A young couple who say they have their dream job are looking to improve the herd and introduce innovation to the farm they work on. Jackie Harrigan reports.

Donovan and Sophie Croot have moved on from the cheap ‘mixer-upperer’ herd they put together for their first sharemilking job and now have a whole new focus on their cows and their breeding.

“We realised pretty early on, owning our own animals we had a whole new sense of responsibility and passion for them – that comes with ownership,” Donovan said.

They also realised the potential of well-bred highly productive animals and what they could add to their bottom line.

“If you are feeding the herd pretty much the same, why not farm the cows that are the most productive?”

During their first sharemilking job, the young couple (now 34 and 30) were fortunate to connect with a neighbour, Jim Webster, who over many years had worked up to breeding the top BW/PW herd in New Zealand in the 2018/19 season in his small 100-cow herd. He became the Croots’ friend and breeding mentor.

When the opportunity arose to purchase some of Jim’s herd because he was leaving farming, they sold the bottom of their existing herd to the South Island for M. bovis replacements and were able to pick out 80 of Jim’s top-producing cows.

“We were really fortunate to be offered the opportunity to buy such great cows and to learn so much from Jim,” Sophie said. “Now we can move forward with our own Clovalley herd; it’s really exciting to see what we can do.”

Moving to their second 50/50 job at Manutahi in South Taranaki, the young couple say they have found their dream job working for the Walkers on their 7th-generation family farm. They have really appreciated the trust of the owners, the nurturing of their ideas, and the opportunity to be innovative.

The farm had been with a long-term manager so there was heaps of potential for innovation – upgrading pastures, introducing summer cropping, installing in-shed feeding, and upgrading infrastructure like the effluent system.

Arriving with 225 cows, the first season was a struggle, with old pastures and then a dry summer, Donovan said.

“We went OAD from January to May and by March were installing in-shed feeding to make sure the cows were fed – the whole season was a struggle.

“We still managed to lift the farm production, getting to 83,000kg MS, up from the 56,000kg MS the year before we arrived, and we are targeting just over 100,000kg MS for the 20/21 season and are on track to reach it.

“It’s what we love doing – cranking up production on a farm – but we like to be smart about it.

“We cut cow numbers at the end of last season. The whole industry has been intensifying, with kg MS/cow dropping, but we think that too many cows leads to too many emissions and too much leaching. By fully feeding our cows and each achieving their genetic potential, some of our cows are capable of producing 800-900kg MS; they are super-efficient.”

The Croots have also organised insurance against another dry season: contracting feed, making twice as much silage as last year, and planting a 4ha turnip crop for summer feed, which will then be sown down in new pasture species.

“The turnip crop could be one third of the diet for two months with pit silage and a small top-up of feed in the shed in case of nil grass growth through the late summer.”

Balancing the breeding

With a full season under their belt, the Croots are now turning their focus on the business of breeding great cows.

Their herd is predominantly Friesian cross, and with BW 163 and PW 213 they are already in the top 5-10% for BW/PW.

Sophie and Donovan nominate all of the semen for the herd for six weeks – using a mixture of LIC and CRV as genetics providers.

Sophie is a trained vet nurse and AB technician, so she does all of the AB on the farm, as well as taking up a run for LIC.

“I actually love it. I grew up in a townie family in Auckland so they are kind of horrified, but I love working with the cows and it’s a great way to meet the neighbours.

“Donovan takes full advantage of me though,” she laughs, “sometimes we have 10 totally different straws for 10 different cows.”

Tailing with SGL semen for the cows and synchronising and AB on the yearlings on the support block is followed by putting bulls with them.

Having used Belgian Blue semen in the past for tailing off, the couple both agreed that their cows were too valuable to risk any calving difficulties, and that the added value of calves would not compensate for loss of cows or milk production.

Their formula for picking sires is confirmation, pedigree, cow breed makeup, and BW, and they have started using an AAA analyst to highlight ways they could correctively mate any cows with conformation imbalances for longevity and soundness.

A new effluent system from the Clean Green Effluent company has a twin weeping wall with green water irrigated through pods onto 16ha from two x 30,000l tanks and one tank for greenwash of the yard recycling the water.

“Being from a vet background, that really interested me,” Sophie said. “It helps us plan how we can improve the herd from a conformation viewpoint.”

After all AI for the past five years, the not-in-calf (NIC) rate of 14% is pretty good for an all-AI farm, Donovan says.

“It’s a trade-off between the bull risk to biosecurity and staff safety and the NIC rate.”

He credits the in-shed feeding of some transition feed with the lift in six-week submission rate to 90% this season and is eagerly awaiting the pregnancy testing results.

While they use the ‘tried and true’ tail paint method of picking cycling cows, the couple say they would love to invest in new collar or ear tag technology.

“That might be our next investment,” they say laughing, “no more cows – we are both addicted to cows.”

Sixty replacement heifers are currently reared and retained (30%) by Sophie and Donovan and the goal is to be able to sell elite heifers both naturally conceived and by embryo transfer (ET) each year from their Clovalley stud, along with providing a tailored breeding advice service for dairy farmers.

The couple have a good number of contracted cows with breeding companies for ET, which is a great way to get elite heifers.

“We want daughters and they want sons and if we can get 10 embryos from one cow at a cost of $4000 and get to keep five calves, then they are pretty reasonable sums for elite females,” Donovan said.

“We have about a 1-in-10 strike rate for elite males and this year have three sons the breeding companies are interested in. We can either sell the contracted bulls outright for $4000 to $5000 each or hold off for royalties from the bull if he succeeds.”

Investment in staff

With a young family and after 10 years balancing cows, milking, business, and children, Donovan and Sophie have taken the step of employing staff this season.

“Most small herd owners do all the work themselves but we decided to invest in staff now, while our children are young so that we can have more time with our family. It will also make our business more resilient.”

Sophie and Donovan have Estelle, 6, Penelope, 3, and Thomas, 18 months, and this summer are taking a camping holiday – their first as a family.

Brazilian Tomas Comunello is in New Zealand on a three-year working visa working for the couple, and is efficient and kind and gentle with the cows, say the Croots.
His partner, Cristine, is also wonderful at helping out and with the children.

With more time to call his own Donovan hopes to get out and about and regain his earlier fitness, and Sophie is keen on horses and is appreciative of being able to keep her horse and a pony for the girls on the farm. “It’s wonderful to be able to have a hobby that doesn’t involve driving somewhere.”

Drilling into detail

Taking the step up into a more intensive system in conjunction with milk management consultants MilkMap for the first time in the 2020/2021 season has been a huge learning curve for the Croots. Rensinus Schipper is the MilkMap consultant helping the Croots with a structured approach to planning, management, and monitoring of their business. Planning involves an annual profit plan; monitoring comprises weekly reporting of grass covers and cow feeding levels with data entered weekly into spreadsheets and uploaded through Dropbox. The reporting takes an hour each week, including rumination counts, says Sophie, and a report comes back with detail about the feeding levels and blend formula. The blend changes with the season and cow nutritional requirements and is ordered from the feed company in 13t consignments.

While the consultancy service is not cheap, Donovan says the lift in production has improved profitability and they have learned a lot about how to balance the cow’s diet.

“We thought that if we are going to buy in expensive feed we really need to know the hows and whys.

“The consultancy has also improved our resilience to drought and general business resilience.”

Part of the business resilience has been locking in all feed supplement prices in the winter and locking in their milk income using Fonterra’s Fixed Milk Price for half of their production in the middle of the lockdown.

“It turned out to be not the right decision this year but we need to be happy with it. At least it’s guaranteed now.

“It’s all a learning experience.”


  • 50/50 sharemilkers: Sophie and Donovan Croot
  • Farm Owners: Neil and Helen Walker, Taumaha Trust
  • Dairy platform: 63ha
  • Support block: 30ha, 1km away
  • Cows: 190 cows (20/21) Friesian X, (225cows in 2019/20)
  • Dairy shed: ACRs installed at own cost to allow milking by one person = more family time.
  • Supplement: In-shed feeding, 1t/cow mix including maize, tapioca, DDG, soy meal/hull and some canola. Doubled silage made plus 4ha turnips for summer feed.
  • System: 3-4
  • Production: 56,000kg MS farm production (2018/2019), 83,000kg MS (2019/20), target for just over 100,000kg MS (2020/2021), aiming for 520kg MS/cow and hope to push it out to 570kg MS/cow as efficient cows genetics come through into the herd.