Climate change has posed some very real challenges for Phillip Muller, who farms beneath the Outeniqua mountains, near George, on South Africa’s famous Garden Route. Clemmie Gleeson reports.
Lack of water has and continues to be the biggest constraint to Phillip Muller’s dairy business; so much so that water shortages in the past five years have forced him to reduce his herd size.
However, thanks to investments in irrigation, pasture improvements, and more recently a new dairy enabling automated feeding and data collection, milk production has increased significantly.
When Phillip first joined his family dairy farm, fresh from completing a degree in agriculture at Stellenbosch University, he and his father, John, were milking 160 cows.
John originally started the dairy herd at Kokstad, in KwaZulu-Natal, with the purchase of 17 Holsteins in 1957.
But after many years coping with stock thefts and arson attacks, the family decided to relocate to Milkwood Farm in the more rural location of Geelhoutboom, near George.
Phillip had intended to travel and work overseas before joining the family business, but unrest in the country led him to come home sooner.
Over the years, investing in irrigation and water storage has been a priority, and half of the farm’s 180 hectares (445 acres), which is all pasture, is now irrigable.
Phillip says: “With our low rainfall, we need to add 500mm to get decent pasture production. It was a huge investment, but the best we could make.”
Herd numbers have steadily increased, peaking at 270 cows a few years ago until the hotter, drier summers started posing a very real challenge.
Phillip says: “Since 1984, average rainfall has been 700mm, but for the last four years it has been between 430mm and 490mm.”
Before 2015 there had only been four years with such low figures. But despite this, the herd’s yields have increased.
“We are milking slightly fewer cows than a few years ago,” Phillip says. “We now have 240 cows in-milk, but we get more litres per cow.”
He puts this down to pasture improvement, their new dairy, as well as improvements to the breed.
“Since 1984, average rainfall has been 700mm, but for the last four years it has been between 430mm and 490mm”
The farm also introduced min-till about 15 years ago and Phillip credits the approach with improving the farm’s soils, as well as playing a part in fixing carbon.
He says: “With the advice of a pasture specialist, we started to grow pasture mixes, including a lucerne, red clover, soft leaf fescue and plantain mix.
“There is a lot of protein in the legumes and energy in the fescue and plantain. We try to give the cow a balanced meal in every bite.”
The species are also deep rooting and more drought tolerate and water efficient.
Phillip says: “They have complementary growth forms which limit one species overshadowing another within the mix.”
Phillip’s British wife, Georgie, is a dairy consultant, running her own business, Dairy Junction, from the farm.
The daughter of Norfolk farmer Neils de la Cour, Georgie grew up around beef cattle and was a familiar face on the local show circuit, with animals from the family’s Wilby herd of Murray Greys.
Later in 2003, as a Wye College agribusiness graduate, she arrived in South Africa, working briefly for a fresh produce company before moving into the dairy industry.
She first worked for a genetics company and later a consultancy firm, before setting up Dairy Junction this year.
It was the genetics sales role which brought her to Milkwood Farm via a neighbouring farmer and friend of
Phillip’s who introduced the pair.
They married in 2008 and have two children – Tom, nine, and Rosie, seven. When schools closed due to Covid-19, Tom has spent every spare moment on-farm, says Georgie.
Despite Georgie being a long-time advocate of automation and data collection, Phillip admits it was not a priority for him.
He says: “I enjoy spending time improving my soils and pasture much more than being in the office.
“But we had got to the point where we had finished putting in irrigation and the next logical investment was automation.”
Automation and data collection has since helped boost milk yields through targeting the use of concentrates.
Phillip says: “Our milk production was sitting at about 18 litres/cow/day with 7kg of dairy meal, but since investing in automation, this has increased to 21.5 litres/day with 8kg of dairy meal.
“We are feeding 1kg extra, but getting 3.5 litres more and feeding the cows the right amount of food when they need it, but there is always room to improve.”
The high levels of concentrates are needed because of the long distances the cows typically walk to and from pasture every day, explains Georgie.
She says: “The farm is a long L-shape with the dairy at one end, so cows walk a long way every day, up and down steep hills.”
Their Afimilk system uses passive eartags to enable individual feeding, collection of health and performance data and the use of an automatic drafting gate. The Mullers have been trialling collars for the past 12 months.
Georgie says: “They measure neck and jaw movement to pick up cows in heat. It has helped Phillip’s 100 day in-calf rates to increase dramatically.
“Data is also invaluable when interpreted well. These systems can generate a huge amount of data and farmers can be overwhelmed by that, so it needs to be useable and practical.”
That had been down to George, however soon after the system was introduced at Milkwood, the pair decided working together in this area had its challenges.
A colleague now works with Phillip to discuss the farm’s data while Georgie focuses on other farms, although the couple regularly discusses the herd’s progress and works through ideas together.
“The farm is a long L-shape with the dairy at one end, so cows walk a long way every day, up and down steep hills”
Phillip has maintained a closed herd with all females relating back to the original 17 purchased by John.
Although unusual for pasture-based systems in South Africa, they remain committed to the Holstein, but may introduce a few Jerseys to increase butterfat and protein.
Georgie also believes the Jersey may suit the farm better due to the long distances the cows travel.
Phillip says: “We have an established second income selling in-calf heifers to farmers in Zimbabwe and Zambia and we are currently working on a deal with Tanzania. That is one reason why we haven’t changed breed.
“If I had to criticise the Holstein, it would be that for decades they focused on production and neglected some of the functionality traits. They are now making massive strides fixing that.”
He has also been impressed with fertility improvements in particular.
He says: “All these improvements have boosted efficiencies and helped counter the other major challenge of the cost price squeeze.
“To have a decent margin we have to be more efficient every year. While other herds are getting bigger I don’t have the hectarage and water to do that.”
The herd has an average milk yield of 21.5 litres/cow/day at 3.7 per cent butterfat and 3.2 per cent protein.
Instead, he and Georgie went into business with friends Tarryn and Garry Hampson to launch a joint venture yoghurt business to grow vertically.
The Hampsons have children of a similar age to the Mullers and Tarryn and Georgie often bemoaned the fact they could not find healthy, low-sugar yoghurt products locally.
Georgie says: “Tarryn had said she bet she could make amazing yoghurt from our milk so one day we said ‘let’s just do it’.”
Milkwood Farm Products was launched in 2016, a separate business to the farm operating initially from the Hampsons’ double garage.
A local farm shop became the first customer and production has increased as demand has grown. They now supply independent supermarkets and local shops with various yoghurt products, as well as kefir and cream cheese.
Phillip says: “Tarryn is a microbiologist, a great cook and very health conscious, so she is ideally placed to work on the production side of the business.”
Within six months they had to invest in further equipment and storage, and a year ago they moved into hired premises with a production capacity of 1,000 litres/day.
Phillip says: “We haven’t got a market for all that yet, so that is where we need to focus now. I have always been keen to add value, but didn’t know how. This has been a great way to grow the business.”