Dry times demand coping strategies

THE BLACKSHAW partnership has invested as much as it can in safeguarding its dairy business against drought.

Those decisions are paying off, offering drought-proofing options as the Blackshaws begin farming in their third year of drought, at Romawi, East Gippsland.

Unfortunately, it also means reducing herd numbers and laying off workers.

Dennis and Maureen, and Rick and Tracy Blackshaw have been farming at Romawi since 2001, setting up their dairy on a greenfield 728 ha site. It came with an existing bore licensed to irrigate 31ha.

During the past couple of years, an additional bore and about $400 000 invested in overhead irrigation infrastructure has brought 206 ha into irrigated production, particularly crops and lucerne.

This summer, it means the milking herd is grazing irrigated pasture, providing a readily available protein source. Dry cows — the autumn calvers were taken out of the herd in early January — live in dryland paddocks and are part of the daily feed-out work.

The farm business has four areas of focus — the milking herd, self-replacing heifer calves, raising steers for the beef market and growing out heifers for the Chinese export market.

“We keep every calf and that enables me to choose when to sell them, adding cash flow to the business as we need it,” Rick Blackshaw said.

For the past couple of years, steers were sold regularly and more heifers were exported.

In 2018, Mr Blackshaw sold 130 steers — aged from four to 12 weeks old — at the end of October, in a bid to lighten the country. They were animals he would normally take through to 12 months old before selling.

“We also increased the numbers of heifers we sold to export to China, from 60 to 87,” he said.

Cows have been culled regularly. Before Christmas, Mr Blackshaw sold 30 cows that were empty or had histories of mastitis or high cell count, to lighten the load on feed and summer pasture.

“At joining, we also decided not to carry smaller heifers through — so two dozen of these were sold to China,” he said.

“The feed wasn’t there so we knew we were going to be reducing milking numbers. We’ve been culling consistently for 18 months.

“These decisions have all been a calculated ploy to lighten the load — both on the country, which is poor grazing where it’s not irrigated, and on the labour required to feed out.”

The last of Mr Blackshaw’s steers and export heifers were sold in January.

The herd, normally just over 1000 head, has reduced to 800.

“So far I’ve kept last year’s spring bulls. I’d like to sell them at 12 months, but with no autumn break I’ll sell them at six to seven-months old,” he said.

In the past couple of years, he has bought fodder and purchased overhead pivots and lateral sprays, supported by 22 km of underground piping.

“Between December 2017 and May 2018, we bought $104 000 of hay, paying up to $300/tonne.

“That tied in with crops ready to harvest for silage.

“But with another failed spring in 2018, we weren’t able to cut any hay.”

In a normal year, the 1000-head milking herd consumes 2200–2400 round bales of silage. In 2018, Mr Blackshaw and his workers harvested 360 bales.

There are currently some reserves of hay from the financial outlay last autumn. Irrigated lucerne will be harvested in January, before it is grazed.

Heifers for the milking herd and the Chinese export market are selected on maternal performance indicators. The Friesian herd is joined using AI, with a focus on improving genetics. It is a focus that has paid off in the milk vat.

“We use AI Friesian semen that’s from high performing families and we see the results in the vat,” Mr Blackshaw said.

The 1000 cows milked more than 3.5 million litres in 2014–15. In 2015–16, it was 2.93 million litres; in 2016–17, 2.96 million litres; and in 2017–18, the 800-head herd, with more autumn calvers, produced 2.97 million litres.

However, to January 1 this year production is 100 000 litres shy of the same time in 2018. Mr Blackshaw said production was a result of focusing on genetics to improve the herd’s performance.

“Culling was a priority action to combat drought,”

For now, he expects to be chasing water.

“We have 4.5 waterings left for the season. Even the irrigated crops and pasture are under stress. There’s no subsoil moisture,” Mr Blackshaw said.

“We’ve never had conditions this bad.”