Archive for the ‘dairy farming’ Category

Dairy farming in SW Gippsland – our farm.

Wednesday, June 10th, 2020

Well, much to everyone’s surprise we are still farming after 5 years! Someone said our act of faith in starting a dairy farm at a low time in the industry was like “attempting to jump over 50 cars in  a Harley Davidson without any practice”. Its true we bought a going dairy farm but we started from a low base. We had to at least double production to become viable. This meant going from  73 cows to 150 cows. To do this we have had to upgrade the dairy with a bigger vat, build a large calf shed, extend the dairy yard and build a new feed pad.

We are at Ranceby in south west Gippsland. Its close to the coast in the south east corner of mainland Australia. It has rolling hills, sometimes steep but still productive. And it’s wet, on average. There is usually a dry period of around 3 months in summer, but sometimes rain extends into summer and again starts early in autumn. This last year has been a bit like that so we’ve had green grass over a longer period.

We initially purchased 173 acres without any idea of what we might do after that. Luckily the cards fell our way and we purchased an adjoining 77 acres. This brought us to a home farm of 250 acres or 100 ha. We now lease another adjoining 100 acres and also have young stock on agistment.  If there is an advantage of age, I remember in the 1950’s and 60’s in Gippsland, most dairy farms were smaller, where 50 – 60 cows was a profitable herd!

New Mum and calf autumn 2020

New Mum and calf in autumn 2020. We calve around 1/3 of the herd in autumn and 2/3 in spring.

Because the weather here is relatively mild, the cows are out all the time grazing the paddocks.  Autumn weather is good for calving but in spring it can get cold and wet for short periods. If this happens during calving, we have a plastic igloo that can hold around 6 – 8 ready-to-calve cows.

Over the last 5 years pasture growth and utilization has steadily improved. This is calculated indirectly using a nutrition and feeding model. We know how much silage and grain the cows get and this is matched against milk production. This allows us to estimate how much grass the cows are eating. Pasture production has a strong spring bias. The amount of nutrients in supplementary feed can be calculated. Around half these nutrients leave the farm in milk. The other half is deposited as manure and urine and apart from what is deposited on the feedpad and on laneways, these nutrients support a base level of pasture growth estimated  between 1 – 2 tonne / ha.

Our supplementary fertilizer program is really a strategy for improving productivity in the short and importantly long term. The soils here are derived from marine sediments and unfortunately when it rains the soil turns back to mud, sticky and with no structure. Also our soils are poor in nutrients. Our production strategy is to build soil structure and nutrient holding ability and this means building soil organic matter. I will outline our fertilizer strategy later.

Around the farm. Because its autumn, now winter, we have been busy feeding the cows and calves. All autumn calves have been weaned. They are still in the calf igloo but have an outside area so they can run around. Our main recent job has been fencing off a bull paddock as we have raised 4 bulls and need to keep them under control!

 

Bulls, dog and R1 calves

Newly completed bull paddock with 2 bulls. Wags the dog is doing his part to keep the bulls and 6 – 9 month old calves separated.

 

Our dairy farm – waiting for rain!

Sunday, April 7th, 2019

We’ve had our dairy farm in the Strzelecki Ranges in South Gippsland for nearly 4 years now. And yes, waiting for rain. Its been dry well into autumn. We’ve had a few showers and the grass is starting to grow but much more is needed.

Around the farm.

Calving is just about finished. There are 40 milkers or fresh cows back in the herd so production is climbing again. The current herd is 137 milkers. Our next calving period will be in spring and these will be mostly heifers so our herd will grow significantly.

We were lucky that the grass stayed green well into last summer. However its been dry for the normal 3 months. We rely on dam water over the dry period so have to be careful with water.

Day to day.

The day starts at around 5.45 when the cows are brought up for milking. Whoever goes out needs a good torch to help find all the cows. The girls are fed pellets in the shed at each milking and afterwards, both morning and afternoon they are fed extra rations on the feed pad. We mix silage with crushed barley in the mornings and just silage but slightly more in the afternoon.

 

Cows eating in the feed pad. By feedin this way there is less wastage and the cows can be fed a custom diet.

Cows eating in the feed pad. By feeding this way there is less wastage and the cows can be fed a custom diet.

With all the new calves there is plenty of work feeding milk and topping up water. Each calf gets around 2.5 litres twice per day. We feed a little hay in each pen to start the calves on ‘solids’.

Building the herd.

There are three main herds of young cows on the farm. Young cows up to around 6 months, calves up to around 1 yr old and older heifers that are approaching maturity. The youngest group are still fed pellets each day – another regular job! They also get fed hay as do the 1 yr olds. The oldest heifers have taken over 3 large paddocks and mostly look after themselves. Our next group of spring calving heifers is being agisted off farm.

Projects.

We’ve taken advantage of the dry period to do some maintenance work on the tracks.  Over the past 4 years we’ve completed some big projects like the new dairy yards, new vat and feed pad. Now we can focus on many of the small jobs like putting in new gates to make moving cows easier.

Margy is our first cow. She was raised from a calf and is still going strong.

Margy is our first cow. She was raised from a calf and is still going strong.

 

A pasture puzzle partly solved?

Sunday, April 7th, 2019

Its easy to get tied up with the day to day chores of a farm and it seems to be inevitable more so if you’re running a dairy farm! But sometimes its good to take a walk out on the farm without any particular job in mind just to see how things are going. This is when I noticed some problems with a forage crop.

In late autumn we over-sowed some forage oats into the pasture in a couple of paddocks. But in July I noticed that the growth of oats was patchy. Some of the oats were tall and green but in other areas they were short and pale.

 

Pasture with forage oats poor growth

These forage oats were sown into pasture in Autumn but in winter growth was still very poor.

I decided to do some simple tests to find if there was any difference that might explain the variable growth. 5 samples were taken in areas of good to poor growth. Test were carried out for pH, water capacity, fresh organic matter and nitrate. For each site the growth was ranked – you can see this in the table below. Fresh organic matter represents the fraction that will break down easily to release nutrients. The method used can be seen at A simple test for reactive soil organic matter. Nitrate was extracted using water and measured using the Cadmium reduction method.

Fresh organic Nitrate-N
Site Oats growth pH * % water matter ppm mg/L **
1 Tall / good 5.3 40.7 1584 23
2 Low 5.3 25 873 41.5
3 Poor 5.3 25 1273 20.3
4 Poor 5.3-5.6 28 1660 0
5 Tall / good 5.3 37.5 2640 56
* pH paper ** actual concentration in the soil
solution at each site

pH was low and that didn’t seem to affect oats growth. Some of the higher values for fresh organic matter are reasonably good for dairy farm soils. Fresh organic matter seems slightly higher at sites with good growth.

Nitrate is about 4.3 times higher than Nitrate-N so overall, some of nitrate levels in the soil solution are high. This is specially true for sites where soil water % is also high as it means overall higher nitrate levels. Site 2 doesn’t fit the pattern very well as nitrate levels are fairly high but growth is poor. perhaps there is some other factor important here.

Over-sown oats growing well at Site 5. Nitrate levels in the soil solution seem higher at sites with better growth.

Over-sown oats growing well at Site 5. Nitrate levels in the soil solution generally tested higher at sites with better growth.

 This study provides some base line figures for the farm. This is useful for comparison between farms and for tracking pasture improvement. It doesn’t provide definite answers about the factors affecting pasture growth but can provide some insights and can suggest further study.

Nitrate in soil comes from a process that starts with organic matter breakdown. Microorganisms break down the organic matter to produce plant available nitrogen in the form of ammonium.  Plants take up and utilize ammonium easily. It’s like saying that plants prefer ammonium.

In natural soil systems most nitrogen from organic matter stays as ammonium because oxygen levels are fairly low. But on many farms there is more oxygen in the soil because of factors like tillage, disturbance  and loss of a permanent litter layer. Under these conditions  there are microorganisms that will grab the opportunity to convert the ammonium to nitrate. Why? Because they make use of the energy released when ammonium is converted to nitrate when there is oxygen present. Bad luck for the pasture plants.

Does it matter? Yes, for two reasons. For the plant it takes energy to break down the nitrate to a usable form because plants don’t utilize nitrate directly. Importantly there is an enzyme in the plant required to do this, and it requires molybdenum. So if the trace element molybdenum is in short supply plants may not be able to utilize all the nitrate. Second, whilst ammonium is held fairly tightly by soil, nitrate dissolves easily in water and therefor if the soil is wet nitrate can be carried away down sloping ground and down deeper into the ground.

Whilst nitrate levels in soil can indicate the amount of nitrogen released from organic matter they only provide a partial understanding of soil fertility and plant growth.

Our dairy farm

Thursday, January 18th, 2018

We’ve had our dairy farm for just over 2 1/2 years and that’s also as long as we have been dairying! The farm is 250 acres of rolling hills in South West Gippsland. The current herd is 125 milkers, 50 heifers which are up and coming milkers, and 75 calves.

Around the farm.

This summer has been kind to us so far. There was good rain in late December and early January. The grass is still green and the clovers are growing well. The dams started to go down in early Summer but are now nearly full again. Because there is not as much grass for the milkers we have started to feed out extra hay and silage.  We make our own silage but buy in good quality vetch hay.

Calves in calf pen.

Soon after calves are born they are brought indoors. They are fed milk for about 6 weeks. Hay and grain is also provided so their digestive systems can develop properly. We have calves in both Spring and Autumn.

Projects.

The major project at the moment is extending the dairy yard. We are expecting an increase in numbers of milkers this Autumn and another jump in Spring so we need to be ready. We recently installed a new larger vat and cooling system to cope with the expected increase in herd size. The main lane-way has been extended and is now close to 1 km long. New drinking troughs have been installed so the girls don’t have to walk too far for a drink.

Day by day

The day starts around 6 – 6:30 when we go out to get the cows. Milking usually starts around 7 am. In the afternoon we go out for the cows at around 3 pm on a normal day but later if its hot so its more comfortable for the girls. Feeding out is done in the paddocks if its dry but we also use our concrete feed pad.

After breakfast the young calves have to be fed. They get grain and sometimes silage or hay in their paddocks. The rest of the time in between is spent on all those extras like book-work, repairing fences and machinery, working on major projects and shopping for supplies. We regularly bring calves and heifers up to the dairy yards to attend to any health issues.

 

Cows grazing on our farm.

Here are some of the girls hard at work making milk! We move them around so that they only spend around 1 day in each paddock. There are around 30 paddocks in rotation. The herd is a mixture of Friesians, Jerseys and some crosses between the two. In our AI program we have introduced some Scandinavian Red and Aussie Red breeds.

 

Farm dam water filter – the results are in!

Saturday, March 11th, 2017

On our farm we require good quality water for jobs like cleaning in the dairy. We built a water filter that would be capable of treating a large volume of dam water so that it could be used to top up our rain water tank through dry periods. The design can be seen Low tech farm dam water filter.

In a slow media filter water passes slowly down through a filter medium. In our filter we used rockwool. The rockwool acts as a trap for sediment. Over time a layer of micro-organisms, mainly bacteria, builds up on top of the media. These trap and digest organic contaminants in the water. So it is a type of biological filter. Slow media filters have a simple design and have been used in many places mainly as a cheap and easy to make filter to improve drinking water. Studies have shown that they are effective in reducing turbidity and reducing bacteria and organic matter contamination in water.

A new filter needs to have water run through it for some time to condition the filter. This allows the biofilm to develop and for the filter to become effective.

Test results:

At the time of testing the dam water entering the filter was of reasonable quality. The turbidity was slightly elevated and fresh organic matter was in the low to moderate range. Coliform bacteria and total aerobic bacteria levels were elevated.

We tested before filter and after filter samples starting from day 2 after the filter was started. The tests were for coliform bacteria, total aerobic bacteria, turbidity, humic material by UV absorption and fresh or readily degradable organic matter by permanganate oxidation. Humic materials often give water from dams or creeks pale yellow or brown colours.

On day 2 before and after coliform and total aerobic bacteria counts were high and showed very little difference.

After operating for 8 days, filtered samples showed a 68% reduction in coliform bacteria.

After 18 days there was a 96% reduction in coliforms and 50% reduction in total aerobic bacteria.

At day 20 there was a 21% reduction in turbidity, 44% reduction in fresh organic matter and 15% reduction in UV absorbance.

Coliform bacteria are a large group of bacteria that are naturally present in water and soils. The group also includes some species that can cause illness. Therefore they are often used as indicators of water quality with higher than normal levels indicating possible contamination.

Slow media filter supplying water on a dairy farm

A slow media filter made from 2 x 200 L barrels on a dairy farm. The filter treats over 1000 L of dam water each day which is then used to top up a rainwater tank.

Maintenance: Our filter has now run for 6 weeks without any problems. We expect that at some later time the biofilm may build up and perhaps restrict the flow of water. There is a drain plug installed just above the biofilm layer which will allow some of the biofilm to be removed.

How the idea can be extended: If more filtered water is required then another filter with its own float valve and connection to the source water could be added. Both could then feed into the one collection barrel. A slow media filter could also be used to maintain the quality of water in a tank. In this case the filter would continuously take water from the tank, treat it then put the water back into the tank. The same type of filter could be installed in a gravity fed farm water supply. If the source water can be fed in by gravity and the treated water can be run off to below the filter then no pressurised water or pumps are needed.

A slow media filter is a low cost and low tech but effective way to improve the quality of surface water such as creek and dam water on farms.

Low tech filter for farm dam water

Friday, March 10th, 2017

Farm dam water is challenging to treat because it typically has high overall bacteria levels, is often discoloured by humic materials, has elevated turbidity and often has elevated levels of fresh organic matter.

On our dairy farm we rely on dam water through the dry months. The dam water is pumped to a holding tank near the dairy and is used as wash down water in the dairy and for drinking water for cows.

Dam on dairy farm in South Gippsland

Dam on a dairy farm in South Gippsland. The dam collects water from surrounding paddocks that are grazed by dairy cows. In this water bacteria levels are elevated and fresh organic matter is slightly elevated.

Water from a rain water tank is used to wash cows, clusters and to do the final rinse and clean. During summer the rainwater tank is occasionally topped up with the dam water. We needed a filter to treat about 1000 L each day of the dam water to improve the quality of the top up water.

Slow media filters are a simple low-tech method for treating poor quality water. We built a slow media filter out of two plastic 200 L barrels.

The main barrel has a few inches of clean gravel in the bottom. Horticultural grade rockwool was added up to about 2/3 the barrel height. The rockwool sits on a piece of woven shademesh to stop it mixing with the gravel. A manifold of PVC pipe with multiple drill holes sits within the gravel layer. It is glued to a riser pipe inside the barrel that exits just above the rockwool layer.

The filter is kept full of water by a float valve that lets in pressurised dam water. A valve on the outlet restricts the flow of water out of the filter. This both slows the flow of water in the filter and maintains a ‘head’ of water above the rockwool.

Slow media filter on a dairy farm.

Dam water enters the filter through a float valve. A valve on the outlet is opened just enough to allow a small flow through the filter. There is always water above the biofilm layer.

Over time a layer of microorganisms called a biofilm mainly made up by bacteria develops on the surface of the rockwool. Our filter has a biofilm surface area of 0.25 sq meters and has an output of 0.8 L each minute. Most of the work in a slow media filter is done by the biofilm layer which catches particles and digests organic material.

The second barrel catches the treated water. It has an automatic sump pump that periodically pumps the treated water out into the dairy rainwater tank. Even running at this low rate the filter treats around 1150 L each day.

The total cost of setting up the filter including fittings, rockwool and sump pump was under AU$200.

References:

Guchi, Ephrem. “Review on Slow Sand Filtration in Removing Microbial Contamination and Particles from Drinking Water.” American Journal of Food and Nutrition 3.2 (2015): 47-55.

Water quality – its Basic!

Saturday, December 24th, 2016

Its December and in South Gippsland our creeks have slowed to little more than a trickle. Like many rural properties we have to rely on water stored in dams to get us through to Autumn. Our garden and nursery stock put extra demands on our supplies, and of course the cows are always thirsty!

Around the farm we use rainwater tanks for the house and dam water for the cows. We also need water to wash down the dairy. For that we keep back and recycle rinse water but use dam water as well. In the dairy we need better quality water for washing down milking machines and for feeding to calves. For this we use rain water supplemented with treated dam water.

Through Summer as water levels fall, dam water comes under many stresses. This shows up as changes in pH, oxygenation, build up of nutrients and salts, turbidity and organic matter levels.

Farm dam at low water level in Summer

One of our dams at low level during Summer of 2015. As water level drops basic water quality can change and is shown by factors like clearness, oxygenation, pH, salts and nutrients.

Where does water come from for your farm or rural property? Are you getting the right quality for the right use?

A water test can be a good first step to get your water supply right. It can tell which supplies can be used in different parts of the farm. A test can also pick up changes in water quality or even hazards in the water.

There are many options to treat water so that it can be used in more critical applications. At Apps Laboratories we provide the testing that gives a start in improving your water quality.

Our Basic water quality test is designed to test for around 9 critical water quality factors. We do the tests in our own lab – on our farm.

No you won’t be left with a report that makes no sense because we highlight all the key issues and talk about the possibilities for your water in a way that ‘normal folks’ understand because we know that’s what you expect.

Our Basic water quality test is good for tank water, dams, springs and bores.

To get your water tested is easy. Just go to our appslabs.com.au How to order page for instructions on collecting and posting samples.

Our new farm

Tuesday, December 8th, 2015

After a lot of searching we finally found a new home for our calves, 173 acres in Ranceby in South Gippsland.

 

Feeding cows

Feeding out hay to the milkers in the first Winter. This is not ideal especially under wet conditions.

 

The previous owners Robin and Deb McKinnon were very helpful in showing us their production figures, explaining how the farm worked and then allowing us to move some machinery and cows early.

There are some steep paddocks but most is gently undulating. About 2/3 of the farm is accessible with a tractor. We ran production and financial models on the farm and the figures showed that it was viable.

The Strzeleckis were originally under the sea so the soil is derived from sediments. It is a gray coloured loam with poor structure. When its dry weather the soil is dusty and when it rains it turns to mud.

Our family shares the farm jobs which spreads the load and makes it manageable.

We bought the existing herd and have bought in new milkers. As at December 2015 we still have 20% of the herd yet to calve. This should bring the total cows in the vat to around 95. We were aiming for 110 cows but it seems that the existing cows are doing better than anticipated so that has made up some of the difference.

Moving yearlings back to their paddock

Moving our wandering yearlings back to their home paddock. The farm has extensive shelterbelts of Southern Blue Gums. There are also many of the now uncommon Strzelecki Gums on the property.

 

Sustainable farming – what is it?

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014

Yesterday as a guest of Trevor and Anne-Marie Mills and the Western Port Catchment Landcare Network I attended a field day on the Mills’ dairy farm at Drouin South.

Amongst the principles of sustainable agriculture are that farming should:

– provide an amenable lifestyle for the farmer & family

– protect and enhance the productive capacity of the farm

– protect and nurture the natural environment and reduce environmental impacts

Judging by these criteria, the Mills have gone a long way to creating a sustainable farm. Much of this has been achieved by thinking ‘outside the square’ and often going against conventional thinking. For example T & A-M have fenced off and replanted many of the drainage areas and watercourses on the farm. Water is now piped to stock high up in each paddock. The result; less contamination of water, less nutrient runoff and cleaner water for the cows to drink.

The South Gippsland area was originally heavily forested and early accounts have detailed the diversity of wildlife that once existed. Now with areas on the farm returning to natural vegetation, some of the native animals are also returning. Happily these areas are often those that would be less productive and difficult to manage. The photos below taken from the same spot approx 5 years apart show the dramatic change around a natural waterway.

Before and after watercourse revegetation on the Mills Farm at Drouin South. By excluding stock from wet gullies significant improvements have been made to the quality of water flowing from the farm and as drinking water for stock. Approx 5 years between photos. Courtesy of T & A-M Mills and WPCLN.

Before and after watercourse revegetation on the Mills Farm at Drouin South. By excluding stock from wet gullies significant improvements have been made to the quality of water flowing from the farm and as drinking water for stock. Approx 5 years between photos. Courtesy of T & A-M Mills and WPCLN.

The WPCLN as part of their involvment in the property have been monitoring water quality and this has provided valuable feedback for farm planning.

On the farm management side T & A-M have adopted a rotational grazing system that takes advantage of the natural productivity of the soil and facilitates nutrient cycling whilst protecting against overgrazing and damage to pasture. The result, an increase in productivity which has meant that the herd size can be reduced whilst maintaining production.

I was especially interested to hear how Trevor had cut back on use of urea as a nitrogen fertilizer. This came about because he saw that the urea was favouring grass growth and supressing clovers. Now clovers are thriving and producing nitrogen naturally!

I think that soil testing still has a role to play on this farm. Particularly if it is done in a way that provides a better understanding of management effects on soil processes and the dynamics of nutrient movement around the property as well as off the property as natural losses and in farm products.

Judging by the attendance at the field day there is a lot of interest in sustainable farming and land management. The Mills farm is an excellent example for all to see that shows how productive farming can go hand in hand with protecting and enhancing environmental quality.

Farm water supply investigation

Saturday, January 25th, 2014

A preliminary investigation was carried out on the quality of water in two dams on a dairy farm in West Gippsland. The dams are a short distance apart in the same gully. The Upper dam is spring fed and can overflow into the Lower dam. The water was tested during summer. At that time the flow into the Upper dam had decreased and the water level was falling. The Lower dam was still fairly full.

The dams are in an elevated position and drain approximately 10 ha. The surrounding land is pasture.

Farm dam in West Gippsland. The Upper dam in this study. Water is pumped around the farm for drinking water for stock and also for washdown water in the dairy.

Farm dam in West Gippsland. The Upper dam in this study. Water is pumped around the farm for drinking water for stock.

There are many waterbirds on the dams – mainly ducks. Cows have access to both dams and commonly drink at the water’s edge. The water in both dams has a pale yellow-brown colour. There is significant attached bacterial – fungal mats clearly visible in shallow water.  One significant observation was that were no visible micro crustaceans.

Dam CO2 EC Turbidity Reactive C ORP*
ppm microS/cm FTU mg/L mV
Upper 18 289 11.5 0.5 207
elevated sl. elevated sl. cloudy moderate OK
Lower 5.8 738 3.5 0.5 205
moderate elevated clear moderate OK
* oxidation reduction potential

Some key findings are: Dissociated carbon dioxide was high in the Upper dam. The water is fairly clear in both dams with the Upper dam water just slightly cloudy. Overall salts as conductivity are elevated in the Lower dam. Both dams have oxidizing potential (a surrogate for oxygen level) within the desirable range.

Reactive or relatively fresh organic matter was estimated by permanganate digestion. In both dams reactive organic matter was in the moderately elevated range. Humic material in dams can be measured indirectly by UV absorbance. In both dams the UV absorbance was high, around 65%.

The pH of the Upper dam was 7.2 and pH of the Lower dam was 6.8. A pH buffer system analysis of the Upper dam gives a calculated pH of 6.7. This suggested the scenario of a falling pH (water becoming more acidic) as the carbon dioxide level rises. In this case the rise in carbon dioxide is being most likely caused by increasing organic matter decomposition. See organic matter figures below.

A pH buffer system analysis for the Lower dam gives theoretical pH of 7.84. This suggests that carbon dioxide level in this water is falling and this will cause the pH to slowly rise (the water will become more alkaline).

Farm dam in West Gippsland. This is the Lower dam in the study. Some physical and chemical factors show some improvement compared to the Upper dam. However there levels of the 3 key bacteria water quality indicator groups are twice the levels compared to the Upper dam.

Farm dam in West Gippsland. This is the Lower dam in the study. Some levels of physical and chemical factors are more favourable compared to the Upper dam. However the levels of 3 key bacteria water quality indicator groups are around twice the levels of the Upper dam.

Dam E. coli coliforms TC*
CFU’s / 100 ml CFU’s / 100 ml CFU’s / 100 ml
Upper 440 3317 53281
elevated** high moderate
Lower 960 7119 118274
elevated** elevated** sl. elevated
* aerobic plate count
** indicates contamination

For both dams the high  E coli level taken along with the high coliform levels indicate some fecal contamination of the water. Total aerobic bacteria level is approximately in the moderate range for exposed waters.

The main quality issue in both dams is elevated reactive organic matter levels and elevated E coli bacteria levels. There is some evidence that processes in the Lower dam are at least slowing deterioration of water quality. However on the negative side, levels of bacteria are significantly higher in the Lower dam.

Ideally in a study like this it would be useful to test the source water, in this case the spring water entering the dams. Unfortunately the spring was not accessible. There was also no other dam on the property to provide a comparison.