Case study: Andy Powell, Coorinmugle, Western Victoria
When we last heard from Andy in the autumn 2018 edition, he talked about focusing on having a good cover of short pasture ready for the autumn break and on fine tuning his transition feeding over the coming winter. At that time, he saw management priorities as strategic fertilizer application, cow health and condition, transition dry cow management, track repair and maintenance and general maintenance.
This time around, I managed to talk with Andy on two occasions; once in mid-July (the middle of winter) and then again very recently at the end of the second week in September. In my earlier interview with him back in mid-July, Andy said the following:
“In terms of preparing for autumn, there are two things we focus on doing. We are very conscious through the summer months and the following autumn (especially regarding the autumn break) in that we identify paddocks that need to be stimulated or are getting trashy. We know from experience that pastures in poor condition will not respond to rain events well or at their maximum potential. So, it’s worth us getting pasture budgeting in time to identify such paddocks that we will need early in the miking pasture rotation. We then place the dry cows and the lead feed cows into these identified paddocks early enough so that when we do get the autumn rain on these pastures they’re ready to respond straight away (in maximum rain response condition) rather than risking a three-week lag in optimum pasture growth”.
“With our transition diet last season, we had a few issues where staff were over allocating and or under allocating strips of grass. Therefore, in this most recent autumn we set up a few management tools and staff have noticeably improved their communication about feed allocation within the whole team. The tools we use are based on “Google Sheets.” They are a free online spreadsheet tool which is an app you can download on your phone or IPad (refer to https://business.tutsplus.com/categories/google-sheets)."
"We tweaked these feed planning sheets a lot together so that it gave more power to the staff in decision making (they put in the figures and work everything out). It has helped overcome recording issues such as forgetting to change paddock stocking rates. The use of these sheets and refining them through ongoing communication, meant that our transition and dry cow management and lead feed cow management this year was the best it has ever been.”
“We normally start calving the main herd on 1 June with the aim to have an average residual pasture of 2150 kg DM/ha on that date. In the 2017-18 season, this was very easy to achieve because we had an early autumn break, our pastures grew well during the time the cows were dry and our stocking rate was a lot lower. We moved our calving date forward by two weeks to around 15 May this season (2018-19) to accommodate a planned increased stocking rate."
"With this season’s late autumn break, our average pasture residual was only 2070kg DM/ha when it arrived, so we applied our first application of Nitrogen 6 weeks earlier than we normally do to try and get the pasture growing earlier and to ensure higher growth rates until the end of calving in mid to late June. On 1 June this year we were probably 80kg DM/ha behind what we generally like on pasture, but by 20 June we had just as much grass as we did in previous years."
"Part of this was the drier and warmer June and because of our fertiliser application as well (which let the pasture get away better). So, from this strategy we implemented we are probably now (in mid-July) feeding slightly above last year in amount of pasture (in terms of total kg DM on the farm) by about 30-50kg/ha”.
“The three things that are of major concern to us are what prevents us from growing enough home-grown feed in spring, which are:
- wet winters causing stock damage to the ground (wetter side of winter)
- the dams not filling up over winter when we usually get good rain events (drier side of winter)
- having short springs.
Now (in the middle of July) because we’ve had a relatively drier winter so far but with a timely 5 inches of rain in June, our major concern currently from the above list is a short spring (which can result in summer conditions beginning earlier). For us this could still mean less silage and less hay because of a shorter harvesting period which exposes us to the risk of having to buy in fodder (hay and silage); a key aspect we aim to avoid.
Our aim is to build up as much grass as we can for a September harvest; making sure that we cut as much silage as we can in the first couple of cuts to avoid the big risk of having to bring forward feeding silage to our milkers in November rather than the usual December. If we’re feeding out earlier, we will also be cutting less feed for future reserves (a double-edged sword). So, our overall aim is to avoid having to buy in hay and silage.”
When I spoke with Andy more recently the second time (mid-September) to see how he faired in the last half of winter based on his strategies discussed above, he added the following:
“Our focus over winter was to continue to build up our feed wedge; so as soon as the weather fines up in Spring we can take advantage of conditions and start to limit our exposure to bought in feed costs. August was a challenge as the district had 18 days straight of rain; 5mm turned into 15mm, 10mm turned into 30mm and so on - just constant showers and dealing with that amount of rain after a long spell of no rain was problematic for some. We’ve fortunately only got minor damage on our farm because of the drainage system we’ve put in, it worked exceptionally well. Only when it was raining while the cows were in a paddock, did it cause some minor damage. With these rain events all of our dams are absolutely well and truly full”.
“Whilst damage to pastures on our farm is minimal, it has meant that our harvesting date is pushed back a couple of weeks, from us having to keep the paddocks in the rotation and just maintain growth rates. I guess our strategy hasn’t changed, it’s just been pushed back two weeks; so instead of being mid-September, we’re sort of looking at very late September or very early October for our start of making silage date, which is still extremely early for our area this time of year.”
Currently (end of second week in September) we’ve got good growth rates; probably averaging around 40kg DM/ha/day for the last 3 or more weeks on the farm. Regarding soil moisture, the ground is at full capacity. We’ve got an expected 10 or 15mm of rain coming on the weekend. Our farm is starting to dry out at a favourable rate because of the drainage. We’ve got the perfect soil moisture for growing grass. If we didn’t have the drainage system in place we’d be leaving massive wheel tracks when spread fertiliser as it just wouldn’t have dried out enough.”
“Our strategy from now on is that we are still concerned by a shorter spring. Every week that the harvesting of our pasture is delayed it gives us more confidence that we may get a bit more harvested on farm. We’ve probably got enough ground and moisture to be self-sufficient with silage so, we can probably tick that box. But we are unsure if we are going to get a hay cut now. We’ve got some effluent water and a couple of very small dams that we can use to irrigate some paddocks to boost potential hay production; it’s an option up our sleeves for growing and cutting some more hay.
“We estimate we probably need around 850 to 900 this season to cover the worst-case scenario of running out of silage. The way it’s shaping up now and compared to last season (2017-18) where we did get close to 900 tonne of silage dry matter, we are confident that we will be able to get enough silage again this season to cover all possibilities.”
“We made about 300 tonne of hay last season (2017-18) for the dry cows and we would like a similar yield this year. We know we need to buy in some hay, it’s just a question of how much - it comes down to whether we get enough hay locked up and cut in time basically and that’s purely dependent on the weather. Buying in hay early enough to minimise the cost of it is another key strategy. Regarding a key trigger point to order in hay early, we should know by the end of October."
"It just depends on how much rain we get in October - it’s the biggest driving factor as to what will happen at the end of our milking season. Because the soil moisture is pretty much saturated currently we could do with a drier September and then we’d be looking for more decent rain events from the start of October to get us through to November grass wise."
"This would fit in with our normal season of feeding out around Christmas time. If the rain cuts off completely in a couple of weeks, then we will probably need to be feeding out a month earlier (at the end of November). For us, what happens over the next 6 to 8 weeks weather wise is going to be paramount.”