Michael Tuhan was in awe of the Illawarra breed at a young age.
He was given a book titled 'Handbook of Australian Livestock' in primary school.
He first laid eyes on an Illawarra within these pages - a breed he didn't previously know existed.
"I was captivated by their rich, red coat and intrigued by this breed developed in Australia," Michael said.
"I annoyed my father enough that he eventually purchased one at an Illawarra Cattle Society sale at Cobram in 1990. We added a few more to this over the next couple of years.
"Their docile nature was a big attraction, and we were impressed by their ability to calve easily and that their milk protein percentage was higher than Holsteins."
And so the seed was planted.
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Michael and his wife Carly, together with their daughters Lily, 8, and Charlotte, 6, operate a dairy farm on approximately 80 hectares at Tatura East, northern Victoria.
Additionally, they lease 40ha of non irrigated land to run dry cows and heifers.
The 160-head herd comprises approximately two-thirds Illawarra and one-third Holstein.
"There is no active plan to increase or decrease the number of either breed in the herd, although the natural culling process and longevity of the Illawarras mean the proportion of Illawarras has been steadily increasing over time," Michael said.
"The Illawarras have a naturally calm nature and are great cattle to work with.
"The Holsteins tend to have a more nervous disposition, and their behaviour can be erratic, which often comes into consideration with culling decisions.
"Dairy farming is a demanding job, but working with calm animals makes it much more enjoyable."
Michael uses a good proportion of highly rated proven bulls, provided their type and udders are acceptable.
Additionally, he tries to sample most of the young Illawarra sires that enter the market to tap into the next generation of proven bulls.
"I don't actively breed for high BPI cows. However, breeding for the type of cows I like has resulted in my herd being ranked the second-highest Illawarra herd nationally for BPI in the December 2022 ABVs," Michael said.
"I have always bred for an angular cow with a good udder.
"More recently, there has also been a focus on breeding for a correct rump structure, as this has a big impact on longevity through fertility and mobility."
Longevity is a trait that is valued highly by Michael.
"Rearing heifers is a big investment, so cows need to stick around long enough to repay this investment," he said.
"I am not interested in cows that go hard as young cows but fall apart by the end of their second lactation.
"There are currently nine cows in the herd aged 10 years or over, with five of these classified Excellent."
Michael enjoys showing cattle, admitting he is "a very competitive person" but doesn't breed to produce show winners specifically.
"Any success we have had at shows is simply a product of breeding for productive long-lasting cows," he said.
"Winning Premier Exhibitor at this year's International Dairy Week is certainly one of the highlights."
When it comes to rearing heifers, Michael's philosophy is to give them the best possible start in life.
He tries to calve heifers at around 24 months, although he will hold back the smaller heifers through to the next calving period rather than calve them underweight.
"Calves are fed as much as 8 litres of milk per day, combined with a vitamin and mineral supplement," he said.
"Weaning is at 10 to 12 weeks of age, after which they are fed on hay, grain and some pasture if possible.
"Grain feeding is continued to eight to 10 months of age, until such time that agistment becomes available where they can access quality pasture."
My real passion has always been breeding dairy cows, and I probably needed a new challenge - and challenges don't come much greater than owning and running a dairy farm.- Michael Tuhan
For 15 years, Michael worked as a nutritionist with Reid Stockfeeds.
His job allowed him to work closely with a range of farming systems, which he credits with helping him to apply some successful principles to his own business.
"I developed some great client relationships over that time and took great satisfaction from helping clients address any nutritional issues," he said.
"But my real passion has always been breeding dairy cows, and I probably needed a new challenge - and challenges don't come much greater than owning and running a dairy farm."
Michael operates a relatively simple grazing based system, with round bale hay and silage, the majority of which is conserved on-farm and fed to cover the pasture gaps.
A grain mix from Reid Stockfeeds is fed in the dairy from as low as 4.5-5kg/day in spring and up to about 7kg/day through winter.
The farm is irrigated from the Goulburn Valley Irrigation system.
The milking platform consists of 15ha annual pasture, predominantly Italian ryegrass and shaftal or sub clover, and 45ha of perennial pasture.
The perennial pastures are ryegrass and clover based. However, there is a substantial area that is fescue dominant.
Although the fescue provides lesser quality pasture, it thrives in the heat of summer where ryegrass struggles.
Michael says the fescue is low maintenance and more water-efficient, so although the lower quality does limit production levels to an extent, the extra forage that can be grown over summer offsets this.
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Calving is predominantly in spring to capitalise on the bulk of pasture grown in late spring and summer, with only about 30 cows calved in the autumn.
Of the 135 cows calved last spring, 95 were calved in late July and August to have as many cows as possible freshly calved when pasture growth is at its peak.
Cows are on a diet of pasture and grain only (plus some ad-lib straw in spring to balance fibre levels) for more than six months of the year.
"My best cows produce more than 11,000 litres and over 800kg milk solids in 305-day lactations under this system," Michael said.
"Holsteins are the benchmark breed when it comes to production. However, if I can breed Illawarras with close to the same production but with better management traits and longevity, then I reckon I am ahead."
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