Soil health key to pasture

Lauren Clyne and Jon Ryan hosted the Dairy Muster in Gippsland on their farm at Denison, and discussed some of their motivations as dairy farmers.

Jon Ryan and Lauren Clyne, of Denison in central Gippsland, milk 370 cows off 100 irrigated hectares, aiming to produce 500kg/milk solids/cow on a grazing regime supported by fodder, maize and 1.2 tonnes/cow of grain.

Jon Ryan will leave a strip of pasture bare of foliar spray, or double or triple the volume, to visually measure the outcome.

They also have 101ha of dryland turnout paddocks to grow out heifers for self-replacement and selling about 30 per cent of them into export markets.

The 101ha includes 61ha purchased earlier this year to better enable them to grow out young cattle, including steers.

“Market strength means we choose to join our larger Jerseys to Friesian semen to capture that export option,” Jon said.

“We have used sexed semen successfully over the heifers. We feel it’s a good opportunity we can use over time as we learn more about it.”

The herd of Friesian, Jersey and crossbred cows was split-calving, then transitioned to spring calving in the past two years.

“This year we had a failure in our joining — 36 per cent of the cows were empty — we carried them over and I’m joining cows now for an autumn calving,” Jon said. He’s carrying over 10 per cent of them.

“They’re older cows and with a higher cell count history. We’re still milking them but haven’t joined them.”

There are two additional full-time labour units for general farm work, animal management, milking and tractor work.

On both farms, Jon’s and Lauren’s focus is on growing pasture — and the soil health that underpins that growth.

Supporting that pasture growth is 800 megalitres of irrigation, mostly flood irrigation, with a pivot irrigating 20ha of undulating country. Shandied effluent is used to irrigate 50ha of the farm.

Dairy Muster attendees took advantage of the opportunity to look at another farm.

On average, they irrigate 15 to 20 days out, and incorporate a re-use dam.

Pasture growth is accelerated using a urea-humate foliar spray, that Jon mixes using vats in a disused dairy on the farm. It is applied following the cows’ grazing, at a rate of one litre per hectare.

“Our focus is on soil health outcomes and always looking to improve pasture quality and producing grass for grazing,” he said.

“I’ve found if you fertilise with soluble urea you can do a lot of damage to your grass. Mixing soluble urea with humate gives it stability and avoids leaf burn.

“I put a bit of molasses in the mix as well; it’s another source of food for the plant if the Brix is indicating there needs to be more sugar available for the bacteria and fungi to react.

“When I’m spraying it’s also nice to smell the molasses in the mix.”

Urea and humate are mixed in milk vats in an old dairy shed, and spread on pasture as a foliar spray.

Jon supports the application of foliar sprays for efficient uptake of nutrients by measuring soil health, and adapting application to weather and pasture growth, and grazing rotation.

“We did soil tests in January, identifying where we’re short nutritionally,” he said.

“For example, we identified boron and molybdenum were low in the nutrients through our soil tests, so we combined it in the humate.”

They now do soil testing every couple of months; previously they relied on soil tests twice a year.

“We also do foliar testing every couple of months, just prior to grazing, so we know what’s being presented to the cows,” Jon said.

With the advent of winter weather and longer grazing rotations, foliar spraying has been increased almost double.

“We’ll focus on doing visual soil assessments, opening up the soil and supporting biological means to measure application,” Jon said.

The health and ability of soil to open up is a focus of pasture management.

“One day a week, we measure grass growth across the farm. We do a few test strips. We might spray 30 per cent more on a strip through a paddock, or we don’t spray a strip, so you can visually see if there is a difference to the effects of application.”

Moving away from intense application of granular fertiliser is part of Jon’s and Lauren’s philosophy of reducing waste and outputs on the farm.

They lay woodchips in laneways and calf pens and after six months replace them. The manure-laden woodchips are composted over the following six to nine months before being applied to paddocks.

The 370-head herd comprises Friesian, Jersey and crossbred cows.

“Soluble humate granules or biochar can be mixed into the compost, if soil tests identify we need something more,” Jon said.

“The amount of worm castings in the soil tells me there’s a lot of things we’re doing which are going right. When I put out those compost materials, the worms are working.”

The couple is also passionate about environmental stewardship — on the farm, in the wider catchment and downstream in rivers and lakes.

“We also need to maintain our biodiversity,” Jon said.

“We’re going to revegetate a bio-corridor that links 40 ponds, which will slow and spread floodwater over a greater area and lay sediment down on our paddocks, improve the ecological health of our rivers and the catchment, and reduce damage to fences, trees and riverbanks.

“We all have a responsibility for managing our environment.”

The 44-stall rotary dairy has automatic drafting and automatic cup removers.