pH and getting soil conditions right.

Mark said you can tell by the colour of the pasture and cow pats how much nitrogen there is in the cycle, when you get your soil balanced correctly it all works for you naturally.

However growing grass is hardest during July and August.

“Tt is a natural low in the nitrogen cycle and you have to be prepared for it, this is when most of the conserved hay is fed to the herd,” Mark said.

“We are actually growing more grass organically than we ever did conventionally, and much cheaper too.

“We grow a fruit salad pasture which is not the conventional way, but I would strongly encourage it because it allows the cows to self-medicate and eat what they need.

“When we sow paddocks, we blend our own mix which includes rye grass, cocksfoot, prairie grass, phalaris (trial), plantain, chicory and white, red and sub clovers. You need a permit to buy conventional seed and it needs to be untreated. It can be an obstacle and something you need to be aware of.”

While Mark has now got the grass growing situation under control it was a process and he had to deal with a few health problems in the interim, including milk fever and grass tetany.

“Correcting pH levels and fixing the calcium and magnesium ratio has seen an almost complete absence of milk fever and grass tetany during the milking season,” he said.

“We still get some at calving, which we control with apple cider vinegar and sea salt.”

When it comes to animal health, prevention is the major key to success and if you can address health problems before they arise as an organic farmer you remain on the front foot.

Introducing seaweed and unrefined sea salt has helped Mark’s management particularly around reducing the incidence of mastitis by providing nutrients in both plant and chemical form.

“We have a quarter of the sick cows we used to have, but mastitis is the trickiest to treat — garlic tincture, apple cider vinegar and vitamin C are all good.”

The other major health problem was sore feet which has been addressed by good quality laneways and copper sulphate foot mats as the cows enter the dairy platform while five-minute copper sulphate foot baths have helped those cows with infections.

“We have had no cows that have had to be dried-off with sore feet this year so I can say that process has been 100 per cent successful.”

Mark has recently discovered he has a selenium deficiency which he is in the process of trying to nut out.

“I am 40 days into a 100-day program so we will see how that goes but early signs are looking promising,” he said.

Rearing young stock can be a tricky area, but if you run uncertified animals on the farm, the young stock can be treated conventional up until six months before their first calving.

Mark has found using the probiotic MYLO by Terragen in calf milk to work very well in the prevention of sick calves.

Parasites are a problem in young stock and he does use commercial product with each calf treated on average three times in the first 14 months of life.

Mark said organic farming can be challenging in terms of management at times, but the hardest thing is sourcing organic feed and grain, when circumstances mean you need to buy some in.

“You can get a permit to feed up to five per cent of total dry matter intake as non-organic feed during times of feed stress.”

There are a couple of grain farmers in Tasmania who have started the conversion process which is great for us and great for the Tasmanian organic dairy industry.

The current season was the first full certified organic season for the business and this one was a particularly dry one from September through to late January when the season changed, and the farm received one of the best autumn breaks it has ever had with cool weather and 250 mm of rain from late January.

“Although there will always be challenges in farming, things are good now, it’s raining again, we have settled into a farming style we are very happy with and we are very blessed,” he said.