VAN Dairy Group's Woolnorth Station has 25 dairy farms, with supporting cropping land, on a 19,000-hectare property. Twenty-one farms are operated by managers, two are sharefarmed and two are leased out. One additional property is used for rearing heifers and another grows fodder for the dairies as well as wintering spring calving cows when they are dry. Twenty-two of the farms are dryland.
Three of the farms are converting to Australian organic accreditation status.
Nine farms are spring calving, five farms are split calving and eight farms are autumn calving. "There are more autumn-calving farms because of the coastal climate and the calving period is based on pasture growth," acting general manager Hugo Avery said.
About 19,000 milkers produce 430kg milk solids per cow annually. The strategy is to grow the business to 20,000 milking cows, by growing more pasture and fodder.
One of the tools they use is the considerable history of weather data collected at the Bureau of Meteorology weather station at Cape Grim. "Knowing the historical weather data of the farm helps us to predict opportunities for pasture and forage crop growth," Mr Avery said.
Growth in the herd's size and milk-production capacity is being replicated across Woolnorth with a range of strategies - improving management and farm operator skills, pasture improvement, realigning boundaries and paddocks to be more productive and investing in genetics.
The breeding program is an intense program for cows, heifers and staff, Mr Avery said. "We use bulls that have traits that we want - easy calving, high fertility, good feet, sound udders in their cow families, good BPI (Balanced Performance Index)," he said.
Replacement two-year-old heifers are synchronised once and mated to artificially inseminated (AI) Jersey semen to encourage an easy calving. About 60 per cent of the heifers achieve a positive AI joining. Mop-up bulls are put in with the remaining 40 per cent for eight weeks.
"Progeny from the AI mating are reared as the genetic merit on average should be higher than the older cows," Mr Avery said. "We get around 95 per cent in-calf rate in the heifers overall."
Conventional cows are vet-checked about a month before AI begins to ensure no underlying metritis. Heat detection stickers are attached to identify cows that are not cycling.
"The non-cycles are treated and Cue-mates inserted, so they are joined to AI semen on day one of mating," Mr Avery said.
"Cows that calve after 30 days prior to mating are tail painted a different colour; any of these cows not mated after three weeks of AI are treated as non-cyclers.
"The main part of the herd that are cycling cows are put through a five-day 'why wait' program."
Most cows are joined within 10 days of the start of mating.
The main herd cows are joined to Holstein semen with criteria of easy calving, high fertility, good feet, sound udders in their cow families and good BPI. "Any cows the farm managers don't want to keep replacements from are mated to AI Hereford semen, so their calves are not reared," Mr Avery said.
"Bulls are not used because of work health and safety risks to staff and they are very expensive to keep. They also dig holes in our very sandy soils. We have found that using only AI gives about the same overall in-calf rates."
The only real negative is that staff can get a bit tired towards the end of mating. This is especially on the split-calving farms where mating takes up 20 weeks of the year.
"This intense mating program results in a very intense calving," Mr Avery said. "We get to mid-point in calving by day 12, so there is not much sleep for staff, especially those responsible for herds of 1000 cows. But the calving gets over and done with quickly."
Such an intense mating and calving program enabled heifer replacements to be quite even in size.
About 4100 autumn calves and 2500 spring calves are reared each year. All calves are regularly weighed from three weeks after birth. Each calving period results in two intakes to the Heifer Rearing Unit.
Calves are sent to the heifer unit at a minimum 100 kilograms, usually 15 to 20 weeks old, weighed and drafted into mobs of about 200 head, with similar size cohorts. Heifers return to the dairy farm at 23 months old and ready to calve. "To run this unit effectively, the more even each line is the easier it is to manage," Mr Avery said.
There are 147 employees in the business, including farm managers and workers, group operations managers (with several farms under their oversight), office staff and field technicians.
All farm operators meet with management three-monthly, and field days are held regularly for all staff to attend and learn skills and improve knowledge. "We have a formal skills training requirement and offer lots of short courses," Mr Avery said.
"All full-time staff are encouraged to study agriculture through the certificates to diploma level. We also have a two-way feedback mechanism and if a staff member suggests a course we haven't already backed nor are offering, we take that suggestion on board."
Education and training are emphasised for the positive impact on production.
"We encourage improving management skills of farm operators and workers, year on year," Mr Avery said.
Woolnorth uses independent veterinarians and agronomists and contractors for dedicated fencing, cultivation, sowing and harvesting work.
"We sow forage crops on about 10 per cent of each farm annually, so we contract that work, utilising their skills and capital equipment," Mr Avery said. "The vast majority of fodder is made on the farm."
A technician is employed whose role is to manage and record pasture growth and monitor feed wedges across all farms.
All grain and pellets are bought in, as is hay if the season requires it.
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