ACCESS to independent agronomic trial data and economic analysis for a range of ryegrass varieties has been invaluable for Westbury, Vic, dairy farmer Stuart Griffin, who has converted his entire property to this perennial pasture in the past few years.
He has been using Dairy Australia's Forage Value Index (FVI) to select the right ryegrass that performs best in his local environment.
This is in Gippsland, where multiple generations of his family have operated a dairy business for more than 100 years.
The FVI was introduced in 2017 and now ranks more than 20 popular existing and new-release perennial ryegrass varieties for overall and seasonal performance in four south-eastern dairy regions in Australia.
To be included in the system, each variety must have seasonal yield data from at least three sets of three-year trials that use strict experimental protocols.
Varieties are scored and ranked by multiplying this data against the economic value, as determined by case studies in different dairy regions.
Pasture renovation and feedbase improvement are key strategies being used by the Griffin family to underpin an expansion of their milking herd numbers and boost overall farm productivity.
Mr Griffin, his wife Belinda and parents Chris and Jan, run 520 Friesian, Jersey and Aussie Red cross-breed cows, which has increased by about 100-head in the past three years.
Before the expansion in numbers, the dairy was extended, moving from a 16-a-side double-up rapid exit to 26-a-side to improve throughput.
"At 16-a-side we were maxed-out at a herd size of 350 cows," Mr Griffin said.
"Now, at 26-a-side, we milk two herds and can carry a lot more cows across the farm.
"We have also transitioned to a once-a-day milking system, which saves labour and reduces stress levels.
"Our long-term goal is to maintain profitability, but also ensure longevity and sustainability by having a good work-life balance - and better overall herd, family and staff health.
"Part of what drives profitability in this system is the cost savings in energy, labour and grain feeding to maximise our gross margins."
Mr Griffin said dropping from two to one daily milking had reduced milk production, with solids per cow down by 5-15 per cent on average.
He said overall their crossbred cows had adapted to the change in milking frequency quite well.
But he said having a pasture renovation program in place meant higher productivity could still be achieved by increasing stocking rates, which averaged about 3.3 cows per hectare across the year.
Calving occurs in spring so that peak feed demand follows pasture growth curves.
"We are focused on per hectare milk production by matching feed availability in the paddock to animal requirements," Mr Griffin said.
"This requires careful stocking rate management and continual pasture monitoring."
After several years of growing a mix of chicory and ryegrass, the Griffin property is now fully planted to perennial ryegrass.
This has been driven by seasonal conditions that had adversely impacted on chicory growth when there was a dry spring.
"It was proving to be a bit unreliable in drier years and, when we were taking ryegrass paddocks out to be planted to chicory in early spring, we were losing a couple of months of peak ryegrass growth," Mr Griffin said.
"We weren't sure we were getting that back with the chicory's growth over the summer.
"On further economic analysis with our farm consultant, the economics of keeping it in the system just didn't stack-up.
"It was relatively expensive to plant, and we felt that in our system the benefits over ryegrass just weren't there.
"Chicory certainly has its place on dairy farms, but we have decided to move back to ryegrass for the time being."
Mr Griffin said they switched to 100 per cent ryegrass to de-risk the business a bit, as it was a safer bet for the bulk of seasons.
"Ryegrass will grow a bit faster in winter than chicory, so we are not so squeezed in early spring when we really need paddock feed to get away fast," he said.
Mr Griffin said the family was reviewing their pasture system all the time and that was where the FVI proved its value.
He said the trial data provided through the system enabled them to see how a wide range of ryegrass varieties were performing in their area at a particular time, in a particular season and across the long-term.
"It gives us Gippsland data, so we can be confident in making decisions about pasture to specifically suit our environment," he said.
"We can also see the response of different varieties at different times of the year - autumn, winter, early spring, late spring and summer - so we can assess which will work on our individual property.
"We know the times of the year that feed demand peaks and when we are most short of feed, so we can choose the best varieties to meet that need.
"What is also invaluable is that variety rankings are independent, so we know the agronomic and economic results are robust.
"The FVI tables and rankings are easy to read and understand for scenario planning."
Mr Griffin said the system was also groundbreaking in providing dairy farmers with information about newly-released varieties and those in development.
He said he had already switched some varieties based on the FVI and would continue to do so in coming years as new variety information became available.
"After evaluating the FVI rankings, we have added the very late flowering Bealey tetraploid variety and the long rotation diploid Impact/Impact 2 into our system" he said.
"Both were consistently found in the FVI trials to perform well in higher rainfall regions, and were bred to particularly suit high-input dairy farms.
"The Bealey and Impact varieties have helped to improve our cow performance due to high feed quality, yields and spring growth."
Mr Griffin said the FVI would continue to increase in value to dairy farmers as more data was added each year.
"It is a powerful, real-time tool that is already having a positive impact on our business, and it will only be more valuable in future," he said.
"Before the FVI, it was more difficult to access independently-tested information about the traits and capabilities of perennial ryegrass, so we just tended to stick with what we already used.
"Now we have accurate, scientific data to more confidently invest in improving the feedbase to help push our whole system and boost our overall business returns."
The FVI tables have recently been updated and now include more varieties and results from several pasture trials conducted in southern Australia.
Dairy Australia is also working with industry partners to expand the FVI to generate new indexes for other important species relevant to Australian dairy farmers.
It plans to release an annual ryegrass FVI and an Italian ryegrass FVI in 2021.
More information about the FVI can be found at www.dairyaustralia.com.au/FVI.
About the Forage Value Index
A rating system to help dairy farmers and advisers make informed decisions about perennial ryegrass varieties.
It is updated each year to include new trial data.
It is based on independently-calculated performance values for seasonal dry matter production and economic values.
Performance values are based on trial data from the Pasture Trial Network.
Economic values are based on case study farms.
Rankings take into account seasonal production, ploidy, heading date and endophyte.
Assessments are made for performance at a specific time of the year and season relative to other cultivars.
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