A DAIRY farming family’s decision to move away from perennial rye-grass to some new pasture species might be challenging convention, but it is certainly working for the Davis family from Cobden.
Reggie and Tanya Davis along with their four children milk 600 Holstein cows grazing 260 hectares of pastures.
Along with three other farming families in the area, they supply fresh milk to the Green Pastures label they established five years ago.
It is now one of the only Australian-owned milk brands available on supermarket shelves.
The Davis family is committed to natural and sustainable dairy farming.
Almost a decade ago they began rebuilding their soils with biodynamic farming principles, replacing the majority of their conventional granular fertiliser program with home-made compost.
More recently, new grass varieties have been established on farm to provide better sustainability and persistence.
According to Reggie, rye-grass pastures are often not robust enough to handle the rigours of extreme climatic conditions, or high stocking rates needed to maintain profitability.
“It’s not cheap replanting your pastures every year,” he said.
“Ideally, we want to have pastures with a good density and good persistence that don’t need a truckload of fertiliser every month.”
He started exploring alternatives three years ago, with help from pasture seed specialist, Michael Grant from Stephen Pasture Seeds.
Problems with pugging, cracks and crickets were constantly running down pasture grown under irrigation on volcanic soils, these were the first to be removed.
As an alternative Michael suggested trying Hummer tall fescue, a deep-rooted, summer-active perennial grass.
Rather than gradually declining over time, Hummer gets stronger every year.
On farm, Hummer is mixed with white clover and is boosted with home-made compost, as well as some sulphate of ammonia in the winter.
“Hummer grows like mad in spring, so we often have to cut it for silage to keep up with the growth,” Reggie said.
“Even in summer it’s ready to graze again after 12 to 13 days rather than 16 to 20. It loves being grazed.
“These newer release fescue varieties like Hummer are more palatable for the cows than the older style varieties that would cut your tongue if you tried to chew them.”
With the success of Hummer attention was then turned to a group of paddocks with variable soils — a Hummer tall fescue and Savvy cocksfoot mix was used.
Savvy cocksfoot is a new high-yielding cocksfoot variety suited to shallow, lighter soils and is disease resistant and bred to tolerate hard grazing.
“Savvy and Hummer together have been good on our irrigated pastures, with the Savvy dominating on the dry corners of the centre pivot paddocks,” Reggie said.
“Savvy’s brilliant when you get a shower of rain over summer, it greens up straight away.”
But he said it was important to go through a cropping program to prepare paddocks well and give the new deep-rooted pastures time to establish.
“Don’t graze too hard the first winter and that way, you should have it for five to 10 years,” he said.
The latest pasture renovation project has been on some dryland hill country. Again, the focus has been setting paddocks up for long-term persistence sowing Savvy cocksfoot with Prospect AR37 perennial rye-grass.
“The rye-grass is really a cover to suppress weeds, provide some early grazing and give the Savvy cocksfoot time to establish. Over time, I expect the rye-grass will decline in this hill country, while the Savvy cocksfoot thrives.”
The whole grazing system is supported by the biological farming system, which is based on using effluent from the herd mixed with gypsum to create a healthy compost. This largely replaces granular fertilisers.
Reggie said they had been tracking soil health and fertility for a decade and have seen improvements in a range of areas, including the numbers of worms and other soil biota and increasing soil phosphorus levels.
“The combination of our soil-management practices and the introduction of these new deep-rooted pasture varieties are really paying dividends for our farm,” he said.
“We’re not spending as much on bought-in feed, or fertiliser, and with pastures that will last, we’re reducing the time and money spent on sowing and pasture renovation.”
Michael Grant said dairy farmers had a range of pasture and cropping options available to them beyond traditional rye-grass pastures.
“One size doesn’t fit all, and the right pasture depends on your rainfall, soil type, grazing patterns and the way you want to manage the farm overall,” Mr Grant said.
“It has been great working with Reggie. He’s open to addressing problems and trying new things.
“This new approach is really working for him — you can just see it in the pastures.”