Australian dairyfarmers are missing out on the opportunity for more profit by not better managing their home-grown feedbase, according to Gardiner Dairy Foundation chair Dr Bruce Kefford.
But new research being undertaken by the foundation hopes to unlock the reasons why farmers are missing out.
Dr Kefford said the level of home-grown feed utilisation was a key indicator of dairy farm performance in Australia, particularly in a low price environment.
The Australian system was different to those in the United States and Europe, which had a higher emphasis on concentrate feeding and different pricing systems.
Home-grown feed utilisation on Australian dairy farms was hovering around six tonnes of dry matter (DM) per hectare - well below the 10+ tonnes/ha DM possible.
"If we could achieve a three tonne/ha improvement, it would be worth $200 million to the industry," he said.
"There is good evidence to suggest this is the most potent lever to improve farm performance."
The methods to improve higher home-grown feed utilisation were well known and readily available, so the foundation's new research was attempting to find out why this valuable information was not more widely used and what could be done to help farmers improve, Dr Kefford said.
The research, undertaken by Professor Geoff Cockfield, from the University of Southern Queensland, is the largest study of its type among dairyfarmers using a behavioural economics technique.
Prof Cockfield has undertaken the first part of the project: in-depth interviews and analysis with 150 dairyfarmers, plus advisers and discussion groups in the three Victorian dairy regions to understand the drivers of what a contemporary farmer does in home-grown feed management.
The three key findings are: Farmers know they could do better in terms of home-grown feed utilisation and it is an important driver. Consultants and scientists see the opportunity is bigger than farmers see it themselves. There are a number of contraints that prevent farmers taking up best practice.
The constraints include: Time pressures on the key farm manager. Resource limitations, for example needing a bigger facility to be able to better manage pasture. Dr Kefford said although farmers had identified this as a reason, he questioned whether this was really the case. "No matter how big your farm is, you could improve home-grown feed production and consumption over six tonnes," he said. Seasonal and market impacts increasing uncertainty and leading to delays in decision making. Cost savings that impact on feed production, for example deferred fertiliser applications. Not measuring pasture production. "Only half the farmers measure pasture production in any way and none of it is calibrated. And about a third of farmers do a back calculation from milk production," Dr Kefford said. Some farmers being more focused on animal performance than home-grown feed performance.
Dr Kefford said it was vital the Australian dairy industry tried to lift performance in this key area.
In the 1980s, overall production and production per cow doubled and production per hectare almost tripled but production was now flat or declining.
The second part of the project would look at better ways to get information to farmers and tools that could help.
This would include looking at technology such as satellites and drones that could be used to more quickly measure pasture production and tools that could then connect that information to a plan of grazing.
It would also look at phone apps that could be used or developed to help pasture management decision making.
"Tech-savvy farmers can't image doing work without a phone," Dr Kefford said.
It would also look at more traditional techniques such as discussion groups, which provided good opportunities for farmers in local areas to see improvements in performance from improved management.
A revamp of some of the industry programs in this area could also be part of the mix.
Dr Kefford said increasing price and seasonal volatility had created uncertainty for farmers and increased time pressure on them.
Managing low prices with high utilisation regimes meant farmers had to be on their toes for any downturn and to adjust quickly.
Better weather prediction tools helped with this.
The key was building the ability of farmer to be able to better respond to fluctations, he said.
The research was funded by Gardiner, Dairy Australia (DA) and the three Victorian DA Regional Development Programs.