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A dairy enterprise adapted for the environment, and a family-friendly lifestyle

Posted by Rabobank Australia on

13/09/2023

From the ashes of 2019’s Black Summer bushfires, Bega Valley dairy farmer Donna Salway emerged exhausted and emotionally spent, but with a fresh intention to run their business in greater harmony with the land.

“It was a tough period of time, we lost one dairy we were leasing at Bemboka and our home dairy block at Toothdale was surrounded by fires – fortunately the rain came just in the nick of time, but it was all very scary.”

The experience motivated Donna and her husband Steven into action, re-evaluating their use of land to run an enterprise kinder to the environment.

“We are certainly not organic, but we have shifted our fertiliser program away from traditional granular spreading to foliar sprays.  In our foliar program we tailor our fertiliser to suit specific paddocks.  Our foliar blends include urea, sulphur, sugar, seaweed boron, lime and small seeds such as clover, chicory, plantain and brassica that we apply through a tow and fert machine,” Donna explains.

“Once we started looking, we realised we have so many innovative people in the region, and we’ve really adopted a circular philosophy – our seaweed comes from an emerging enterprise here in the valley, and we discovered a local supplier for our seaweed fertiliser.”

Affectionately called “Hippy Mick” she laughs that where initially he provided his special brew in 10 litre volumes – suggestive of the increasing popularity of his product – the Salways now receive their fertiliser 1,000 litres at a time.

This complementary input has enabled the Salways to decrease their reliance on synthetic fertiliser, to the extent that applications have decreased from 100 kilograms, to between 20 and 40 kilograms – which is good for the environment, and the bottom line.

Response from the land to their new regime has also been positive.

“We’re now growing multi-species pastures, including cereals, brassicas, rye grass, clovers,chicory, plantain and radishes, to put nutrients back into the soil and it’s been fascinating.”

“Plants are so clever, and really know how to heal the land and return biology to the soil – it’s been particularly exciting seeing worms return to our dirt, it really validates everything that we’re trying to do.”

Compaction across paddocks has also eased thanks to the strategic planting of radish – long tap roots leaving burrows in the soil which absorb moisture and soften the soil.

While paddocks used to be uniform and neat, Donna concedes that since ceasing chemical spraying, their pastures are no longer uniform, and just as beauty is only skin deep, the real allure is below the soil.

“We’re so excited to be returning nutrients and biology into the ground, as well as giving our cattle a variety of options in their diets – our multi-species pastures are like a salad on a plate and you can physically see them pick and choose what they need.”

Putting family first

In what may seem like an oxymoron for a dairy farmer, Donna and Steven ensure holidays, unique experiences and spending quality time together as a family is their number one priority.

With three children, 15-year-old Ava, 13-year-old Lily and 12-year-old Chase, Donna is acutely aware of how precious – and fleeting – time raising their family is.

“They’re only little people for so many years – our job is to grow them, and let them go to forge their own life, and so I want to make sure our time together counts.”

“When Steven was growing up he never had a family holiday, the dairy took precedent always – weddings, Christmas Day, you name it.”

“When I came along, that all changed – an annual family holiday became non-negotiable!”

Of course, a 340 head dairy is not going to look after itself, so the Salways have implemented strategies to ensure the farm is ‘lifestyle friendly’.   

“We’ve tried to make the farm work for us, so we now only calve three times a year in term one, two and three, and we have a strict mating program so calving is never within ten days of the school holidays.”

“This ensures all calves are on feeders during the holidays, and we can take the time to go to the beach or skiing and have some fun rather than be a slave to the farm – we really sat back and assessed what was important to us and while it took time to develop, it’s a program that works for us as a family.”

Donna’s approach to life is refreshingly positive, and it seems like there’s no challenge, whether it’s in her family or business, that can’t be solved with a practical solution.

Contributing to safer rural industries

Born-and-bred a world away from the dairy industry at Wallangra in the Inverell district of NSW, Donna met Steven at university where she studied arts and law.

After enjoying a successful post-university career with the Director of Public Prosecution in Sydney, Donna moved to be with Steven in the Bega Valley and his family’s dairy, and admits that before she met Steven she gave very little thought to where her milk even came from.

Donna continued practicing law in Bega before gaining a role with Safework NSW – one which impacted her deeply and contributed to increased awareness across their own farm, and industry.

“I was with Safework NSW for 15 years and attended a number of quad bike fatalities in that time. As a result we have eliminated all quads from our property, and now only use side-by-sides and two wheeled motorbikes.”

Her tips for remaining farm safe are to always wear a helmet on motorbikes and seatbelts in a side-by-side, “anything that has a seat belt has it for a reason”, and always be conscious when working with animals.

Lending her expertise to her industry, Donna also helped develop the Dairy Safe Program, a three phase approach to dairy farm safety, based around creating awareness of risks, implementing farm safe systems and physical training.

“We ran quad bike training here in the Bega Valley and had over 120 participants, it was incredible and such a valuable opportunity to help spread the farm safe message.”

She said while silos and other traditional high risk farm infrastructure had now largely been modified to increase safety outcomes, quads were still used largely in Australian agriculture, and remained a significant risk.

Driving progression in the dairy industry

By the end of 2018 Donna had made the decision to work with Steven on the farm full-time.

Together they completed a corporate governance course, and today the farm is divided into structured responsibilities for ease of management.

“Steven is in charge of milking, pasture and reproduction programs, while I take the lead on the calving and rearing the calves.  We both oversee finances and HR and on odd occasions when a staffing gap needs to be filled, I will find myself in the dairy and Steven will end up in the calf shed.”

“I just love seeing the calves born and helping raise them, then seeing them come into the dairy as heifers and finally producing milk as cows, it’s an incredible life cycle.”

“Being more greatly involved in the farm has also afforded me more time with the kids, I can be home more and a more active participant in their lives.”

Donna and Steven have implemented a number of innovations across the dairy, which consists predominantly of Jersey cattle, including a new calf shed.

“We want to continue to decrease our labour needs, and increase welfare outcomes, and four station and two station automatic feeders in the calf shed have been a really exciting addition.”

Calves are hand-fed colostrum-rich and transition milk bottles for their first five days, before being moved onto the feeders.

“We batch calve, with five or six calves born on any given day – which means it’s an intensive first five days of feeding, but they learn quickly how to feed, and then once they get the hang of the feeders they put themselves on easily, and the bulk of my hard labour is done.”

With all infrastructure across their dairy highly considered for welfare outcomes, this progressive couple opted for their feeders to have an unlimited output capacity, so calves can drink as they please.

“Some dairies put a limit on milk available for calves, but we like to ensure our feeders replicate a calf’s mum.”

The automatic feeders have been an invaluable innovation, which will help ensure the longevity of the farm, and Donna’s contribution.

“Feeding calves is intense, and carrying buckets of milk across the farm is physical work, so these feeders really take the pressure off and hopefully ensure I will be able to continue to feed calves for many more years to come.”

Once calves have transitioned onto the feeders Donna monitors their health, and ensures the feeders are clean.

“Scours – or diarrhea – in calves is deadly and good hygiene is key in mitigating this, my vet cupboard is like a doctors surgery with cannulas, syringes, giving sets, needles and medicines, you name it – but I’m very proud of the fact that last year of the 300 odd calves born, we only lost one – which was not due to health issues.”

Technology driving welfare outcomes

After the Black Summer fires, the Salways regrouped and consolidated their enterprise back on their Toothdale block.

“We were kindly let out of our lease early so we let the Bemboka block go, and while our cattle over there managed to find a dam and escape the blaze, the stress, burnt feet and illness were just as catastrophic.”

Since consolidating back to the one dairy, Steven and Donna have changed the herd management software used and integrated Cow Scout heat detection and rumination collars which are fitted across their herd, with Donna likening it to ‘a Fitbit for cows’.

“This device will tell us if a cow’s on heat, its rumination behaviour, whether it’s getting sick – it’s an extremely valuable tool.”

“We can see well before any clinical signs of mastitis if a cow is unwell, enabling a swift response to nip it in the bud before it becomes an issue.”

Women in dairy unite at Bale Up

This week Donna joins likeminded women from across Australia at Bale Up, the annual Conference of Women in Dairy.

Being held from September 12 to 14 at Merimbula, the event provides women in the industry an opportunity to connect, collaborate and Innovate.

“I think any time off-farm is so important for women – it’s the chance to reset, cast off the needs of the family for a few days, take a breath, have a sleep in, learn and develop and face whatever is ahead with renewed energy and inspiration.”

Not one to shy away from a good time, Donna is also looking forward to enjoying a few laughs and good times with friends, old and new.

“The sharing of stories is also extremely valuable, even though our farms are small compared to many in Australia, when you work in dairy and get busy in your role there’s still very much that sense of isolation that can become all-consuming.”

“Events such as Bale Up help open up conversations and it’s always reassuring knowing you’re not alone in your challenges, and more than anything it’s really good fun!”

“There’s so much knowledge to be shared amongst the group, I love hearing how we can tweak our ideas to be more efficient, or sharing information about our infrastructure and systems that others may benefit from – this is where the real benefit lies.”

The event will feature a range of speakers, from actress Mary Coustas through to Stephanie Trethewey of Motherland Australia and Tas Ag Co, as well as panel discussions on innovation, a gala dinner and light-hearted activities such as Picasso Cow Paint and Sip.

Donna herself will be taking to the stage also, taking part in an ‘on the couch’ session with NSW Dairy Ambassador and Australian Rugby League footballer Kezie Apps, with a focus on successful generational farming. 

“Dairy gets a hard knock in people’s perception, but it’s been so good to my family – we’ve built wealth and a strong asset base, and although it’s hard work, no job is easy – and while ever technology and innovation continue to make our lives easier, I think there are really exciting times ahead.”