Breeding, feeding and flattening the curve

By Dairy News

In this era of flattening the curve, Dave Weel and Bec Lucas are a step ahead of the game.

With a focus on breeding and feeding and three calving periods spread across the year, the share farmers from Kennedy’s Creek are heading in the right direction.

The farm is owned by Mr Weel’s uncle and aunt John and Veronica Wetemans, who farm next door and also own a leased property on the other side of their farm.

When Mr Weel and Ms Lucas entered the 50:50 agreement three years ago, they took on about 150 cows.

Numbers dropped a bit in the second year because heifers weren’t ready, but they are now milking about 185 and aim for 200 next year.

The Wetemans are buying a property across the road, so next financial year Mr Weel and Ms Lucas will increase their share land from the existing 77 hectares to 162 hectares.

They plan to keep a leased out-paddock for 12 months while making improvements on the new land, building a solid foundation for future growth while hoping to use the share farming agreement as a pathway to ownership.

Mr Weel, 30, had accrued a few cows while working on district farms but bought the bulk of his herd when the farm was purchased by his uncle.

The herd is about two-thirds Holsteins, with a few Jerseys and the balance crossbreds.

Some farmers like the job for growing grass, some like using the machinery; Mr Weel’s main focus is on the cows.

“You’ve got to look after your cows,” he said, and his decisions about increasing feed, breeding well and tightening calving seasons are paying off with improved production.

When he arrived, calving started in May and stretched to September and he had some cows of his own due to calve February-March.

Mr Weel adjusted to three split calvings; six weeks in February-March, eight weeks in May-June and six weeks in September-October.

“When I came here, there were 160 cows on 180 acres which was a pretty heavy stocking rate for this area. I figured if I could have some cows in-calf in spring, I could dry them off in July-August and take them to the out-paddock where it’s drier,” he said.

The system was designed to be easier on the cows, the farm and Mr Weel, who runs the farm on his own with only occasional milking support from his mother.

“The second year we had 100 cows calve and some heifers in the middle group; this year it’s 70 cows and 35 heifers but instead of 12 weeks it’s only eight.

“We’ve still got three groups, which are more flexible and efficient. If you have a heifer a bit underdone and you don’t want to join yet, you don’t have to. She can go in the next group.”

The policy has helped the farm to “flatten the milk curve”.

“With traditional once-a-year calving, cash flow can be hard when you’re starting out. You have a couple of big months but you don’t know what you need up your sleeve.

“Keeping it regular is better. If you’ve only got a $10000 range in your milk cheque rather than $20000, you’re a bit more comfortable.”

Mr Weel knew it wasn’t going to be easy and finances were his biggest concern starting out.

“We were struggling 18 months ago when the tractor blew up. We’re back on top of it now, paying a lot off my loans for buying the cows and machinery.”

Starting this joining, all his crossbreds are in-calf to beef, while sexed semen is being used to get the heifers in early, avoiding stragglers.

“If you’ve got an August calf competing against a May calf, it’s a big difference,” Mr Weel said.

“Anything after the first 42 days of calving, there’s less chance of the heifer entering the herd.”

While he’s been building herd numbers, extra calves are easy to sell and provide a welcome cash influx.

A new calving pad was installed this year and a feed pad was added last year.

“It gets too wet in winter and this is a better way of utilising feed,” Mr Weel said.

“The first day we used it, we saved a bale of brought-in hay.”

Helped by a good season, Mr Weel has needed only one load of cereal hay for springers, a big reduction from up to six loads in previous years and a saving of about $20000.

“We started January 26 so we over-sowed pretty much the whole farm with annuals. Since then, we’ve done four or five summer crops a year, giving a full workover for the paddocks and gradually bringing it up to scratch.”

Mr Weel has more than doubled their feed, resulting in a spike in production.

“I like to breed and feed my cows,” he said.

“I wanted to improve their condition and the easiest way was to put a bit of weight on their back.

“Feeding and breeding well are good investments. if they don’t calve well, it’s a nasty cycle.

“They are fed up to 7kg in the dairy, more than double what they were getting three years ago.

“The grain is basically 100 per cent utilised, significantly reducing hay and silage wastage and enabling me to cut more home-grown fodder because they’re not taking it out of the paddocks,” Mr Weel said.

The higher input system has seen the farm increase to a rolling average of 8500 litres per cow, with his fat and protein percentages outstripping his uncle’s farm, prompting some good-natured ribbing, although Mr Weteman tops his litres.

“We work in pretty well,” Mr Weel said.

“We have good communication, which is the most important thing.

“We do the harvest together, sharing resources and labour, and he reinvests in the farm.”

Mr Weel has been president of the Western District Holstein Club for four years and says breeding is one of the easiest ways to improve.

“You can control what they eat, but if they’re not bred right, they won’t produce,” he said.

“Every cow is different. I don’t blanket AI, but I pick individual traits based on what needs to be improved.

“It’s what drives me to keep going,’’ Mr Weel said.

“Some like tractors or growing grass, I like the cows.”