There are two things Rob and Carly Jennings won’t compromise ever again – feeding their dairy cows and fertiliser applications.
“They are the two things that have to happen,” said Rob, a fourth-generation Gippsland dairy farmer. “Previously I stuffed around with the ration of the cows, saying ‘because that was getting too expensive’ but then I had health problems with the cows.”
“Coming out of the drought, I decided I’m not going to skimp on what the cows eat because it costs me too much in late production and getting them in calf. We spend all that money getting them there, why wreck it?”
Feeding for success
This season, Mother Nature has been favourable at Gormandale in Gippsland for the young farming family of Rob and Carly, and children Hollie (seven), Chelsea (five) and Roy (two).
It’s the second year after a tough East Gippsland drought – a period where they were feeding their herd from the back of a truck.
However, the 2020-21 season was the first full year that they were able to make the most of their spring homegrown feed, following drought-breaking rainfall in autumn 2020.
With production now humming Rob and Carly are looking to the future. They plan to grow numbers after reaping the benefits of a tighter seasonal calving pattern and more focus on cow nutrition.
They introduced lead feeding before calving and the herd hit the ground running this season.
“Pretty much this year we led-fed three weeks before calving. They came in and hit their milk straight away and we had so many cows calve earlier,” Rob said.
“We were well ahead in production from last year. I put that down to lead feeding, bunching the cows up more and having the cows in better nick in the lead-up to joining.”
During spring last year, the 270 LIC-bred herd was fed a 6.5kg/cow/day combination of wheat, barley, lupins and canola. This year the ration has dropped to 5kg/cow/day.
The spring calving herd peaked at 31 litres/cow/day or 2.4kg of milk solids/cow/day before joining in mid-October. In early December, production for the Holstein Friesian, Jersey and KiwiCross® herd settled at 25 litres/cow/day.
The Jennings family have achieved phenomenal in-calf rates by concentrating on fertility and tightening the spring calving. They hadn’t pregnancy tested in early December, although the activity in the yards was minimal. The previous year they had 15 out of 270 cows not in-calf.
For the 2019 joining, Rob separated all the late calving cows, treated them with PG and put them with a beef bull. The most recent joining (spring 2020) included pre-mating heat detection. Any cow that didn’t observe heat was immediately given PG and then the herd was split into two groups.
“It made it heaps easier picking up who was bulling,” Rob said. “Making it easier on the returns that go with the bulls on that third cycle (for joining).”
Artificial insemination ran for six weeks and most of the herd (except about 10 cows which calved late) was mated in the first round of joining.
All heifers are artificially inseminated, with CIDRS used for heat synchronisation. The Jennings have done this for the past three years.
Each year Rob and Carly have tweaked their joining. Rob said trying different methods was the best way they could return their business to condensed seasonal calving. Short gestation sires over late calved cows also played a role in compressing the spring calving. Calving runs from the end of July until mid-September.
A second chance at expansion
Rob and Carly are significantly increasing their herd for the second time this year. Additional replacements will bring numbers to 340.
Previously Rob had pushed numbers with bought-in cattle to justify the construction of their new 20-aside rapid release herringbone.
Admitting it was something he didn’t want to do because the herd had been closed for so long, Rob and Carly purchased cows in 2016 – a year after the dairy was built. This decision to push numbers from 200 to 300 coincided with the infamous dairy crisis.
The season became drier in what was the perfect storm of unfortunate events. Additionally, Rob’s scepticism about purchasing cows was proven correct.
“When we bought the cows, I realised in the first few months that we might have wasted our money because they weren’t (anything like) what I was milking,” he said. “Then it dried out and we had to spend all that extra money on tucker.”
“Everything was set up for 200 cows – paddocks were 200 cow paddocks. We spent all the time ripping fences up to make the paddocks big enough. It was just a whole lot of extra stress and money on top of everything. Coming into that last year of the drought we had our backs against the wall.”
That was in 2018, when they cut only half their normal 650 tonnes of silage and spent considerable time sourcing hay.
“We were feeding cows off a truck with whatever hay we could get,” Rob said. “We were just lucky we had a good relationship with a bloke we had been buying hay off at Avoca for years. He put some aside for his good customers and that’s what got us through.”
During this time Rob and Carly culled a large chunk of their herd. Of the 60 heifers purchased in 2016, only 19 remained.
“It paints a pretty good picture of what those heifers were like,” Rob said. “The big clean-out got us down to 240 from 300.”
A lesson learnt. The next line of heifers Rob and Carly purchased came from similar breeding to their own and they’ve retained them all.
During the drought their LIC cows didn’t need as much feed yet continued to produce 480-490kg of milk solids per lactation, according to Rob.
Kiwi genetics in the past and future
The Gormandale property has a longstanding history with herd development. Rob’s great grandparents, Bill and Shirl Onley, purchased the property as a dairy farm in 1925.
They started using LIC genetics in 2002, but the farm had a long association with Kiwi genetics before then. For as long as Rob can remember his Pop was mating nearly 100% of the herd with Kiwi genetics.
“In the 80s he and Nana went on a farm trip to New Zealand and up until then Pop was running a Friesian herd.”
“When they were first milking, they had Ayrshires, then Jerseys and then Friesians – but at that time they were quite big Friesians. (Pop and Nan) must have seen some crossbreds over in New Zealand that got them thinking about going to a crossbred herd. I think it was because of their size and, I guess, production.”
Rob says moving to the smaller, 500-550kg liveweight, crossbred animals was the right decision for the farming terrain, volatile seasons, and unpredictable rainfall.
“We can have a lot of grass here in the springtime, but then we go into summer and it can turn and you are dry again,” he said. “We want an animal that is strong and can roll with it and still be productive. For as long as I can remember (I’m 36 now) we’ve been a crossbred herd and we have been running Kiwi genetics through.”
Rob returned to the family farm in 2001 to work for his mother Pat who was share-farming for Bill and Shirl. After two years, Rob joined his mother in a share-farming arrangement as she started to purchase half the farm from her parents.
During this time the mother and son partnership took over the breeding decisions and financial responsibility for artificial insemination.
They sold the last of Nan and Pop’s cows in 2016. The herd is now a reflection of Pat’s thorough breeding research and Rob’s decisions in recent years.
“Mum would sit down for hours going through the cows and what bulls she was going to choose. She would spend so much time on it,” Rob said. “She just loved cows. It was her thing and she lived and breathed it.”
In 2013 Pat was diagnosed with MND so Rob took over the breeding decisions.
“At the time it was a bit daunting because I used to see how much time Mum would spend on it,” he said.
Fertility is Rob’s breeding priority, followed by the overall make-up of the animal. He says breeding a strong animal that lasts in the herd made economic sense. The oldest cows in the herd this year were sired by LIC bull Legend in 2006.
“I don’t get into it like mum did – she’d look at a cow’s mother, her mother. I just look at the cow and put a yellow tag in if it is by a Jersey, a white ear tag if it is by a Friesian and a blue ear tag if it is by a crossbred bull,” Rob says.
“Then I purely look at the size of the animal. If it is a big animal by a Friesian bull it will get a Jersey bull. That’s pretty much what I have been running for the past eight years.”
Forging a clear path
Sadly, Pat passed away in 2015. Since then, Rob and Carly have run the farm independently.
They ran a large pasture renovation program in recent years due to the drought. Furthermore, summer crops such as lucerne, chicory and sorghum provide much needed dry matter during low rainfall years.
Rob and Carley expanded the dryland farm to a 140ha milking platform, thanks to the addition of another block. Next season they are adding 100 replacements to the herd, pushing numbers to 340.
In December last year, Rob started to feed silage to keep production humming through the early months of 2021.
Profit is front and centre of their operation to pay the banks back. Rob says their economic ‘run on the smell of an oily rag’ cows are at the heart of their business.
Drought and low farmgate prices remain fresh in the minds of the young farmers. However, they are now confident about what underpins their bottom line – feed and fertiliser.
This article was published in our spring 2021 Green to Gold publication.