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.