Opportunities still exist for smaller dairy farms

29 Jul, 1999 02:12 AM

GELORUP dairy farmer Neville Bell comes from a family of successful and innovative dairy farmers. His grandfather held the Australian record price for a pen of heifers, and also started herd testing in the early 1950s. By 1973, Neville's father and four uncles were also farming and collectively they had 800 cows on five different farms, when 100 cows was considered to be a large herd. Neville said he remembered 1973 as a difficult time, when dairy farmers were getting more from their dairies by brake fencing and using nitrogen fertiliser to compensate for low beef prices. He paralleled this with the present situation, where dairy farmers, some with high debt, were expanding to meet a similar beef price situation and lower milk prices that would come from a deregulated environment. The Bells' Dairybrook Holstein stud began in 1984 and has come though the appendix system, which Neville said was well worthwhile because it encouraged good record keeping to keep track of bloodlines. "As far as herd health and breeding goes, you are only as good as your record keeping," he said. Neville has a six-a-side herringbone dairy he considers to be labour intensive, but he said it was the first WA herringbone dairy to have individual feeding for cows, due to the innovation of his father, Ken Bell. Neville, who has just finished adding a vet shed to his dairy, said his main priority was to get his cows back into calf. "Pushing production is not number one priority but we try to be as efficient as we can," he said. "I could get more production but it would take a lot more labour. We won't compromise on herd health." His payoff for concentrating on herd health is his AI costs of $25 per calver that he puts down to good conception rates. Neville said, for the past 15 years, all heifers were mated through AI with all semen Ken imported from the US. "I have had an interest in the breeding decision since I was 10," he said. Two years ago, their dairy was fourth on the Herd Improvement Services of WA (HISWA) top 30 WA herd average ABVs. Annual per cow production is 8332 litres per calver, with 67 per cent of total production sold as manufacturing milk and the remainder as quota. Neville breeds his own replacements and sells bulls as calves while the milk is sold to Peters and Brownes. The farm is split into two blocks, with the home farm consisting of 80 hectares, while the 100ha block is three kilometres away down the road. It's on this block, dry cattle are grazed and where the silage has been made since 1960. This year, Coxall Contractors will make the silage. Neville said they had been restricted by the size of the home farm, bringing pressures to expand years earlier, which is why he has to walk the cows three kilometres to the other farm and back, for up to six weeks of the year. Another way to get more from his herd was to design and have built portable feed troughs that allowed him to milk 20 more cows on the same feed. Filling the troughs is a one-man operation with a tractor-bucket auger. "The troughs were built eight years ago and are still going well," he said. In a more recent move to improve efficiency, he had a square hay bale feeder built by Tuckett Welding, Bunbury, reducing the cost of fodder, oat and hay brought in from the Wheatbelt. Some years ago, Neville was in an international rural exchange program that led to him visiting Europe, Canada and the US, where he worked for six months as a second herdsman on what was considered a small family farm (260 cows). He said cows on the host farm were grazed for eight months of the year. The trip away had left a big impression on him and on the year of his return home he increased milk production by 30pc. Neville said that, in a restructuring move five years ago, they sold down to 60 cows and, due to the standard of their AI program first begun in 1955, it only took four years to return to 140 cows. He said the cattle sold down performed well for their new owners, establishing his reputation for quality breeding. "It was pleasing to see how the cows produced better on other properties," he said. Neville said the dairy industry was at the crossroads and having a small farm gave an insight into expansion pressures of larger dairies considering expansion. He said the year of 1973 was a valuable lesson for what was coming up through deregulation. He said that, in his situation, it would make sense to lease out his whole herd rather than sell down as he had in 1994. "I know that out of hard times can come opportunities, providing you structure yourself to take advantage of that window of opportunity," he said.


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