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.
The Murray Goulburn suppliers, based at Keyneton in the Barossa Valley, are milking 180 cows. They also run 200 beef cattle, comprising cows, breeding stock, calves, steers, and a stud Red Angus herd of 20 breeders, and 300 first-cross sheep on 560 hectares.
They also sharefarm a further 80ha.
“Mixed farming is the way to go, particularly when beef and sheep prices are up,” Bill said.
The Fiebigers were on the cusp of installing robotic milkers before Murray Goulburn crashed prices last year. They reduced their dairy herd and increased their number of sheep and beef as a risk strategy. It didn’t hurt that prices for these commodities were at above average levels.
“Reducing our milking herd by 30-40 cows has made it more manageable for both of us,” Therese said.
The Fiebigers will reduce their milking herd down 5% to another 165 milkers and slowly increase their beef and sheep numbers, to spread their risk and decrease their workload.
Their usually reliable annual rainfall of 500mm has been absent this year so far but they have a stockpile of hay and silage following a good season last year.
“We’ve had a slow start to the season. Small amounts of rain have kept things ticking over,” Bill said.
“There has been a lot of frost, so everything has stopped growing, which is starting to be a concern.
“People are trying to offload sheep with the bad start to season, so we could get 100 ewes fairly cheap.”
A good season last year enabled them to carry hay and silage over, which relieves the pressure. They have also sent 50 young dairy steers on agistment nearby so they can preserve their hay and silage.
“The agistment opportunity came up so we thought we’d get in early. We’d rather pay for fresh green grass than bring in hay”.
The Fiebigers have always grown Lucerne but are now growing more forage cereals. “They are better than they used to be,” Bill said.
They utilise a split sowing strategy which eliminates hand feeding in winter.
They plant Outback late maturing oats in early March, which gives them plenty of feed during winter and into spring. They combine this with sowing Moby forage barley in early April, which Bill said gives explosive growth through the winter, and follows on with good spring feed.
When renovating, they will plant a cereal crop, followed by a ryegrass crop. Paddocks will then be sown to pasture in the third or fourth year.
They set aside 80 hectares to produce their own hay and silage and want to produce 1000 rolls of each every year.
The lack of rain has made for a drawn out process this year, but they managed to plant 100ha of oats and vetch in June, as well as 80ha of annual ryegrass.
“It’s been a pretty unusual season, it’s pretty reliable here usually,” Bill said.
“We average 500mm of rain and it falls at the right time normally. When we’ve missed out of late, it’s normally in the spring.
“We’ve had a lot of frosts this winter too, which has added pressure.”
The Fiebigers have a split calving – calving 6 weeks from end of January, and again in spring – to create flat milk supply, and to free up time for spring lambing.
They rear all dairy bull calves, growing them out to two years old.
Therese handles calf rearing. A hay shed was recycled into the calf shed and installed with automatic calf feeders for milk and grain seven years ago.
“With calf rearing, you get out of it what you put in. Even though we have automatic calf feeders, you still have to be there. I spend hours in there making sure they are all drinking and eating.
“We went two years without losing a dairy heifer.”
Calves receive colostrum in the first 36 hours and have access to grain and hay.
“We like them to have grain and hay as quickly as possible because it’s good for their rumen,” Therese said.
Calves are fed a mix of barley, triticale and lupins. Lupins help drive appetite. The Fiebigers installed their own disc mill and mix their own calf feed.
Heifers remain in the calf shed for 65 days and are then moved into a paddock with grain feeders, with grain purchased from growers in Keyneton and Eudunda. They also have access to hay and green pick.
In the last few years they have retained dairy steers, selling them in lots at 4 months and 8 months. They are run with the beef steers and fed homegrown feed. They have fetched prices of up to $5.60/kg.