Case study: Kevin Fitzsimmons, Merrigum, Goulburn Valley, Victoria
When we last heard from Kevin in early June 2018 he talked about good December rains and making them last right through the whole of summer by stretching out irrigation watering towards the end of the season.
Regardless of whether the winter turned out dry and warm or wet and cold overall, Kevin was confident that the strategies he had in place would suffice.
At that time, his bought in fodder program was in place, all intended crops for this milking season 2018-19 were planted and over sowing of pastures was underway.
I caught up with Kevin to find out how his winter turned out and what his plans were for this current spring and into summer. He said the following:
“Our winter worked out well as far as milking cows are concerned, given it was a dry one, it was not hard on them. As far as pasture growth goes, we got our oats on the home farm in and they all came up. They have struggled due to lack of rain and frosts. The decision has been made to graze them with the herd. On the out block the oats are looking quite good there and we will be able to cut hay from it, rather than graze it. We over-sowed 70% of our perennial pasture with a mix of rye grasses and we have had a good establishment rate on those paddocks.
Overall, our winter was pretty good. It was essentially a mild one as we had a few odd showers of rain and some frosts. Although there was no real grass growth it didn’t set us back as we don’t usually get much in winter anyway. In terms of feeding milking cows there was no feed wasted (ground much drier) so that was a saving as well. With wet conditions, paddocks pug up and you can waste feed and then you are left with damaged pastures. So, given this mild winter our cows milked well overall. We finished the 2017-18 milking season roughly 26% up in production, so we had a good season production wise. And even so far this milking season (2018-19) we are still 15% in front on production, so we are trying to capitalise on that and keep our production curve up.
“I put our increased production down to the quality of pasture being there. We used a sacrifice night paddock for 3 months and that has enabled us to lock pastures up, and they had good quality feed during the day. We’ve now got a wedge of feed in front of the cows of good pasture and they’re grazing both night and day paddocks currently. We had to purchase over 60 tonnes of extra cereal hay above what we already had on hand; which wasn’t too bad financially, considering the increased production we got. Upshot is, we now have feed in front of us, because of what we put in place to get that growth. We fertilised paddocks to encourage the growth we could, to build up a feed wedge in front of us and the cows are milking well and are in good condition. We’ve also increased the grain. We were feeding around 4.5 kilograms and now (mid-September) we are up round 6.5 to 7 kilograms per cow per day. Increasing the grain was one of the strategies we decided to put in place as the milking cows came in to the new milking season. With all these management elements in place in tandem, the cows have responded well in both improved body condition and increase milk production.”
“Now that winter has passed, I can say that we followed the strategies we planned back in autumn pretty much. We had our fodder supplies in place other than having to purchase another 60 tonnes (which wasn’t a huge amount or cost in the overall scheme of things). We increased fertiliser (nitrogen) strategically when we could to fit around the rain we had to encourage optimal growth. Most of our climatic information that we sourced told us to expect a warmer drier winter, so that’s basically what we focused on”.
“As far as plans for the current spring go, we’ve had so many different ones that we have gone through and they’ve all had merit plus or minus one way or another. So, we’ve decided to do a bit of everything. We are still going to purchase water (which we have) because we basically over-sowed 70% of our pasture as we got a good establishment rate and need to ensure ongoing growth. Additionally, to boost over-sown pasture yields, we plan to use a lot more nitrogen (urea) because that’s probably the only thing that hasn’t really gone up in price; water prices have increased, hay prices have increased but fertiliser hasn’t. With that in mind, we are still going to purchase hay, and as I indicated earlier we’ve increased our grain. So, a combination of buying in water and fertiliser and feed sooner rather than later is our focus over spring to get us right through hopefully until next autumn”.
“Regarding our level of exposure to a dry spring, having done our financial budgets, yes it does come out as a negative for that time of the season but it’s not as bad as I was expecting. We looked at cutting milker numbers right back and we’ve been through all those scenarios, but at this stage have decided to maintain our herd other than what we would normally cull any way. Really for us the best strategy is still to go forward, looking after the milkers we’ve got and keeping numbers as high as possible given that our two sons are at home and keen to stay in dairying.”
“Buying all our irrigation water now in addition to nitrogen fertiliser and hay is the main plan. Regarding purchasing water particularly, if you just buy enough water for one or two months at a time, you don’t know what’s ahead price-wise. Water price could double what it is and just blow any other plans and budget out of proportion. So, we’ll lock in buying our water now (we have locked in that cost) and if prices come back, well that’s an opportunity lost but at least it’s not blowing our budget if it goes the other way. I am comfortable with such a mitigation strategy approach as I believe certainty going forward is the best strategy. If you are uncertain about what’s going to happen, you just can’t plan. It just puts you under too much risk and pressure. Then your level of anxiety goes up and everything else goes pair shaped - basically living from day to day. I find that if you lock things in, then you’ve got certainty as well as security and if things are uncertain then there’s a lack of security. In our case, we know what our costs are going to be as we’ve planned for them and we accept those costs.”