When Josh Balcombe, from Warrion, Victoria, signed up as a participant in the Improving Herds project in 2015, little did he know he was arming himself with a valuable tool for tackling a season with unimaginable challenges.
Josh and his parents, Fiona and Mick, milk up to 350 cows a year in a split-calving herd, supplying Fonterra.
They began dairying in April 2014, buying cows from a variety of sources.
In 2015 Josh was invited to be one of seven ImProving Herds Focus Farms to explore how herd test data makes a difference to farm management decisions.
None of the farms were herd testing before and most received six months of free herd recording and support in interpreting the report.
The Improving Herds team tracked the focus farmers' experiences and monitored changes to decision making and the financial impact of using herd test data.
Josh said he was glad he jumped at the opportunity and started herd recording in October last year.
"Our farm relies heavily on bought-in feed so we were interested in being able to monitor each individual cow's performance and making sure she was paying her way in terms of milk response to supplementary feed," Josh said.
"Then we had a drought and milk price drop so we had to make decisions about culling cows mid-season.
"Without the herd recording data, we would have just been guessing which cows to cull.
"One of the things I've learnt from herd recording is that a cow may look like a superstar but only be doing 10 or 15 litres a day," he said.
As the dry season persisted, Josh identified cows to cull mid-lactation based on production levels and cell count.
"When Fonterra announced the lower milk price, I went straight to the herd test results and identified about 23 cows to cull; mainly empty cows that weren't performing.
"I also dried off a few cows early; low production cows that are due to calve in September."
When each set of results arrived, Josh looked at both herd and individual cow records.
"I am always interested to see how the top and bottom 10 per cent of the herd are performing," he said.
He also found herd test results valuable for improving mastitis management. Although the herd's bulk milk cell count (BMCC) is consistently under 100,000, Josh has been able to identify individual cows for treatment.
"Most of them responded well, but a few of them didn't come good so we culled them," he said.
"Herd recording is the only concrete way you can do this."
The Balcombes herd test every second month in the evenings, using electronic milk meters.
"The herd test milking session is pretty smooth; it takes about half an hour longer than usual but it's no extra stress because James (Beasley) from HICO is in the dairy taking care of the samples," Josh said.
But Josh admits getting set up for herd recording in the first place took considerable effort, which was made easier by having the support from HICO.
"Because our cows originated in a variety of herds, their ear tag numbers were all over the place," he said.
"We removed them all and started again and we freeze branded them as well."
Setting up cow records in Mistro Farm 5 was also quite an undertaking.
"HICO staff came out during a milking and entered the basic information on the cows as they came through the dairy," Josh said. "Most of the cows we bought came with little or no records, so we had to guess their ages and some of the other details."
These days, Josh maintains the herd's records on Mistro and says herd recording has made him more motivated to keep them up to date, to ensure he gets the most value from the reports.
"It's definitely been worth the effort," Josh said.
Improving Herds is a Gardiner Foundation project lead by the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resource and supported by Dairy Australia, Australian Dairy Herd Improvement Scheme, National Herd Improvement Association and Holstein Australia.D
Contact: ADHIS extension and education manager Michelle Axford, phone 0427 573 330, email or .