The floodplain around Kerang and Swan Hill in north-west Victoria is dotted with depressions and surrounding windblown lunettes. Some of these depressions are quite extensive and are filled with water via flooding of the rivers that converge into this region. Others are used by Goulburn Murray Water for irrigation water storage purposes. Lake Boga is one of these.
Paul and Sally Bethune, principals of Lake Boga Pastoral, run their dairy farm between this lake and the Murray River at Winlaton about 10 kilometres from Swan Hill, with the Little Murray being the northern boundary of their 800-hectare dairy property.
The Bethunes milk about 950 cows, calving twice a year on two farms with the farms growing only annual pastures. The surplus from spring growth is conserved as silage and hay.
The hotter drier months are catered for with a feedpad and silage/hay mix with a grains ration in the bail. Mr Bethune said that they provide and mill their own grain and the additives are supplied by Franklin Grains.
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Their property also contains lunettes and the bulk of the grass is grown in the basin between these, with irrigation water pumped on to the flat area of that basin from the Little Murray.
The property consists of district farms amalgamated since 1946 with Mr Bethune's grandfather and father preceding him to get to this existing set up.
One of those properties provided the couple with a pipe-and-riser irrigation system, while the rest is open channels and gravity irrigation and reuse systems.
The Bethunes have five young boys and are consolidating and customising the property into the set up that will be of greatest benefit into the future. Mrs Bethune said: "We have not reached our sweet spot with cow numbers and this will eventually show itself".
The cows are milked in a 100-unit rotary, which was completed last January and is built on one of the high spots on the farm. The reason for the new shed is that the milking time in the previous herringbone took up to four hours. This was deemed not sustainable so the plans came about to go rotary.
Mr Bethune said he admitted it was a success, although he said he had not been a strong advocate for rotary dairies at first.
The herd is a mix of Holstein and Jersey and crossbreds and is artificially bred to Holstein, Jersey and Angus. The use of sexed semen is extensive and quite successful with Nugenes providing the service.
All the heifer and beef calves are reared with dairy bulls sold as bobby calves. The calf-rearing area is a kilometre way with good yards and shelter provided.
There is some leased land included in the business as well as cattle and replacements on agistment. Another dairy farm is leased near Kerang, about 50km away.
There are two 250,000-litre water tanks on site with one for dairy and fire emergency and one for rainwater storage.
Mr Bethune said when the new dairy was being planned, the management of effluent and its use on farm was an important consideration. The site of the farm on a flood plain increased the importance of drainage and effluent disposal.
The milking platform has a fall to the front of the cows with a spoon drain and drainage via 100-millimetre pipe at every six cow placings to a drain at the operator's feet all around the platform skirting.
From there all liquid goes via a 300mm underground pipe to the pond. The yards and shed are all washed down with strategically placed Yard Blasters.
The excavated dirt from the effluent ponds was used for the base of the dairy building. The site overlooks most of the property and raising the building site even higher was important on the floodplain.
The excavation created two sizable partly above-ground dams. "When we started, we just kept digging to raise the building site to a greater height and that's how we got to the size of the ponds," Mr Bethune said.
The ponds are close to 75 metres long. The second (aerobic) pond is estimated to hold 8 megalitres of liquid. The first (anaerobic) pond is slightly narrower but equal in length. This has a beautiful crust of seemingly solid manure material covering it and a 300mm pipe with a T-section allows liquid from under the crust to overflow into the second pond.
This second pond has another 300mm overflow pipe to the farm irrigation channel. Although the shed had been operational since January (nine months at the time of writing) the liquid level had not yet reached that pipe and is in fact still at least a metre below.
The feature of this pond is its size but also a fixed tractor-driven pump that can and will be used to pump liquid to the farm irrigation channel.
Mr Bethune said intimated they would soon use this pump as the opportunity to do so and mix effluent with irrigation water will soon be gone as irrigation ceases for this season.
He said they were not willing to allow the liquid levels to rise too high and was keen to use the pump.
Another feature of the structure is the double fencing around the ponds. The outer fence is three electric wire and the inner is 750mm apart and seven wires permanent fenced. This safety factor is impressive as many an animal has mistakenly thought the anaerobic pond crust to be solid and capable of bearing weight.
"We got a good amount of assistance of planning our effluent from Scott McDonald from Echuca Agriculture Victoria and he knows more about effluent than anyone I know," Mr Bethune said. He was invaluable gaining the necessary permits.
The farm and business employs 10 full, part time and casual labour units with most employees having been with the company for five-plus years.
Mr Bethune was born and bred on the farm and is a Dookie graduate, with Mrs Bethune originally from Yarram, Vic, but not from a dairying background. She said when she first arrived she asked herself why people would farm up here but has grown into the role and the region and is enthusiastic about the future.
The Bethunes Sally have some plans to add to their infrastructure to do some dairy manufacturing and value adding of their milk. They are hoping to have their first bottle of Little Murray Dairies milk on a shelf somewhere in about six months while the aim is to produce high-quality butter on a small scale.
Mr Bethune was awarded a Nuffield scholarship in 2003 and submitted his paper on 'Patterns of Profit in the Australian Dairy Industry' in 2005.
The property and business are impressive with good new infrastructure and enthusiastic and knowledgeable operators. The communication and machinery for employees are solid with a whiteboard showing "things to do this week" on the dairy shed wall.
Labour is available locally and Mr Bethune does not use backpackers; he prefers employees to be more Lake Boga based. One fascinating aspect of this region is the difference between cultivated irrigated land and the dry natural land. This certainly highlights the effect of good irrigation and allows a business like Lake Boga Pastoral to thrive.D
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