Australian Adventures Part 2 – Victorian Farms

An open-air parlor on a small dairy farm in Victoria, Australia.
The parlor on a 120-ish cow dairy farm. The washwater flows to a drain where it is pumped into an effluent holding basin. Using gravity flow, the effluent can be mixed with irrigation water to fertilize down-gradient paddocks.

In Part 1, I showed some of the sights of the big city of Melbourne. In this installment, you get a glimpse of two dairies I got to see in northern Victoria.

The dairy system is largely seasonal and forage-based. Since most milk goes into powdered milk, it is a low-margin market that requires a farm to maintain low input costs. I was told that few farms completely cease production for two months in the winter anymore, but the vast majority of production still occurs during prime grazing months in spring and summer when feed costs are at their lowest. The winters are mild compared to Nebraska and summers are much hotter.

Dairy paddocks in Victoria, Australia
This series of paddocks shows the flatness of the land and a typical grazing system for dairy cattle. The channel in the foreground catches irrigation water for reuse on the paddocks.

The cropland in this part of Victoria is extremely flat and requires some irrigation to make it through the hot, dry summers. Because of the flat fields and salinity of groundwater, flood irrigation using surface water is the preferred system. Extensive infrastructure has been built around this system and any management decisions on farms are made in the context of of the flow of irrigation water.

Australia recently emerged from a decade-long drought that changed the way farmers do business. More dairy farmers began to utilize annual grazing and harvested fodder for cow feed–due to the shortage of irrigation water. Many built concrete feed pads. Some of these feed pads included a roof to provide shade and a way to cool cows in the summer (sprinklers and/or fans mounted on the structure). The use of feed pads, barns, or lots created a need to better handle the manure that accumulated on those. Below is a picture from a 400+ cow dairy that built a feed pad. They only provide feed there if needed and the cows are free to leave the concrete area and travel out to their grass paddock if they wish. Interestingly enough, many cows seem to enjoy spending time on this feed pad.

Concrete feed pad on a dairy farm in victoria, australia
This concrete feed pad provides maximum flexibility to this dairy farm as they can provide supplemental feed in times of drought, for cow health, or inclement weather.

The manure handling system here is a two-stage earthen basin. The first stage is in the upper middle of the photo and allows solids to settle. it is difficult to see because a natural crust forms over the top and vegetation grows on that crust. This crust helps control odors.

The liquid from that first cell is pumped into the second cell which you can see in the left of the photo. The effluent from that cell is pumped onto the feed pad to wash all the manure and waste feed from the pad. That washwater runs down to the far side where it is directed into the first cell.

If needed, the water from the second cell can be pumped into the irrigation system and used to fertilize paddocks for grazing or harvested feed. At regular intervals, the solids from the first cell have to be removed. Many dairy farms with systems like this have begun composting these solids for use by horticulture producers or home gardeners.

I wish I had time to visit even more farms, but I greatly enjoyed the farmers who took time from their busy schedules to show this crazy, manure-obsessed, American around. Just like in the U.S., Australian farmers are very proud of what they are doing and work very hard to improve their management skills and maintain a high quality of life.

Next post: Irrigation in northern Victoria

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