Infrastructure with best bang for buck

By Dairy News

WHEN IT comes to investing in infrastructure dairy farmer Rob Singleton has always looked for the best bang for his buck.

“The bucket of money is only ever so big so getting the best value out of the bucket is very important,” Rob said.

Rob and his wife Gai along with their children Ellie and Sam milk 800 cows on 1000 ha. They have access to 2400 Ml of water including bore water, but like most Southern Riverina irrigators they are sitting on their second year of zero allocation.

Access to water allocation has changed the way the family operates, and management is a lot different to what it was when they first bought the original 400 ha farm with Rob’s brother in 1994 (taking over sole ownership a decade later).

It was a dairy conversion which Rob said at the time didn’t seem too challenging, although he laughs as he said he wouldn’t like to go through the same process ever again.

The Singleton farm is very much a family affair with two of the three children taking on shared management roles within the business.

Rob first started to look at the overall management of his herd when he began lot feeding over the summer months back in the millennium drought — 15 years later the system is vastly different to what it once was.

The feed area has been cemented to help keep the area clean and dry.

A trip overseas to Arizona looking at dry lot dairy set-ups became the inspiration for change on the Singleton farm.

“When we got back from the trip, we began construction pretty much straightaway,” Rob said.

The sheds face north-south, are 130 m long and 9 m wide, pens are about 70 m to 80 m wide and 200 m long which allows around 50 sq m a cow. The dirt floor and concrete troughs were made with minimal earthworks and set up for about $250 a cow.

“The shade tracks through the day and the cows basically follow it. Creating shade for the cows has been the best money we have spent with complete blockout of UV light; shade cloth or trees don’t offer the same total blockout,” Rob said.

The herd is fed a total mixed ration twice a day after each milking and grazing has become a thing of the past — the only time Rob foresees any would be after silage harvest, and that would only be with heifers.

Fences are ripped out as the business focuses on growing high yielding, water efficient crops on what was former grazing pasture.

A small amount of grain (2 kg a day) is fed in the dairy but only to encourage the cows onto the platform and this is something the family would like to phase out at some point.

“This type of system makes it very easy to look after and manage the herd because a lot of the variability is taken out. I look back at the grazing routine and think how bloody hard that all was to manage, and we also fed a lot of grain in the dairy while under that system.”

The herd calves year-round to create a flat milk supply.

The jersey herd accounts for 40 per cent of the herd and averages 9000 litres and 700 kg milk solids.

Milkers are run in three herds — early pregnant and fresh, late pregnant and mating.

It takes around four hours to milk and the family have a target that no cow is on the yard for any longer than an hour and a half.

Current developments include building of a new calf shed and heifer pens.

The rotary dairy is central to the shade sheds.

“The calves will be put into groups and stay with the same animals all the way through. Both Ellie and Sam have been very involved in the building and designing process and it is nice to see them start making some of the big future decisions on farm and it is exciting to see them direct it into the next generation.”

Rob said the biggest challenge to the system in its current form is weather variability and wet conditions, which is why he sees further development centring around the pouring of concrete.

“The design struggles in wet weather, 25 mm is absorbed easily enough by 40 mm it starts to get a bit sticky, we just concentrate on getting things as dry as quickly as possible under the sheds.”

Half of the silage sits on concrete, with the plan to eventually have it all on concrete to help keep some of the mud at bay during wet weather and reduce wastage.

The farm employs eight labour units including the family and all harvesting and planting of crops is completed by contractors.

Crops are planted according to the calendar and not soil moisture.

Corn and lucerne are grown and pitted over the summer months and cereals over winter.

“We have a 60 ha dry lucerne stand which has been keeping 150 heifers going. Our oldest stand is five years old and we find without grazing we can usually get a bit longer out of each of them.”

“We stopped grazing rye grass two years ago and everything now is TMR,” he said.

Rob said when he set up his system, he only had a certain amount of money to play with and if he had his time again and if he had a bigger bucket of money, he would invest in better earthworks and concrete feed lanes.

“The beauty of this system is you can just keep expanding by building another shed,” he said.