The cow whisperer has milk magic flowing in his vats

Paul and Karen Finlayson have again been recognised for their high-quality milk production.

Some people call him a “cow whisperer” but Paul Finlayson says there’s nothing magical about his long history of exceptional milk quality.

Paul and his wife Karen have again been recognised for their high-quality milk production, receiving a gold plaque from the 2023 Australian Milk Quality Awards.

The award is nothing new — they have received a plaque each year since the Milk Quality Awards were established in 2002 — adding to their collection of awards received over eight years prior to then.

The most recent eight awards have been gold.

Across all 29 years they have received a matching award from their processors. There are now so many awards they’ve had to extend the display board at the gate of their Jancourt East farm in south-west Victoria.

If anyone has a better record of top-level consistency in Australia, Dairy Australia doesn’t know about it.

Dairy Australia’s Milk Quality Awards recognise farms with an annual average Bulk Milk Cell Count in the lowest five per cent based on data collected by processors during the financial year.

“There’s no magic trick, I can’t put it down to one thing,” Paul said.

“I don’t think I do anything special. I milk twice a day so I know all the cows and can recognise if something is wrong.”

However, Karen has a few ideas.

“Paul is such an easy-going person and it comes back to how he is with the animals,” she said.

“There’s no stress on the cows. He just takes everything in his stride. Paul has a good working relationship with everyone and that includes his cows.

“The cows are very quiet; a lot of people say they’re like big lambs,” Paul said.

Childhood sweethearts, Paul and Karen settled the farm in 1989, leasing for three years before buying the 70 hectare property, which includes nearly 15ha of native bushland.

Paul had previously worked on his parents’ nearby farm and had leased another farm at Camperdown for 12 months before finding the Jancourt East property.

Apart from clearing tussocks and thistles, pasture renovation, fencing, updating the water supply and upgrading the dairy from a six-a-side double-up to a 12-a-side swingover herringbone, not a lot has changed over that time.

The Fire Lake Holstein stud does well in classification with 15 Excellent cows and two Excellent bulls.

Paul spends a lot of time studying his Fire Lake Holstein stud cows, making sure they’re healthy and that he’s choosing the right bulls for his breeding goals of type and production.

They are classified every year to help with breeding.

“From when I first started till now, they have improved out of sight,” Paul said.

He had bred about 15 Excellent cows and two Excellent bulls. His current top cow is Excellent 91.

“I get catalogues from most of the companies and pick through what I like for type and production,” Paul said.

“It takes a while but I like it when I see the end result.”

“He studies for hours,” Karen said.

Over the past five to six years, the cows have averaged 7500-8500 litres depending on the season.

They get about 1.5 tonne of grain per season.

“I don’t feed them too much,” Paul said.

“I don’t have crops and don’t do silage; it’s usually just dryland farming. I put in a lot of rye-grasses and direct drill some annuals to bulk it up, but a lot of it is native pasture.

“I have to buy a fair bit of hay which is a downfall, but I’ve been using one supplier for the past 20 years and it’s always good and reasonably priced.”

The first award came after Karen had a prolonged period in hospital, the first of many health battles she has endured with Paul’s unwavering support.

“Paul was milking and then driving to hospital in Warrnambool and then going home to milk,” Karen said.

“To this day he says it was a fluke, but once we started getting them, we kept trying to keep the streak going.

“When we hit 20 awards, Fonterra looked around Australia and couldn’t find a lot with diamond awards from DA for low cell count, let alone a plaque every year from the factory for meeting their quality guidelines.

“We’ve got both, every year for 29 years, and we’ve never stopped milking, which is even harder to achieve.”

We’re gonna need a bigger fence! Paul and Karen Finlayson have had to extend their display board to keep adding their annual plaques.

They have retained their number one status since signing up with Bulla about five years ago.

Paul doesn’t set out to win the awards, but Karen reveals a competitive streak, keeping a monthly cell count record and setting targets along the way.

Last year the average cell count was 38,000.

“It really surprised me because it had been so wet for so long but the cell count was the lowest it had ever been,” Paul said.

“There was mud everywhere and I didn’t have a lot of feed so it didn’t make sense to me.”

For a couple of months, the cell count fell to around 16,000.

“I didn’t think it was possible to get that low,” Paul said.

“I do get cows with mastitis, but not a lot. I think it gets back to me being the only one in the dairy.

If there’s stuff in the filter in the morning, I check every cow at night until I find it. Nothing is missed. The dairy is pretty basic — it doesn’t have any bells and whistles — it’s just my eye.”

In recent years, Paul has changed his calf raising routine. He previously fed calves four litres twice a day and put them out on pastures after four to six weeks, but wasn’t happy with how they were growing.

He attended a seminar at Camperdown where he took on advice to feed them once a day with only two to three litres of milk and to keep them in the shed until three months.

The consultant also visited the farm and recommended removing the front of the north-facing calving shed and adding vents at the back.

“We followed his instructions, including fresh water, fresh straw and fresh pellets and only feeding what they need in a day and I loved what I saw.

“We kept them in the shed till they’re three months old and consuming about 4kg of pellets when their rumen is developed enough to eat grass.

“Previously the calves were going out fat, but they had no rumen development or skeletal growth that could utilise the grass.”

He also brought forward calving to April-July to avoid the worst of the winter wet.

Paul, 58, Karen, 55, have no plans to retire.

“If you love what you’re doing, you never work a day in your life,” is one of Paul’s mottos and he continues to live up to it.

The dairy is nothing flash but Paul’s trained eye makes sure any problems are quickly detected.
The Finlaysons have changed their calving shed and feeding system with great impact.
The Finlaysons’ Jancourt East farm in south-west Victoria.