Feeding infrastructure considerations for dairy farmers this winter and beyond

With drought conditions persisting in East Gippsland feeding large quantities of hay, silage or mixed rations is still common practice. In the South and West Gippsland region, managing wet conditions and minimising pugged pastures and laneways is a current high priority.

There are also frosty conditions around the Macalister Irrigation District providing challenges for holding onto pasture reserves to get through the rest of winter.

Despite differences throughout Gippsland, supplementation of home-grown or bought-in feed is becoming more common in feeding decisions this season. For some Gippsland dairy farmers higher levels of supplementation may be required beyond this winter, extending well into spring and even into next summer.

The need to invest in a feeding area often stems from an aim to minimise feed wastage. While this is a significant consideration, it shouldn’t be the only motivation for investing in a feeding area. In addition to where the supplementary feed is actually fed, high levels of wastage can also result from poorer quality feed being refused by cows, or even an over-allocation of feed.

Like with many things related to farming, one size does not fit all – big and expensive is not necessarily best and planning is key. The ideal place to begin regarding feed management considerations is to start with a comprehensive assessment of your current situation and where you might like to get to regarding your desired feeding system in the short, medium and even long-term future.

Agriculture Victoria Dairy and Livestock Specialist Scott McDonald uses the below five–step approach when working with farmers who are considering investing in feed infrastructure or a feeding area on their farm.

Scott will be presenting information on this approach at a ‘Feedpads and Winter Management’ Webinar for Gippsland dairy farmers and interested service providers on 1 Wednesday July at 12pm.

As part of assessing your current situation it is crucial to be clear on what you are trying to achieve through asking “Why do I need to invest in a feeding area at this point in time?”. Key questions to consider include:

  • Do I need to fill the feed gaps when pasture is limiting?
  • Do I want to or have to reduce feed waste?
  • Should I look at a flat milk price incentive opportunity?
  • Would the area be used as a contingency area in a fire or flood situation?
  • Is the area needed to protect pasture from pugging or to preserve pasture residuals?

Unpacking your motivation and being clear on your needs for investing in new feeding infrastructure will help determine an appropriate level of investment for your situation.

Once you are clearer on why you need to invest in a feeding area, working out what type of system is the next critical step. Considerations for the type of feeding system may include:

  • Is it going to be a top up area on the entrance or exit of the dairy?
  • Is it for all animals to use all or part of the year, at the same or different times and for what length of time?
  • How would an increase in herd size be allowed for?
  • Am I better off to have a permanent system or something that is easy to relocate?

When it comes to costing feeding management systems, matching the level of investment to the type of feeding system you have chosen and how that feeding area is going to be used, is important.

Also, don’t forget when costing out a system, allow for the ‘ripple effect’ caused by hidden costs that may not be expected.

Key elements to consider that may contribute to your ripple effect include:

  • Will the current effluent system cope with any changes in the feeding system?
  • Will earthen areas and laneways stand up to increased traffic?
  • What continued cleaning and additional repairs might be required?
  • What additional machinery and equipment may be required to buy-in or hire a contractor to do?
  • Will fences, laneways, gate ways and watering points need modification?
  • Has enough allowance for adequate site preparation to minimise runoff been made?

No matter how simple or complex the new feed management system will be to set up or construct, it is essential that enough time is spent in carefully planning. To get the siting and design right, some of the things that should be considered include:

  • What’s the best location for the new feeding area?
  • How am I going to clean the feeding area?
  • Where will I store the piles of solids that will be scraped from the area or off the pad?
  • Have I considered cow comfort and cow flow when designing the feed pad (earthen or concrete)?
  • Are any planning or building permits required?

To help with navigating the planning system, Agriculture Victoria has a web-based tool that can assist in the planning process of your next farm development; “Navigating Farm Developments” can be found at https://developments.agriculture.vic.gov.au/NFD/index. Agriculture Victoria staff can help with using this tool and with planning inquiries regarding feeding systems.

A final important step to consider once the new or upgraded feeding system is in place is to be diligent about ongoing management, to operate it effectively. To set and forget is not an option.

Regular cleaning with a dry scrape and/or a flood wash approach for example can be critical, as are the tasks of repairing any damage in concrete work, repairing fences or gates, removing waste feed from feed troughs and maintaining water troughs.

Where animals are housed in intensive situations, issues around animal health can arise such as mastitis and lameness and these need to be actively monitored and managed. Odour and effluent management is also key to a holistic approach in feed management.

Agriculture Victoria staff can also assist with inquiries regarding effluent management.

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