ENTERING into dairying was a steep learning curve for brothers George and Robert Rigney but 13 years down the track it has definitely paid off.
Although neither had milked a cow before, they undertook a conversion on their mixed cropping property Newham Park at Cressy in 2008.
The aim was an enterprise that could support them getting into farming alongside their father, Allen, who was running the family property Delmont just down the road.
George said the opportunity to secure extra irrigation water also meant dairying stacked up well. After completely removing everything from the farm including irrigators and fences, the brothers set about doing the conversion.
“The way I explain it is jumping in the deep end and not knowing how to swim,” he said.
“It was fraught with danger, but we’ve learnt a lot along the way. Dad did about 1000 hours on the excavator in three months.
”Once completed the farm was milking 1200 cows. Since then, they have also completed a dairy conversion on the 550ha Delmont.
“The plan was to always do the second conversion here,” he said.
“When we did our original plan there was an economy of scale we wanted to reach, which was the two dairy farms.
”Both farms are now running about 850 cows each, all of which are also wintered on farm.
The brothers expanded their operation again after purchasing Macquarie Dairy at Epping Forest in 2014 where they now milk about 700 cows.
Fodder beet crops play a big role in their operation and are used to winter the dry cows in the off season.
The crops are planted in October and they aim to get about 30 to 40 tonnes of dry matter a hectare.
“Once it’s up and going it’s pretty much bulletproof,” he said.
“Because it’s a beet and not a brassica it’s easy to get on top of the weeds as well.
”It takes about 21 days to transition the cow onto the beet crops. They have access to hay and silage at the same time.
The farms are all fully irrigated, and George said they tried to produce all their own home-grown feed including silage and maize.
Pasture is the basis of their production system, and each cow is also fed about one tonne of grain supplement a year.
Soil health and long-term sustainability has been a focus at all the farms and they have reintroduced dung beetles.
“When you think about, there’s all these cows and the manure they’re putting out every day and it’s a good source of fertiliser,” he said.
“The best way to get that into the ground is the dung beetles.”
Their area does not traditionally have many dung beetles so they have introduced them and also been a part of bringing in a new early spring active dung beetle to Tasmania.
George said they had noticed a major improvement in soil health since they stopped regular cropping and introduced long pasture phases.
The herds are made up of specially selected crossbred cows with a medium frame size that suit their operation.
All first-calving heifers are calved at the Macquarie Dairy in one age group to prevent them getting bullied.
They only retain heifers bred with artificial insemination and rear about 600 replacement heifers a year.
“We are coming into our 14th lactation and the cows are at a point now where we’re struggling to identify that bottom 5 per cent every year,” he said.
“The cows are very good converters of dry matter, they’re not big heavy animals and they’re very fertile.”
A key focus is increasing the per- cow production of milk solids. George said the aim was about 1.2kg of milk solids per kilogram of body weight a year.
“The next big leap for us will be taking our cows from producing say 530kg to 540kg milk solids a cow up to 600kg and not be feeding any more grass or any more supplement, just have better more productive cows,” he said.
To help do that they will soon install new technology with help from a $100,000 grant from the Woolworths Dairy Innovation Fund.
The brothers will also invest about $70,000 to install new in-line milk sensor technology.
The Saber Milk system will provide a reading of 85 to 90 per cent accuracy for each individual cow’s milk production along with protein and fat content per day.
The results are then calibrated over a period of two weeks provide a report on each animal.
George said it was similar to traditional herd testing, just done on a much more regular basis.
The 60-unit rotary Delmont dairy will have the sensors installed on each individual bale. The other two dairies will have the system on every second rotary bale, which George said will still provide valuable data.
Milk from all three farms is supplied to Fonterra.
A focus on pasture management, feeding and managing their cost of production has seen milk production lift 30 per cent on last season, which was their best performing year yet.