Mating Strategies: Cycling to fewer bobbies

Equity partners Catherine Tither and Sally Harper are boosting milk production and reducing the number of bobby calves on their Rai Valley operation. Anne Hardie reports. Photos by Anne Hardie.

In Systems23 Minutes

Catherine Tither was already milking 161 cows before the tanker drove up the track for the first milk pick up of the season and by August 23, 75% of the 665-cow herd had calved. Into that hectic start the team ended up rearing the dairy-beef calves on the farm as well which meant a total of 490 calves on the milking platform.

On the Rai Valley farm about an hour east of Nelson, Catherine and her partner Sally Harper are part of an equity partnership that bought the property eight years ago. The farm ranges over 313 hectares that sweeps up from a 240ha milking platform to the steeper surrounding hillsides that have been planted in forestry over the years.

Taking a snapshot of their background, Catherine was a farm adviser through the 1980s and had a stint on the Irish Farmers’ Journal before spending 24 years on the family dairy farm near Whakatane. Sally had retrained after nursing and was working in human resources by that stage, plus helping out on the farm for a couple of years.

When the family farm was sold, they headed to the Rai Valley, teaming up with two other couples who Catherine says brought not only capital to the business, but a range of complementary skills. Together they set a goal of hitting 255,000kg milksolids (MS) in five years, but surpassed that in their first season. Now their production is close to 300,000kg MS and this year just 87 calves went on the bobby truck.

One of Catherine’s pet hates is seeing perfectly good calves go on the bobby truck and to avoid that, they have teamed up with a beef breeder in the North Island to produce the type of calves he wants to finish. They are all born in a tight time frame, thanks to the Why Wait programme which condenses calving.

They began using Why Wait four years ago after inductions were banned and their vet suggested using the programme. It brings the later-cycling cows forward and hence more days in milk, plus better early submission rates the following spring. Pre-mating heats this year indicated a submission rate of 93%.

The programme requires a single Cyclase (PG) injection to bring cycling cows forward a week which condenses the submission rate. Cows cycling during the week before the planned start of mating that are usually mated in the third week of mating are injected with Cyclase so they cycle during the first two weeks of mating.

“What I love about it is that you’re dealing with cows that are already cycling and the conception rate is high,” Catherine says. “In the past we used cidr’s which are expensive, the in-calf rates are dismal and you have to wait five weeks before you can pregnancy test to find out whether they are in calf or not.”

Last season, they used Why Wait to bring 152 cows from week two to week one for mating and 190 cows from week three to week two, with the start date for calving planned for July 23. Heifers are synchronised each year which adds to the frantic start of the season. All done with the aim of maximising days in milk for the entire herd and giving ample time for the cows to recover from calving for mating.

It did mean they had 161 cows calved before the first milk pick up by Fonterra on August 1 and consequently 17,000 litres of milk stored for feeding calves. Catherine reckons it might be time for Fonterra to rethink its pick-up dates anyway to accommodate the effect of climate change and summer drought. She says they looked at putting the start date of mating back, but didn’t because they would have lost their sexed semen allocation with LIC.

The synchronised rising two-year heifers get sexed semen to produce replacements from their highest genetic animals. Producing more heifer calves from the first calvers means they can mate the bottom 20% of the herd’s BW cows to beef sires. The first five weeks of artificial insemination (AI) focuses on replacements and then beef AI follows, using Angus semen supplied by the beef breeder who has the contract for the beef-cross calves. Due to mycoplasma and staff preference, they stopped using bulls for natural mating and now AI for 11 weeks.

Semen from nominated short-gestation bulls is selected for the beef calf contract and while last year they used Hereford genetics, this year they are using Angus because the calves are considerably smaller at birthweight – 34kg average as opposed to the Hereford’s 46kg.


Because accurate heat detection is critical for achieving good mating results, heat seekers are used throughout mating and an extra person is put in the dairy at milking for the first five weeks. Their job is to identify and draft bulling cows, touch up tail paint and replace missing heat seekers. Catherine says having competent, diligent people implementing the mating programme is paramount to achieving the results. The farm has five full-time staff, plus Catherine, so through mating they have two in the dairy during the morning milking, another bringing the second herd in for milking and another doing all the tasks associated with mating.

“It’s definitely a staff cost, but it’s so critical to get every heat,” she says.

Last year her staff took charge of AI, doing a “fantastic job” that achieved 73% in calf at six weeks and less than 10% not-in-calf. The team includes two full-time Filipino staff, Glenn Lovitos and Don Rondina, who are both on three-year working visas. Glenn joined the team seven years ago when the farm struggled to find staff for the shared accommodation.

Both came from dairying backgrounds – one in Saudi Arabia and the other Japan – while Don’s partner, Janice Allado, who also had experience in Japan, has joined the team.

Another staff member, Brett Murphy, was a neighbour back in Whakatane and has worked with Catherine and Sally off and on for years – in between fishing. The latest addition to the staff is 16-year-old school leaver, Zeudi Pearse, who was employed this season to help with calf rearing. She did such a good job that her position morphed into a full-time contract and apprenticeship. Catherine says it is heartening to know there are young Kiwis who are passionate, engaged and love dairy farming.


Meanwhile, 490 calves including 215 replacements, 180 Friesian bulls and 95 beef calves have been raised on the milking platform this year with two women employed for the job. The calves take out 13ha, or 6% of milking platform and Catherine says they would prefer to have a rearer doing the job somewhere else so they could concentrate on their core business and put as much grass as possible into the milking cows, but they couldn’t get a calf rearer.

“This year we were lucky because it was dry weather and the calves do well in dry weather. But it’s a lot of work at a time of year when you have so much to do.”

Their calf contract is based on $450 for a 90kg Friesian weaned calf and $500 for a 90kg beef-cross calf, plus $2/kg for any extra weight, based on truck weight. That way, the farm keeps feeding the calves until there is a truckload ready.

“It’s practical because the buyer isn’t coming in weekly to pick up 90kg calves and it’s fair for us because we keep growing the calves and get paid for the feed going into them.”

She thinks the dairy industry needs to put more effort into building partnerships with the beef industry so fewer calves go as bobbies.

“The partnership between the dairy and beef industries has been the calf industry and dry stock grazing. Calf rearer numbers are well down this year as many rearers were unable to sell their Friesian bull calves due to mycoplasma and then the nationwide drought. Apparently the bobby calf kill was up this year and milk powder sales are down which means the calves haven’t been reared.  It will be interesting to see how this reduction in supply will impact on Friesian bull weaner prices.”


Moving on from calving, the heifers and lighter cows are separated from the rest of the herd from September 18 and go on to once-a-day milking while grazing the furthest paddocks which are a 3.5km hike from the dairy.

Some of those paddocks are on the lower hill country rising out of the valley and have been recently converted from forestry. Since they have been on the farm, 23ha has been harvested and Catherine says it was their saviour through the low milk payout years, netting up to $50,000/ha.

Steeper slopes have been replanted in pine, while 15.6ha on the lower slopes have been put into pasture. They budgeted on $8000/ha to put it into quality pasture, but the end result after adding up the cost of stumping, fertiliser, seed, fencing, culverts and drainage was more like $11,000/ha.

“It costs a lot of money to put forestry land back into pasture, so I hope the Government has done it’s research around planting New Zealand in pine!”

Soil fertility after the trees were harvested was dire with Olsen P levels averaging 2.5 and pH 4.8.

They have since climbed to 32 and 6.1 respectively. Last spring they planted rape and plantain, with oats drilled into it in autumn as well as Winter Star ryegrass.

To date the forestry conversion has provided summer and winter feed of variable yields but now that it’s going back into pasture, it has increased the milking platform which helps production and reduces supplementary feed costs.

Whole-farm soil testing every second year and investing in soil fertility has helped them improve pasture production steadily since they took over the farm.


Catherine says improvements are due to being part of a constructive equity partnership which has been more successful than if they had farmed by themselves because of the complementary skills within the partnership. Between phone conversations, farm meetings and monthly reports which also go to the bank manager and accountant, they require good business discipline and she says that is a valuable aspect of being part of the equity partnership. They’ve also got the right mix of people.

“The approach we use is very analytical and the numbers drive our decision making. I think the reason our partnership works really well is we’ve got common aims and philosophies. We’re all prepared to spend dollars to make dollars.”

Production would have reached 300,000kg MS last season, but when their winter grazing fell through they dried all the cows off early to have enough to feed some through winter. By May 7, the entire herd was dried off, only to find replacement winter grazing for two thirds of the herd with two different graziers in Canterbury on May 20.

“We made sure we had the feed and cow condition to winter them at maintenance if we had to. So winter grazing has cost us a fortune.”

Her one ongoing grumble about the dairy industry is the lack of accountability in delivering expected winter grazing feeding levels – whether verbal or in a contract. She says dairy farmers are often so relieved to get winter grazing that they accept what they get. Yet feeding through winter and cow condition at calving has a huge impact on milk production and mating performance.

“Winter grazing in Marlborough normally costs $24-$28/week, but then you get the cows back and they haven’t been fed what you thought they would be fed. I’ve learnt the hard way so now I get our vet to come in and condition score within a week of going to grazing and if I’m concerned, he goes and condition scores them at grazing or when they come home. Based on condition score and mean calving date, you know how much they’ve been fed.”

Of the two mobs grazed off the farm, one mob put on weight and the other lost weight. She says there needs to be industry-led solutions for putting checks in place so farmers know what their cows are fed by graziers. Winter grazing is expensive in terms of grazing fees and even more so when cows lose weight. She says stock agents get paid for monitoring the grazing and there needs to be more focus on training to improve condition scoring and assessing feed intakes.

“As dairy farmers, we’re made to feel like we’re the culprits. If you buy a dozen Speights beer and you get home and five are half empty, you’d be a bit brassed off.”

Her goal for the cows going into calving is a condition score of 5.5 and that enables them to “milk like rockets”.

Because she has had problems with winter grazing, she is trying to be proactive for next winter and contract a grazier to grow a winter crop for the herd, then have an agent oversee the grazing through winter.


Through the season, she uses a mix of distillers dried grains (DDG) and palm kernel to maintain condition and production through cold, wet spells or dry periods. The feed is given to the cows in the in-shed feeder which they installed when the partnership bought the farm. The feeder needs at least 10% of a feed like DDG in the mix for the palm kernel to flow, hence the mix. The cows get half a kilogram of palm kernel a day to get them flowing into the shed well and it can be upped if needed through the season. Last year they bought 119 tonnes of the palm kernel/DDG combo, 27t of palm kernel and 380t of a mix that was 85% palm kernel and 15% soyabean hull. When the farm was short of feed in spring the cows were fed 6kg a day of a mix of palm kernel and the DDG combo.

This season Catherine bought in two loads of a mix that was 60% palm kernel and 40% DDG and didn’t need the second load to have such a high DDG component because there was ample grass through spring. Having that second load on hand is part of risk management, she says.

“I think palm kernel is a perfect feed. You want to maintain pasture quality by having a short rotation length, but then you have a cold snap, growth drops and you can put palm kernel in for maybe only five to six days to hold rotation and fully feed the cows. Last year it certainly saved our bacon.”

Another factor lifting production has been improving the existing irrigation system that covered 60% of the farm and installing more to take it to 77%. The extra K-line installed further up the farm cost $6,000/ha to establish which is expensive for K-line, but has proven invaluable for growing grass that also recovers better in drought. Depending on the season, irrigation is turned on some time between early November and late March on an eight-day rotation. It does take six hours a day to move all the K-line, but Catherine says it is totally worth it.

After taking a season off and employing a manager, Catherine returned to the farm last year. These days Sally works four days a week for the Nelson Marlborough District Health Board in human resources. It means the couple spend their time between the farm and the house they bought in Nelson with the plan of stepping back from the physical demands of the farm. Though this season that hasn’t happened for Catherine and it has been busier than ever.


Equity partners: Catherine Tither and Sally Harper (in partnership with two other couples)

Location: Rai Valley, Top of the South

Area: 313ha including forestry

Milking platform: 240ha

Herd: 665 cows

Calves reared: 490 including 275 beef calves

Calf contract: $450 90kg Friesian bulls and $500 90kg beef-cross, plus $2/kg extra weight

Mating: Why Wait programme, synchronised heifers, heat seekers.