Matthew Brett, Manager of Tocal College’s dairy in the Hunter Valley region of NSW, talks about margin over feed costs, nitrogen feriliser use, and monthly milk production among other things. Learn about the dairy, its goals, the role it plays in educating the next generation of people who have a passion for and want to work within the dairy industry and be introduced to the Tocal Monthly Business Report.
Tocal College has been training future generations of dairy industry employees every year since 1980 when the NSW Dairy Apprenticeship Scheme was originally introduced. It has developed and grown in an effort to be as representative as possible of a ‘typical’ NSW dairy business. Currently, approximately 2.5 million litres are produced annually from 280 – 300 milkers. The herd is mainly comprised of Holstein Friesians with some Aussie Reds and crossbreds, calving year-round in a pasture-based system.
Matt Brett has been involved in dairying all his life having been raised on a dairy farm in northern NSW, share-farmed and managed large herd dairies before taking on the Dairy Manager role at Tocal 3 years ago. He gives an overview of the dairy, its operating system and resources and explains its key and important role as part of Tocal College, a registered training organisation.
The value in measuring the performance of the business through participation in the NSW Dairy Farm Monitor Project is discussed and we introduce you to the monthly ‘Tocal Dairy Business report’, compiled by the NSW DPI Dairy Business Advisory Unit in conjunction with the Tocal Dairy Team. The report presents DAILY Margin Over Feed Cost and a summary of some key MONTHLY information using information that is readily available within most dairy businesses.
The ‘Business Report’ is designed to be used as a quick snapshot to assess that the performance of the business is on track – are the farm goals being met and are there any challenges or opportunities that need to be addressed in a timely manner? It is a report that we would encourage other businesses to generate regularly for their own management purposes.
Access a transcript of this episode here
For more info on the Tocal dairy and the business report visit the Tocal dairy’s Monthly Business Report
Take a look at the NSW Dairy Farm Monitor Project and see past performance of the NSW dairy industry.
This podcast is an initiative of the NSW DPI Dairy Business Advisory Unit
It is brought to you in partnership the Hunter Local Land Services
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The information discussed in this podcast are for informative and educational purposes only and do not constitute advice.
The Business of Dairy
Episode #1 “The Magic and Metrics of Tocal Dairy”
Sheena Carter interviews Matt Brett
Sheena: Welcome to The Business of Dairy podcast. I’m your host, Sheena Carter, Development Officer with the NSW Department of Primary Industries dairy team.
Each month I speak with industry people generous enough to share their stories, knowledge and skills with us to help you in the increasingly complex area of farm business management.
This month I visit Tocal College to speak with their Dairy Manager, Matt Brett who introduces us to the dairy, its purpose and resources and we also speak about tools they use to track how the business is performing, including the monthly Tocal Dairy Business Report.
Matt, can you tell me a bit about your involvement at Tocal, how long you've been here and about your role as dairy manager?
Matt: Yeah g’day, thanks Sheena. So I've been here at Tocal for a bit over 10 years now. When I first came to the college, I started in a more an education role. But for the last three years I've been managing the dairy enterprise here at the college for the New South Wales DPI. Yeah, my family history, or my history, was that my family were in dairying all my life and we had a family dairy. And then in years to come after that, I went out share farming in my own business for about nearly 12 years. And then prior to coming here to the college, I was managing a couple of larger dairies, and then, like I say, about 11 years ago, I started here at the at the college.
Sheena: Right, and so as dairy manager, I guess you've got some great insight into how the dairy operates, but primarily what is the purpose of having a dairy at Tocal College?
Matt: The purpose of the college is for agricultural education, for young people primarily, and the purpose of the dairy is for dairy education. So we have our full time students here at the college who work on a weekly rotating roster and come over and are involved in all things to do with the dairy side from milking, feeding calves, vaccination programs, paddock work, fencing. So everything that's, you know, to do is with working on a farm.
And the idea is for us to get those students up to a beginner standard in industry so that they, after their first or second year, would become a person who could be readily employed by a dairy farmer, or perhaps beef farm or cropping, or whatever direction they go in – you know, it's really up to them. And the good part about the dairy is it provides, yep – certainly they learn about milking and all things to do with the dairy – but it's also broader than that. They learn about their pastures and machinery and everything else as well while they’re, while they’re on the farm.
We also have trainees who were on other farms throughout New South Wales working there. And they come in for their they study blocks around about every five to six weeks and they'll come over and do training on the dairy as well. We might have a trainer come over with them and they'll assess them in practical activities on the farm or that they'll learn about different activities on the farm.
Then we also have veterinary students from the University of Sydney. We have about, over 20 of those on placement every year here now and they come and do their week or perhaps two weeks, three weeks, practical placement, just depending on what group they are. And look, I think that's probably a fairly valuable service to industry, and the fact that a lot of the vets that come here are very, very much novices when it comes to handling large animals, especially. So I think if we can give them that training here, the fact that we're a farm that's used to training beginner or beginning students, we find that a really valuable thing to be involved with, with the University of Sydney, doing that with the prac placements. And then, of course, there's also our involvement with industry in general, like hosting, field days, farm walks, all that sort of thing. Certainly, we like to be involved with Local Land Services, might be machinery groups or something that might demonstrate machinery here on the farm. Yeah so, a lot of different things that we can do here that we just, you know, we want to get as much value out of, running the farm and that dairy for the industry as we can.
Sheena: Yes, I think it, Tocal College certainly adds a lot to the industry, as you say, in terms of training and opening its doors to the wider community from an educational point of view, which is fantastic. Now I suppose the dairy you have set it up to be, shall we say, reflective of a typical, whatever a typical, but a typical dairy in this part of the world looks like. So can you describe to our listeners, some of who may have actually been to Tocal College? But just describe the farming system that we've got – you know, obviously within New South Wales, we've got the whole range of dairying systems. We've got very low input pasture based systems all the way through to fully housed TMR systems. What does the Tocal dairy look like?
Matt: That's a good question – a typical dairy. But yeah, so the idea is for us to represent a, you know, a commercial size dairy operation within New South Wales. So we milk around about 280 – 300 cows all year round. We have a 15-a-side parallel stall gate dairy, yeah, and it really is a grazing system throughout most of the year, but we certainly have a feed pad and feed, you know, as needed on the feed pad. Look, can we represent every dairy in the country or in the state? No, we can't. We sort of hope that we sort of find a reasonable, happy medium in a lot of ways. And the students can learn, you know, certainly enough on our farm that they'll be useful for wherever they might end up.
Sheena: Sure. And you've got plenty of technologies that are used in the dairy as well in terms of helping to understand what's happening and measure and manage the cows. Can you briefly just touch on some of those?
Matt: Basically, the last sort of nearly two years now, or maybe a bit over two years, we've had heat time collars on the cows. So we've been very happy with that program. Certainly the students get to see that technology and understand how it's used. We still go through the, you know, certainly heat detection skills and all that sort of stuff that they, using patches and all that in our heifer programs, so they still understand how they may need to do that on other farms, but yeah, so they get to see that. We have centre pivots on about 40 hectares of country as well, that can be controlled by, you know, by the mobile phone, so they get to see that sort of technology. Got a draft gate there, which, you know, works off their and NLIS tags. And obviously there’s computerized systems in the dairy, we run our heard on the Easy Dairy platform. And we also have other things in the, in the dairy there, which, you know, might be Hygienius wash system or, you know, things like that that they'll understand about all the different technologies that are used on the farm. On the tractors are things, we've got the GPS technology in the farm mapping, um, there for our paddock work and sowing paddocks and that sort of stuff as well.
Sheena: So really using some of that current technology that other dairy businesses are using in their own businesses.
Matt: Yeah, yeah, that's right.
Sheena: OK, so the pasture, you say you're a pasture based system, can you just briefly describe what that pasture base is and how it varies throughout the year?
Matt: When you break it down, our milking platform is probably around about 130 hectares that the cows can directly graze. Now, of that, there's about 80 hectares that we can irrigate. You probably have to squeeze that back a little bit when it gets really dry because some of the travelling irrigater country, we sort of retract the amount that we irrigate just to keep up with that in a really dry time. But we have 40 hectares under centre pivots. So that's pretty, you know, that's constant, reliable all the time. Now, in that centre pivot country, we really, I suppose, what you call now an Italian ryegrass, chicory and clover system. Predominantly, probably used to be what was a, you know, you'd think of as a Kikuyu based system. I don't think that's really the right term to use with that now. Like, certainly through the summer we do get the kike coming back and the chicory and red clover will be there as well. But in a normal year we’ll be frosting that with a light spray of Roundup, sort of at the end of February, to sort of sow the first week in March with Italian rye. So that's an annual sowing every year, so Italian rye, chicory, clover, and we’ll really graze that then, right up until I think, you know, this year our last grazing was around about the 20th of December and we still had good ryegrass under the pivot then. And then certainly January, February, we can't get ryegrass to grow here then. And that's where you rely on your chicory and clover to mix in with that summer grass that's in the paddock and then yeah, start again by the end of February, early March, where we're in and sowing again.
Sheena: And I guess the heat we can talk about a bit later in terms of your year round calving pattern, that sort of is a challenge at certain times of the year with calving. How do you manage that?
Matt: It's been tough. The last few years have been hot, dry drought years and the summers, have been really terrible up until this one we've just come through now. And then that's presented itself with other challenges, as a lot of us in New South Wales would know with the flooding. Yeah, but certainly heat and the welfare of your cows is a big concern for us. We look at, do we, if the summer’s too bad, do we even keep mating, you know, through that, through that period? Sometimes the answer will be no. Like we might decide to stop mating for three or four weeks over that, if it's a really hot January, February, wherever that that heatwave sort of condition would be. Yeah, look, even if we do keep mating, probably the truth is that, are we getting many cows in calf? Often the answer is no. And then so what we'll do then, as soon as the weather cools down, we will start on synchronised programs and to get them back, the ones that have missed, yeah, start trying to get those cows back in calf again.
Sheena: And make sure you got the numbers coming through to maintain that 280-300 cows.
Matt: That's right. And the truth is because of that, it can be a bit bunchy I suppose. I wouldn't say that we're, we’re certainly not a dedicated batch calving operation. We really try to mate throughout most of the year, but we certainly will get those clumps coming through, and yeah, we probably try not to calve too many cows on Christmas Day or, you know, just over that New Year's period, but pretty much after that we'll have cows calving again in January, early January, then, sort of right through after that.
Sheena: Now, we did skip back. We should just probably touch back on your silage production. Maize is sort of the predominant silage that you're making these days?
Matt: Yeah so, I suppose we changed the system around, um, well, the last three years since I've started to manage the operation, we decided to start back into maize production. So historically, the dairy used to grow maize, years ago, but then went away from that and went more to round bales. We certainly still do a lot of round bales, but as the herd size had increased, yeah, just really to get that number one, the amount of feed, the amount of dry matter we need, the bulk, the maize crop is hands down, is the winner. And look, we now we've got the water, we've got really a great source of water here with the Patterson River. 680 odd megs of allocation that is strictly not really metered or licensed at the moment – we're on an unregulated stream – actually in the tidal pool, you know, lucky enough position where the water doesn't become too brackish, so we can you know, we've got good use of water and never had that restricted. So yeah, to us maize is a really obvious option now. And like I say, as the herd’s grown we've decided, yep, to start to, you know, plant that and try and get that good quality, high energy, good amount of volume often stored. We got that off the paddock for about sixty dollars a tonne. So it worked out to be around about one hundred and eighty dollars a tonne dry matter in the pit. So it certainly, it ended up with about 1700 tonnes worth of feed in the pit. So yeah look, we're pretty happy with that result and we were lucky enough just to get it off before the wet weather came back in again. That's obviously, certainly a crop that does have some risk about it. But yeah, to be able to work around that weather and just get it off before the flood came and now it's stored in the pit where we're feeding it at the moment and it's certainly a great asset for us.
Sheena: Very cost effective, yes, and helps in those times where, you know, as we've ended up with the flood impact filling that gap, that feed gap, which is obviously part of your normal strategy anyway, but you're able to draw on that where you needed. Fertiliser usage, you use quite a bit of nitrogen fertilizer to stimulate pasture growth?
Matt: Yeah, well, I suppose yeah, and the thing is, you know, even though we’ve just said then how critical the maize to our operation, we still do a lot of ryegrass silage and really we, you know, we sow good quality Italian rye grasses and also some good quality annual ryegrass, and we want to get every bit of production that we can off that feed. So, yeah, we do fertilise heavily with nitrogen and it's all about putting the maximum amount on there without wasting it just to drive that maximum amount of growth that we can.
So we end up with, you know, a lot of really good quality, you know, high energy, high protein, ryegrass silage. The other thing that I probably should mention about our Italian ryegrass based pastures, and especially those areas under the pivots or where we've got the traveling irrigation working well, we really do see the value in higher application rates of nitrogen and we'll be up around three hundred and fifty units of nitrogen per hectare per year on those, yeah, like those higher performing pastures. And, you know, we know that we can irrigate it when necessary, so moisture is never going to be a problem, and we can make the most out of every bit of that nitrogen we go on there and we, we've got good silage making equipment, good contractors that can help us, so we can pretty readily, you know, jump the cows ahead. We've got a fairly well-designed paddock system so we can skip a couple of paddocks and, you know, take them out to silage. We can react pretty quickly when those, when we've got those peak times of growth and that I think that's been pretty useful for us.
Sheena: Very good. Now, in terms of things that you measure within the dairy, I think all dairy businesses have a lot of information that comes into the business and there's opportunities to use that to help you manage the business well. The college has participated as a dairy Farm Monitor farm for a number of years. Can you tell me how you actually use those reports? So for the listeners, obviously Farm Monitor is a national program that looks at understanding how the dairy industry is performing, but participating farms get an individual farm report. How do you use the information within that?
Matt: I suppose the thing with us is we certainly participate in that program and happily do so, but we're also aware that there are some quite substantial differences to our business and our business structure here. And so there's some things that we, it's very hard for us to compare ourselves or benchmark ourselves against industry and the fact that we're constantly training students and there's a lot of inputs that go into that. But certainly, you know, feed costs is one of the big ones that we can look at there and how much home grown food we're growing, you know, how much fodder have we had to buy in. All those sorts of things and to look where the, where the numbers balance out. So it's certainly very useful.
Sheena: So it's kind of, in that instance it's really a historical – which is what a dairy based, or Farm Monitor report will give you – it's a historical look at how you went for that year. And then from that point do you use it for any sort of forward planning?
Matt: Yeah, so we do, and the thing that we are also mindful of, the last sort of three years we agreed on a sort of a program of changing the dairy. So we were sort of at a stage about three years ago where we knew that we wanted to increase the size of the operation. It actually had decreased slightly, so we knew we wanted to build it back up. We wanted to get cow numbers up. We knew we wanted to bring in extra ground and start to make that ground more productive. We wanted to put on some more irrigation and make use of that. So all those things have been underway in the last three years. So we look at our figures in that context at the moment, I suppose. So maybe in another three years we could probably look back and say, well, yeah, we're a little bit more stable now and the figures would make more sense year on year. So you might be actually comparing a similar year to a similar year. The last three years I wouldn't say that they necessarily are because there's been a lot of change and growth and different things that have needed to happen. So we look at the figures with all that in context, yeah, but it certainly, it does allow us to help with our planning, that's exactly right. So we know that if that was successful and that type of system, you know, helped us to grow good quality, low cost feed, we certainly know that that's the way to continue.
Sheena: Fantastic, and it's a, I guess you know, as always with a dairy base or a Farm Monitor report, it's very much, the value is looking at your performance over time and as you say contexting it, whether it's because you're transitioning through some sort of a different management style or contexting in with the seasons, whether it's been drought or flood or whatever the impact is that you're trying to manage. Other, I guess we would just touch on a couple of other reports that you might use within the business. You do monthly heard recording? And just quickly, how do you, how do you use your herd recording predominantly?
Matt: Yeah, so look the herd recording, it's an essential part of, I think of, most farms would be herd recording now. And certainly we go through that and we look for everything from cows that are, you know, low performing cows – look at their production indexes. Yeah, look at cell count history, yeah, all those sorts of things that we might use to make decisions on cows going forward. So probably that used in conjunction with our, like, repo reports that we get every month, they're probably two of the most critical things as far as managing the cows go day to day. Also really handy to look at, you know, like just herd averages over time, you know. Great reports on there to look back and see how you've performed the last few years. What's your per cow production doing? What’s your rolling herd average doing? You know, are you are you, are we improving? Are we not? And how’s that all measured against profitability? So, you know, they're really useful figures.
Sheena: Excellent. And I guess more recently we've been working together, Tocal College and the New South Wales DPI dairy team, and have been producing a monthly report which is available in the Tocal dairy website. We might just touch on that. I guess that report does a couple of things, it sort of gives a monthly summary of some of the metrics within the business. So, you know, cow production for the month and milk quality. We look at the dietary composition highlighting the proportion of home grown feed and other feed sources within the diet. We'll look at the milking herd profile with reference to days in milk, nitrogen fertiliser usage, irrigation scheduling and those type of things in that monthly summary. The other component to the report is what we’re calling, I guess, a daily operating position, which there's lots of information in that table and quite a few inputs that are driving the numbers, but at the end of the table is our margin over supplementary feed cost and margin over total feed cost. I guess the purpose of this tool is not so much just to put the, you know, Tocal dairy under the microscope, but also for, it's something that every dairy business can really generate themselves to understand their performance. How are you using that report yourself?
Matt: Yeah, well, I think the obvious answer is I look at the margin over feed costs. That is the, probably one critical number that we get out of it every month. And just to have a look at, you know, how much surplus there is, you know, after we've paid our cost of feeding, that we can run the rest of the business. And again, we look at that in context, you know, so if we've had a great spring and the cows are producing well, like we had the cost producing around about thirty two litres, thirty three litres at their peak in spring, this spring just got gone. Great quality pasture, lots of milk. We had, you know, very handy margins. At the moment we look at it now and we've really gone to, just the last couple of days, no pasture grazing at all at the moment and it's all conserved feed that we're feeding back to the cows. Now that will show up in our report that we'll do, you know, for the end of this month. There's no doubt about that. We know that that certainly will cost us more but we look at that in context and we sort of say, well, you know, how much has it cost us? So that's a really useful exercise to make sure that, you know, we're conserving all this feed ourselves, you know, would it have been cheaper to go out and buy any or was it the right thing to do? Certainly, we'll look at that, and I think at the moment, we're probably pretty comfortable that the answer is that we've done well with the feed we've conserved and what we're getting out of it. But yeah, to look at that is certainly really useful. I suppose it brings into account everything else, you look at again in context, you know, do we have a staler herd at the moment? Have the cows been through wet weather? Is that why their production’s dropped a little bit? So it certainly helps you to focus in and have a really good look at just how you have travelled that month and weigh up the reasons. And if you're perfectly happy with the reasons why you are in that situation, you go, well yep great, let's continue on. If you're not really that happy, you can easily look at the things you might need to change.
Sheena: And I guess that's the beauty of looking at margin over feed cost, in that you can look at the business in the right here and the right now. If we're looking at a dairy based report that is historical information, it tells you how you went for that financial year as a result of all the decisions you made, you know, over that 12 month period, you can't really be reactive and change your profit or whatever performance you're trying to measure because everything's done and dusted. You know, there’s other tools out there, profit and loss that people could potentially look at. It has its limitations. You know, it's really done it for tax purposes. It does have good information there. But in terms of making management decisions based on what's happening that day, it's somewhat limited. I guess people might look at their cash position at the moment and, you know, have we got enough cash in the bank to pay the bills? But again, that's a point in time and it doesn't really tell you, you know, you might not have accounted for income that hasn't been paid or expenses that haven't been paid either. So that margin over feed costs is very valuable. As you say, it's got to be contexted, but if you know what your income is going to be for the year and what your expenses are going to be for the year, you can aim to target a, you know, let's call it an average margin over feed cost. But as you've just explained, there's all sorts of variation throughout the year where at certain points you're going to have a stronger margin over feed cost than at other points where perhaps it's going to be getting pretty close to the wire. But you know, you expect that generally and you can manage it at later, different points of the year, like you say, within spring where you've got lots of home grown, good quality feed and reducing those, you know, let’s say purchased a supplementary feed costs in the diet.
I guess if we, we might just take a look at our March report just to give it a bit of context, and as we mentioned earlier, this report's available on the Tocal dairy website – just Google Dairy Business Report Tocal and it will appear, but, so we're doing the margin feed cost for a day each month and when we looked at our report for the 31st of March, we see that our margin over feed cost was down about two dollars per cow per day on the previous month but when we context it we can see there's a number of factors at play. Do you want to just talk us through some of them Matt, what happened at that point in time compared to the previous month?
Matt: Yeah, well, I think the most obvious factor at play there is that our amount of directly grazed or directly harvested pasture was down and we’d increased the silage supplementation. So we've just been through, like a lot of people would have at that time, look, a pretty horrendous nearly three months. It was really starting to get very wet in January, we miraculously had a break at the end of February, it was enough to harvest the corn, so I'm certainly not unhappy about that at all. That that was brilliant. But then after that, the rain just came back in, and look, we were lucky enough here that we've got a lot of flood free country on top of the hills, but I kept grazing the cows, you know, just sort of trying to lightly graze them over paddocks but every paddock nearly got pugged. We certainly could keep them out of the floodwaters but when it did flood all our flats were totally, you know, lucerne and chicory that was on those alluvial flats, it was killed out. Yeah, and the remaining pasture that we had after the flood was, it was pretty chopped up and the cows, look, a lot of feet trouble, a lot of mastitis, it's surprising, I mean, the herd average on this still saying 23 litres or something like that, which is, yeah, probably doesn't look that bad on paper, I suppose.
Sheena: No, I guess that kind of shows the, you know, the system that you've got, you've got that flexibility. Obviously, they weren't getting as much directly grazed feed, but you've got the feed pattern, you had the ability to feed out some of that silage.
Matt: That's right, the cows were fully fed the whole time, that's right. The biggest problem was not that the fact we had ample feed to feed them, we had a lot of stored feed, but really, it was all about their comfort and their welfare, like just having somewhere dry for them to lay. You know, every lane way was, you know, even we've got reasonably good gravel and it had wood chips on it, but they, with that much rain it’s still, you find sharp stones and cows get sore footed and yeah so look, lameness and mastitis were probably as nearly as bad as I've seen in years, to be honest. Certainly there's been worse times, I suppose, but this would have been nearly as equally as bad as any bad times that I've seen for a long time.
Sheena: I guess in terms of that margin over feed cost, we went from a nine dollar margin over feed cost per cow per day, down to just over seven dollars. It was driven by a reduced amount of directly grazed feed in the diet. Consequently, we're feeding more silage. I think at that point they were only grazing once a day. The other feed was on the feed pad and there are a number of other factors at play – we had a slight increase in the cost of our grain ration – the barley was slightly up for the month, about forty dollars.
Matt: We mainly feed barley in the dairy. That's one thing I probably didn't mention before but it's a, we keep a pretty stable barley canola meal mix. The truth is, with the amount of students we have here and training students to push buttons and feed cows, barley is a really safe option for us. Whereas wheat, we did feed wheat for a little while, but actually had a couple of, you know, slight little hiccups where, you know, you get a double feeding or something like that and you end up with some cows that are a bit crook so we tend to stick with barley just to manage the risks. Yeah, it's pretty safe. And look, we do feed test the barley. We actually recently started weighing each load with a, you know, a sample cup to make sure it meets that F1 weight. We have found that there's been some variability in barley around at the moment. And yeah, it pays to, I think, let the grain traders know that you're happy to check and test it because you'll end up with a dodgy load otherwise. There's probably little doubt about that, I think.
Sheena: Yeah, and I think that's a, that's a great, great message, message to other farmers out there. Look, I think we might leave the report there for this session. We'll obviously come back to that report in future podcasting sessions, because there's a lot of information in there that we can use within the business to make decisions and also to understand how our performance has gone. So really, until next time, I'd like to thank you very much for your time, Matt, and sharing the Tocal story with our listeners and some of the reports that you use within the business and also an understanding of the system that you're operating here at Tocal.
Matt: Yeah thanks, Sheena. Very happy to be here and yeah, we'll chat again soon.
Sheena: Thank you for listening to this month’s Business of Dairy podcast, produced by the NSW Department of Primary Industries Dairy Business Advisory Unit. This series is also brought to you with funding with support from the Hunter Local Land Service. We’d love you to share this podcast with your networks and feel free to send any feedback or suggestions for future episodes to email@example.com
Please go to the show notes to access a full transcript and resources mentioned throughout this podcast, including links to:
· the Tocal Dairy Monthly Business report and
· the NSW Dairy Farm Monitor Project
You can also subscribe to our NSW DPI Dairy Facebook and DPI Livestock Twitter feed and view or subscribe to our quarterly DPI Dairy newsletter using the links provided.