BioAg Case Study No 6: Jarvis family, “Lower Bringenbrong”, Tooma, NSW
The adoption of organic farming techniques has increased the net income of Upper Murray dairy farmer, Don Jarvis, by a tidy 25 percent, as well as significantly improving natural soil fertility and animal health.A long-time exponent of biological farming practices, Don seized the opportunity to switch to full organic production in the lead-up to deregulation five years ago. His decision has proven to be not only financially-sound, but has helped to resurrect the natural vitality of the family farm.
“We lost our Sydney milk quota and half our income overnight, so we needed an alternative,” he said. “A small organic milk factory had started up in Corryong and they wanted us to supply them, so I decided to give it a go.”
Don now supplies the Organic Dairy Farmers Co-op, based at Korumburra in South Gippsland, which markets its own range organic dairy products as well as wholesaling organic milk to other processors. The venture is now returning significantly more than the price Don once received for his quota milk – and a good 25 percent higher than typical prices for “normal” milk.
Don and Denise Jarvis, together with their son, milk about 200 Holstein cows on their 340 hectare property at Tooma, near Corryong. They calve year-round. The property features dark loam soils along the river flats and granite-based soils in the surrounding hill country. The average rainfall is 800 mm.
Don has taken a proactive stance towards improving soil structure and fertility for more than 20 years. “Soil health is paramount to production,” he said. “Healthy soils produce healthy grass which, in turn, produces healthy animals. It follows that healthy animals produce healthy food, which when eaten by humans, produces healthy people. It’s all linked and it starts in the soil.”
In the 1980s, he started cutting back on conventional acid fertilisers and began treating his pastures with lime, dolomite, gypsum and paramagnetic rock (a type of crushed basalt). For the past five years, the Jarvises have implemented a custom-made biological fertiliser program which incorporates a range of “biologically active” solid nutrients and fermented liquid cultures marketed by a Narrandera-based company called BioAg.
One of the company’s key products is BioAgPhos®, a reactive phosphate rock that has been treated with a proprietary microbial culture. About half of the 13 percent phosphorus content is available immediately for plant use, while the remainder is slowly digested by the micro-organisms and added to the nutrient reservoir in the soil. The improved soil microbial activity is also claimed to help unlock phosphorus, calcium and sulphur already in the soil, leading to long-term benefits in soil structure and fertility.
Don typically applies 100 to 200 kg/ha of BioAgPhos and up to 500 kg/ha lime using a belt spreader each autumn. “It’s best to spread it just after the autumn break so you’re putting the live bugs in the BioAgPhos into warm, moist soil rather than hot, dry soil,” he said. The whole farm is then treated with 3 L/ha of BioAg Soil & Seed™, a liquid treatment that encourages rapid germination, root development and soil microbial activity, in late autumn or early winter.
In spring, the irrigated pastures are treated with a foliar application of 3 L/ha of Balance & Grow®, a foliar treatment which stimulates vegetative growth and improves soil microbial activity. Both applications include 4 kg/ha of microfine lime and occasionally, a small amount of concentrated Norwegian seaweed powder.
Whereas the average soil pH was once as low as 4.8, today the soils are approaching neutral, with some irrigation bays at a pH of 6.3. The topsoil is rich with humus and worms, a legacy of an innovative large-scale worm farm fuelled by dairy effluent. The effluent wash is collected into a pit lined with cereal straw. The solids are left to “brew”, while the liquids are pumped daily onto the pastures. Every two weeks, a front-end loader is used to shift the solids from the pit to a windrow. Introduced worms then work through the windrow to create a rich natural fertiliser that is spread at 400 kg/ha each autumn.
“We are trying to build up the soil biology and this compost contains a huge bank of bacteria, fungi and worm eggs,” Don said. “The compost has to be dry enough so that we can spread it but it also has to be moist enough that all the bugs that are produced in it survive and work their way into the soil.” Don also adds a swag of minerals and vitamins to the cows’ ration in the milking bails, including dolomite, lime, paramagnetic rock, BioAgPhos, Soil & Seed, apple cider vinegar, yeast and molasses. Copper sulphate is added for liver fluke control, diatomaceous earth (a fine but sharply abrasive powder made from crushed fossils of tiny marine organisms called diatoms) for worm control, and zinc to prevent foot problems.
Don said the biological farming system has also had a noticeable effect on animal health. In fact, he estimates that his yearly vet bill has been slashed by 90 percent. Bloat and milk fever are rare, while somatic cell count is more than acceptable (160,000 to 200,000 cells per millilitre) even though the Jarvises do not use antibiotics. “If the cell count starts to get up towards 250,000 I put some apple cider vinegar and garlic in their drinking water and usually it’s dropped down about 50,000 at the next test,” Don said. “I don’t know why it works, but it does. I’ve proved it over and over again.”
The Jarvises raise their own calves using whole milk instead of milk replacer. Most females are kept as replacement milkers, while the male portion are castrated and grown to bullock weights (650 –750 kg) for the U.S. manufacturing beef market. Average production in the herd now stands at 6,000 litres per cow at 4.0 percent butterfat and 3.1 percent protein.
While admitting that genetic improvement has played its role, Don said that improved nutrition was the key to increased production. Cows are rotationally-grazed on a 21–24 day cycle across the irrigated ryegrass and white clover pastures, while the dryland native pastures, which include spotted leaf trefoil, provide an abundant source of winter feed. The milking herd receives from one to eight kilograms of organic grain per head per day in the dairy, provided via an automatic identification and feeding system in the 12-a-side herringbone dairy.
Each cow wears an electronic identification bracelet on its front leg. The bracelet is read by a sensor while the cow is being milked in the bail and the cow is automatically fed according to its production and stage of lactation. On the way out of the dairy, an automatic drafting system separates those cows that are in heat. “The bracelet included a pedometer which counts how many steps each cow has between milkings,” Don said. “When they’re in season their activity level is up to two or three times higher than normal.”