TRAVIS Thompson has a clear vision for the sheep and cropping country surrounding the dairy farm he manages in the New South Wales Riverina. He sees an opportunity to develop a sizable dairy industry based on the type of large-scale feedlot system more common to parts of the northern hemisphere. By CAMERON WILSON.
The Singletons moved 1260km south from Coffs Harbour to the Blighty area in southern New South Wales in search of a drier climate. They left behind mud-soaked paddocks that had to cope with 1750mm of rain every year, to start farming the relatively dry lands of Blighty where the annual average rainfall 350mm is supplemented by irrigation.
"With the heavy rain around Coffs Harbour there was an inability to grow decent feed," Rob Singleton says. "Here we have a drier climate and we can control things with irrigation."
However, it was the welfare of their animals and the opportunity for growth that put the sealer on the move. Study tours to USA in 2007 and 2009 confirmed their belief that cow comfort needed to be their number one priority.
"I hate seeing cows slop around in mud. Cow comfort is our number one priority. You have to look after the herd and it will look after you."
Singleton believes that not only does catering to the needs and comforts of cows pay off in improved production, it also helps the industry in general.
"It sets the right image for the industry if we are doing the right thing by our animals."
The Singletons arrived at their Blighty property, Kenara, with 150 dairy cows, but have since expanded their farm size and increased their herd to more than 750, with plans for further growth to top the 1000 mark.
"We will go as far as our management system will allow," Singleton says.
The current 669ha farm uses about 200ha milking area, a further 150ha irrigated and the remainder is dry land production.
The herd is about 60% Holsteins and 40% Jerseys.
"Our aim is to produce more milk and to achieve that we need to make sure our infrastructure is right."
Part of that ambition has been fulfilled by expanding the farm base to allow more home-grown feed and thus less reliance on outside supplements.
The installation of a feed pad in 1998 has been another key to the farm's feeding success.
"The feed pad was fairly basic at the start with shade provided by trees and feed in troughs."
Since then it has expanded substantially, adding two more feeding pens with four square metres of corrugated iron shade per cow and about 50 square metres of loafing area per cow.
"You don't need them to be over-crowded; you try to give them what they need," Singleton says.
"We've built the pens to hold 300-350 cows but will look to add pens if we need to grow. The feed pad has been an important part of our system."
The Singletons manage the feed pad on a daily basis over summer. The cows are fed total mixed rations from November through to April. The remainder of the year they are fed ryegrass pastures and small amounts of forage supplements. The ration consists of wheat, canola, lupin, lucerne and ryegrass silage.
"Getting a handle on feeding was one of our main priorities when we came here," Singleton says.
"We aim at a balanced ration – feed quality is critical."
Getting the irrigation right was another high priority.
"We got the irrigation laid out as quickly as possible when we came in (the farm had been previously used for grazing and sheep). All of the water is re-used and re-circulated on the farm.
"We have about 320ha of laser level irrigation but only use what is needed. We want to make sure we're not interfering with the environment."
The farm has an 1829-megalitre water entitlement and in 2010 produced about 6.5 million litres and 500,000kg of milk solids and is aiming to further expand production.
A veteran of more than 30 years in the dairy industry, Rob Singleton estimates per cow milk production has virtually doubled during those three decades, which he attributes mostly to improved cow management and improved feeding.
"There have been a lot of positive changes over time. I like the industry; it has been good for us."