When Steven Hawken purchased his Echuca dairy farm in 2012, soil health was put at the top of his list of priorities.
He decided it was time to work with Mother Nature rather than against her, and he wanted to limit the use of expensive synthetic fertilisers and instead focus on natural alternatives including compost and calcium.
“I have changed the way I farm completely – it is all about the ground being alive,” Mr Hawken said.
“I like to keep my plants and soil in a balanced state. I don’t farm for a yield response but rather a plant response. If plant health is spot on there might be bugs there but they are not a problem, the system looks after itself.
“I bought this farm planning for the worst season not the best”.
Initially the whole farm was sprayed with 250 litres of CalX to the hectare – a heavy rate according to Mr Hawken, but he wanted to get the ball rolling.
These days he still uses the foliar spray four times a year, but at a reduced rate, along with 1 tonne of lime/ha and, just recently, 15 tonne of compost/ha.
“We are well along the road to self-sufficiency and while it has been a commitment, we are really starting to see the rewards now.
“From day one, along with my agronomist, we decided to split the farm into three separate pasture programs – a third lucerne, a third 150 rye-grass and a third shaftal and rye.
“In the four years since, I have even gone back to sowing good old paspalum with new species of clover and rye-grass.
“I have only 25ha of lucerne now, which is about the right amount. Previously I had too much and it was putting pressure on my other pastures; I believe I have the right mix now”.
Last year the farm business – Moovin Dairies – sent 2.3 million litres of milk, with the 240-cow herd averaging 708kg of milk solids. Obviously production has not suffered, in fact Mr Hawken firmly believes as soil health has improved so too has the health of his animals, including fertility.
“I think soil health has a lot to answer for especially when it comes to fertility and over the last four years our fertility has improved, but that can be contributed to other management decisions too, including breeding specifically for health and fertility traits and breeding smaller animals.”
An avid fan of compost, Mr Hawken has been using this to help build up soil health. He composts everything – manure, silage, old hay, rice hulls from the calf pen – anything organic he can find.
“We dump the waste using the telehandler and spread the hay along the rows, which is then soaked. The pile is turned every seven to 10 days by a contractor and it takes on average 10 to 12 weeks to cook.
“You have to keep the pile moist to generate heat and kill the weeds (a temperature of 75 degrees for a good couple of days does the job).
“We put 1000 tonne of compost out over four weeks at the start of the year and have noticed a huge difference so far, without any other fertilisers used since last autumn.”
Improving soil health hasn’t been an overnight job. It has taken time, patience and a leap of faith.
“Things could have gone very wrong from the start but I put my faith in my agronomist and I am glad I did because we haven’t looked back.”
Mr Hawken is not scared to try out new fodder varieties and he is considering having a go at growing some fodder beet.
“You can’t cut corners but you can step outside the box as long as you base your decision on fact.”
The 180ha dairy farm has a 44-unit rotary, ample shedding and is 85 per cent auto-irrigated. The pre-existing infrastructure, general farm layout and deep lead bore along with recycled water allowed Mr Hawken to focus his attention on the soil from the very beginning.
Never one to shy away from tough decisions, Mr Hawken is always on the lookout for a better milk price and changes companies regularly as a management strategy.
“There is a group of us and we are always on the lookout for a better milk deal.”
With the approaching tough year he is not going to make too many changes to his management.
“We will feed the cows similar to last year and maybe milk a few less. Instead of buying anything new I will be getting out the grease gun and maintaining the machinery I have, I will just be trying to keep costs to the bare minimum. I will also be keeping a close eye on herd health.”
Mr Hawken said it was during times like this that farmers needed to support each other and share information.
“Keeping an eye out for your mates, supporting and checking up on each other doesn’t cost anything, just a bit of time.”