After a lengthy post back at the start of the year where I spoke about Christmas, holidays and the start of the school year, I promised myself that I would be more up to date with my blogging. After all, we do refer people to this website and I knew that it would not do to have outdated information or infrequent blog posts on here. And yet, this is exactly what I have done this year.
I’m not going to do a recap now (after all, what will I be left with to write about in my recap of the year when it comes Christmas!!), but suffice to say that it has been a busy, lengthy and at times, challenging year.
I thought that having the 4 kids at school would free me up for doing more “working ON the business rather than IN it” but you know, it hasn’t worked out that way. I increasingly feel pulled and pushed into every direction and sometimes I just don’t seem to get anything achieved. That being said, I have been able to concentrate more on the calves this year than I have for the past 8 or so. And I loved it. Until I didn’t.
And I didn’t because we had a (still) unknown bug hit our calves over a 3 week period and we recorded the highest mortality rate EVER in our calf rearing shed. No amount of testing, autopsies, drug therapy, TLC or prayers were going to identify and ultimately stop whatever it was affecting our babies. At the end of the season, we lost in the realm of 23% of our calves*. Almost a quarter. A QUARTER. F*@k. This left me in a pickle, as I then needed to keep everything that survived. I had no surplus to play with. So regardless of the genetics, I am keeping all B&W heifers.
(*I should clarify that number, by saying that this included bull calves as well, but as I had decided to keep about 60 bull calves for meat production and paddock bulls, this figure was kept as it reflected losses of bulls we may have kept as well).
Keeping 60 odd bulls has been a mixed bag of blessings. We decided somewhere during the first part of the year to retain some bull calves that we could use as an income stream seperate to the milk income we received. Whilst we are passionate and committed dairy farmers, the world and the economic climate is changing around us – and it is not for the better. Having all our eggs in one basket and relying on a single commodity to provide our income is rapidly becoming a stupid business management decision. Sure, we have cull cows and bobby calves to provide some income from, but that has traditionally been around the 10% mark. We recognise that we need to get at least 25-30% of our income from an enterprise that is not dairy. Over the years, we have tossed around various ideas of what we might be able to do, from vertical integration (processing our own milk and selling) to horizontal integration (purchasing a property that we can managed for feed). But both carry huge risks and capital outlay that we just don’t have handy right now. So the logical move is to utilise what we already have and try to make this better.
So rather than selling all the bobby calves for market price as 4-6 day old calves (which quite frankly is about $1/kg or less), we would grow them out here and sell them when they were coming up 18months -2yrs for the meat market. There is also the idea that given our background in herd identification, monitoring, genetics and measurements, we could keep some of the better genetic bulls and sell them as working bulls at 2yrs of age. And possibly, get a small number tested and into the semen market.
So this is what we did. And then, after committing to keeping around 50-55 bull calves, we got hit with the news that we are entering an El Nino episode and that grain and hay prices are about to go through the roof. Yay……(not really).
All of a sudden, we were lumbered with excess stock that we cannot really afford to feed at inflated prices, and stock that buyers are not wanting while climatic conditions are so……shit. So what can we do? Well, keep them. Feed them. Look after them. And hope and pray that when the El Nino season passes and people are looking to restock numbers and potentially buy in some good paddock bulls, that our patience and persistence will pay off.
The upside is that we won’t need to buy in any Holstein paddock bulls in a couple of years.
We have increasing been using genetics as a management tool for breeding and selection. At the end of last year, I made the decision that we would not use any Holstein semen in the late cows as I did not want to be tempted to keep the resulting calves (because their genetics was in all likelihood, not going to improve my herd). So instead, I told Mark to use Angus and a relatively new beef breed – Speckle Park. Our first SP calves hit the ground and they were VERY popular. Not just with buyers wanting them, but surprisingly, with Mark as well. I had to fight him off keeping them. In the end, I think he ended up keeping 2 or 3 heifers and 2 bulls. The others went to living homes where I get updates on some of them from their owners (Cookie & Cream, Salt and Pepper…). I have to admit, the SP calves really were a highlight of the calving season and ended everything on a happy note.