This season is improving on the past few years for Frank and Fiona Mills, with moisture in the ground at all their farms and feed to carry their entire herd through winter.
“It’s looking good,” Mr Mills said.
“You need water, warmth and sun to grow grass. We’ve got the moisture in the ground and, while the warmth has now gone and growth has slowed, we’ve still got the sun and a bit of grass growing.”
The couple runs two herds across two dairy farms at Kilmany, a total of 330ha of country. The herd is split into milking as early and later lactating cows.
“The 340 early lactaters are milked at the home farm, in a 30-double-up rapid-exit dairy,” Mrs Mills said.
“Late lactaters are milked at the second farm, using a 17-double-up dairy with cup removers.“
They also have an out-block at Perry Bridge for growing out heifers and steers.
They employ three full-time and one part-time workers. Their four teenage children also have responsibilities around the farm – helping feed-out silage, raise calves and check irrigation.
Average production is 3.6 million litres, milking 546 predominantly British Friesian cows, the remainder crossbred with Jersey and Normande genetics. The split-calving herd is joined for two cycles of artificial insemination followed by bulls purchased from Solney British Friesian Stud at Cloverlea.
Depending on their size, heifers are joined to Jersey or Friesian bulls. The aim is to have 50 per cent of the herd calving from January 20 and the remainder from August 10.
The four children – Xavier, Aden, Rohanna and Logan – raise some Jersey-cross heifers to sell at point-of-calving. Mrs Mills raises the Friesian heifers for the herd.
The dryland farm at Perry Bridge is used to grow-out steers to two years old. This farm has the capacity to graze 400 steers, the self-replacement heifers and an 80-head Angus breeding herd.
For several decades now, they have sold their milk to Parmalat, now Lactalis Australia.
The past three years of drought in central Gippsland has seen them incur additional expenses, especially sourcing fodder and extra irrigation water, that has increased their debt level.
“The extra cost of drought was $0.25 million, against the milk price,” Mr Mills said.
“But your costs are exponentially higher because you’ve got to look after the cows. We chased silage so we had the production volume.”
In the 2018-19 financial year, production dropped 20 per cent across the farms.
Last season, Mr and Mrs Mills sold some of their heifers into the export market and sold older cows out of the milking herds.
“We made the decision to dry-off cows that hit a lower production target of 12 litres/day,” Mrs Mills said.
“We sold some that were in-calf, we sold three-teaters, those with mastitis and cows with black feet.”
“It was a good chopper price, so we got rid of anything underperforming. We also sold 60 heifers, 180kg, to the export market, for $1600 each,” Mr Mills said.
Bringing the herd down to 520 milkers, including first-calving heifers, helped cut their grain feed bill – they reduced the grain ration by half, to 5kg/cow/day for the remaining milking cows.
They also ran the two milking herds as one for grazing and milking purposes.
“We did this because we put all the heifers on the other farm, to save on feed,” Mrs Mills said.
Without enough pasture at the Perry Bridge farm, most steers were sold as five-day-old calves. A mixed-age group of 120 steers last year were being fed rye-grass silage and straw bales every second day.
Mr and Mrs Mills invested in additional irrigation water on the dairy farms.
Production is driven by utilising runoff through a series of drains connected to a 30Ml lagoon, where the water is re-used on 202ha of pasture through three pivot sprays and flood irrigation.
They use a 389Ml licence to pump water from the nearby Latrobe River into the lagoon, year-round, as well as accessing 300Ml of drain water through CG Number Two Nambrok.
This water is used to irrigate, through the pivot sprays, 86ha of the farm for cropping country, which is turned into chopped silage to be mixed with straw in the feeder wagon.
Soils are a mix of red sandy loam “that responds well to irrigation” and grey sandy loam “that responds well to fertiliser and irrigation,” Mrs Mills said.
Deep into the drought, they were feeding out nine-year-old silage from the bunkers in winter last year.
“It was perfect all the way to the top. By the end of August last year, we’d fed out our two years of drought reserve,” Mr Mills said.
Last year, they bought 800Ml extra irrigation water in March and April, released out of Blue Rock Dam, to combat summer heatwaves, a short autumn and the ongoing drought.
Buying 200Ml cost them more than three times the normal rate and it was used within three weeks, irrigating pasture for the milking herds. Pushing pasture growth on the irrigated country cost an extra 30 per cent in fertiliser.
But this season, with kinder weather and improved prices, is a turnaround in business.
In January, they spent $160,000 on 1100 straw bales and pit silage “to get us through”. They hardly touched it because rain in February started turning the business around.
Already this year, Mr Mills is building up the drought reserve. Two months ago, he sowed 50ha of new pasture and wheat country at Kilmany to graze over winter and cut for silage.
“If we get more rain, we’ll cut for hay too,” he said.
He sowed 120ha of new pasture at Perry Bridge, to cut for silage and then grow again for hay.
Last month he harvested 25ha of irrigated maize as silage and recently cultivated and sowed that country to annual rye-grass, which will also be harvested as silage.
Culling older cows in the past couple of years has opened the way for the retained heifers to move into the herd this season, building numbers to 550-plus.
“We have plenty of young stock coming into the herd in the spring,” Mr Mills said.
They have split the herd again, milking out of both dairies, which has brought their costs down. They took up a new lease on a dryland turnout block 4km from the home dairy farm, where 140 heifers and 35 steers graze.
The Perry Bridge farm has grown pasture since February and is now stocked with 40 autumn-drop steers, 150 spring calves, 120 joined Friesian heifers and the 80 Angus cows.
“We only just started feeding silage to the milking herd in late May,” Mr Mills said.
“We can spread the herd and young stock out more.
“We have more scope to grow silage and get a bit of drought reserve built up again. We can rear the steers to be bigger.
“We’ve got moisture in the ground now.”