Archive for the ‘pastures’ 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 3 – 4 tonne / ha over the milking area (60 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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

How to sow new pasture and forage crops

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

In our quest to become dairy farmers we have leased a few acres in Gembrook to grow pasture and forage crops for our small herd. The land is run down pasture and I have outlined soil test results in the last few entries.

To get this pasture productive again we need to raise the pH, correct nutrient deficiencies and increase the soil health mainly through increasing organic matter.

Connor Shea disc seeder at work in Gembrook. Discs slice the soil open and the seeder drops in a trickle of fertilizer and seed. The next crop can be sown without disrupting the existing crop to get a smooth succession. .

Connor Shea disc seeder and John Deere at work in Gembrook. Discs slice the soil open and the seeder drops in a trickle of fertilizer and seed. The next crop can be sown without disrupting the existing crop to get a smooth succession.

Strategy: Make sure some legumes are included in the planting. Balance short term production and removal with longer term growth of pasture (persistance). Horse pasture, cut hay if possible but allow for some pasture suitable for horses to become established in the longer term for grazing. Perennial ryegrass, subterranean clover and cocksfoot. Hay pasture, mainly for hay cutting with some persistence into the next year. Italian ryegrass, balansa clover and cocksfoot. Forages for cows. This will be cut with a forage harvester and fed to cows. Oats, vetch and field peas. Sowing rate for the pasture mixes will be 25 kg / ha.

How much fertilizer? The major trace element deficiencies were boron and copper. We assumed that molybdenum could be deficient given the type of soil and history and because we wanted to establish legumes again we opted to include molybdenum. The final mix had 0.02% B, 0.01% Cu and 0.003% Mo.

We had CaCO3 lime added to the pastures in the previous autumn at 1 tonne / ha.

Unfertilized pasture will produce around 2 tonne / ha (as dry matter). Fertilized pasture can be expected to produce up to 10 t/ha maybe even higher for some varieties. Figures for nutrient uptake by different crops are hard to find and interpret but there are a few guideline figures available. We based calculations for fertilizer requirement on 8 t/ha. A harvested ryegrass / clover pasture (8 t/ha) will typically remove N : 104 kg/ha, P : 30 kg.ha, K : 102 kg/ha, S : 15 kg/ha, Ca : 2 kg/ha and Mg : 9.2 kg/ha. Our soil test results show that around 100 kg/h DAP should supply enough P but not all the N required. Legumes in the pasture may help fill the gap. The DAP also contains sulphur so 100 kg/ha should supply all the S required. The soil is not short of calcium and magnesium for crop growth but we have limed the soil to reduce exchangeable acidity.

Ideally we would have preferred to apply phosphorus in a organic or organically coated form because this soil has the potential to lock up P. The decision to use DAP to supply nitrogen and phosphorus was a compromise but we figured that we had to balance fast short term growth against loss to the soil. However if things go well and organic matter increases in the soil some of that locked up P will be available again (see previous entries for a discussion on P in soils).

It is an expensive business to plant pasture especially to restore a pasture. To get a return we need to concentrate on quality as well as quantity of production. That’s why we opted to resow with productive varieties and to invest in fertilizer. Also there needs to be some carry over of growth so not all the pasture needs to be resown the next year. Our strategy is to keep something growing and includes allowing some production to return to the soil. Basically that means we are preserving and enhancing our capital.

Diversity is important. That’s why we opted to include at least Cocksfoot in the mix – maybe when we better understand the potential and problems with other varieties they can be included also.

In Spring 2014 we sprayed the existing pasture with a low strength glyphosate spray. This was to weaken the weeds and reduce competition without unduly affecting existing grasses.

Direct seeding pasture. The seeder is cutting into existing pasture that has been sprayed to weaken any weeds. The slots can be instected to make sure that seed and fertilizer is being fed in at the required rate.

Direct seeding pasture. The seeder is cutting into existing pasture that has been sprayed to weaken any weeds. The cuts can be inspected to make sure that seed and fertilizer is being fed in at the required rate.

Most small seeded pasture varieties can be sown along with fertilizer with a spreader but this needs to be followed by a pass with pasture harrows and maybe a roller to help bury the seed. A direct drill seeder with either discs or tines is designed to bury the seeds along with the fertilizer. The main advantages of this are more efficient sowing where the fertilizer is placed with the more desirable species, ability to sow larger seeded varieties in the soil away from pests and less disturbance of the soil – particularly important where exposed soil can dry out. Settings on the seeder regulate the flow of seed and fertilizer but every now and again it helps to jump off the tractor to check that the seed and fertilizer is being released at a suitable rate.