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.
Simon and wife Pep installed the 48.6x81m shelter on their farm three years ago. The Reas and business partners David and Sue-Ellen Colson are selling the clear-rooved structures through their business, Dairy Shelters Australia.
Dairy Shelters Australia customises New Zealand-made Redpath clear-roofed, deep-litter shelters. They are made from flexible polythene membranes components and utilise a deep woodchip floor, cleaned daily via a simple scarifying process.
They held a field day on their sodden farm in mid-August. The wet conditions were why the structure was installed at a cost of $300,000.
"We've always struggled in July and August which has been a limiting factor on the farm," Simon said. "We saw it as an insurance policy against the wet weather."
“When we decided to install it, we were only comfortable to go to 400-420 cows on this farm. We’re now running up to 540 cows.
“We never would have dreamed of going to those numbers in this country without it.
“We never had confidence that this country could hold that many cows in winter. If it gets wet, it can halve our stocking rate immediately. With our heavy, sticky soils, if it’s wet in July, it won’t dry out until mid- to late-September.”
When deciding whether to invest in the structure, the Reas wanted to grow 10% more grass to help offset the cost.
“By managing pugging in winter by housing our cows in the shelter, we can grow more grass in spring. We wanted 10% more grass and we’re doing that easy.”
The 240ha farm includes 200ha of grazing land, growing about 8t of grass per hectare. Simon said an additional 0.8t(10%) a year per hectare equates to 160 extra tonnes of feed per year as land is in better condition leading into spring.
Feeding home-grown silage in feeders on a feedpad adjoining the shelter is also more efficient, with Simon saying feed stretches 30% further than paddock feeding in the wet.
Due to the milder early winter the milkers were in the paddock from June to mid-July. From then, the Reas were running 200 milkers and 90 dry cows in the shelter with 250 milkers out in the paddocks. Cows are rotated through in 12 hour shifts. They recorded 70,000 12-hour cow entries last year.
“There is good feed in the paddock but 450 at once would create pugging,” Simon said in mid-August.
“It’s a flexible system. Cows can eat in the paddock then come in here and lie down.”
With paddocks out of bounds to preserve them, cows were being fed some of last year’s silage and vetch hay.
Dry cows are run at 9 square metres per cow while milkers are allocated 15 square metres.
Some milkers spend every day in the shed and Simon said mastitis issues have decreased, as has the cell count, which sits between 60,000 – 70,000.
“It makes management easier as the shelter is next to the dairy. It’s the equivalent of buying 150 acres 30 yards from the dairy.”
The woodchip base is three years old and is scarified with a chisel plough every morning at milking. It takes 25 minutes and by the time the cows return it is dry.
Warmth of the sun captured through the transparent roof helps sterilise the flooring. It is 40 degrees under the surface.
Cows leave the loafing area to eat in a gravel pad adjoining the covered structure. Eating outside means more manure on the gravel pad, which is scraped clean. This was spread directly onto the farm last year.
About a third of the shed is scheduled to be replaced with fresh wood chips this year at a cost of $15,000. This will then be mixed with waste farm manure, turned into compost and spread on the farm. This process may cost $15-20,000 replacing traditional fertiliser that may cost between $40,000 and $50,000.
One bay (a third of the shelter) was turned into 400 cubic metres of compost last year, fertilising 80ha of the farm.
He told the field day that the potassium and nitrogen captured in the bedding would be the equivalent of a traditional fertiliser blend.