SETTING up a lone pasture-based dairy in the heart of cold NSW New England sheep and beef country 1200 metres above sea level was never going to be for the faint-hearted.
Third generation Victorian milk producers Peter and Elaine Notman have made it work based on precise planning of infrastructure to fully utilise all feed grown and computerised, continuous milk flow recording and quality monitoring.
On a remote dairy, daily attention to ensuring margins are above feed costs is critical, they believe.
The couple own Walcha Dairy, managed by Leon and Lynn McCabe, which has an annual rainfall of 870mm and milks 800 mostly Holsteins in an 80 stand rotary dairy twice a day.
They milk off 480 hectares of undulating heavy black soil and trap soil country.
An additional 560ha of outblocks was also purchased for grazing heifers and to support dry cows.
This year, they should produce around eight million litres for processor Murray Goulburn.
The Notmans decided on Walcha in 2008 when they were looking to establish an operation able to supply the fast-growing South East Queensland liquid milk market.
Compared to Northern Rivers country, Walcha offered scale and better buy-in rates and the opportunity to set up a rainfed farm based on temperate pastures, which was what the couple had more experience in.
A GPS system was used to design a state-of-the-art fencing and laneway system built around the central, elevated milking site. Around seven kilometres of laneway was constructed, designed to have minimal corners and wide gates to facilitate maximum flow.
The property was divided into 45 paddocks. Each averages about eight hectares, has a watering point and is angled towards the dairy for ease of stock movement.
“The aim was to have the cows walking a minimum distance to and from the shed – the average walking distance is just 500m,” Mr Notman said.
“We need to be able to move animals around the property quickly and with a minimum of energy expended.”
Four bores were drilled and dams built with a total of 120 megalitres of water storage capacity.
Next, hundreds of bales of silage was cut to make way for planting perennial ryegrass, with some prairie grass and red and white clovers.
“That first April, we bought up 20 tonnes of ryegrass seed up from Gipplsand,” Mr Notman said.
“It was mostly sown during April with three inch row spacing and was finished by early May.”
The use of nitrogen and gibberellic acid enables the high quality feed to be grown during winter.
“The key to making this work is ensuring we can grow the feed we need,” Mr Notman said.
“Under this system, we are currently growing and utilising 9t per hectare. At the moment, cows are getting 10 to 11kg of pasture dry matter and 6 to 7kg of grain and pellet per day.
“Although this season started dry in autumn, we had better-than-average growth rates during winter and we expect production to be around a million litres above last year’s.”
Costs of production have averaged 38 cents a litre, although it ranges 15 per cent either side depending on how much pasture is grown and the costs of outside feed.
“That stacks up reasonably well compared to Gippsland, which is also a natural rainfall production region,” Mr Notman said.
“Where we are different to our southern counterparts is this farm produces a similar amount every day of the year.”
Mr Notman said the supermarket $1-a-litre campaign had “changed the rules” for dairying and forced operators to be super efficient.
He is optimistic about the future of dairying.
“Like anything else, it has its highs and lows but our farm is in good shape and we believe we’ve set it up such that it can ride out the lows - planning, the right infrastructure and ongoing monitoring gives you that ability,” he said.
Walcha Dairy is now used as a model for efficient rainfed pasture milk production, with the farm hosting many field day groups and the Notmans speaking at numerous industry events, from NSW Grassland and Australian Dairy Farmer conferences to the Terrapin World Agriculture outlook in Singapore.