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Lessons from miles away: Learning from Australian dairies

John Goeser Published on 27 December 2010
Australian dairies

Imagine the air temperature is 115ºF; the pastures have browned from lack of water, the cows are comfortably under roof in freestalls with a grass silage-based TMR, and the sound of magpies pierces the air. This sounds like an ordinary U.S. dairy, doesn’t it?

It does. But this dairy is Australian Consolidated Dairies Pty Ltd. (ACD). The 1,000-cow dairy is located three hours north of Melbourne, Australia, and I’ve been fortunate to work there as a consultant for the past year.

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ACD is one of only a handful of freestall dairies among many pasture-based dairies and is owned by Australian Consolidated Milk Pty Ltd, a company that markets milk to Chinese provinces in addition to Australian customers.

Australia’s herd has 1.6 million cows (about the same number as Wisconsin) and average production is 5,445 liters per cow (11,979 pounds).

Australian cows are mostly Holsteins with U.S. pedigrees, and the total cost to produce milk (per cow) is similar to the U.S. However, forages are more expensive than grain, and the cheapest labor to be found goes for $15 per hour.

I wasn’t sure what to expect while making the 27-hour trip Down Under, but anticipated Australia’s progressive dairies to share common knowledge and expectations with my U.S. dairies.

My experiences with ACD over the past year, though, have taught me to assume nothing and have also somewhat redefined the way I approach dairies in the States.

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One of the biggest components of dairying in Australia is grass. Working with Italian ryegrass and other grasses in Australia has had a profound impact on my theories of rumen microbial production.

These grasses make up a significant part of ration forage at ACD. While milk production is average compared to what we’re used to here in the States, the components are much better. I suspect grass is the cause.

It’s common for extremely high components, even butterfat greater than 4.4 percent and protein greater than 3.5 percent. My theory is that grass is more uniformly digested in the rumen than corn or alfalfa silage and the result is improved rumen microbial yield, which leads to higher milk components.

While I’m not going to advocate grass-based TMRs in the Midwest, I am in favor of including grasses in diets to improve milk fat and protein.

Staying on the topic of forages, I’ve previously assumed forages to be less expensive than grains, except in situations where costs are tied to corn and soybean markets. Working with ACD has led me to take a step back and recognize the need to continually re-evaluate forage costs and quality.

For dairies to the west of Australia’s Great Divide mountain range, fermented forages are extremely expensive relative to our costs here in the States because of water and custom harvesting costs. Despite its high yields, corn silage is seldom grown due to irrigation costs.

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I’ve worked with Chris Kendall, ACD’s manager, to improve margins over feed costs by minimizing forage levels but still maintaining a healthy amount of grass and alfalfa forage in the diet. We’ve also expanded the use of commodity byproducts to replace forage.

With land prices in many areas of the Midwest eclipsing $10,000 per acre and water rights becoming increasingly costly out West, we may be using similar approaches here more often.

I’ve also taken for granted even the average-quality forage we harvest in the U.S. Facing extremely high-fiber forages at ACD and likely poor NDFDs, we focused on limiting forage NDF and talked extensively about forage quality.

I’ve since re-emphasized the limitation forage NDF has in my Midwest diets, which has opened up several opportunities after a challenging 2010 growing season in the Midwest, when forage digestibility has been abnormally poor.

Now for one more cattle nutrition observation. Dry cows in Australia are often put to pasture with little supplementation. In some cases, a lead feed is offered to close-up cows with some vitamin/mineral supplementation.

Calves born to these animals are likely deficient in some levels of vitamins and minerals, but they respond well when supplemented with vitamins and minerals. As a result, I’ve had several discussions on U.S. dairies about how maternal nutrition throughout the entire dry period affects calf performance – an area we may sometimes ignore.

Aside from nutrition and cattle, working with $15-per-hour labor helped me recognize that we take our immigrant workforce here in the U.S. for granted. Australia has no source of immigrant labor except a handful of Filipinos, and local labor is not “keen” on hours outside of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Heading home, I know we have opportunities to increase our labor use efficiency. For example, I increasingly stress simplicity in my feeding programs and continue to look for opportunities to combine ingredients or batches of feed to decrease labor demands.

By consulting within an entirely different – but at the same time somewhat similar – dairy industry 10,000 miles from home, I’ve subtly adjusted how I work with dairies here in the U.S.

My experiences have guided me to approach dairies in a more fundamental and objective manner rather than systematically. No two dairies are the same, and we take for granted a few things on each farm that could be looked at in a different, more profitable light. PD

  • John Goeser

  • Vita Plus Corp
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