Steve Hawken looks at the construction of a deep straw compost barn on his Echuca dairy farm as an investment in the future of his business.
The 58m long and 37m wide barn has been built to hold 300 cows and will reduce the impact of harsh climatic conditions on his split-calving dairy herd, but perhaps most importantly, its construction has given him the confidence to look to the future.
“The barn construction slots in nicely with our system and is the next step in our business plan moving forward,” Mr Hawken said.
The 2016 wet winter was the catalyst for the decision to build the barn which will offer a warm and dry place to house the cows over winter, but also a place to cool them during summer. It will significantly help with management.
Last season the herd spent a large part of the wet winter temporarily housed in the hay shed and even though it was far from perfect, it did show Mr Hawken what could be achieved from a purpose-built structure.
“Last year it probably cost me about $20 000 for straw and a few extra panels to keep the cows in the hay shed, but we had no mastitis, no sore feet, we didn’t have to waste time washing every cow because they came into the shed clean, and while it was labor intensive putting out the straw, production didn’t suffer.”
Mr Hawken said the temporary structure helped with management but it also helped him mentally cope with the stress of the wet winter.
“I didn’t have to worry about finding a paddock for the cows and I didn’t have to worry about the damage the cows would do to a paddock, and while it is hard to put a figure on, I reckon the temporary set-up saved me tens of thousands of dollars last winter and also a lot of sleepless nights.
“It got me thinking about building something purpose-built and the only regret I have today is that I wasted six months making the decision.”
The inspiration for the design came from a trip to Denmark.
Mr Hawken visited a farm that had a barn with an automatic straw feeder running along the roof. The feeder is something he will implement in the future, but for the time being he’s concentrating on getting the barn up and running.
He will be using long straw that has been windrowed and baled because it creates a better mat than short cut straw, and it will cover the area much better.
“The old straw and manure will be trapped under the new straw that will be fed out and any bad bugs should be cooked by the composting process. That was proven last year and our set-up then was certainly less than ideal because we were so overcrowded and mastitis still wasn’t a problem.”
The barn has been built for easy access to the dairy and the feed pad, and composting, also a major part of management on farm, was taken into consideration.
One of the major problems encountered when composting is getting the dry matter wet enough before it enters the pile.
To combat this problem with the barn, Mr Hawken built a 1MI dam nearby. He envisages scraping the straw from the barn straight into the dam where it will sit overnight and then be removed by an excavator.
“The biggest problem we have with composting is getting the stuff wet enough to heat up. Building the dam nearby will help store effluent from the dairy and also help with composting— I have tried to think of everything which will save work in the long run.”
Despite the tough season the dairy industry has encountered, Mr Hawken is confident in the future and investing in the barn will take away some of the risk.
“I’m expecting our milk production to flatten out because we are eliminating climatic influences like wet weather and extreme heat, which will help keep the cows comfortable and making milk all year round.”
Mr Hawken said he had no trouble obtaining a permit to build the shed from Campaspe Shire and that side of things went smoothly.
The business milks 240 split-calving cows but extra cows and heifers to calve over the next 12 months could bring that number to around 340 by this time next year.
“I have the option to milk more cows if I want to and if I did get to 340, that is about as far as I would go herd-wise,” he said.
Mr Hawken predicts the approaching season is going to be a good one.
“I’ve been in the dairy industry for 33 years and common sense tells me there is only on way milk price can go and that has to be up. When factories are looking to lock in supply long-term it usually means they are going to have to pay a higher price so I won’t be locking into anything that will restrict my ability to change companies and chase a better price.
“Changing factories is another management tool I use and I will go to whoever gives me the best price, I’ve had three shifts in five-and-a-half years. There is nowhere near enough milk around — people have either sold up or reduced numbers and I firmly believe processors will be chasing supply in the near future.”
Mr Hawken feels processors have been caught up in greed and are disassociated from their suppliers and seem to have forgotten without the farmer they don’t have a job.
“Dairy farmers need to harden up and stop letting themselves get pushed around by processors. We should be able to control the price this season by voting with our milk and supplying whoever pays the best price because that is the only language processors seem to understand.
“I can remember when we had record milk price and the Australian dollar was above parity, yet these experts continue to tell us we can’t be paid high milk prices because the dollar is too high at 80 cents; that particular year more farmers shifted processors then ever before – and I think this year has the potential to be the same or even better.
“Farmers are looking at options they have never looked at before and shifting factories is one of them. Thanks to the milk price crash and clawback, factory loyalty is now dead and it’s game on.”