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Lockyer Valley farmer out to beat tough times 

Steven Duncan knows dairy farming can be tough at times but he is out to prove he can be tougher.

Two floods in three years, depressed milk prices and escalating costs have not been enough to deter the Lockyer Valley farmer from investing in the future.

Last year, he installed three robotic milking machines. This year, he has just completed building a compost barn to house his cows as part of an ongoing commitment to improving production, reducing disease and stress on cows and combating the current economic environment.

Steven says the investments and a strong focus on home grown feed are part of a long-term strategy to keep the farm viable even in the harshest times.He admits that some might view the compost barn commitment as ‘pretty crazy’ in the current south-east Queensland dairy environment, but he says it is all about being sustainable.“Healthy cows are the core of our business and our focus is preventing disease, not treating sick animals. The compost barn will help us achieve that.

“We’ll be able to look after our cows and control the environment 24-7,” he said. “The barn will provide the missing link in our system; a soft and dry place where the cows can rest.”

The barn, which was completed this winter, will reduce lameness stemming from cows walking on laneways or standing on concrete for a prolonged time and it will stop cows lying in mud and contracting mastitis. Steven expects a production spike and significant animal health benefits as animal comfort increases.

“Now they can lie in a comfortable environment underneath a high roof that allows the breeze to flow through,” he said.

Previously, the Duncans’ cows would spend a number of months a year beneath shade on a concrete floor, rather than lying, and this can take its toll on milk production. 

According to Steven, studies show milk production is reduced if cows stand for too long.

“If cows are spending a lot of time on their feet, whether it be walking long distances while grazing or standing under a shade structure, it decreases their capacity to produce milk. When cows are lying down there is much higher blood flow through the udder and therefore more milk produced,” he explained.

The Duncans previously tried to boost production by increasing cow numbers, but came to realise that milking more cows is not necessarily the way to go.

“The more cows you have, the more bought-in feed you rely on if you can’t produce enough home grown high quality forages. If your infrastructure is not set up for handling a higher number of animals then risk of disease increases. These costs outweigh the profits of milking more cows,” Steven said.

“We decided to go the other way and milk fewer cows, look after them better and increase productivity that way.”

The farm is now milking 160-180 cows on a Lely robotic system introduced in January last year.

Ironically, the robots were introduced less than a fortnight before floods engulfed 85 per cent of the farm. 

“We certainly had our challenges that first month,” Steven said. “Luckily, we had a generator that worked for about six days.”

The system is now working well, saving labour costs and helping to achieve a five to 10 per cent increase in production.

“The number one reason to introduce the robots was to save on labour, which is getting more expensive and not any easier to find,” Steven said.

The system is also giving the farm the option of milking more regularly.

“We can use the capacity to milk more than twice a day to increase production without having the expense of extra people working on the farm. We’ve always been interested in high-capacity animals and increasing production per cow. The robots fitted into that scenario.”

The robots are averaging 2.6 to 2.7 milkings per cow, per day and the farm is averaging 26.5 litres per cow, per day. That number jumps when winter forage comes on board. Last year, the herd peaked at 32 litres per cow. This year, with better forages and the barn providing a soft and dry place for cows to rest comfortably, that number rose even higher, to 33 litres and still rising.

“The compost barn is going well and we’re seeing the benefits,” Steven said. “The mastitis has almost disappeared even with the splash of rain we received in the past couple of weeks,” Steven said.

“Our farm management decisions are based on information and guidance that we gain from our consultants Kamilla Breinhild and William Scott from SBScibus, who we work closely with,” he added. 

The Duncans have three properties with the 60-hectare dairy component supported by grain and hay enterprises. 

“It was a conscious decision to grow our home grown feed at a competitive price and better quality,” Steven said. The farm has also altered its calving pattern to a year-round system with only four weeks off over the hot Christmas period – a change made to meet the demands of processors wanting year-round milk supply. 

Despite the challenges, which have been plentiful in recent years, Steven, 33 and the father of two young boys, remains committed to the industry, continuing to work the farm with his father Graham.

The fourth-generation dairy farmer admits he has tried other jobs in the past, including several years as a machinery salesman, but says dairy farming is his priority.

“I have been away and done other things but dairy farming is my passion,” he said.
Recovering from floods has been difficult.

“We’re probably still not recovered; we’re still hand-to-mouth,” he said. “People need to understand that we are farmers out there trying to do what we can to feed our own families and that we are committed to supplying a high-quality product to the Australian public.” 

Steven Duncan firmly believes increasing public awareness and understanding through proactive programs, such as the industry’s Legendairy communications initiative, is one way to achieve this, along with a campaign to develop sustainable markets and promote sustainable milk pricing.