Nestled away in a corner of Gunbower Island is the most northern dairy farm in the Campaspe Shire, owned and operated by Stephen and Brooke Brown, just a few kilometres out of Gunbower, Vic.
Gunbower Island is formed by the Murray River and the Gunbower Creek, a natural anabranch of the river, which is used for carrying irrigation water. The supply of the water is provided by the Torrumbarry Weir, and the level is determined by a series of weirs within the creek.
This is one of the most productive patches of dairy land in the region, and Mr Brown uses lucerne as a summer grazing crop. His philosophy is that with the price and availability of irrigation water he needs to utilise this commodity as profitably as possible.
The hot summers of this region make it difficult to grow productive summer pasture and retain the persistence of perennial ryegrasses.
The Browns farm 110 hectares and with a Torrumbarry system water entitlement milk 230 spring-calving Jersey cows.
Mr Brown, like so many other irrigation dairyfarmers, takes the opportunity to buy temporary water as well and relates to the principle of three megalitres of water per cow milked. "The ideal water entitlement for our farm would be 500 megalitres as that would guarantee us a constant and reliable figure for budgeting," he said.
His irrigation spacing varies from 10 to 20+ days depending on the time of the year, the temperatures, the rainfall and the performance of the pastures. For example, two strong rainfalls in mid and late November of 40 and 94 millimetres respectively saved him an estimated 50-60 megalitres of irrigation water and by great fortune occurred at a favourable time for him.
"It was a bit of a nuisance at the time as we were doing hay, but the lucerne benefitted tremendously," he said.
The farm is supplied via an upgraded backbone channel and the variable speed pump is set to deliver about 15 millilitres per day.
There are future plans by the Goulburn Murray Water Connections to further upgrade his supply via a 500-millimetre pipe to a new site where a new 315 KVA transformer is already set up.
The Browns also plan to build a new rotary dairy at that site when opportunity and finances permit. Presently the cows are milked in a nine-a-side herringbone dairy.
The farm is an extraordinary property. There is not an irrigation channel in sight, the whole farm is pipe-and-riser, the laneways are beautifully built up and wide, all the fence lines are straight and all 28 paddock are the same size, planned for 250 cows, except a couple where natural tree stands were left in place.
Many other native and planted trees are on the farm. It is a tremendous credit to the Browns.
They explained that when they bought the existing dairy farm on a walk-in walk-out basis they decided to layout the whole farm. The surveys were done and the first section comprised 25ha, including a re-use system.
Two later sections were done with the last section completing the farm. "It cost an arm and a leg but in the end, it has been worth it," Mr Brown said.
A big advantage of this property is the beautiful soil types of all Cohuna fine sandy loam and good slopes.
The pastures are strong with a persistence of grasses and clovers and the lucerne paddocks respond well to grazing and irrigation. The cows are never grazed on lucerne at night and even when grazing during the day, Mr Brown sprays the paddocks with water-soluble bloat oil on the morning of grazing.
A little diesel Fergy is permanently set up with the spray unit and it takes less time to spray than to get in the cows. Mr Brown admitted to a bad overcast and slight breezy day when he lost two cows and in removing the dead animals he also spiked the tractor tyre on a fallen tree. This was a bad day he admitted and rues the loss of those two animals as they were two of his best (naturally) and were strong grazers.
The cows are fed a pellet ration in the dairy, which incorporates Rumensin as well as Terrick bloat oil, but Mr Brown said he felt safer when he sprayed.
He also admits to the difficulty in maintaining pure lucerne stands with grazing. The couch grass and other grasses are invasive and the future plans are to renovate some paddocks on a regular basis. He said it is worthwhile persisting with lucerne as the rewards were excellent.
The paddocks are all lasered to drain to the reuse system. The pump there is connected to the pipe-and-riser and at times of using the reuse and irrigation pump, Mr Brown has access to nearly 30ml per day flows.
The natural trees on the channel side of the farm are occasionally irrigated from the pipe-and-riser, and an outlet in the tree belt ensures these trees are maintained, which is a wonderful initiative by the Browns. A lovely feature of their home is an outdoor relaxing area with a barbecue bench of yellow box. The beautiful kitchen table is also yellow box. All were made by Peter Steel of Kerang Red Gum Furniture. The original logs were laying on the property at the time of purchase.
The farm borders the Gunbower Island National Park and Mr Brown has erected a two-metre high eight-strand fence with several hot wires incorporated to deny access to the pastures by kangaroos.
The Browns have a leased block of 25ha just down the road, which
is also available to the milkers when required.
The couple has four children, who all happily take part in the farm activities.
The pair led interesting and hard-working lives before taking on farming.
Mr Brown, who is nearing mid-50s, was active in construction in various ways and at one time worked in the Queensland mines on a fly-in fly-out basis for five years while Mrs Brown is skilled in office administration.
They appear to be good financial managers and feel the right decision has been made to go farming. Both came from farming backgrounds initially.
The young cattle are all depastured on Mrs Brown's father's non-dairy farm towards Echuca with the replacement heifers returning at calving time.
The Browns bought their Gunbower Island property on a walk-in walk-out basis about 15 seasons ago. Mr Brown said he thought this was the last farm in the district to bought like this, and the original Jersey herd has been added to and developed into what is now a lovely herd of cows.
The herd is producing close to 4000 litres per day and except for a few dry cows, all calve in spring.
The dry autumn-calving cows are there to qualify for the Murray Goulburn company winter initiative with milk volume.
Mr Brown said the pipe-and-riser system made irrigating easier and more convenient and said he might not irrigate all his ground if it was more difficult.
The irrigation supply channel has a long history and according to Mr Brown was the original water supply to Cohuna 120 years ago.
The initial layout and development of the farm was paid for by the Browns with some assistance via irrigation upgrades helping in the latter stages to complete the whole farm.D