DAIRY FARMER Brett Ford laughs as he says he came about milking the herd once a day by what was ultimately default and consequent observation.
Located in the rolling hills of Paradise, Tasmania, on the family property owned by his parents Arthur and Beverley — the 170-head, spring calving three-way cross herd have been milked once a day for the last 15 years.
And with a cell count consistently under 100 000 (with spikes above if mastitis isn’t addressed) a calving pattern of about six weeks and 98 per cent conception rate, Brett has certainly got the management supporting the decision down pat, although it did take some mistake making to get there.
Production sits around 1250 kg milk solids a hectare.
“Milking once a day makes life easier but it is not for everyone; but if you do it right there are certainly rewards and lifestyle opportunities,” Brett said.
It was after a tough winter and calving period in 1998 where Brett faced calving paralysis, repeat cases of milk fever and he had lost a few cows, that he decided to put that particular group of sick cows on once-a-day milking.
Initially it was just to let them heal so he could at least get chopper value for them but after pregnancy testing, he was surprised when seven of the nine cows were in calf.
“These were all cows that I thought shouldn’t have got pregnant,” Brett said.
And it was at that moment something clicked in his mind and a seed was sown.
The following year with 26 per cent of the two-year-olds in the milking herd still not in calf, Brett remembered the conception rate of the once-a-day herd and in particular the conception rate of the heifers in that group.
In 2001 he decided to hold an on-farm trial with the newly calved heifers, placing odd number animals on once a day and even numbers on twice a day.
The odd-number herd experienced a two per cent reduction in milk production and a fertility rate of 95 per cent while the twice-a-day heifers still had a conception rate of 76 per cent.
The following season all heifers were put on once a day and the then three-year-old group had a production loss of three per cent and a conception rate of 95 per cent.
In the 2003–2004 season the family decided to put the entire herd on once a day.
“We did a lot of things first off we shouldn’t have, and a lot of our mistakes were management decisions rather than cow related,” he said.
Initially cell count was a problem and in hindsight Brett said he should have just culled the high cell count cows straightaway because they really struggled under the once-a-day system.
“Cows with a count of around 150 000 dropped and we now have a lot sitting between 20 — 40 000 while those with high counts we should have just sold.
“Managing grass has always been the key and even more so on once-a-day let alone looking outside the box of what we are told.”
Brett eventually found giving the herd a third of the paddock in the morning and the other two thirds at night prevented problems like pugging, especially in wet weather.
“This system complements our grass growing of around 14 tonne a hectare without the use of nitrogen, less cows walking on laneways and dairy time equals greater efficiency of nutrients.”
Brett said while the farm isn’t organic, they do use some organic principles based on what suits their management.
Brett has been managing the breeding side of the operation for the last 20 years and doing his own AI and that of a few other farmers for the last 28 years — he is looking to hand that side of the operation over to his 16-year-old son Lochlan who has left school and is in the process of completing an apprenticeship.
“Lochlan has his AI ticket and I have got him still developing the finer skills of the art of which I have him learning from a few of the good techs from Tassie and New Zealand, developing a broad range of habit and techniques,” Brett said.
Lochlan said he loves the cows and has a goal to breed the best dairy herd he can.
“I like the farm and I can’t think of anything else I want do,” Lochlan said.
Joining starts dependent on weather conditions about the October 28 to November 1 and the herd has usually cycled three times before mating which gives Brett a submission rate of about 99.5 per cent; there might be a couple of cows that don’t cycle at all in those first three weeks.
The three-way cross herd is based around Jersey, New Zealand type Holstein and Swedish Red genetics.
“I started with the Kiwi cross and how they complemented our system (a once-a-day index) which made breeding decisions a little easier at the start.
“I liked the health traits of the Swedish Red and the components of the Jersey breed and we didn’t want a big-framed Holstein cow either.”
Brett aims for 550–600 kg animal with a production peak of about 26 litres with 9.5–10 per cent milk solids.
“Cash flow was a problem in the early days until a once-a-day milk curve was understood; the cows don’t really peak they have a much flatter milk curve but after Christmas it’s pretty good,” he said.
“At the end of the day it is about understanding the bottom line of your business and the profit you can make within the cows.
“The lifestyle is the bonus if you can get your head around the process and look at the management process from the cow’s perspective.”
The dairy component of the farm sits at about 49 ha and supports calves and the dairy herd for the 305-day lactation while the other 40-odd hectares supports a beef component, cuts a small amount of hay and grows out the heifers.
“We don’t grow any silage and we only feed out three quarters of a bale of hay per cow per year, we just grow grass because that is what our farm is suited to.”
The cows are fed grain in the bale most seasons around 100–150 kg but this year’s poor season pushed consumption up about 700 kg.
“We have had a very good autumn break, so we are knocking that number back now,” Brett said.
About 60 per cent of the farm is irrigated by laterals — half the laterals are pumped while the other half are gravity fed.
At 76 years of age Arthur still looks after all the irrigation/weed control while Beverley does the books and watches the calving cows like a hawk.
“Mum and Dad are still very active on the farm and I am proud to be involved alongside them,” Brett said.
“The dairy industry needs family farms and if we are not careful, they will be a thing of the past as corporate farming swallows the dairy industry like it has in other industries.”