Reconfiguring their farm into a higher producing pasture-based system has been behind the earthworks and irrigation installation undertaken by Stephen and Jess Knight, Stratford, in Victoria.
The couple milk a herd of 300 Friesian-Jersey cross cows in an 18-swingover herringbone, off 100 hectares of irrigated country, producing 550 kilograms milk solids per cow annually.
In 2016, the herd consumed 1.9 tonnes/cow of bought-in feed. "We're looking to decrease that to 1.5 tonnes/cow by increasing pasture consumption," Mr Knight said.
The enterprise is split-calving, with 70 per cent of the milkers returning to the herd in autumn. "Seventy per cent of the cows calve down in autumn to make the most of when we know we'll have grass and offset the risk of a poor spring and summer," he said.
They also lease 120ha dry country to grow heifers and fodder crops. "Adding the leased land enabled us to grow the herd from 220 to 300 cows," Mr Knight said.
They employ a part-time milker Monday to Friday, so Mr Knight can undertake the machinery work to grow the extra pasture, as well as manage the farm.
The Knights bought the farm at Stratford and moved onto it two-and-a-half years ago, after employment on other dairy farms in worker and management roles.
In year one, 70ha of the farm was irrigated by flood irrigation and bike-shift laterals.
The property has a 350-megalitre (ML) seasonal and 350ML groundwater irrigation right. The seasonal water right has high and low reliability and is flow dependent from the Avon River. A pivot has since been installed, along with a lateral spray unit to irrigate about 25ha and laser grading has enabled flood irrigation.
Mr Knight attended a two-day irrigation workshop at Maffra, Victoria, earlier this year to refresh his knowledge and explore new ideas.
"I wanted to find out if there were advancements in knowledge that could make a difference," he said.
"For example, what new knowledge is there about the triggers to irrigate - knowing when, where and how much to irrigate?
"We suspected we knew what we were doing, converting flood to spray irrigation. The workshop helped reinforce that for us."
He said he was mostly attracted to the practical component of the workshop, focusing on mechanics of irrigation and laying out systems.
"That was on day two - it was very worthwhile," Mr Knight said.
The farm's soil type - sandy loam - has high permeability. However, significant earthworks were needed to fill in dams and reshape the landscape, to convert from 15ha of flood irrigation and 26ha of dry country, to 41ha of resown pasture under the pivot.
"Because of the high permeability, the water was not getting to the root zone," Mr Knight said.
"Twelve thousand cubic metres of earth was moved with a laser grader, building and defining drains and filling in dams and stock watering holes under the intended pivot watering area.
"Laterals and pivots allow you to get the best bang for your buck. Now, one metre down, you can see the soil profile is full."
The pivot is fed from a storage dam, filled from bores. "Hopefully that will keep us going through summer when the drain is no longer available," Mr Knight said.
He has sown chicory and red clover as a summer crop, irrigated by the pivot and directly grazed. "That's our source of high energy feed in the summer," Mr Knight said.
Pasture silage is harvested opportunely. "We aim for one tonne per cow on both the irrigated and dry country, but it's opportune fodder conservation," Mr Knight said.
When setting up the pivot spray, Mr Knight also sought information about the best propulsion.
"We looked at nozzle and jet pressures; and also tyre pressure - the factory recommends tyres are maintained at 45psi, but this creates wheel ruts and you find yourself managing hard traffic areas," he said. "We changed them down to 15psi."
At the same time, he spoke to his local irrigation and farm equipment merchandiser who recommended incorporating a spring-wire system in his new fences to enable the pivot irrigator to pass through the fences but, being electrified, impede cows' progress.
"When we reconfigured the paddocks, we had four paddocks and two troughs and every fence came down for the pivot," Mr Knight said. "We now have nine paddocks and nine troughs and we've put in about 2km of stock water line and a new laneway."
The nine paddocks under the pivot are 100m wide by 500m long. Mr Knight intends to increase the capacity of the 12ML holding dam.
His choice of aluminium for the main line was influenced by the farm next door.
"On the neighbouring farm where I worked, they had aluminium for about 15 years and their centre pivots haven't rusted from the bore water," he said. "For me it was a no-brainer.
"I went the manual option for the pivot, because I'm always out moving a lateral spray and it's no hassle to go over and flick it on.
"It's improved efficiencies. There's no temporary fences and there's no backgrazing. Every cow has access to fresh water, with automatic filling on the troughs - they don't have to fight to get water, which is producing less stress in the cows."
Even with the low return on milk prices, this Murray Goulburn supplier is positive about doing the work.
"Doing this wasn't easy on a sub-$5 milk price, but we got there," Mr Knight said.
"Our focus in doing this was to maintain milking numbers and production, increase reliance on home-grown feed and reduce the quantity of imported feed. If we can grow an extra 100 tonne, it soon pays for itself."D
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