Matching Breeding Goals & Pasture Growth for Increased Productivity

Pasture is still the major input on most Australian dairy farms in 2020. However, pasture as a percentage of the cow’s total diet has been declining over the past 20 years. It is no surprise to see that productivity growth in the industry has averaged 0% over the ten-year period to 2017-18 (Measurement of profitability on Australian dairy farms. Australian Dairy Plan February 2020).

Productivity growth refers to an increase in the value of total outputs for a given level of inputs over a specified period. It is important to note that increased productivity is not the same as simply increasing production. Productivity is about efficiency.

At the recent 2020 Dairy Research Foundation Symposium, the opening speaker, Professor Bill Malcolm was asked to give his reasons as to why productivity growth had stagnated.  Bill replied by saying “productivity growth will occur if we aim to maximise milk solids produced from your farming system by maximising home-grown pasture consumption from your fixed assets (land). We need to produce as many kilograms of milk solids as we can up to the point where the income from the last kilogram of milk solids just equals the additional costs of producing it. Research and development and pasture/animal genetics will not drive productivity on their own”.

We must recognise that there are many farming systems across Australia, however for those dairy farmers running pasture-based systems, how do we realign pasture demand and growth? Is it possible to revert to a seasonal calving strategy? And could this lead to greater on farm efficiencies and ultimately drive productivity growth?

NSW dairy farmer, Justin Walsh addressed these issues in his presentation to the 2020 DRF Symposium. Justin openly talks about getting the on-farm settings right to control risk and drive profit. His four big settings include feed, pasture growth curve, calving pattern, and stocking rate. Justin said, it is the interaction of these four big settings that will make us more efficient. We need to grow wealth over time and passion alone will not pay the bills.

In May 2019, agCap entered into a twelve-month management agreement with a South Western Victoria dairy farmer. The farm comprises approximately 330 effective milking ha’s and 610 autumn calving cows. Over previous years of operations, the calving period on the farm had been pushed later into the growing season, had become spread over five months and total milk production from similar levels of inputs had declined.

agCap approached this with a simple process of learn – commit – do – review.

  1. Learn – agCap identified the problem, the potential solutions, and developed strategies
  2. Commit – buy in to the strategies was obtained from the farm owner, farm manager, local veterinarian, and the AI technician
  3. Do – the strategy was carried out by the farm manager, the farm vet, and the AI technician
  4. Review – the entire process was reviewed 12 months later
  • Learn

    agCap recognised this problem in April 2019 as an opportunity to improve processes and reduce costs for the farm management team. The calving period had spread to a start date of 1 May and an end date of 1 October. Ideally, the calving period would be completed in under ten weeks and would start 1 April the following year.

  • Commit

    Once the plan was created, the next step was to socialize the plan and obtain ‘buy in’ from the farm veterinarian, the farm owner, and the farm manager.

  • Do

    The first goal in 2019 was to ensure that most cows had calved prior to the start of the AI program.
    This did involve some ‘one off’ calving inductions. The start of mating was then brought forward by two weeks to enable calving in 2020 to commence mid-April.

    Together with the farm manager and AI technician, Leo Bydevaate (Tasmania) the team developed a breeding program focused on three weeks of AI. Cows were partially synchronized with PG and GnRH, however the key to the program was natural heat detection using two forms of heat identification – tail paint and bulling beacons.  Cows that had not cycled by day 15 were synchronized using a CIDR and GnRH program. At day 21, a further seven days of AI on observation of heat commenced. In total, 21 days of AI were completed.

    The strategy was implemented, and good bull numbers and management ultimately resulted in a six week in calf rate of 78%.

  • Review

    Twelve months on, the results are impressive. The graph below (Figure 1) shows the effect of moving the calving pattern forward and condensing the calving spread.

The result has been to better align the milk production curve to pasture growth. In this example, we have used the recent 20 year mean monthly rainfall curve as a proxy for pasture growth. Milk production in the high cost autumn period has been moved to lower cost periods where there is a higher chance of adequate pasture growth.

The progress on this farm of shifting the milk production curve to better align with pasture growth should lead to productivity improvement. In practical terms, this could mean more milk solids produced with less inputs. However, like most things in life, to repeat these results and move calving forward another two weeks, it will require hard work and dedication by the whole farm team. Maintaining a focus on the end goal should ultimately continue to improve productivity on this farm over the ensuing years.

Wolfie Wagner

CEO agCap Pty Ltd