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The pros and cons of winter milking

Tom O'Leary Dec 12
The pros and cons of winter milking

The Galloway family’s Hawkes Bay farm is proof there is no such thing as one size fits all in the dairy industry.

With dairy farmers constantly looking at ways to improve production and profitability, once-aday and winter milking are two currently utilised practices for some.

While family have chosen to take advantage of a $3.50/kgMS winter milk premium this year, Hamish Galloway has some ambivalence about its long-term benefits due to the expenses incurred by winter milk production.

The potential for damaged pastures and lowered pasture covers in early spring must be well managed, Hamish says.

Of the 550 cows peak milked on their 220 hectare effective farm, 130 are being winter milked.

“A lot of people have moved out of winter milking in our area, however we opted to buy some cows this season and pick our numbers up a bit.” It is four years since the farm last winter milked.

Although the premium is attractive, Hamish cautions it is crucial to keep a tight rein on costs, both those that are easily quantifiable and those that are less obvious.

In that context, he wryly states the obvious. “The main thing is, your feed cost must be low and the output of the cow high.”

Farmers should do a lot of research before committing, but he believes the premium that is being paid is more viable than in past seasons when it was only about $1.20/kgMS.

As well as the cost of feed, the premium needs to be weighed up against stress caused by the lack of down time and the effect on pastures.

Good feed pads and good cow lanes are essential, plus enough staff to allow for sufficient breaks for everyone throughout the winter.

The Galloway farm employs one staff member. The farm is mostly self-contained for feed with the 220ha including a run-off.

The entire herd is wintered on the dairy platform with 80 heifers grazed off-farm from nine months of age. Fodder beet is currently a key part of the Galloway’s operation.

The crop, which Hamish describes as “rocket fuel”, is grown on 10ha, and this year yielded about 30 tonnes per hectare. “You want to get to at least 30 tonnes. It’s quite an expensive crop to grow.”

His Farmlands technical field officer Shane Mullany, says the typical cost to grow fodder beet is $2200 to $2500 per hectare. “The three main variables are cultivation practice, fertility and weed control,” Shane says.

Fodder beet provides metabolisable energy of 12.5 to 13, similar to forage brassicas, but they tend to have lower utilisation than fodder beet, he says.

“Given its yield potential, often c/kgDM can be similar to brassica’s, but on a gross margin prospective fodder beet will come out on top.

“The risk of acidosis when transitioning to fodder beet is well known, along with a large change in energy intake when transitioning off the crop, so this process must be carried out over several days.”

While some soils may be conducive to growing very good yields, they may not be best suited to wintering on due to environmental issues, consequently top management practices are required the whole way through.

“Brassicas tend to be more forgiving agronomically.” Fibre to fill the cows and obtain the best from the fodder beet is provided in the form of corn waste and bulky grass silage produced on farm.

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