Accelerating Change held two Open Days in May, one on each of the project partner farms – the Humphris’ in Tongala and the Stewart-Matthews’ in Yarrawalla – where data around the quality and yield of different forage types, and the impact of different irrigation strategies, had been collected over the spring and summer. Each of the partner farms worked closely with their respective consultants to conduct a financial analysis of their business with the benefit of comprehensive project data indicating how they performed across the season.
The Open Days provided an opportunity for all dairy farmers and industry professionals in the region to review the data as well as to hear from the partner farmers about what they learnt from the results and the decisions they have made going in to next season. Guest speakers at the Open Days included Seasonal Risk and Grains agronomist, Dale Grey of The Very Fast Break, Soil agronomist, Dale Boyd, and Farm Monitoring Solutions (FMS) technician, Adrian Orloff, who presented Observant’s newest soil moisture satellite technology.
Humphris Farm Friday 20th May
Tim and Lyndal Humphris milk 325 cows on a 150ha conventional gravity-fed system at Tongala. The farm is well laid-out with padman outlets and some automation. The Humphris’ purchased the farm in 2008 and have successfully built their business as a low-cost, low-input, pasture based operation. It proved challenging for the Humphris’ to maintain this approach throughout the 2015-16 summer as they had invested a significant amount in automation during the season.
To ease pressure on cash flow, the Humphris’ sold a portion of their high reliability water share in October, making a profit on what they had originally paid for it, and injected the proceeds of this sale back into the business. Relying on the temporary water market with prices reaching $290/ML, the Humphris’ decided to dry off some of their perennial pasture and supplement the herd at higher levels which included conserved home-grown feed (pasture silage from this season and maize silage carried over from the previous season) and purchased feeds (barley and pasture silage purchased as standing feed during the spring of 2015 and vetch hay).
Accelerating Change participants were interested in understanding the value and contribution of different feed types to the Humphris’ overall system. From October onwards, the project team regularly visited the farm to measure grazing yields and post-grazing accumulation rates using an automated pasture reader (APR) attached to the front of a gator. Quality samples were taken at the same time.
The Humphris’ irrigated 43.47ha of perennial ryegrass-clover (PR) through the summer, 18.8ha of which had been previously oversown with paspalum (PRP). The ryegrass and paspalum block performed better than the perennial rye block under water and heat stress, seeing yields of 14.7 t DM/ha equating to 1.23 t DM/ML. Extrapolating the data with reference to research records, the average cost of this feed across the year came out at $211.79/t DM and reached a maximum of $466.92/t DM in December. Nutritive tests taken between October and April give this block an average ME of 10.3 MJ/kg, CP of 21.3% and NDF of 50.8%.
By comparison, the straight perennial ryegrass block yielded 15.2 t DM/ha which equated to 0.98 t DM/ML. It grew more feed overall, but was less water use efficient. Extrapolating the data with reference to research records, the average cost of this feed came out at $260.70/t DM and reached a maximum of $678.91/t DM in December. Nutritive tests taken between October and April gave this block an average ME of 10.4 MJ/kg, CP of 21.6% and NDF of 50.5%. Feed quality did not vary markedly between the two blocks for this period but may start to change as we move into winter. Stay tuned for further results.
Tim and Cameron also discussed the art of balancing the diet, which becomes especially difficult to get right as the pasture-based system is flexed to include greater quantities of supplement. Using the Rumin8 tool, very little wastage was apparent in the diet during October, whereas by February it looked as though up to 20% of the nutritive value of the feed was not being utilized by the herd. The data collected from Accelerating Change shows that as the Humphris’ made this transition, increasing supplementary feeding, the portion of the diet attributed to pasture through a back calculation was significantly different to the actual pasture measurements taken through the project’s monitoring and measurement component. This indicates the value of having more accurate readings from the automated pasture reader.
Looking at the costs, Tim and Lyndal are aiming for a more water-use efficient system, given continued elevated water prices in 2016/17. Under this scenario, they are likely to dry off the perennial rye grass block over summer. As an adjustment to their fodder base, they have sown approximately twelve hectares of lucerne which will act as a substitute for the perennial rye grass block in the grazing rotation this coming year and they will persist with the ryegrass and paspalum block.
After looking at the perennial ryegrass paddocks on the farm walk, visitors were surprised with this outcome, as visually they looked exceptional, having been over-sown with tetila. Agreeing that they looked good at the time of the field day, and despite his preference for feeding pasture, Tim insisted that the numbers had to stack up, and the benefit of having collected data through the warmer months demonstrated that (as he had suspected) this was not the case.
Tim also spoke about the use of fescue on his farm. Although he had decided to dry off the fescue block this year, he noted that he saw persistence in the block after only two summer rainfall events. He believes that, provided fescue is managed well, newer varieties could fill feed gaps in a water-strained environment. He has over-sown the dried-off fescue paddocks with more fescue, white and red clover. Although this is generally not recommended, it was a viable option for these specific paddocks given their history and composition. Watch this space for an update on its performance.
At this stage, as the milk price, water price and climate conditions for the next season are unknown, the Humphris’ are keeping their options open but are pro-actively planning and preparing for a range of situations. These will be reassessed, financially, as the season unfolds. As part of this planning process, Tim is currently investigating brought-in feed options, maize and pasture silage.
Project data analysis revealed the importance of understanding your cost of production and what you can afford to pay for feed and water, especially when timely decisions must be made in challenging seasons and all savings count. Tim and Lyndal stressed that use of more water-use efficient forage types was crucial to the profitability and sustainability of their farm business, especially in years where water prices are high. As a result, they are looking into forage types to substitute for perennial ryegrass. They are also open-minded about the development of their system into a flexible system that maximises fresh grass and utilises the opportunity cost of conserved fodder to balance and fill feed gaps.
Stewart-Matthews Farm Wednesday 25th May
Don and Meg Stewart operate three properties and together with share-farmers, Kelvin and Shelley Matthews, are participating in Accelerating Change on their Yarrawalla property. The Stewarts and Matthews milk 600 cows on a total of 242ha. The farm is a modernised system, almost fully irrigated through pipes and risers with automation. Five moisture probes have been installed with a view to aligning individual paddock growth and utilisation with irrigation to drive efficiency and profitability.
The Stewarts and the Matthews’ share-farming arrangement provides clear benefits for both parties. The herd is shared 50-50, however Don and Kelvin stress that they like to think of it and treat it as one. Kelvin focuses on farm operations, paying the labour and machinery costs. Don fronts the water costs, equivalent to 2ML per cow. The cost of any additional water used is shared between them. This year water usage totaled 1415ML.
Don and Kelvin have been gradually building on their plan to grow three forage types across the farm – lucerne, annual ryegrass and perennial ryegrass – each comprising about a third of the utilised 200ha in area. This year home grown feed totaled 1739tDM, 40 percent of which was lucerne, and the rest of mixture of annual and perennial ryegrasses. Home grown feed made up approximately 40 percent of what was fed to the herd.
Accelerating Change participants were interested to find out how different management strategies affected the growth rates, yield and quality of Kelvin’s pasture and lucerne. Given the dry year, most people were particularly interested in the impact of different irrigation intervals and when to dry off/water up to maximise return on the cost of water.
Trials were run from October to compare the growth rates of lucerne and pasture at two different irrigation intervals, also using the automated pasture reader. One irrigation interval correlated with grazings (one irrigation: one grazing) and the other was determined using the moisture probe to measure water availability, which equated to a shorter interval (three irrigations: two grazings). Nutritive samples were also taken from these bays to measure the impact of moisture stress on plant quality.
In both cases, it was determined that stretching out irrigations over this summer of little rainfall and high temperatures resulted in less than optimal yields. Although water use efficiency did not vary markedly between the different bays, more irrigations produced more fodder overall. Between October and April, lucerne watered more frequently yielded 12.8tDM/ha whereas the lucerne irrigated less frequently only yielded 10.7tDM/ha.
Lucerne watered less frequently between October and April was only marginally cheaper ($5 per tonne of dry matter). Nutritive test results also indicated that the lucerne watered more frequently was a higher quality feed (ME and CP consistently higher, and NDF consistently lower). As such, at a cost of just over $200/t (cheaper than most brought-in feed of the same quality) it was determined that home grown lucerne was worth watering on a more frequent basis.
In contrast, between December and April, perennial ryegrass cost over $500/tDM. The pasture irrigated more frequently yielded 5.8tDM/ha (costing $524/tDM) and the pasture irrigated less frequently yielded 3.6tDM/ha (costing $713/tDM), demonstrating a significant drop in water-use efficiency as the plant became water stressed. Kelvin was not happy with the growth rates or yield he was getting from these bays. Project data and financial analysis supports his decision to dry off over summer in favour of using lucerne, which was not only more water efficient but higher in energy and protein.
Kelvin and Don are focused on the numbers. As Parmalat suppliers, they have a known milk price and keep a sharp eye on their cost of production. This enables them to forward-contract their brought-in feed (silage and grain) to reduce risk of feed shortages over the hotter months. Milk price is at its peak come April so Kelvin’s philosophy is to keep the cows well fed through the summer to keep production up. Whilst this may reduce the profit margin for a few months in summer, it pays off over the autumn.
Kelvin is happy with the role lucerne played on his farm this year- both in terms of overall yield and quality. He acknowledges that it can be hard to manage in extreme heat, but he has overcome this by having the stand-off area adjacent to the dairy and a variety of other forage and feed types available. Over summer the cows grazed for a few hours after the morning milking, were brought back to the feedpad around midday to cool down, milked, returned to the pad, and then returned to the paddock once the sun was going down and the temperature had dropped.
Kelvin spoke of the benefits of nutritive testing in tightening up his grazing management around the lucerne. He found that the cows would eat it down quite vigorously provided that they got on to it before flowering. It was topped once in December as the stalks started to toughen up but Kelvin didn’t feel that it needed to be done again.
Having nutritive test results also enabled Kelvin to refine the cows’ diet. Working with nutritionist Andre Nel, from Ridley's, they worked out that their cows were receiving an extra 30 ME per day than required, and body condition score was increasing over time. Armed with this information they were able to reduce their grain intake by 1kg for a few months, saving approximately 27c per cow per day. Project data for the Stewart-Matthews farm revealed that the back calculation method to calculate pasture growth was thrown out as the amount of brought-in feed in the diet increased. This was consistent with the results from the Humphris farm. Having readings from the APR helped to really refine the dietary budget.
Kelvin spoke about the benefits of having sown a bit of lucerne each year, rather than all at once. This means he is confident that he will always have a substantial crop available to graze even when older bays are sprayed out and re-sown (ideally this will be approximately 20% of the total crop on a five year rotation). Preferring to sow in spring rather than autumn and pre-prepare the soil with a winter cereal (namely because of the difference in potential yield and the risks associated with water-logging over the colder months), Kelvin’s rotation strategically reduces any feed gaps in late spring/early summer when new plants are getting established. He firmly believes that this is also the best way to get rid of weeds.
Project data analysis revealed that lucerne was far more water use efficient than pasture throughout the summer and provided a good source of feed for a reasonable cost. At this cost, it was determined that irrigating on a more frequent basis (as indicated by the moisture probe) was preferable to stretching out irrigations.
Results support Kelvin and Don’s decision to move away from a pasture-based system, provided that they can continue to supplement the diet with good quality and reasonably priced brought-in feed. Kelvin stressed that planning and preparation are critical to having the successes with lucerne that they have seen. Changes made by Kelvin throughout the season indicate that it is always worthwhile reviewing your operation and cost of production as you go.