Sharemilkers Jason Macbeth and Beth Phillips use a range of milking intervals based on the needs of their cows. Anne Hardie reports.

Young dairy guns Jason Macbeth and partner Beth Phillips use three different milking regimes through the season and it’s all centred on their cows so they are producing well the following season and beyond.

This year the young couple stepped up to 50:50 sharemilking on a 128-hectare farm at Motupiko near Nelson where they milk their 420-cow herd twice a day (TAD) through to December, once a day (OAD) for non-cyclers through mating and then the entire herd at the end of the season, as well as three milkings in two days (3in2) through summer.

“All our milking systems centre around the cows,” Jason explains. “We do it for no other reason – once a day for mating and 3in2 for condition over summer.”

The farm is owned by Evan and Adrienne Baigent who added a centre pivot a few years ago to get vital irrigation on the summer-dry farm.

The herd heads back to the paddock in the first rain in weeks.

The long, wide valley follows the Motueka River and rain tends to fall on the hills around, leaving the valley floor dry through summer when temperatures can reach the mid 30s. A centre pivot stretching 540 metres and sprinklers on another 70ha has enabled the farm to double production, but water restrictions still kick in during extended dry periods, so they have to farm accordingly.

For Jason and Beth coming from a lower-order sharemilking job in Murchison where irrigation wasn’t really needed through summer, the dry is a new challenge and though irrigation is essential, Jason says it doesn’t make cheap feed. At the end of November, the farm had been without rain for six weeks and then there was the relief of a thunderstorm with the hope of more to come.

‘All our milking systems centre around the cows. We do it for no other reason – once a day for mating and 3in2 for condition over summer.’

Their other new challenge is the assortment of cows that were bought to make up their herd when they took up the sharemilking contract.

About 200 were young cows they had bred or bought in the past couple of years, but the other 200 were bought on a budget cap of $1250 per cow, which meant carryover cows from a number of herds and the unknown reproduction and production capability that comes with that.

The end result is a mix of Friesian, Jersey and crossbred cows of mixed quality which started out on a new farm in the wettest spring in decades that then turned to an early dry.

In Murchison, they adopted a 3in2 milking regime over summer because they had no irrigation and wanted to keep condition on the herd through the heat. It’s a regime that worked well for the herd and production, so they have the same plan for the Motupiko farm.

At calving, the colostrum cows are on OAD for six days to avoid metabolic problems and it also takes the pressure off the cows as they adjust from being a dry cow to producing milk. Beth says they’ve done that for the past three years and are yet to have a metabolic problem. Milk fever has been a big issue on the Motupiko farm in the past, but this year with the six-days on OAD, it wasn’t a problem.

After those first six days, the cows are on TAD through to mating which begins on October 28. Cows’ heats are monitored as they approach mating and any that haven’t cycled go on to OAD from that date. About 100 cows went into that herd this year to be run with bulls and as soon as they cycle – and as long as they are in good condition – they go back into the TAD herd.

“Even cows that have just calved before mating will go on OAD to take the pressure off them straight away to help them cycle as quickly as possible,” Jason says.

“We have done this the last four seasons and have had great success in bringing cows forward for calving the following season. The theory of OAD is it takes the milking pressure off so they can recover. We focus on production until mating time and then we focus on next year.”

Beth says some of those cows put into the OAD herd as non-cyclers can be those with quiet heats that get missed in the TAD herd. The OAD herd will be run separately for the four weeks the main herd is on artificial breeding (AB) and at the end of this year’s mating there were just 20 cows left in the OAD herd. It’s a policy they have used for the past six years and it played its part in lifting production every year when they were in Murchison.

The herd will be milked TAD through to the middle of December when they will switch to 3in2, depending on whether the crops are ready. On TAD, the cows get 5ha of grass a day and after the switch to 3in2 they drop back to 3.75ha-a-day. So the crop fills the shortfall which automatically puts them on a 30-day round. That, in turn, pushes grass in front of the herd for the summer.

The trigger for switching to 3in2 is the crops, as they fill the gap when one paddock is taken out of the round and ensures good quality feed is going into the cows.

“If we didn’t have a high-quality crop, production would drop with the change to 3in2 milking. If we didn’t have crop we would have to substitute with brought-in feed over summer.”

In Murchison, they didn’t switch to 3in2 until somewhere between January 1 and February, but in the drier Motupiko climate, they are bringing it forward to ensure they put condition on the cows’ backs so they don’t have to catch up through winter.

“We find that by getting on to 3in2 earlier before it dries out, you’re pushing more grass in front of you,” Jason says. “Otherwise you’re chasing feed,” Beth adds.

This year they have 5ha of chicory planted under the sprinklers and 10ha of turnips under the pivot and reckon they will produce about 15 tonnes drymatter (DM)/ha of turnips and struggle for 10t DM/ha of chicory. They’ve grown chicory before in Murchison and though it’s a valuable crop to have in the system during summer, it wasn’t enough sometimes.

“We always found we needed that bulk feed because you didn’t get the tonnage from chicory,” Beth explains. “But we liked chicory as well because it gave us no health problems like photosensitivity.”

On 3in2, they begin by putting the cups on at 5am and then 7pm on the first day, followed by one milking the next day. As the cows get used to it, they bring the night milking forward gradually until it is 5pm. It means their staff – they have one fulltime employee and his wife does 20 hours a week as a relief milker – can head home at 2pm on that first day and come back at 6pm when it is a 7pm milking. Whoever milks at night, gets a sleep in the next morning.

“A lot of people are put off by the night milking, but I really enjoy milking in the evening when its cooler,” Jason says.

It’s also cooler for the cows that are happier to walk to the dairy for milking and Beth says they use less energy than walking during the heat. On 3in2, they have one less trek to the dairy every two days compared with TAD, so that’s less walking which is beneficial for energy and lameness. The human side also benefits as everyone can head to the river in the afternoon if they want as well as getting those sleep ins.

Their 3in2 stint continues through to the beginning of April, when the herd will go on to OAD through to the end of the season.

Last year, knowing they would be carting their own young cows to a new farm, they stopped the night milking of their first calvers at the beginning of March, when the rest of the herd was still on 3in2.

“Everyone told us they would dry off. They’d performed really well up till then and were our top animals and we herd tested on 29 April and they were doing 1.44kg (milksolids (MS)/cow/day). We dried them off 15 May because we had to truck them here and they scored 5.5 (condition) at calving and looked impressive. I think it paid off, so we’re thinking about doing it again with the first-calvers.”

Again, the emphasis is on the next season just as much as getting much production from this season and Jason and Beth says it pays off because those cows get in calf easier the next season, have the condition to perform well and are healthier for it.

Their target this year is 430kg MS/cow and potentially they see 450kg MS achievable with minimal inputs. Their only bought-in input is 1kg of palm kernel per day per cow throughout the season. This season they have contracted 140t of palm kernel and Jason says the cows benefit from the consistency of feeding it every day.

“That 1kg is enough hold condition on their backs and I’ve found they like consistency. And I think that’s the same with grass – no matter where you set residuals, they like it to be consistent because they’re creatures of habit and like routine.”