DUBBO might be a long way from some of Australia’s more traditional dairy regions, but its climate and proximity to grain and fodder markets have been ideal for growing a family business now embarking on an exciting new marketing venture.
With coal mining encroaching on their existing farm and lifestyle, 10 years ago Steve and Erika Chesworth looked west and moved their small Holstein herd and young family from Denman, in the NSW Hunter Valley, to Dubbo, in the state’s Central West.
There are only four dairies in the Dubbo region, ranging in size from 300-800 cows, but according to some experts it’s one of Australia’s best-kept dairying secrets.
The Chesworths today run an 800-cow dairy farm on 240 hectares of Macquarie River flats at Rawsonville, west of Dubbo. In October last year they launched their own brand of single-source milk, The Little Big Dairy Co, supplying a new on-farm factory with milk straight out of their own dairy.
An unwavering focus on quality at every point of their dairy operation is the cornerstone of the business and with their three children and two of their partners now also working with them, the family has been able to take the next step from being farmers to small-scale processors too.
Their registered herd was founded on Mr Chesworth's father's Tomargo Park Holstein bloodlines, and the family has built on that base with their own stud, Tomargo Recluse.
The Chesworths grow annual pastures on their flats, with a dominant mix of oats, clover and ryegrass. A small area is planted to Kikuyu grass, and in summer their pasture mix is up to one-third millet.
Five centre pivot irrigators from two bores water the farm, and in drier seasons additional temporary water is drawn from the river.
Mrs Chesworth says fortunately buying feed is not an expensive exercise like it used to be with Dubbo's strong mixed-farming focus a boon for easily accessing quality fodder without crippling freight costs.
Most years the farm buys 2000-3000 tonnes of corn silage from neighbours to feed to milkers with proteinmeal and wheaten hay.
The cows are fed 8kg of dairy meal a day, which is a triticale/ barley/ pellet mix.
They have a high stocking rate and run a dry and a fresh herd, with cows run fresh for 180-200 days.
Faced with huge financial strain due to drought only a couple of years after moving to Dubbo, the Chesworths made an operational decision to milk their cows three times a day.
Mrs Chesworth says both then, and now, it’s been one of the best things for their business.
"We have high-flow cows delivering an average 10,500 to 11,000 litres, with a 305-day lactation," Mrs Chesworth said.
"It gives us the confidence to provide a consistent high quality milk supply that is consistent in flavour and which we know we can always deliver."
Milking three times a day increased the dairy’s output by 20%, but required only an extra 2kg of meal per cow. Mrs Chesworth said they kept their staffing down and inputs low and "it turned our situation around in a heartbeat".
"But milking three times a day had other benefits we did not know about," she said.
"Our calving cows are always being monitored, that is a huge plus for us.
"We never stop monitoring now. We know our calves are getting their colostrum easily; the calves are healthier.
"People often don’t realise that it is easier to staff, our staff are happier, it gives us a great lifestyle as we are inside earlier. Those are really important factors in a family business."
The Chesworths installed a modern Herringbone 28-a-side double-up Bou-Matic dairy plant with a rapid exit with Dairy King feeders four years ago. A basement houses milk metering equipment along with a secondary milking plant – this enables all milk unsuitable to be sold (such as high cell count) to be easily diverted during milking.
"The technology enables easy management of this and this is what we use to underpin the integrity of the single-source, traceable branding of The Little Big Dairy Co," Mrs Chesworth said.
"Technology is a powerful tool and we use it throughout our farm and factory.
"All our cows are tagged with an electronic transponder, it means every litre of milk is traceable.
"Our system won’t allow cups on those cows with unsuitable milk.
"That is really important to us because we strive for high quality consistency in our milk production and in our branded milk products, and we need to be able to account for everything from start to finish."
The Chesworths are now producing eight million litres of milk a year, or around 24,000 litres a day. They have a contract with Parmalat but since late last year have been putting around 6500 to 7000 litres each week into The Little Big Dairy Co factory – their own milk label - something they would love to grow over time as the market and their processing capacity increases.
Independent dairy consultant Neil Moss, of SBS Cybus, says if he were to set up a new dairy Dubbo would be one of the places he would look to first.
"A key issue for farmers is that proximity to the Sydney market - it’s a long way -but on the flip side Dubbo is strategically placed to reach other major markets in Queensland and Victoria, as well as Sydney," Mr Moss said.
"However the challenges around the distance to markets are offset by being close to grain and fodder sources – that is certainly a big factor in favour of dairying in the Central West."
He believes there are more opportunities for dairy expansion in the Central West with places like Narromine and Wellington also well suited to milk production.
"Unfortunately many are not aware of the potential of dairy farming in the inland rivers regions of NSW but there are many reasons why the sector, when talking about expansion, should look to places like this rather than always focusing on expansion in Victoria."