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24 Apr 2023

7 tips on how to farm more sustainably

Read about four dairy farmers who are leading a better life after transforming their dairy businesses into more profitable and sustainable ones.


(Herd manager Sam Gordon is pictured for Roger Peters' farm)

7 tips on how to farm more sustainably

Meet the farmers

Ross Anderson

Australia, 500 VikingGoldenCross cows

Farming sustainably is in the DNA of the Anderson family from Denison in Victoria’s Gippsland dairy heartland. Ross has been working on the family farm for 15 years and he is happy to be continuing the tradition. He and his partner Jenny are taking over management of the farm from his parents Graeme and Chris.

Today, the Andersons milk 500 crossbred cows and are always looking for opportunities to farm sustainably and profitably.


Brett and Bronwyn Davies

Australia, 280 cows (95% VikingReds)

Brett and Bronwyn Davies started using VikingRed to transition from Holsteins to Reds and changed their calving pattern to overcome fertility problems. They are confident they’ve made the right choices and the changes have helped ensure their financial sustainability. The Davies moved to South Victoria, Australia, eight years ago and it’s been 11 years since they switched to predominantly VikingRed.


Roger Peters

Australia, 350 crossbred cows (VikingRed and VikingJersey)

Roger Peters’ farm – managed by his daughter Edith – has cut cow numbers, changed the herd mix and eliminated synthetic fertilisers. The Peters use VikingJersey sexed semen on the heifers and VikingRed sexed semen on the cows, while everything else is inseminated with beef. “I’ve found that the Jersey cross with Red makes a really good little robust and healthy cow that seems to be perfect for a grazing system,” says Roger.


Stephen and Christine Pickles

United Kingdom, 160 cows (transitioning from Holstein to ProCROSS)

Stephen and Christine Pickles have slashed their carbon footprint by changing their feeding and breeding system. Switching the breed, reducing dietary protein and improving forage quality have helped place their small Cheshire County Council farm in the UK’s top 10% for carbon footprint.

7 tips on how to farm more sustainably

#1 Water – a precious resource

Ross and Jenny Anderson invested in a monitoring system and automated irrigation. Water is limited, so the Andersons are conscious of being smart with their use of it through catchments, which ensures all water is reused. They have also improved efficiency thanks to automated irrigation, and pit silage to decrease disposable plastic.

A new $20,000 monitoring system monitors grain levels in silos, water in farm tanks and hot water for the plant. The system ensures the right levels of chemicals are being dispensed for washes.

Finding the right location for the farm is also crucial. Brett and Bronwyn Davies looked for greener pastures by relocating from Swan Hill in northern Victoria to Simpson in the southwest to address water supply issues. 

 “The water issues in northern Victoria were getting too challenging so we moved from Swan Hill to Simpson in southwest Victoria where the rainfall is much more reliable and we don’t have to rely on irrigation and expensive water allocation,” explains Brett.

7 tips on how to farm more sustainably

#2 Switch the breed or start crossbreeding

Crossbreeding helped the Andersons improve the efficiency and sustainability of their farm. The farm has been crossbreeding for decades, originally with Jersey and Friesian. More recently with Brown Swiss, and for the past two years VikingRed.

“The third cross gives a great opportunity to really develop the animal and improve fertility and health. The calves are beautiful and we can’t wait to get them mated and milked in the coming years. We’re pretty excited about them,” says Ross. They have also equipped their herd with collars, to improve health and create labour efficiencies.

The Davies chose VikingRed as the main breed for their herd. Their herd in Swan Hill was a Holstein herd, but it was getting harder and harder to get cows in calf. A friend had a few Aussie Reds and invited Brett to a field day. He looked at them and met VikingGenetics breeding advisor Erik Thompson and decided to dabble in Aussie Reds for a while.

“Once we started getting the daughters, we realised it was the way to go. We got an instant kick in that first cross for fertility, and the health continued to improve, which meant we weren’t spending as much on mastitis and lame cows,” says Brett.

“We predominantly use VikingRed and don’t cross with anything else. The Holsteins are breeding themselves out but we’ll keep 25-30 in the herd. We’re using VikingHolstein higher fertility bulls to improve fertility and see if they can hold their position,” he adds.

 Crossbreeding Brett Davies VikingRed

Stephen and Christine Pickles experienced how switching to ProCROSS can transform a business, when they increased their milk solids while slashing production costs.

“I’d read several articles about ProCROSS, a three-way system which uses Holstein, Montbéliarde and VikingRed in a breeding rotation,” he says. “I spoke to Chris Stone from VikingGenetics and, on his advice, we started crossing the Holsteins with a Montbéliarde and that cross was bred to a VikingRed, which will then go back to the Holstein.”

“Furthermore, the three breeds are complementary for stature, helping to maintain size uniformity and ease of management in the herd,” he adds. “We could see the potential in them straight away,” says Stephen, who also bought in some ready-made ProCROSS cattle to speed things along.

“The calves are more vigorous too,” adds Christine, who shares the milking with Stephen, undertakes calf rearing and has so far achieved zero percent mortality in the crossbred calves’ first 24 days.

Crossbreeding Stephen Pickles

#3 Introducing solar power

 The Andersons invested $120,000 in an 80kW solar power system for, among many things, housing and 60 kW on the dairy.

“At full tilt when the dairy is running, we use all 60kW. Depending on what time we milk and the weather conditions, we can cover a fair bit of the power for that milking,” says Ross.

Solar also runs pumps, crushers and other equipment during the day, allowing a shift from night-time work, leading to more efficiencies.

Solar is so efficient that, only five years after installation, the system has already paid for itself.


#4 Focus on fertility and health

Good lifespan and low replacement rates help reduce methane emissions.

This is the experience of the Pickles’ farm, as longevity and fertility have driven the replacement rate down to 21%, leaving scope for some 30-40 dairy heifers to be sold in future years. And despite scoring well in the carbon audit for fertility, Stephen thinks they can do even better.

“Our 24-month age at first calving is a strong point, but we’re now aiming to reduce this to 23 months,” he says. “It’s hard to believe their age when you see them at less than two years – they are definitely stronger,” he adds. 

Semen use has also dropped drastically from 2.8 to 1.5 straws per conception, at the same time as sexed semen usage has increased. This is used on all heifers and the top 25% of cows, with the remainder bred to either conventional dairy or beef.

General health has also seen a dramatic turn for the better in the form of improvements in lameness. “We have a lot less lameness and far better foot health – it’s rare to see digital dermatitis now and feet seem much harder,” he says. This is reflected in vet costs, which have almost halved since 2017 from 1.4 p/litre, compared with 0.73 p/litre today.

Health and Fertility Stephen and Christine Pickles

#5 Change the calving pattern

At their farm in Australia, the Davies changed from split calving to seasonal, starting around late March. Herd fertility was previously as low as 60 per cent for seven-weeks-in-calf; now it’s about 80 per cent.

Daughter fertility was the top priority, but we also noticed a genetic gain in each generation and a boost in production,” says Brett. Additionally, the Davies have just finished a five-year extensive pasture renovation programme, so he can concentrate on growing grass and watching his healthy cows.

Stephen and Christine Pickles have also achieved improvements in profitability by increasing milk produced from forage after switching to autumn calving.

“We thought we could improve our profitability if we switched to autumn calving as we’d had some difficult years, particularly in the wet summer and long winter of 2012/13, when forage was short,” says Stephen. “When the cows were year-round calving they were fed a total mixed ration inside at night and grazed by day, which we found tended to make them selective grazers,” he adds.

Milk from forage stood at around 1,600 litres at the time of moving but improved after the herd transitioned to autumn calving. This involved switching to a TMR during winter and fully grazing (plus parlour concentrates) the rest of the year.

Calving pattern Brett Davies

#6 Reduce methane emissions with improved feed efficiency and optimised feeding ration

Chasing a low carbon footprint may sound like a difficult task, but Stephen and Christine Pickles say they have done so by simply trying to make their Cheshire farm more efficient.

“Feed conversion efficiency [FCE] is one of the key drivers of a low carbon footprint and this is an area where the farm scored well,” says Stephen.

 This is reflected in the cut in concentrate feeding from 3.1 to 2.7 tonnes per cow per year, and a reduction in the TMR’s overall protein, down from 17.5% to 16.5%. This was achieved by cutting the blend in the TMR from 22% to 18% protein, feeding for maintenance plus 28 litres, with up to 6kg/day of 18% protein cake in the parlour.

“I was keen to see if we could cut the protein of the overall ration, which I knew would reduce our carbon footprint, so we began in the winter of 2019/20. Since then, we have noticed no drop in yield, health, or fertility and, if anything, we have seen an improvement in milk solids,” explains Stephen.

Good feed conversion efficiency is something ProCROSS cows are known for. Research from the University of Minnesota has demonstrated they produce 8% more milk solids than Holsteins, per kilogram of dry matter intake.

“We certainly feel they are better feed converters,” emphasises Stephen, highlighting how concentrate use has dropped from 0.34 kg/litre to 0.29 kg/litre.

Feed efficiency Stephen and Christine Pickles

#7 Focus on regenerative farming

Regenerative dairy farming activities are also gaining more and more attention.

Roger and Edith Peters have focused on improving pasture management to pursue carbon farming. As a result of this transformation, they have managed to completely cut synthetic fertiliser.

This change led to a drop in herd numbers to deal with less home-grown grass, but the results have been better than expected. Edith highlights this, as, when the urea was still in the pasture system, they had some fresh cows getting grass tetany, but they haven’t seen any in the last two years.

“When we started, you couldn’t see any nodulation when digging up the clover. Now, you can see a fair bit and that’s what the clover uses to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere, which should have long-term benefits,” explains Sam. “Roger and Edith are very concerned about building soil profile and are keen to pursue carbon farming,” he adds.

“They were probably a bit in front of most farmers. Now, fertiliser prices have skyrocketed and everyone is looking for alternatives, but they were already doing this years ago. We’re going into our third year with no synthetic fertiliser, and it has been a big financial saving,” says Sam, emphasising the reduction in costs.

Instead of fertiliser, the farm started sowing multi-species pastures, ensuring the pasture gets a good recovery period and utilising effluent and compost on-farm. “If we get it interacting well, it’s going to really benefit growing grass and herd health,” says Edith. “We’ve been making our own compost and applying our own effluent instead of fertiliser to keep the grass active,” she adds.

“I’ve been blown away. It’s a good valley and you could grow anything, but I’ve been amazed by how much grass they grow with little input,” ends Sam.

Read about future-friendly farming
Regenerative farming Roger Peters

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