Milking once-a-day meets production targets, minimises risk and creates an enjoyable work-life balance for David and Narelle Macalister, of Orbost. It has also kept them in the dairy industry.
This is the fifth season of milking once-a-day for the Macalisters. They have 160 medium-sized spring-calving Friesian-cross milkers, that run through a 20-a side herringbone dairy every morning. While the milking shift is longer now, ensuring the cows are milked out properly, it only occurs once a day.
David is full-time on the farm, Narelle is 0.5 and they call on three casual workers specifically for relief milking, fencing and machinery work.
“Once-a-day milking does make it easier to find casual labour,” Mr Macalister said.
“If you wanted, you could vary the time of milking to fit in with the availability of labour. You could shift your milking to late morning or middle of the day.
“You can access a different labour market.
“Or you can use other resources that are available. For example, using solar power during the day to run the dairy during milking and washdown, rather than rely on electricity from the grid. That, again, is about using resources.
“We still milk in the early morning, because it gives me the rest of the day to do other work on the farm; or spend time with the family.”
With three active teenagers in the family, there is a lot of sport; football and hockey in winter, cricket in summer and athletics at school. All of these require travelling long distances for district and regional competition.
“We’re also near the beach and in summer we like to go there in the evening,” Mr Macalister said.
“If I was milking, I couldn’t get to the boys’ sport or take time off to go to the beach. If we hadn’t switched to once-a-day milking, we wouldn’t still be in the dairy industry.”
It’s more than the work-life balance. Mr Macalister has also seen improvements in fertility and production in the past five years.
Joining rates through AI have risen from 50 per cent to 70 per cent successful. The joining period is shorter, now only 2.5 weeks, without using any synchronisation. Empty rate has reduced from 20 per cent to seven per cent.
Volume per cow has stabilised, with an average 19 litres/cow produced in spring.
Each cow receives a daily ration of 1kg of grain and produces 1.6kg milk solids daily; or a yield of 350kgMS/cow across the year. There are less under-performing cows to replace each year.
“We were using Friesian bulls for reproductivity and mop up, so we don’t have to buy them either. We now mop up with Angus bulls with good EBVs, with the focus on rearing calves,” Mr Macalister said.
“We’re very mindful of where the industry is heading around animal welfare. We want to only use as much AI as we need to get replacements, then use Angus bulls to rear cross-bred calves.
“We don’t use as much AI, because we only need to use 100 straws to get 65 cows in calf, giving 30 to 35 replacements.
“So we can concentrate on getting all those cows in AI that we want, over a shorter period of time. The reproductive saving is a big reason to move to once-a-day milking. Now you get better body condition on the cow.”
Those few cows in the seven per cent empty category are sold, with the focus being on keeping cows in the herd that have natural fertility.
Because the region has been in drought for more than two years, replacement heifers were held back from joining for an additional six months; which means they will calve in autumn, but will be milked through to synchronise for calving with the main herd 18 months later.
“It does mean we’ll be milking through the winter, so we’ll need to get in some casual labour to cover us taking time off for a family holiday next year. But it was better to hold the heifers back and join them in better condition,” Mr Macalister said.
All heifers are joined to Angus bulls.
When the heifers come into the herd next year, they will lift herd numbers to milking 200 cows. It is the same herd number they were milking before commencing once-a-day, around the same time as the Murray Goulburn crisis developed followed by drought in the past few years.
That upheaval is measured against the couple purchasing additional land three years ago and taking on another, family-owned, farm. But the additional land has given them options for grazing and making fodder.
The home farm is 80ha of river flat and 60ha of hill country. Two turnout paddocks, total 30ha, are used to grow out heifers and harvest silage and hay.
For five months each year, 15ha of the turnout country, on river flat, is leased to a company growing sweetcorn seed. Recently they added 21ha of the family farm to that lease.
“It gives us more flexibility and takes the risk out of farming for us,” Mr Macalister said.
“On the home farm, where the soil is sandy, we’re heavily reliant on an autumn break.
“The other country is better ground than the home farm. It’s on river frontage.
“The sweetcorn crop is irrigated regularly, so when they harvest it in late summer, the ground is often moist enough to sow an annual Italian rye grass bulked up with an oat crop, to harvest as silage in the spring. We don’t need to rely on an autumn break to help us grow feed on that country.”
He normally harvests 800 rolls of wrapped silage from that 36ha, which carries the herd through the year.
After 70mm of rain in early November this year, he not only has an extra grazing rotation on the home farm, but expects to harvest 150 rolls of hay later in the month.
“That’ll be enough hay to calve down the cows in late winter and spring. We shouldn’t have to buy fodder in the next year,” Mr Macalister said.
The home farm is largely kikuyu oversown with an annual. Silage is fed out in the paddock after milking. Sometimes a second bale is rolled out in the paddock late in the evening.
Overall, the couple will remain with once-a-day milking. Initial production loss has recovered; and herd health has improved.
“There’s also cost savings over time. There’s less laneway maintenance, because the cows are only travelling to the dairy and back once a day. There’s less fence maintenance.
“The obvious thing about once-a-day milking, is it’s an easier system on people and cows. Cows hold a little bit more condition,” Mr Macalister said.