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Busy life at Queensland's biggest dairy

Rachael Parkes, from Ellerby Dairy, runs an intensive dairy farming operation. The farm has gone from nothing to the biggest dairy producer in Queensland in six years.
Rachael Parkes, from Ellerby Dairy, runs an intensive dairy farming operation. The farm has gone from nothing to the biggest dairy producer in Queensland in six years. Tim Marsden

RACHAEL Parkes has returned from a trip to China, investigating export opportunities for the dairy industry as a member of her regional economic development group.

Rachael arrived back home only to board another plane to Adelaide for the Australian Dairy conference, as the director of the Subtropical Dairy Board.

Between these roles, Rachael and husband Ged Mullins, who have two children, run Queensland's biggest dairy. Ellerby Dairy at Ellangowan, between Leyburn and Felton, 60km south of Toowoomba, was established in 2009 on 1040ha (800ha leased) with 700 head of holstein with some brown swiss-cross, producing seven million litres of milk a year for Lion's Dairy Farmers label.

"It's a blessing and a curse," said the 32-year-old of her schedule.

"I'm motivated and ambitious, and enjoy what I do, but yes, I am busy."

Rachael's ambition started young. While attending secondary school she worked on weekends to complete her dairy traineeship on an 800-head dairy at NSW's Richmond, as well as studying a TAFE course.

"I was always interested in cows from a young age - I enjoyed the mix of practical skills and science behind dairying.

"I knew if I was a labourer I would never progress."

She met Ged, who had grown up on a Queensland dairy, while he was a silage contractor on the Richmond property. Together they moved to Queensland, buying an initial 120ha of sandy hilly land at Ellangowan in 2009, which they expanded to the current 240ha, adding 800ha of leased neighbouring land that was rich black soil and had a 700-megalitre irrigation water entitlement.

"We really wanted to do something for ourselves. It was risky, especially as at that time Queensland was not looking for a lot of extra milk," said Rachael, whose farm is part of a Felton Food Festival farm tour on March 25.

"It was poor timing on our behalf, but opportunities for blocks of land suited to what we wanted didn't come up that often."

BUILDING BLOCKS

THEY added infrastructure including a secondhand 60-unit rotary dairy, a commodity shed, as well as three shade sheds - crucial for dairying in the region's intense summer heat.

Given there are only 400 dairy farms in Queensland, producing about 400 million litres of milk annually, the couple had to be canny about establishing their herd.

Added to this was the fact Queensland had Johne's disease biosecurity restrictions on stock from southern states, a ban only this year lifted.

"Because we were restricted to just buying from Queensland we had to rely on dispersal or private sales. Anything we could get our hands on," Rachael said.

"Farmers would let us know if they had any extra heifers.

"Now the restriction has been lifted, it's about buying to our discretion, but at the same time we don't want Johne's disease, so we're yet to put it to the test."

The herd is joined year-round, with the aim to build numbers to 1000.

Cows are artificially inseminated twice, followed by a mop-up bull sourced from local studs, aiming for durable genetics - the brown swiss, in particular, seem able to tolerate the Queensland heat well. The couple have trained some of their staff of 10 as AI technicians, which enables daily AI procedures.

"In our intensive system we need cows that last and are hard-working, which can carry themselves for a long time," Rachael said.

NEED FOR FEED

ELLERBY Dairy has no pasture, instead relying on a total mixed ration feed system, with about 22kg of dry matter fed to each cow daily.

Ged and Rachael have 400ha of irrigated crops, with corn the largest at 150ha, producing 2100 dry tonne per year (although this has been a dry year).

They sow corn in October and harvest in January and February, then sow barley, wheat, and grow other crops of oats, oaten hay and soy (although with this year's heat they will not be growing soy).

They use a centre pivot for their 700-megalitre irrigation entitlement, while the region receives an average annual rainfall of 650mm: ("although last year it all came at once in spring and we've not had much since").

While they grow as much fodder crops as possible, about 40% of fodder is bought in, usually wheat and canola meal.

Given these high inputs, the herd is milked three times a day, which Rachael said also reduced their cell count risk.

Cell count is slightly above 200,000 cells/ml, while fat is 4% and protein 3.5%.

As much as Rachael's ambition is directed to Ellerby Dairy, she said she was also a big believer in giving back to the industry, especially focusing on research and development.

GLOBAL ROAMING

IN October last year, Rachael became the director of the Subtropical Dairy Board, which mostly focuses on R&D, including trials at the University of Queensland's Gatton research facility.

The couple have adopted some of the facility's research findings, including the use of soy - which has about 20% protein and reduces their reliance on the high cost of canola.

"We also put up the shade structures on the back of trials, although that was a bit of a no-brainer given the heat here.

"We're looking at putting up a new design for low-tech, environmentally friendly air-conditioning for the cows in the dairy, which uses a windsock to capture the breeze to blow on the cows while they're being milked, with no need for electricity."

For almost two years Rachael has been a member of the Toowoomba and Surat Basin Enterprise, an economic development group for a variety of industry sectors looking to share and explore business opportunities. It was through the group that Rachael visited China in February, with Toowoomba's new airport recently opening export opportunities to the Asian region.

"It was my first time in China and it was a real eye-opener, especially when you see the scale of the infrastructure," she said.

"We have been warned of the difficulties of doing business with China with importation laws, so whether we export directly, or supply Australian businesses who are exporting there and require our milk - there's an ice-cream manufacturer in Toowoomba who is exporting - is something we'll be looking at."


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