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.