TIM, GEORGE and Will Jelbart have embraced genomics in their quest to improve farm and herd profitability and reduce their reliance on milk income.
The focus on genetics also continues the pioneering spirit of their late father, Max. Max and his wife, Barbe, started on the current farm in Leongatha South in 1981 with 110 ha and 127 cows. Both were well-respected figures within the industry until Barbe died in 2014 and Max in 2016.
The family began succession planning in 2013 and Tim returned to the district in 2015 to take on the role of general manager.
By this stage, the herd comprised 1000 cows on a milking platform of 360ha. When Max died, succession planning had been completed and management structures were in place.
A board comprising the brothers and two external advisers now meets quarterly to discuss budgets and planning, along with longer term objectives.
The Jelbarts hosted the ImProving Herds National Muster field day last month and Tim spoke to an audience of 300 dairy farmers and industry representatives.
“It was an extremely challenging time with a lot happening and the dairy industry being on its knees after the milk price crash in April, 2016,” he said.
“The great thing about having the board was that we were very objective about the decisions we made.”
Having sold the Caldermeade Farm and Café in 2017, the family now operates across 870 ha of owned and leased land at Leongatha South, milking 1000 predominantly Holstein cows, and 1000 followers made up of Holstein calves and young stock.
Tim told the audience the milking platform covers 360 ha of perennial rye-grass pasture and the balance of 510 ha is used for young stock and fodder production. The predominantly Holstein herd calves 60 per cent in autumn and 40 per cent in spring.
Their production target for the herd is to produce 8000–9000 litres/cow with 600–625 kg milk solids/cow, with moderate to high supplementary feeding of 2.5–3.0 tonnes/cow/year of concentrates.
It has been a steep learning curve for the family, with the three brothers working in different fields off-farm following school.
“Dad had a fantastic ‘gut feel’ of what to do and a natural intuition and experience on how to farm. He made decisions on the run and got most of them right,” Tim said.
“With limited farming knowledge, I can’t do that so I use spreadsheets, rely on experts and have a great support network around me.”
Tim said although he grew up on the farm he had very little experience in breeding, feeding cows, growing grass or employing people.
However, he was experienced in preparing spreadsheets, budgets and cash flows and said it was these skills that helped them manage the downturn in the dairy industry in 2016 because they could identify where the business was making and losing money and where to invest.
Farm manager Mike Kilkenny, who has been with the farm for years, proved invaluable — mentoring the three brothers on how to run the business and day-to-day operations.
Tim now makes “big picture decisions” and is the conduit between the farm and the board; Mike implements the day to day running of the farm, but also provides input into the bigger picture.
In spring 2016, Tim said the board decided to make a three- to five-year commitment to invest in genomics and evaluate the outcomes. The business had been part of the ImProving Herds project and could see the merit.
In February 2017, they tested the top 70 per cent of the 2016 spring-born heifers, based on parent averages. They do not test heifers which are sired by mop-up bulls, or who have poor parent averages.
“Genomic testing helps us make informed decisions as to which heifers to keep and which to sell,” Tim said.
“It also has the added advantage of verifying parentage. This will improve the accuracy of our records which are currently based on paddock observations at calving.”
They invest heavily in sexed semen and aim to produce 400 to 500 heifer calves a year through the two joinings. Large numbers of heifers means they can increase their farm income from livestock sales and increase the rate of genetic gain in the herd.
Between 300 and 400 heifers will be genomically tested and the best 250 to 300 will enter the herd as replacements.
Surplus females may be sold as export heifers at nine months of age; heifers in-calf to sexed semen at 16 months of age; or heifers and cows at the point of calving or freshly in milk.
Tim said decisions depended on what prices were on offer at the time, current and forecast seasonal conditions and where the best profit margin could be made.
“Generally, livestock sales account for 15 to 20 per cent of our total income, while milk is 80 to 85 per cent.
“Value adding to livestock sales is a key part of increasing our overall farm income and fully utilising the land resource we have available.”
As part of the ImProving Herds project an analysis was conducted, looking at how the top 25 per cent of the herd compared to the bottom 25 per cent of the herd based on Balanced Performance Index.
Based on BPI, the top 25 per cent of the herd produced an extra 1656litres/cow of milk, 66kg/cow of protein, and 67kg/cow of fat a year more than the cows in the bottom 25 per cent of the herd.
These top 25 per cent of cows had a gross margin (income over feed) of $585/cow a year more than the bottom group of cows. They also lasted 11 months longer in the herd.
Tim said the top BPI cows were not their biggest producers, but they were mostly in calf on the first round, had very few health issues and stayed in the herd longer.
With large numbers of heifer replacements to choose from, Tim said it could be a challenge to identify which to cull. He now uses BPI rankings to identify potential sale heifers and cows.
Tim said they hadn’t used genomics to its full potential yet, but he and his brothers’ eagerness to adopt the technology to give them an edge shows that their father’s spirit continues within them.