Dairyfarmers don't set the milk price. No one can change the weather. The frequent advice for farmers to concentrate on what they can control is sound, even if the words "control your costs" start to get a little repetitive. But where exactly does a person find these costs that need controlling within any given dairy business? A solution that can be over-looked is herd testing.
As a part of Gardiner Dairy Foundation's strategic project, ImProving Herds, seven commercial dairy farms across Australia completed six herd tests. None were herd testing when the project started. Some had never herd tested their current herd. The project asked "did you get value?" After one year, all seven farms said they intended to continue herd testing. They must have seen some value.
Herd-test information helped identify candidates for culling on all seven partner farms. It's not difficult to see how. It can be stressful deciding who stays and who goes, when the next cohort of replacement heifers is ready. Having hard data on production, milk components and somatic cell count can take some of the emotion and uncertainty out of the decision.
Guy Gallatly farms in Gippsland and found the information useful, now that he'd reached the herd size he wanted. "Over the years, because we have been building our herd up from a smaller herd to a bigger herd, we've only just culled the animals that we've had to cull, like it might be mastitis cows, or some infertility, or some issues like that, feet problems, but this is the first season I could honestly say that we have got enough animals, and enough animals coming on to be able to cull a bit on production," he said.
"We'd built up our numbers so we needed to be getting more profitable animals."
Dr Jo Newton, a scientist with Agriculture Victoria, is working with the ImProving Herds Partner Farms, to understand their experiences. "Going into the project something I'd previously heard was, 'We don't have a cell count problem so we don't herd test'," she said.
"This theory that herd testing is only useful for controlling cell count has been well and truly disproved for me. While all participating partner farms said they used their herd-test results to help identify clinical and sub-clinical cases of mastitis, everyone was also able to tell me about many other ways they were using their herd-test information to support routine management decisions on farm.
"Using herd recording information fell into two main categories; it was used as a tool to support a variety of routine management decisions on farm. Secondly, it was used to respond quickly and confidently to some of the curve balls farms faced during the 2015/2016 season."
Four of the partner farms identified difficult situations where the herd-test results gave them the confidence to act decisively and quickly: The sudden milk price drop. Drought. Feed shortage. Milk quality penalties.
The farmers involved found value in the certainty of the data during these hard times. They knew they had to act. They knew their difficult situation would get worse if they didn't get the decision right. As they say, knowledge is of no value, unless it's put into practice.
All herd test partner farmers identified other instances where they benefitted from using herd test information to support routine management decisions, including: Informing drying off or culling decisions. Improved identification of mastitis. Managing seasonal changes in diet. Refining breeding program by cow data contributing to Australian Breeding Values (ABVs). Optimising joining time. Targeted bull selection through more accurate ABVs that include cow data.
As well as those recognised applications for herd-test information, Cheryl McCartie and Theo van Brecht found an extra, unique way to harness its value on their farm in Tasmania. They invested in new irrigation infrastructure: two new centre pivot irrigators and a 300 megalitre dam, a big investment in their farm business to improve water security and increase the area of the farm under irrigation.
"To prove the worth of that pivot, and even though we're going to be growing extra feed, we need to have that extra data on the cows to actually justify it," Mr van Brecht said.
"We need to be pushing 450 kilograms of milk solids per cow, so we need to start looking at herd testing. We're going to be spending about $400,000-$500,000 on a new dam, a pivot. So, we need to know some of these cows are going to be doing the business, and if they're not we need to start looking and saying why aren't we performing. Why aren't these cows under these pivots doing 450 (kg of) milk solids? What's going on? It's like with a race car, you need to start fine tuning it."
It's an innovative approach that could be classed as precision ag. Ms McCartie and Mr van Brecht already run two herds on their farm. They used the herd test information to identify high-producing cows, giving them preferential access to irrigated pastures.
By monitoring cow production over time with herd testing, cows that don't improve their production while on irrigated pastures could be identified and demoted to the second herd. Ms McCartie said having access to herd-testing information helped "make sure the girls (cows) are doing the business to pay it all back".
The experience of the project's seven partner farms has convinced the Gardiner Dairy Foundation that herd testing can deliver value to most dairy farm businesses.
For more information, contact a herd test centre or the National Herd Improvement Association at website www.nhia.org.au<>.