THINKING strategically and a constant focus on minimising costs in conjunction with maximising production has enabled Mid North Coast dairy farmers Adam and Donna Darley to turn challenges into strengths and fully capitalise on the natural assets they have at their fingertips.
In the past decade, the couple have doubled their herd size on a similar amount of country, along with topping the nation for milk quality three years in a row and arguably establishing themselves as leaders in dairy pasture management.
The Darley’s milk 360 to 380 mostly Holsteins at “Golden Valley Farm”, Dorrigo, to send 2.7 million litres annually to Lismore-based farmer owned co-operative Norco, which has a factory at nearby Raleigh.
They have 250 hectares of high rainfall country, actively milking off 120ha, with a nearby 80ha for growing silage and to run heifers on.
That 2000mm a year rainfall, at an elevation of 750m, means they can grow perennial ryegrass all year round to constantly supply their herd with a quality, economic feed.
But the high leaching, highly acidic red volcanic soil does come with challenges, as does the environment.
What the Darleys have proven is that it is very productive dairying country if managed right and handled with care.
The farm is also in the heart of one of the fastest growing regions of the country in terms of population growth, which provides a ready strong demand for fresh milk.
Yet again, that is both a big advantage and a challenge.
In order to maintain a high annual average production in order to profitably meet the year-round supply demanded by the liquid milk market, they invested in a feed pad, which also provides some ‘flood insurance’.
The Darleys grow 1500 to 2000 silage bales a year, with any carry over either retained as a safety net for floods and drought or sold.
Depending on the quality of that silage each season, they may also buy in lucerne hay from February to May to supplement the feed pad offering.
Dairy rations are based on barley, sourced from the Northern Tablelands, mixed with canola mineral pellet on farm for protein.
That ration is fed at six to seven kilograms per head per day.
Golden Valley cows are doing an average lactation of 7700 litres, a good 1300-1500 above the industry benchmark for the region.
The minimum per cow production peaks at 27 litres, dropping back to 20 litres at times.
Feed pad innovation
The Darley’s 130m feed pad, with a 360 head capacity, has doubled in size since last year.
“When we are low in paddock pasture and we start renovating for winter planting, we put cows on the feed pad in the afternoon after milking,” Mr Darley explained.
“The herd is split and gets 40 to 50 minutes where they consume two tonnes of feed.
“The aim is to maintain average production year round, regardless of what is happening season-wise.”
But the feed pad is also a flood management insurance policy.
“When we get 400-500mm in 24 hours – which is not unusual – to put cows back on paddocks affected by that sort of a drenching will devastate the country,” Mrs Darley said.
“It’s a lifesaver in those times.
“But as an investment, it can be justified, compared to other flood management measures like loafing pads, due to it’s regular use throughout the year.”
‘Fussy’ pasture management
Mr Darley is fastidious about how paddocks are looked after.
Within 24 hours of grazing, he has a paddock slashed to remove any grass not consumed.
That way cows have access to a complete fresh growth from the ground up when they go back in.
Rotations vary from 18-19 days at maximum growth times, typically from November to February, and that is pushed out to 41-42 days in the slower growth periods.
On fertiliser, the strategy is to apply small amounts more often rather than large amounts less often.
“We do systematic soil testing so we always know exactly what is left in the soil,” Mr Darley said.
Fertiliser is a major percentage of our costs so it has to be strategically managed.
Next year, for example, the Darleys have budgeted for 120t over the 250ha at around $600/t.
“In the past six months we have also been involved in a Dairy Australia program called Fertsmart, where we have conducted deep core sampling to determine fertiliser penetration,” Mr Darley said.
“It’s been quite interesting to learn things like the fact lime doesn’t dissolve quickly and takes a long time to move through the soil profile.
“Because our pH levels are 4.5 to 6.5, lime is something we need to use a lot of.”
So the program has reiterated the strategy of applying less, more often.
“We are aiming to be precise on applications in order to minimise costs but maximise production,” Mr Darley said.
In order to combat compaction, the Darleys are now establishing pasture in just one pass, compared to the traditional four.
They use a minimum tillage machine called an Ezyair which aerates the soil, has a seed box fitted and also harrows and rolls in one go.
Their pasture production is currently sitting at an impressive 11,000kg of dry matter per hectare per annum.
Genetics fit for a purpose
At 4.3 fat and 3.3 protein, Golden Valley milk components are also above industry averages.
“We tend to drive the components more than overall litres, not only because we are paid on components but we also sell stud bulls and the demand there is genetics from high component herds,” Mr Darley said.
The herd is based on United States and Canadian genetics, all inseminated.
“When heifers first calf they are scored, with points given for traits that are important to our operations such as feet and udders,” Mr Darley said.
“We then match bulls for their strengths in those departments to constantly create a new generation better than the previous.
“Because they walk on pasture on hilly country, good feet and legs are critical.”
Longevity and udder placement is also high on the breeding agenda.
“It’s about creating a purpose-built breeding program and it’s all done in conjunction with an AI (artificial insemination) consultant.”
The herd calves all year round so on average, around 30 to 35 cows a month are calved down.
Adam’s father Fred Darley was a pioneer Holstein breeder in the region and he set up the Golden Valley stud.
He bred the first Friesian cow to win Supreme Cow at the Sydney Royal, Golden Valley Echo Fahey.
She had been sold to a Nowra farm prior on the condition she be shown at Sydney.
Mr Darley said his father couldn’t buy Friesians in NSW or Victoria so he had to go to South Australia to get them.
“He bought four heifers and two bulls and trained them home,” he said.
The Darleys today sell six to ten bulls a year.
Bobby calves are sold to be grown out as beef.
Heifers surplus to needs are sold locally to others looking to increase their herd size or replace.
Mrs Darley rears around 150 heifer calves a year, selling about 30.
Awarded for quality
For the past three years running, the Darleys have been recognised by Dairy Australia for supplying milk with the lowest five per cent bulk milk cell count in Australia.
Keeping the somatic cell count below 200,000 per milliliter provides a 2.5 cent a litre bonus.
“That’s one driver for us but less use of antibiotics and a healthy herd is just as important,” Mrs Darley said.
The number of somatic cells increases in response to pathogenic bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus, a cause of mastitis.
Mastitis is a larger risk in higher rainfall areas, especially when a cow is forced to calve in mud.
For the past two years, the Darleys have kept their count below 80,000 via a strict management system.
“When a cow comes to the end of her lactation, she is treated with long acting antibiotics and has her teats sealed,” Mrs Darley explained.
“So that when she returns her chances of mastitis are much lower.”
The Darleys also take regular milk samples and have it analysed so they can focus on cows that need attention.
Those with a high count are either treated with antibiotics, dried off in one quarter (milked only from three teats) or if they are in calf and late in lactation, the decision might be made to dry the cow off entirely.
Succession planning ‘critical’
One of six siblings, Adam worked Golden Valley with his parents Fred and Joyce under a partnership for 16 years before he and Donna put in place a plan to purchase the business.
“It was a hard process to go through – issues had to be dealt with but getting the succession plan process right is extremely important,” he said.
“It allows the confidence to grow the business.”
The couple are already thinking about the process with regards to their boys, James and Harrison.
“It’s a different scenario, however, because we’re not yet certain they will decide farming is what they want,” Mr Darley said.
James is working in the construction industry and Harrison will start agricultural science next year.
“Their initial thoughts were there was no way they will come back to the farm and five years ago I would have said they should do something else,” Mr Darley said.
“But they are changing their minds and so am I.”
The downside to supplying the liquid milk market is the fact supermarket giants dominate retails and not only are they pushing the end price down but they are also demanding long term supply contracts, Mr Darley said.
This is taking away the ability of processors and producers to target higher value markets should they arise.
“However, it doesn’t matter what they produce, farmers know they are producing food and people are always going to need to eat,” he said.
“That’s what is giving us optimism.”