Australian Dairy Industry Study Tour

On the surface there are few similarities between farming in the UK and farming in Australia.  However, with the future of subsidies uncertain post-Brexit, and the whole world facing a changing climate, there are lessons to learn from the dairy industry in countries which are already in the midst of these challenges.

Victoria’s industry is predominantly one of extensive, grass-based farms with block calving systems.  Cattle are cross-bred or Friesian types, concentrate use is low, and silage is fed to buffer the hottest part of the summer as well as the coolest parts of the winter.  On the farms I visited cattle lived out all year round, from the 45 degree highs seen in the summer to below freezing temperatures in the winter.  Near the New South Wales border there is an irrigation zone, and there are farms which have intensified, taken on indoor systems, and rely heavily on imported grain.

With its temperate climate and grass-growing ability Victoria arguably has production similarities to the UK.  There I visited two different family farms, one owned and managed by Nuffield scholar Aubrey Pellett, and the other a farm recently converted to once a day production.  Both businesses emphasised the importance of performance recording, and maximising milk production from grass.  The Pelletts are one of a growing number of autumn calving systems in the state.  As such they no longer participate in discussion groups or benchmarking, but carefully analyse performance compared to previous years.  Grass budgeting was done on the “three stalk principle” rather than a wedge produced with a plate meter, and a particularly Australian issue they faced was losing grass to kangaroos and wallabies!

In Victoria I also visited the Ellinbank Dairy Research Station, a state-funded centre that carries out research in various aspects of dairy science and business.  Much of this research has been on heat stress in cattle, feed conversion efficiencies, reducing methane emissions, and general farm economics.  There are no nitrate directives in Victoria, or requirements to manage emissions, and any plans to do so were shelved during the depression of milk prices.  The over-arching theme of the research seemed to be to maximise milk production from grass while avoiding feed waste and adverse environmental effects.  The state government runs an extension programme to educate farmers; the number of businesses aware of their cost of production and cash needs is not as high as it could be.

A four-hour flight from Melbourne, Cairns is a city deep in the wet tropics.  Here the primary agricultural industries are sugar cane and bananas.  However, an hour inland there is a thriving dairy area, providing the state with liquid milk.  The Atherton Tablelands are cooler and drier than the coastal region, and tropical grass competes with the encroachment of the cleared rainforest.  As unlikely as it would seem, there are a number of high-yielding Holstein herds in the area, using the same sires as their pedigree equivalents in the UK and America.  One of these was Our Way Holsteins, a herd owned and managed by the Daley family.  Their herd of 280 cattle grazed a home platform of 305ha (including rainforest), and youngstock and tack heifers grazed some 445ha of irrigated off-lying land.  Temperate grass struggles to grow and compete with the indigenous tropical grass, therefore it is the latter that the cattle graze.  Fences are moved midday to encourage cattle to graze in the heat, trees are planted to provide shelter, but it was noticeable that residuals were high and grass utilisation was far lower than what was observed in Victoria.  Alongside grass the milking herd were fed 7kg a day of a mix of wheat, maize, rape, and minerals.  Transition cattle were fed a waste product of the cotton industry.  The family were keen on performance recording and reported that since they had invested in their grassland, production had increased 22% to the 7,000 litres seen today.  While this is significantly below what high-yielding Holsteins on a UK system would produce, I thought it was commendable given the conditions that these cattle lived in.  Temperatures in the dry season are typically over 30 degrees every day, and fertility becomes a real issue during the hottest months.  The wet brings its own difficulties with flooding and the aftermath of coastal cyclones.  All cattle tracks were concreted to avoid them being washed away in heavy rain, and cattle are sprayed for ticks every three weeks.  Being so close to the rainforest brings a range of other dangers; poisonous plants that creep onto pasture, and the threat of wild dog attacks on young heifers.  To prevent the latter the Daleys graze donkeys with their smallest calves.  The farm falls within the Great Barrier Reef Catchment Zone, the closest Australia gets to NVZs.  The state government has decided to encourage farmers into better practice rather than to force it and offers 50% funding for effluent storage improvements and for the establishment of cover crops.  The Daleys are considering peanuts and alternative legumes as protein sources and to fixate nitrogen; clover like ryegrass is outcompeted by the dominant tropical grasses.

Following deregulation many businesses in Queensland have sought to add value to their liquid milk through the production of yoghurt and selling their milk based on their providence and sustainability.  I visited two such farms; Mungalli Creek in the Tablelands, and Maleny Dairies near Brisbane.  Mungalli is a well- known Australian business, selling a range of liquid milk, yoghurts, and cheese, under their own biodynamic brand and the Misty Mountains Channel Island sister brand.  The sister brand works for herds in organic conversion and provides an output for milk during this time.  They own a number of farms, as well as buying in milk from a few neighbours.  Biodynamic hens are also kept, and the business runs a hen and dairy bull calf adoption scheme.  Legislation in Australia means that adopting bull calves is very much possible for the smallholder or anyone with a large garden, and both Mungalli and Maleny interweave this into clever cruelty-free marketing schemes.  However, when questioned, staff at Maleny could not answer whether all of their supply farms had this adoption scheme in place, or whether it was just the main farm that holds educational tours.  Both farms emphasise educating the public, marketing sustainable produce, and championing local heritage and milk quality.  Both businesses show the potential of adding value to milk and using trends and consumer consciousness to sell milk above the market price to local shops and restaurants.  Maleny is also reasonably close to Brisbane and the tourism hub around Australia Zoo and the Sunshine Coast, while Mungalli is a couple of hours inland from Cairns and the barrier reef attractions, and is situated in the wet tropics UNESCO world heritage site.

The trip ended with a visit to the University of Queensland’s Gatton campus, where they have a high-yielding herd of Holsteins producing milk on a TMR system.  They have a strong emphasis on reducing heat stress through sprinkle systems and cooling aids in the parlour.  Low yielding cattle had access to pasture, but fresh cows were kept on dirt pads under a roof.  Any slurry was scraped up daily, allowed to dry, and spread on pasture.  Grass was irrigated, and dirty water was also passed through this system as fertiliser.

I then went to Gregie Dennis’s Scenic Rim robot farm, where milk is processed on site and sold locally.  In contrast to Mungalli and Maleny this company did not employ any cruelty-free or sustainability-based marketing techniques, but offered farm tours and demonstrations to local schools and groups.  Greg Dennis has recently self- published a book and has a YouTube channel, where he speaks about the “dairy crisis” in Australia.  Of all the businesses I visited this was the only one that had this attitude.

The overall impression in Australia was of a two-tier system; block calving farms in Victoria emphasising low-input systems and tight cost management to maximise their profits, and liquid milk producers in Queensland looking to increase their milk price through adding value or maximising production and generally paying less attention to benchmarking and their own costs structure.  While the climate and scale of Australian production is difficult at times to translate to the UK industry, there are important lessons to learn about marketing, diversification, and making a farming system fit to local conditions.

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Posted in Carmarthen, Dairy & Forage.