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Making the most of profit drivers

Northern Victorian farmer turns the tables on fertility after shifting to VikingGenetics.

Northern Victoria dairy farmer Steve Hawken’s biggest profit drivers are cows calving when they should and growing as much grass as possible. Over the past decade, Steve has managed to turn the tables on both counts.

His 440-acre farm at Bamawm, between Echuca and Rochester, is now thriving with earthworms in the soil and more calves on the ground than he needs. Steve attributes his success to a focus on sustainable farming and a shift to VikingGenetics.

He now milks 40 per cent more cows and produces double the amount of conserved fodder compared to 10 years ago. Before moving to VikingGenetics, the herd was struggling for replacements. “I couldn’t keep farming and not getting them in calf,” Steve said.

Traditionally a Holstein herd, Steve introduced VikingJersey crossbreds about six years ago and the mix is working. “We had backed ourselves into a corner as far as herd fertility went and that’s why we changed to VikingGenetics,” Steve said. “We’d been selectively breeding forever but couldn’t get them in calf.

“It’s important to get fertility right. My rule of thumb is from the day of calving to 150 days in milk any cow will give you two litres for a kilo of feed, after 150 days they could go 300-400 days in milk before getting in calf but the same kilo of feed only gives one litre of milk.

“Herd fertility and health are all I focus on.”

Steve Hawken VikingJersey

Calving struggle

The farm had struggled with 35-40 per cent in-calf rates but now he had enough calves to move into beef. “I don’t even look at my fertility figures now,” Steve said. “We’re only mating every two out of three cows to dairy semen and one to beef and we’re still getting more heifers than we need. This financial year we will bring in close to 160 heifers; before shifting to Viking, it was about 60.”

Not only does this mean a substantial profit improvement, it’s a lot less stressful. “Before Viking, mating was the most stressful time of the year. I’ve gone from needing 4-5 doses of semen to get a cow in calf to now joking that you just about slap a cow on the arse and yell out a bull’s name and she’ll be in calf.”

With the transition to VikingGenetics, Steve has aimed to breed a cow 100-120 kilos lighter, and about 10 cm shorter.

“I had been breeding the ultimate American milk tank,” he said.  “They were beautiful and they were good producers but we couldn’t get replacements coming through. Now we’re breeding a more efficiently-framed smaller and lighter cow.”

Herd health is another bonus, with less lameness and cows better able to walk on wet days.  “They were too heavy and now we don’t have feet problems we used to have, and smaller cows seem to cope better in the heat and don’t slip as far in production.”

VikingJersey crossbred

Fertility pays off

The better health and fertility have paid off. “It didn’t happen straight away but you could notice the difference about three years in and it has progressively improved,” Steve said. “I’d conservatively say the vet bill is 25-30 per cent of what it used to be.”

Steve used fixed-time insemination to hasten the process when he shifted to VikingGenetics. “Once we mated the first Viking heifers in the herd, we started seeing a difference in the numbers come preg-test day,” he said. “Now we’re breeding the third or fourth generations and seeing the correct size animal and substantially better in-calf rate.”

He already had a high production herd at 10,000-11,000 litres and above 700 kg/Ms but now he’s milking smaller and younger cows, production remains in the same ballpark.  “We probably only dropped 10-15 kgs on a cow 100-120 kgs lighter but production per kilo liveweight is a lot better and we can only keep improving.

“We started from a fairly productive herd with reproduction issues… we’ve kept the production in the cows while fixing the other issues by gradually changing the cow.” Of the farm’s top 30 cows, only two are not VikingGenetics. “As a group, the Viking girls definitely stand out,” Steve said.

Once converted to VikingGenetics, Steve visited the company’s headquarters in Denmark and Sweden and was impressed by the animal husbandry and the cow performance. “Their database is second to none and they have incredibly high production cows that look like they are manicured,” he said.

He also came back with the idea of building a loafing barn for cow comfort which has been a good addition to the farm since 2017.

Holistic transformation

His success using VikingGenetics is just part of the bigger picture of the farm’s transformation. “It’s also in combination of what we’ve done with the ground,” Steve said. “We took a holistic view to the problem and tackled the two most important issues – fertility and soil health.

“We put a lot of effort into our soils. I’m a dirt farmer – I like growing grass and need cows to turn grass into money. When we got here the ground had a lot of urea on it and was green and nice but it didn’t perform 12 months of the year.”

In consultation with agronomist Col Bowey, Steve focussed on letting the soil work on its own rather than applying too many additives. “We couldn’t find any earthworms when we got here, now they’re everywhere and we do our own compost, averaging 500-600 tonnes a year,” Steve said.

“We’re not an organic farm and never will be but I would describe the way we do things as sustainable farming. Generally speaking, farmers I know are among the most environmentally conscious and active people in the world.”

Genetics powerhouse

Steve has his farm on the market but sees a positive future for dairy and agriculture in general. “COVID was a catalyst and agriculture has become the new big investment portfolio,” he said.

“Until Australians had to walk into a supermarket and buy the last object on a shelf, we didn’t truly appreciate where our food comes from. It wasn’t just toilet paper; it was also meat, rice and other food.”

The success of his VikingGenetics herd was to the fore at a recent sale at Echuca. Selling milking cows for the first time under the gaze of other farmers, he topped the sale price and sale average and had a 100 per cent clearance rate.

Steve says he’ll stick with VikingGenetics for as long as he’s farming. “We’re almost back to where we were when I started share farming – getting big production out of the cow and getting her in-calf. They are the big profit drivers - if you get your herd fertility and your soil right, you can’t go wrong.”

He’s happy to recommend other farmers look at the success of VikingGenetics. “VikingGenetics isn’t recognised as the powerhouse of genetics that it should be,” he said.

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