AN IMPORTANT and successful part of management for dairy farmers Ian and Karen Litchfield has been their ability to adapt to change — change in all forms from embracing technological advancements to ground roots farming and herd management.
Purchasing their farm in 2000 with a milking herd of 170 cows, the last two decades have certainly been busy as they have pushed herd numbers up around 800, built a new rotary dairy and developed a sustainable dairy farm model they hope will take them forward with a long future in the dairy industry.
At the corner stone of their success has been housing the herd under a dry lot system with shade sheds, a system they implemented after travelling to Arizona in 2007.
“We had already purchased a mixer and were supplementary feeding at the time. After the trip we worked out a dry lot was the cheapest of the intensive operations to set up, so we decided to go with that and we think we now have a sustainable model,” Ian said.
Within five months of returning from the trip, the first shed was up and running and a second was built three months later.
The system currently consists of four milking herd sheds, a springer shed, and a hospital shed.
Each shed is 9–12 m wide, 150 m long and 4–5 m high which allows 4 sq m of shade per cow — a loafing area of 50 sq m per cow is also allowed per pen. The pens are rotary hoed in the morning and harrowed in the evening but if things get wet, they are hoed twice a day.
Wet weather can be a problem especially over the winter months, although Ian has worked hard over the years to minimise the impacts as much as possible.
He runs a maximum of 250 cows in each pen, but he prefers numbers to sit around 220 for cow comfort.
“It is a specialised system, but it makes management easy especially when you are employing backpackers. We have three people in the dairy and two people on the mixer wagon.”
Ian is hoping to take the system to the next level and build what he hopes will be the first of a barn type set-up with concrete laneways for the milking herd, within the next two years.
“The hardest thing we have found is financing infrastructure and getting the banks to think the same way as us because they don’t value concrete and sheds like they do land and water,” Karen said.
Under the old grazing system, the Litchfields believe the farm under its current land size of 700 ha would be pushing things milking around 350 cows, so the system has allowed them to expand numbers relatively quickly and easily.
Ian admits it was difficult to move away from the idea of grazing.
“In the early days we tried to do a bit of both and the hardest thing for me was to totally get rid of rye grass as I consider myself a grazing man,” he said.
“When we had a shortage of water over summer it was reasonably easy to stop grazing but it was a bit harder to convince myself to take out perennials in autumn and it did take a fair bit to get my head around.”
Ultimately it was vat that convinced him to give away grazing altogether.
“I would put the milking herd back on grass and the test would drop away whereas now it’s just so constant we don’t even check half the time.”
Ian said since taking away grazing, the health of topsoil in the paddocks has improved dramatically which is something he attributes to less ground compaction — corn yields have gone from 20 tonne/ha to 25 tonne/ha.
The herd average sits around 10 500 litres/cow with a fat test of 3.9 and protein of 2.4.
“It is just constant day in day out because there are no variables in the system. The cows are milked, fed, they sit down and that’s on repeat day in day out.”
The TMR mix consists of 2.5 kg lucerne, 2.3 kg corn silage, 3.8 kg wheat silage, 1.3 kg wheat grain per cow fed twice a day, while the cows are fed 4 kg of grain in the dairy a day which includes 1.9 kg of canola and 0.4 kg of a mineral mix.
Ian currently runs six milking herds because he is transitioning to A2 milk — a choice made about 14 months ago when the processor was looking for additional milk to fill the truck.
The premium price for A2 milk was also a drawcard.
The A2 cows are identified by a blue ear tag and an A freeze brand to prevent mix ups.
The A2 herd is always milked first with the milk going into its own vat.
Ian said he chose to test every animal in the herd and breed the gene in over five years rather than sell the current herd and buy in A2 animals for a premium price. Thirty-four per cent of the original herd already had the gene.
The business has 2000 Ml of NSW water and a 300 Ml bore allocation.
This season Ian carried over 150 Ml which was used to grow 33 ha of corn to support the cereal cropping program.
In a reasonable year with a 50 per cent water allocation Ian estimates he can grow about 4000 tonne of homegrown feed but in years with no water the housed system offers flexibility when allocation is non-existent.
“We are starting to look at water allocation as something that is opportunistic and while we would love to have the security of water every year, reality is starting to tell us this is no longer the case.”
Ian said living in the Riverina he had easy access to fodder and establishing permanent relationships with growers was something he would continue to focus on in the future.