Water’s big difference in Northern Vic

Daniel and Kim Portwine, with their daughter Chloe, 3, on thier Lockington dairy farm.IT’S amazing what difference water can make in Northern Victoria.
Nanjing Night Net

On the flat irrigation plains at Daniel and Kim Portwines’ dairy farm, they’ve gone from entirely lotfeeding their milking herd to 100 per cent grazing in four seasons.

“Water was $300-$400 a megalitre, so it was just cheaper to buy hay,” Mrs Portwine said.

The couple bought the 70 hectare Lockington farm at the height of the drought, leasing a further 100ha to grow crops and run young stock.

Despite the pressure to feed-out, the couple have slowly pushed numbers back up from 170 to 260.

But water is plentiful this year and it is clear the cows are benefiting from the extra grass.

“We water the grass from March to November,” he said.

The drier times also gave the Portwines time to think how they could use their water more sustainably.

They were approached by the Northern Victoria Irrigation Renewal Project (NVIRP), along with other local farmers, to shutdown a communal spur channel. The group then largely funded the installation of a pipe and riser system on their lasered land to water annual ryegrass and sub clover.

“It’s a lot more efficient,” he said.

“I would say we save 10pc of the water.”

The Portwines, who supply Fonterra, run a predominantly registered Holstein herd.

About 75 per cent of the herd are autumn-calvers, because the couple receive an incentive to milk during the winter months.

“We select for health traits, such as cell count, in-calf rate and productivity,” he said.

This season, the herds’ cell count is down around 150,000, largely thanks to the green grass and genetic selection.

“We’ve been able to cull those problem cows,” he said.

About 80 heifers are retained each year, with joining at 14-15 months of age.

“We want the heifers to calve down at two,” he said.

As summer approaches, the Portwines will rely more on hand-feeding the cows, but they still have surplus fodder from last year.

They will soon be installing a feed-pad to minimise hay wastage.

“This should help with the health of the cows too,” he said.

The good news is the couple are expecting to grow 90pc of their feed requirements this year.

In previous years, they have grown as little as 20pc, so the prospect is more than encouraging.

With the extra feed about, this is also the first time the Portwines will rear their own heifers.

“It should be a more profitable year,” he said.

Apart from annual pasture, efforts will also go into growing summer crops.

“Irrigation water is cheap, so we are hoping to do about 300t of maize silage, which is a good energy source,” he said.

“It will be sown in November and I am aiming for 20t/ha.”

A total of 200t of hay and silage from ryegrass and sub clover will add to the farm’s fodder reserves.

“The fact we’ve been able to carry water over this season – plus we’ve got hay and silage surplus – it really gives you reassurance,” he said.

And while the north has survived some tough years, the Portwines admit they would not want to farm anywhere else.

“In the past this has been a reliable dairy region,” he said.

“The land is cheaper and the climate is better.

“And in years like this one, we can grow more grass than anywhere else.”

But the uncertainty of the Murray Darling Basin Plan release has the couple worried.

“This is the first year in a long time we’ve been able to get ahead,” Mrs Portwine said.

“It is going to mean less water for farmers and it could be disastrous.”

The worst thing will be the flow-on effect from delivering less water to producers, they said.

“We bought a brand new motorbike this year, because we had the money,” he said.

“The dealer told us that business had picked up, but it could just as easily stop again.”

The carbon tax is a concern too, but they are hoping an investment into solar panels to run the dairy will alleviate the possibility of rising electricity costs.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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