A fierce desire to grow their equity, and the unpredictability of the Bega seasons, has seen Tom and Gemma Otton take up a share farming role with Peter and Jeanette Clark at Kongwak.
Sean and Jen were named in the Top 100 suppliers in the country with the lowest bulk milk cell count in the recent Dairy Australia Countdown Milk Quality Awards.
Although Sean maintains a close eye on his herd when milking, the couple said raising each calf correctly was fundamental to achieving the best milk quality and quantity possible.
Sean milks between 160 and 200 Holsteins off a milking area of 65 hectares, with an additional 65ha support area. A 40-stand rotary dairy was installed four years ago and is fitted with automatic cup removers, mastitis detectors and an auto teat sprayer. The annual bill for iodine is $5000 but this is considered money well spent.
With no additional staff, Sean milks every day and says one person monitoring a small herd twice a day provides a distinct advantage to limiting mastitis and maintaining a low cell count.
Milking takes “a bit over an hour”. He could shave off more time but prefers to be cautious.
“I’m particular at each milking because I want to ensure each cow is milked out properly and I monitor for mastitis with the mastitis detectors.”
If the window is cloudy, Sean will check the quarter of that cow next milking then treat it.
Cups come off as flow decreases, or are taken off after eight minutes. In peak production, 20 per cent of the cows, which produce 39 litres, go round twice.
Clinical mastitis is treated prior to Christmas, but later in the lactation Sean will give a cow the opportunity to overcome it herself, only treating if detrimental to the cow. If Sean believes a cow has sub-clinical mastitis, he will apply the detergent test. Milk from these cows is used for calves. Repeat offenders will be sold.
His computer system allows him to autodraft cows with mastitis and any cups used on a cow with a high cell count aren’t used again for that milking.
“Milking 160-200 cows on my own, I know them well, so visual detection is important.
“You can detect if a cow is a bit swollen in one quarter, or if cows are displaying unusual behaviour; coming in at the back of the lane, or the last on, if that’s out of character.
“These are all tell-tale signs and it helps to be aware of everything.”
Sean accepts the Milk Quality Award with pride, but more importantly, a low cell count herd brings more money from the processor, and less hassle in the dairy, as cows with lower cell counts “milk better”.
Sean and Jen are preparing for calving and know that correct management in the next 3-4 months will pay dividends when that calf starts milking almost two years later.
Calves are moved into a reconfigured calf shed within 12 hours of calving. All calves are placed in clean pens and the shed will include a sick pen and bull pen this season. The addition of running water has also saved time.
Once in the shed calves are fed colostrum. They receive two litres of milk twice a day for a few days before being fed once a day.
Calves build up to 4-5 litres once a day and once that is completed, begin to nibble on roughage provided – cereal hay or straw, and high protein pellets. Weaned calves are moved into a paddock at 100kg (anywhere from 8-12 weeks old), where they also receive high protein pellets, and access to canola, barley and lupins in troughs.
“Canola drives appetite, which increases dry matter intake, which helps develop the gut,” Sean said.
“Lupins break down fibre but they don’t get lupins every year. We use canola every year and they just boom.”
The attention to detail when rearing calves is also critical for joining, as heifers must weigh 330kg by June 1, enabling them to calve down at 22 months.
Having heifers calve in June helps workload and pasture management. The rest of the herd calves in July-August.
“I am milking 55 cows at the moment, which gives me time to recharge my batteries and get jobs done around the place.”
Cows are dried off six weeks prior to calving, receiving a mid-range dry cow antibiotic, and teat seal.
Last year 70 per cent of calves were born in the first four weeks, a result Sean said was a couple of years in the making. The entire herd is synchronised with PG the day before joining.
Sean checks all cows when milking and can draft those ready for AI, with 50 cows joined on one day last year. Cows not in calf after 21 days receive another injection of PG, a process repeated every 11 days until a certain point when bulls are put in with empty cows. Last year’s in-calf rate was 91 per cent.
Thirty per cent of the herd is culled each year on milk quality, temperament and age to accommodate replacement heifers.
The Allens produced 1.55 million litres last season, with 112,500kg of milk solids, or 625kg/MS per cow annually.
“We are rapt with that, and we’ll see if we can do it this year. We are getting better at nutrition and cow management and subtle changes should keep us in good stead.”
Chicory a summer delight
Chicory has become important to the Allens’ feed management. Between 9-12 hectares is planted every year and direct grazed, starting in summer when pasture growth starts to slow.
It is sown around the start of October and is grazed from mid-December through to the end of April/mid-May. Cereal hay from Nhill, in Victoria’s Wimmera, is also provided to the herd to balance protein levels.
As chicory doesn’t grow through winter, Italian ryegrass is sown in the same paddocks in April-May. Chicory will come through again in spring. The second season of chicory can be marginal and Sean plans to experiment and plant it every year to assess whether that is more beneficial.
“If you can irrigate chicory it’s quite efficient. We apply a small dose of nitrogen to it in the beginning then spray effluent water on it when needed.”