A CULTURE of consistency and analysis were what dairy nutritionist Mikaela Baker, Victor Harbor, found during a study tour of the United States.
Ms Baker, who works as a ruminant productivity consultant with Total Results Agricultural Consulting, travelled to the American Dairy Science Associations' annual meeting, in the second half of last year, using a Dairy Australia dairy science travel grant.
The grants are aimed at early career scientists working in the dairy industry or PhD students researching animal health, welfare or genetics.
Ms Baker said she could not pass up the opportunity to gain knowledge to share with Australian farmers.
The grant also allowed her to visit relevant places on either side of the meeting.
Before the event, Ms Baker spent some time on Californian dairy farms.
"They're very similar to the Australian system with hot summers but the winters are colder than ours," she said.
As well as sprinklers on timers and cows in barns with fans to minimise heat stress, Ms Baker said she also got to see the benefits of nutritional approaches, such as the addition of electrolytes to help keep calves hydrated.
"I loved the dedication to consistency - everything had to stay the same every day," she said.
"They had scales on the mixer wagon to monitor for percentages of change between each feed, every day.
"If every single day is the exact same for a cow, it'll be happy."
At the meeting, Ms Baker said one standout presentation came from Argentina-based researcher Fernando Bargo, who spoke about managing compost barns.
"There are a lot of farmers in Australia considering compost barns and there are a few about, but they can be challenging," she said.
"There are opportunities in that area in Australia with farmers wanting to take it to the next level and increase production."
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Ms Baker said there was potential to make use of small areas or those where grazing or grass production might be a problem.
"We have some harsh environments - it can get very wet or very hot - and the ability to temperature control cows is great," she said.
"With a full TMR system, you have a lot of control, particularly in years when summer feed is a challenge."
Afterwards, Ms Baker was able to look at dairy farms in Tennessee, and see how compost barns worked in that environment.
"That was a high rainfall area, so the other end of the spectrum we have to deal with," she said.
Ms Baker said there were some common themes in the dairy farms she visited.
"It was interesting that many US farmers are diversified in one way or another so they didn't just produce milk," she said.
"There were solar farms, methane chambers or some bottled their own milk and sold that. Some had a boutique cheese factory or started tourism to allow people to visit farm."
Because feed is so expensive, it is even more of a requirement to feed test.
Ms Baker said some lessons had already been incorporated into her daily work, such as the addition of electrolytes and lifting protein levels, often with milk powder, when feeding calves.
She said presentations on silage stack management were also relevant locally, with recommendations to ensure the face of the silage was clear cut with no piles of silage scattered on the ground.
"The more aeration through the stack, the faster the silage degrades," she said.
"Dry matter of feed significantly changes, based on the environment conditions and if you're not adjusting the amount of feed, based on the dry matter available, you might be under feeding."
Ms Baker said from visits to US farms as well as analysis laboratories, she believed they were particularly active in ensuring feed was the quality they expected.
"Part of their farmer culture is to do so much testing and analysis," Ms Baker said.
She said this was something that could benefit farmers in Australia - even moreso in a year when margins were tighter.
"Because feed is so expensive, it is even more of a requirement to feed test," she said.
"When you're spending big dollars on feed for animals, you want to make sure you're getting the quality you expect and if it's not the quality expected, then you know how to manage it.
"We often hear 'this is the feed we have so no point in testing' but we can adjust the system so farmers do get the outcomes they need."
She had noticed a similar culture shift happening in Australia.
"It can be hard because there are lots of numbers on a feed analysis and that can be intimidating but there are a lot of resources and a lot of people out there to ask," she said.
"Any time there is a change in the feed base, it's important to know what's going into the animals.
"If you have growth or production targets and (don't test), then you can't know if you're going to meet those targets."
Opportunities inspire career path
A SERIES of work placements in high school and university helped shape Mikaela Baker's career trajectory.
She did not grow up on a farm but was offered a school placement on a sheep property.
"I returned for weekends and holidays after - I was really inspired by my mentor," she said.
"I was blown away by how much farmers need to know and that was a space I wanted to work in."
At university, she won an AgriFutures Horizon Scholarship and during a placement with poultry producer Baiada, discovered a passion for nutrition.
Her second placement on a dairy farm helped her narrow her focus even further.
She said the chance to head overseas with this scholarship has been another boost to her career.
"It gave me an opportunity I wouldn't have on my own," she said.
"It's focused on people early in career, and is the perfect way to be exposed to a lot of different areas.
"There are knowledge sources and networking opportunities that could set the foundations for the rest of a career."
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