Tradition meets innovation

Three generations of the Gazzola family work together to run a dairy farm at Jervois in South Australia.

Who: The Gazzola family

What: Milking up to 200 cows, predominantly Holsteins

Where: 1700-hectare farm at Jervois, South Australia

The youngest family member who works full-time on the farm is Rupert. The 23-year-old loves dairy farming, especially working with animals. While he continues to learn from his parents and grandparents, he is also excited to help modernise the 1700-hectare farm.

Rupert returned to the farm after studying agricultural sciences at the University of Adelaide. Even during his studies, he returned home to help whenever he could.

As with the other family members, Rupert has his area of responsibilities on the farm – he takes the lead on managing the 100 hectares of pasture and the herd. They are milking between 180 and 200 cows.

Rupert milks with his Nonna (Grandmother) Luisa every afternoon. Other family members share the milking duties, with an employee helping three mornings a week – but always with one of the family members.

Whenever possible, the Gazzolas like to do things themselves, right up to fixing machinery thanks to Rupert’s father Dino and Rupert’s brothers’ qualifications.

“When you’ve done it yourself, you know you’ve done it how you wanted it to be done,” Luisa said.

“When we put the extra care into it all, we find it just runs smoother,” Rupert added.

23-year-old Rupert takes the lead on managing the 100 hectares of pasture and the herd.


Animal husbandry

The family takes pride in their cows’ longevity – the oldest cow in the herd, which still gets in-calf and produces, is 18 and there are a handful that are 15 and 16 years-old.

Rupert estimated the cows have at least six or seven calves on average, continually producing premium quality milk, before they’re sold.

“We don’t work them too hard and we use reliable bulls,” Rupert said.

Luisa agreed that genetics plays a key role in longevity. The family has been buying bulls from the Rathjen family’s Glenjoy Holsteins stud at Springton, SA, since they started farming at Jervois in the 1950s. They have records of every cow that has been on the farm.

The Gazzolas’ cows calve year-round. Rupert said that help keep their milk supply “pretty much flat” with small differences reflecting seasonal feed quality.

Rupert has added some Illawarra cows and Illawarra-crosses to the herd, and has also introduced artificial insemination (AI), which he hopes will boost production.

Calving year-round helps the Gazzolas maintain a consistent milk supply

Rupert has added Illawarra genetics to the herd and implemented AI in order to boost production.

Technology upgrades

In spring of 2017, the Gazzolas purchased cow collars for heat detection, and movement and ruminant monitoring.

The collars alert the family to any change in a cow’s behaviour earlier than they had been able to observe it previously, so they can check on an animal quickly and treat as required. The devices also pick up when a cow is on heat.

“Because we run the bulls with the cows all the time, it was getting hard to pick who was on heat and who’s mated so we were having to preg test all the cows. Now we won’t have to worry about preg testing so much,” Rupert said.

“Now we’ll be able to pick out cows that aren’t getting in-calf straight away and we can make the decision to sell them or treat them.”

The smart collars transmit signals throughout the day to a computer in the dairy.

“I can go through and have a look at the individual cow graphs and see what they’ve all been up to.”

Rupert said they write the data into books as well, so they can add notes too.

He said in the first five months of having the collar system, he can see how it will help them be more efficient, for example, they won’t milk cows that shouldn’t be in the herd anymore.

The family has also recently put in a variable speed vacuum pump in the dairy, which Rupert said should cut electricity costs.

They are also putting new and more efficient pumps for their irrigation system and are laser levelling ‘The Swamps’, as they call their river flat country, so the paddocks there can be flood irrigated more efficiently in the drier months. They regularly spread manure, put out fertiliser a couple of times a year and strip-graze these pastures.

Their pastures are predominately Lucerne and include various clovers, rye grass and a little bit of fescue. In winter, cows graze oats up on the slightly higher country.

“We’ve always got something growing regardless of the weather, with each plant species offering something different to the cows as well – a good feed mix is pretty important to making good milk,” Rupert said.

The smart collars transmit signals throughout the day to a computer in the dairy. They help with heat detection and movement and ruminant monitoring.

The family added a variable speed vacuum pump to the dairy.

Security vital

Rupert said the family had the confidence to plan for and invest in these upgrades, regenerating pastures and more because they have been a Dairy Farmers Milk Co-operative (DFMC) member since 1997 when the DFMC integrated the Dairy Vale business who owned the dairy processing plant at Jervois.

“DFMC is secure. That’s why we’ve always stayed with them. They’ve always got a good price, a reasonable price. It’s just the security of it,” he said.

He said the Jervois plant had sold several times since then, and farmers supplying other companies had faced uncertainty.

The Gazzola family’s work ethic, cooperation and love for the industry will see them continue in dairying for many years to come.

Despite its challenges, Rupert said: “I just really love it.”

“I love being outside, love working with the animals. And, like Nonna said, it’s about family as well – milking together, and having a good chat and stuff, that’s really enjoyable.”

Rupert says the security provided by DFMC allows the family to make better investment decisions

Luisa and Rupert work in the dairy together each afternoon.

A passion for profitable crossbred cows

Describing the composition of Clayton Alley’s dairy herd is no easy job, with the herd comprising a diverse mix of crossbred cows that are one of the keys to the high profitability of his business.

Who: Clayton and Kristy Alley, Moo Moo Dairies – X-breds for profit, Riverie

What: 175 milking cows, crossbreds

Where: Forbes, NSW

“To give you an exact break-up of what we have would be almost impossible – it’s just an explosion of breeds, basically,” said Clayton, a Dairy Farmers Milk Co-operative (DFMC) member whose farm lies along the Lachlan River just outside Forbes in NSW. “We have crosses of Holstein, Jersey, Friesian, Ayrshire, Aussie Red, Fleckvieh, Normande and Brown Swiss – it’s a complete crossbred herd.”

Clayton milks about 175 cows at Moo Moo Dairies – X-breds for profit, Riverie, and walking with him among his herd it is astounding how much knowledge he retains in his head about each cow’s parental linage.

To manage the crossbreeding, Clayton buys in unrelated bulls and runs them with the herd for two years – until the bull’s heifers start to come online. He doesn’t use artificial insemination (AI) because he feels he has more success with the herd bulls – about one bull to every 50 cows – and gets healthier calves.

“It probably all started for me years ago with my grandfather,” said Clayton. “He’d always say to us ‘The best cow in the herd is a brindle’, which is often a three-way-cross cow with a red cow, a Jersey and a Friesian.”

The driving force for his crossbreeding endeavours isn’t just to produce a pretty-looking brindle cow (although he clearly appreciates a looker!) – it’s all about profitability.

“You know there’s two sorts of dairy guys out there,” said Clayton. “If you’re going to be a status guy you’ll milk the big Holsteins with big numbers. If you’re more about your components, you’ll milk Jerseys with lower numbers but higher components. But I like a mixture of the two where you make money; it’s all about the bottom-line profit.”

And something must be going right, because Clayton estimates his profits are more than double those of the average dairy farm, based on industry benchmarks.

The diverse faces of Clayton’s crossbred dairy herd.

Lower inputs, lower costs

“We attribute our success to very, very low inputs. We also don’t spray anything, we don’t fertilise anything and we use our effluent water a bit,” Clayton said.

He’s also saved about $30,000 a year by cutting out a lot of mineral additives and instead feeds his cows about five kilos of pellets a day combined with strip grazing. The transition to the new feeding program was slow, with Clayton gradually shifting his cows across and closely observing changes along the way. Interestingly, he has observed that the cows seem to now eat less and ruminate more.

“We worked on our soil as well as our cows so that the cows were getting a more natural availability of minerals and vitamins and everything out of the grass instead of trying to force-feed it into them,” he said. “We try to give them as much grass as we can, and it’s a mixed pasture.”

His philosophy is to give the cows a good range of pasture varieties to choose from so they can select what they need. He prefers direct drilling and avoids too much ploughing but says it was not a quick process to establish the pastures to the point at which they are now. But six years after the change-over, Clayton is pleased with the results.

Data from soil tests done on the farm show no deterioration of soil minerals and in fact an increase of five per cent after two years of using some effluent waste from the dairy to restock nutrients and no manufactured fertilisers.

“Minerals in the soil translate to minerals available in the grass that the cows are getting,” said Clayton. “We don’t need to feed as much because they’re filling their mineral requirements a lot quicker and sooner.

“You don’t need to plough because it’s working itself. And you don’t need to spray. The only thing you need to do is slash. It’s labour-effective. It’s cost-effective. And it’s a lot cheaper to feed cows on grass that it is anything else.”

Cows on their way back to their paddock – on Moo Moo Dairies’ pastures no manufactured fertilisers or chemicals are used.

Happier, healthier cows

Clayton also attributes his farm management to achieving happier and healthier cows – with no occurrences of mastitis in nine or 10 years.

“If they’re going to be good strong healthy cows then that’s what we want, because to us the cow’s health is really important,” said Clayton. “All I look for in a cow is that she’s going to be able to milk – good strong robust cow, a healthy cow – then the rest of it sort of takes care of itself.”

These are the traits Clayton has achieved through his crossbred herd. His wife Kristy adds: “The cows themselves are easier to handle. They are smaller and more compact, and they have better temperaments, I think.”

Another benefit of the crossbreds is that they are more suited to dual purpose because they’re a bit “beefier”, says Clayton.

“We’ve always got buyers for our bobby calves,” he said. “People want them to grow on for 12 months or so.”

And he points out that if ever the dairy industry moves to require calves to be aged 90 days or more before slaughter then his business is pretty much already set up for that, given the demand for his crossbred calves.

According to Clayton, crossbred calves are suitable for dual purpose because they are “beefier” – making them easier to sell.

Less litres, more profit

With an annual production rate of around one million litres a year, Clayton’s crossbred cows average between 17 and 18 litres a cow per day.

“We’re not getting the litres that we were getting before but we’re not spending the same amount of money either,” Clayton said. “But as far as our profitability goes, we’re probably one of the best in the industry.

“I know that’s a pretty big call and a big statement to say but given the fact we’re involved with that milk monitor project, we have a good idea of where we are at.

“Regardless of what the milk price is, we try to retain better than 50 per cent. So, if we’re getting 50 cents a litre we try to make a profit of 25 cents a litre.”

He adds that, for small-scale farmers like him, DFMC’s collective bargaining power has been a real positive.

“It’s a farmer in there arguing about milk prices because he has the same issues you have, and it’s not a company coming out and saying ‘Well, okay, you’re going to practise this, this, this and this’,” said Clayton. “It’s a group of farmers fighting for farmers, which is why we stay.”

With an aim to retain around 50% of the price they get for milk and low cost inputs – Moo Moo Dairies is very profitable.

Clayton Alley with his herd of cross-bred cows.

A committed dairy family

The bustling, busy house of Queensland-based DFMC dairy farmers Duncan and Mary McInnes reflects the energy and enthusiasm the entire family has for the dairy industry.

Who: McInnes Bros Trust – Duncan, Ross and Morris and their families
(In photo from lt to rt: Duncan McInnes, Ruth and Geoffrey Chalk’s son, Mary McInnes, Ruth Chalk, Ross McInnes)
What: 500 milking cows, mostly Fresians, on partial mixed ration
Where: Radford, Queensland

The three brothers of McInnes Bros Trust – Duncan, Ross and Morris – all work in the business and have various community commitments that occupy their time as well. Their Scottish grandparents John and Elizabeth McInnes started the dairy more than 100 years ago and the legacy looks likely to continue with some members of the third generation dairying as well.

They employ four full-time and four part-time staff including Morris’s son, Jason, and Ross’s daughter, Madeline. Morris’s wife Monica is also involved in the business, milking on a regular basis along with Mary looking after the bookwork. Duncan and Mary’s daughter Ruth Chalk also works in the industry for a joint Queensland dairy initiative in NRM – Dairying Better ‘n Better – and operates a dairy with her husband Geoffrey and his parents, John and Carol.

The McInnes Bros Trust doesn’t own land in its own right but leases land, including from family members, to run around 500 cows – mostly Friesians – on a partial mixed ration. Nestled in the Scenic Rim region of south-east Queensland with a view of the Great Dividing Range, the dairy produces around 4 million litres of milk a year.

“There is a future in dairying around there,” says Duncan. “Most consumers want to buy milk from the local area and we’re an hour out of Brisbane so we’re well positioned to supply it.”

The McInnes family is one of 50 DFMC members in south-east Queensland who, together, produce around 20 per cent of local production. All their milk goes to Brisbane, yet there’s still a gap in the market with sometimes up to 10 per cent of white fresh milk being imported from interstate.

“We should be able to be more competitive than bringing milk from Victoria or elsewhere even though the cost of production is dearer here. But at the moment we haven’t got enough milk to fill the bottles here,” says Duncan.

And it’s this opportunity for growth that gets Duncan excited.

“There is growth and opportunities here in Queensland and especially in south-east Queensland – it’s great for young farmers,” he adds. “We’re getting paid reasonably well. Of course, we’d always like to think there is a bit more to be had, but given the present situation with one dollar a litre milk we can’t expect to be getting much more than we are getting now.

“You can either grow by getting higher prices or you can grow by producing more volume. Many of our farmers have been able to grow for the last three to four years and we’re looking for every litre of milk that we can get hold of from them.”

Looking after farmers

Since DFMC’s inception in 2004, Duncan has been a director and is currently Chair. Previously, since 1982, he was director on the local co-operative that – after five mergers – became part of Dairy Farmers. When Dairy Farmers sold the processing arm, DFMC was born.

“All the other co-operatives were processors,” he explains. “DFMC is a different beast, we’re just a collective bargaining group. But at the end of the day we are always trying to look after farmers and deal with farmer issues.

“Any collective bargaining group gives you the assurance that someone is doing that work on your behalf and in a professional manner. Although everyone should realise that the market will go up and down a bit to some degree.”

Focusing on supporting the industry at large and other dairy farmers seems key to Duncan’s approach. Their farm is relatively large but they still say they would not want to be negotiating one on one with a processor.

Mary sums it up nicely.

“It’s harder for smaller dairy farmers, we’ve got size by having three families that farm together and we produce four million litres,” says Mary. “But we prefer to be within the co-operative and in that collective group so we can all share in that ability to get the best price.

“The co-operative offers us security and strength in numbers. Individual farmers may not be very good at bargaining in their own right, but together we can be stronger.”

Sustainable prices, sustainable business

Duncan is also a vocal advocate encouraging consumers to purchase branded milk.

“Selling milk at one dollar a litre – well, you’re never going to make too much money – for the processor or the farmer,” says Duncan.

And, as dairy farmers will be aware, it’s one thing for a processor to make a business decision not to make a profit on their milk when they may have other income streams or reasons for setting up their business that way. But for farmers it does make a difference, particularly for the long-term viability of their business.

Ross explains, “There are farmers who are not reinvesting in their farms– that’s probably the problem that we have. If the price isn’t high enough, the first thing that doesn’t get done is reinvestment on the farm.

“I have just done some rough numbers here and we need to reinvest 3 or 4 cents per litre of milk produced every year just to purchase new tractors, machinery and irrigation that we need. If we don’t reinvest in our capital, our maintenance goes up.”

And while it is key to prioritise farm investment in the ‘basics’ the family are also well aware of the need to step away from the business to assess their own performance and look for better ways to fundamentally do business.

They use QDAS (Queensland Dairy Accounting Scheme) and DairyBase to benchmark their business and spend time talking to other farmers to share ideas to improve their practices. For Ross, the promise of new technology is also a big opportunity for the industry and as a pathway to a better business.

“Breeding to produce animals that last longer and whose structural faults are corrected, that can give you a lot of satisfaction if you can improve the quality of your cattle,” says Ross. “Or when you a put in place a nutrition program that increases your productivity. Plus there are mobile phone apps that help you out and the prospect of virtual fencing.”

Both Ross and his niece Ruth talk about the opportunity for cow collars to monitor cow health that pick up on issues the cow might be having before they become a problem. Yet the challenge to adopt new technologies lies in understanding their costs and benefits and making sure they are road tested first to reduce risks.

“It comes back to weighing up the costs and benefits of all these things,” says Ruth. “There are some very successful people out there that are investing at the right times, in infrastructure and equipment which provides great paybacks. I think you’d pay back a lot of this quite quickly but you have to have access to the capital, the cashflow to support it, and the confidence in the future of your business and the industry.”

The McInnes are investing in and trying new practices and infrastructure themselves too. They have installed a new calving shed to better bring on the calves in the healthiest environment possible and a new glycol chiller for their milk. They are also feeding brewer’s grain – a byproduct from beer making that they source from Bega. It is very high in protein and moisture and is a good supplement for their cows.

Last words

“I think there are going to be some really cool advances in dairy technology that are going to become more affordable over the next three years,” says Ruth. “We definitely need to be more positive about our industry and its prospects, we are the only ones that can change that. ”

“Dairy is still seen by the majority of the community as a food with high nutritional benefits and people still want to have fresh milk, which means that there is still a market for us to produce milk here. And, off the back of that, they still want to see their farmers to be paid a reasonable price.”

Managed Growth in the Mary Valley

Whilst national dairy production is forecast to remain steady over 2023/2024, there are farms within the Co-operative that are bucking this trend. Rod and Sharon Skyring, with their children Brittany and Zachary milk, on average, 300 Jerseys in the picturesque Mary Valley (south of Gympie, SEQ). Their story of growth in the face of dry conditions is boosted by strong optimism and genuine business planning to ensure they get the most out of their farm.

Rod and Sharon bought the farm in 2002, looking for somewhere to raise their two very young children and realise their farming dreams. After much searching, and very little luck finding what they wanted, Rod says it was the closed down 15 aside herringbone dairy built in 1985 on the Gilldora property that instantly caught his attention and so the couple made the decision to buy. Other than the dairy and an old timber barn there were no other buildings on the farm, so the couple lived in a caravan alongside the barn, rebuilt the dairy and vat room-and commenced dairying with a small herd of Jerseys and a second-hand vat (which they still use today) that they struggled to fill above the agitator on their first milking.

From these humble beginnings the business has grown into a full family farming enterprise. Whilst Rod has always farmed, Sharon, who is a Social Worker by profession, works alongside her husband and now both adult children are actively involved. The couple’s daughter, Brittany is the cow manager and finds time to study a dual Accounting/Business Degree externally while son Zach takes charge of the pasture management and irrigation.

The Skyring’s approach for growth in production has been on the go since 2012 when the farm then peaked at 120 cows and plateaued out. In 2014 they made the decision to construct a 60m all-weather feed pad at the back of the dairy which proudly they built using ‘99%’ of their own labour. Within a month per cow production lifted significantly which confirmed in Rod’s mind that he had been underfeeding the herd preventing them from reaching their true production capabilities. From here cow numbers grew to 150. However, it was a retired local dairy farmer who said to Rod, ‘with the price farms are getting for milk nowadays, now is the time to get bigger or get out’ that sits in the back of his mind.

After securing 180 acres on a long-term lease on neighbouring properties, two very engaged children and a seemingly never-ending run of heifer calves, the Skyrings made a conscious decision to grow their production lifting from around 200 cows in 2022 to averaging 300 cows today (maxing out at 340 which is the property’s peak wet cow capacity). Rod is firm in his view that the feed pad enables him to keep cows at their peak production for longer thanks to their ability to have a ‘snack attack’ 365 days a year, even during weather extremes. With 95% of the property flood prone thanks to the Mary River the feed pad has been invaluable in managing risks associated with utilising river flats for dairy production.

Cow Care
Key to their successful story of growth is the Skyring family’s care for their cows. Managing a herd of over 500 individual animals comes with its own set of challenges, particularly with the planned and staged diversification into a small beef operation. Within the dairy herd the top 30% of cows are mated back into Jersey which ensures that the genetics carefully developed since the farm’s inception are preserved and grown upon. The rest of the herd is mated to paddock bulls, including a Wagyu bull and other European breeds such as Angus, Murray Grey and Speckled Park. Daughter Brittany carefully selects AI bulls to ensure maximum growth rates.

Up until the floods in 2022, the Skyrings regularly undertook herd recording utilising newly purchased milk meters. Since the floods, herd recording continues but not as frequently, however, the business seldom receives any demerit points for Somatic Cell Count as they can pick out sick cows on sight looking for telltale signs such as a cow’s ears or tail being down, not in their regular spot within milking, coming in last or not coming when they are called. Given everybody in the family is committed to their cows they find this process easy to maintain and highly effective.

Access to water is crucial for dairy cows given the amount of energy they are using to produce milk, which is why they have purposefully invested in additional water points. With a preference for long concrete rectangle troughs, the Skyrings are aiming for water points within 100m of each other. All troughs are scrubbed clean on a rolling six-month timeline with all members of the family taking turns in doing it. It would be unheard of for a trough to be left for 12 months without being cleaned. Each paddock has adequate shade or shelter, with a hard base of gravel continually being put down in high traffic shade areas to ensure cows teats are protected from dirt and mud.

Calf Management
With a growing herd size, the then existing calf rearing facility became too small and so the decision was made to construct a dedicated calf shed. DFMC Northern Regional Manager Damien Tessmann confirms that the Skyring’s calf shed is one the leading facilities he has seen on farm. Built in 2019 the shed uses a laneway set up with group pens either side with access to outside grassed areas. Whilst calf mortality has never been an issue this new facility relies heavily on cleanliness, ventilation, and access to outside areas to ensure calf comfort. Even with this facility Rod prefers to leave calves on their mother for at least a week before they come into the shed.

Rod is firm that the best decision they made when it comes to calf management is to buy a Milk Taxi in 2020 as he believes that first weeks of a calf’s life is key to its success when it enters the dairy. This device ensures milk fed to calves remains at a constant cow body-like temperature of 39 degrees, calculates the required amount of milk needed for the number of calves to be fed (meaning no wastage) and maintains the family’s commitment to cleanliness. No ‘waste’ milk is fed to the calves from cows on a test bucket but rather milk is taken from the first line of cows into the dairy to ensure any remaining rinse water does not end up in the vat. All calves are bottle fed quality colostrum early on that is constantly being retained and stored from other cows, Rod does note that Jerseys do live up to their reputation as being stubborn but with a little encouragement quickly learn to drink from a feeder.

With values in the Mary Valley being so high land cannot be underutilised, or ‘flogged’, as far as Rod is concerned. He is aware that it takes his country between 18 months and two years to recover after major flooding events and manages the river flats accordingly by avoiding overstocking during this time. He is committed to a regular soil testing regime, which has seen an increase in dolomite make a massive difference to soil health. The latest purchase of a Muck Spreader has now meant that all organic matter can be spread onto pasture, from manure to sawdust from the calf shed. Brittany’s previous insistence on purchasing a Bobcat has made this regular process far easier. Harrowing manure back into pasture is also an important part of improving pasture.

Rod is proud of his effluent irrigated multi-species paddock behind the dairy that has no synthetic fertliser used resulting in a constant source of forage sorghum, millet, and lablab virtually all year round. Heavily timbered areas on the hillier country have been laid with solid-set irrigation over time to ensure greater efficiency for weaning heifers and to get the best out of every piece of land regardless of topography. Even concreting the feed mixing areas and laneways to the feed pad are all part of the Family’s management of their scarce land resources.

Recently the Skyrings purchased hay making equipment as a way of trying to increase the amount of home-grown feed is a new venture for the business. Rod readily acknowledges that the high level of bought in feed is a risk for the business and has goals to grow and cut his own silage.

It is obvious the passion that the Skyrings have for dairy, which has been transferred and nurtured onto their children. They agree that the recent increases in milk price have enabled them to make additional purchases to grow the efficiency of their business such as spreaders and other machinery. Whilst price increases are acknowledged they also talk about the increases in production costs, particularly around grain and supplementary feed during the recent dry period.

Both Rod and Sharon have made the conscious decision to grow their supply whilst staying true to their values around cleanliness, animal welfare and production standards. We are proud to have them as members of the Co-operative and look forward to seeing the results of their hard work into the future.