When it comes to balancing the tricky issues of water affordability and keeping a high-performance dairy herd fed, the Acocks family have it covered.
A 450-head capacity, manure pack barn that is now the centrepiece of their Riversdale operation at Rochester in northern Victoria is a quantum leap from the traditional, grazing-based dairy farm that Mick and Heather Acocks first took over in the 1980s.
It signifies how much the industry has changed in northern Victoria since that time as it has grappled with not only drought and downturns, but also a vastly different world in terms of irrigation.
“The change in our production system has been driven by the price of water and nothing else,” said Tom Acocks, who with wife Emma took over management of the dairy business from his parents in 2009.
Tom was a teenager in the 1990s when Mick and Heather were building the operation up and running what he describes as a “typical northern Victorian farm”.
“It was growing, using a lot of cheap water, turning that into grass and paspalum and turning that into milk,” he said.
“In 1996, we built this dairy and probably bobbed around that 450-500 cow mark right through to the early 2000s.”
A year after drought reared its head in 2001, Tom moved away. Mick and Heather maintained the herd through the many dry years that followed but in 2009 decided to sell half the cows and start winding the operation back.
By that stage, though, Tom, who had met Emma while backpacking in Ireland, was ready to come home and start a family of his own.
The timing was pivotal.
“It was 2009 when the first dairy crisis hit,” he said.
“Murray Goulburn and the like cut their prices and we went and bought all our cows back and started firing things up again.”
TOM’S return also coincided with the rollout of changes under former prime minister John Howard’s water reforms that saw the Campaspe irrigation system, from which the farm drew a permanent allocation, decommissioned.
After sitting down and crunching the numbers, the Acocks worked out that with the money they would receive as an adjustment package for exiting the system they could buy enough dryland country to produce their own fodder.
“At that time in an average year, a hectare of land could grow the same amount of feed per hectare (for the same cost) as a megalitre of water, so it was one for one,” Tom said.
“In the 10 years since we sold the water off, in all but one year — 2015 was a shocker — we have grown between three and seven tonnes of dry matter per hectare, depending on the season. It’s been a good investment.”
The total size of the farm, including leased land within a 15km radius of the main 400ha dairy block, is 1350ha.
It sits in a 450mm rainfall zone, with soils ranging from self-mulching clay to red loams.
FROM mid-2009 until now, the business has been growing steadily in herd size and production, but while the Acocks have access to 35 megalitres of high reliability water and 600 low reliability shares, it has not always been either available or affordable.
So to take the herd from 600 head it was at the end of the drought to the 850 it is today, it has been necessary to transform from being reliant on irrigated pasture to being able to, in a good year, produce all their dry feed requirements for a total mixed ration system.
“In the traditional model, we could grow a reasonable amount of feed with the water we were using but with the way the water market is going, it has forced us to look at growing more dry matter for every megalitre we use,” Tom said.
“In 2010-11, the water market was pretty soft and it’s a bit of a blip on the radar again this year but, fundamentally, the price of water isn’t going to stay at $30/megalitre.
“That means we’ve had to invest in infrastructure and change our irrigation systems to produce fodder.
“It’s probably more of a European or US type of system — we grow fodder for the cows and take it to them.”
The herd is split into high and low production groups, separated by stages of lactation and litres produced.
The best cows — those producing 40 litres or more — are milked three times a day, housed in the barn and receive the highest quality rations.
“Those cows obviously have a higher feed cost but we can’t really compromise on the parameters needed to achieve the litres,” Tom said.
“At the moment that diet costs about $6.50 a cow a day — this time last year it was close to $10 — so we’re targeting anything north of 40 litres in that production group.”
Feed costs for the cows in the lower production group vary depending on the time of year and individual cow, with milk metering in the dairy making it possible to individualise rations.
“The higher producing cows in the twice-a-day milking group will be fed a more expensive ration in the dairy but a standard ration in the feed pad,” Tom said.
“When we have grass we also try to graze as much as we can.”
The system was tested under the harshest of conditions last year when, like most of Victoria, the region received record rainfall over winter and spring. The barn, in only its third year of use, was stretched to the limit with the Acocks forced to go to a “cosy” stocking rate of 700 as uncovered areas turned into quagmires.
IT was no surprise mastitis became an issue but after making changes that included how they managed the barn, they saw an improvement in milk quality that is still holding now.
THEIR cell counts are about 120,000 cells/ml each month and they have a very low clinical case rate, which combined indicates a very low level of mastitis in the herd.
“The first two years managing the barn was a steep learning curve,” Tom said.
“You can do all the research in the world but until you actually go do it and put yourself in the system you don’t realise just how much there is to learn.
“It’s absolutely been worthwhile, though.
“This year production will be just over 7.5 million litres — or just under 600,000kg of milk solids — annually and that will grow to probably 8.5 million next year with a view to expand to 10 million litres of production over the next three years.
“I don’t think 11.5 million litres one day is beyond us.”
The key, says Tom, is control. “We can control the diet, we can control the environment, we can drive production in the cows and we can do that more cost-effectively than under a grazing system,” he said. “These feed systems are not for everybody but in our particular circumstance, with the set of resources we have available, going down this path was, in my mind, the only direction we could go.”
By: Dale Webster
Source: The Weekly Times