ONE of the first Victorian dairyfarmers to roll out a commercial-scale compost management plan on his property of 550 hectares, Tesbury's Craig Davis believes what comes out of a cow is as important as what goes in.
The winners of this year's South West Dairy Awards Natural Resource and Sustainability Award, which involved more than 330 regional dairyfarmers, Craig and wife, Tanya, say their transition to sustainable farming has been lucrative.
Working on the principle there is more to soil than nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, the Davises have made major changes to their 600-head milking herd at Tesbury, near Cobden, in recent years.
This follows trips to Holland and New Zealand to learn about alternative farming methods that minimise or use waste.
"We throw out 80% of our waste so I thought 'why can't we make compost for the farm?', because we are one big veggie patch really," Mr Davis said.
"In Europe they use 100% of their waste; in Australia we throw it out.
"I believe there is more in our effluent ponds than any ag department can tell us when you put it in a compost form, it is readily available for the plant to get working."
The couple will speak at the 2013 South West Soil Conference at Warrnambool next month about their seven-year transition to alternative farming, which focuses on soil science and management.
The five-year development of a dairy effluent management system has seen the dairy make at least $40,000 in conventional fertiliser savings annually.
The system uses woodchips, unused or damaged hay and solid waste from the effluent pond in a composting system, in conjunction with a liquid waste irrigation system.
About 2500 tonnes of compost is made each year on the farm and spread at 2.5 tonnes/hectare with 6 tonne spreaders.
Following annual soil tests, different biological fertilisers are added to the compost at a heavily reduced rate of 10% of a conventional rate because the nutrients are activated at a greater rate.
Mr Davis said the move had revolutionised their farming practices and resulted in significant soil health improvements, a radical drop in fertiliser use, financial savings and the recovery of clover after more than a decade barren on the property.
They have had 40% savings on phosphorous and potassium fertiliser inputs, 90% nitrogen fertiliser savings and 10% reduction in water use.
He said they had recorded more than 70 worms in a shovel area, the recovery of clover content in pastures, raised soil carbon content, improved root penetration, reduced soil pests as well as improved herd health.
"We started seeing clover come back and we haven't seen clover on the paddocks for 15 years it is unreal," Mr Davis said.
"When we started getting the soil biology working again, what we found is that clover just started coming back, we didn't need to plant it; all of a sudden our roots have grown from six inches to a 450mm.
"Our plants and the biology in the ground started working again, so once you get clover back in then you have nitrate fixation too."
While there were no major saving in the first year, savings were noted from year two and by the fifth year significant bottom line benefits were evident.
"We use 80% less chemicals on weeds and pests because when you get the biology right, they don't seem to come any where near as much," he said.
However the move has meant a challenging education for the Davises, who said you can't simply throw compost on the paddocks but need "a new appreciation for your soil" as the biology was complex and science focused.
It had been a slow process understanding the benefits of effluent waste but one with which it was worth persisting.
The dairy chases the fresh milk market with a split calving season and has 80ha of irrigated land.
They are environment and production focused businesses and have increased biodiversity plantings with shelter belts and the removal of willows from the waterways.
This has brought a reduction in the nutrient run-off into the Curdies River and increased pasture growth.
The selection of deep-rooted pasture species has improved the grazing regimes on the farm and ensured grazing persisted through the dry period between October 2012 and May 2013.
Mr and Mrs Davis will be sharing their sustainable farm practices knowledge at the South West Soil Conference in Warrnambool on September 4 and 5.
Details: Heytesbury District Landcare Network, phone (03) 5598 3755 or website www.swsc.com.au