Anne Hardie

Twenty years’ grade-free milk is the kind of achievement most dairy farmers only dream about, but for Reefton’s Tegal and Wendy Oats it’s a reality they attribute to their fastidious regime in the dairy.

In that time they have milked on three different farms in three different dairies, had contract milkers for a number of years and are still grade free all the way. For 20 years then they have consistently achieved a premium for their milk and today that’s 5c/kg milksolids (MS); a total of about $8000 a year for their business.

The Oats farm just south of Reefton on a rolling plateau that has been humped and hollowed over the years for drainage, typical of the West Coast, and these days they milk 350 cows to produce between 450 and 460kg MS/cow.

They say there’s nothing special about their systems to attain grade-free status; they simply do what is expected for a food product and that means being fussy.

As Wendy says: “We’re in the food-producing business. And Tegal adds: “I hate grubby sheds.”

“There’s no real secret,” he says. “And we’re only one day away from a grade.”

Fussy cleanliness in the dairy is part of the equation and Wendy says they also try to keep on top of somatic cells, with the herd hovering between 80,000 and 90,000 cells/ml most of the time. Their lowest day ever was 12,000 cells/ml.

“It’s just being really careful and if you get a problem, strip the herd out and find the one.”

Perhaps their fastidious habits hark back to their start in the dairy industry when Tegal worked in the bagging room at Westland Milk Products’ Hokitika factory and then drove milk tankers, collecting milk the long length of the West Coast and delivering it to either Hokitika or the now-mothballed site at Karamea.

When the couple saved enough to buy a house in Hokitika, they rented it out and got a job on a dairy farm. That was 31 years ago and after two seasons on the farm, they made the leap to a 50:50 sharemilking contract on a farm in Karamea and money was tight.

“We had no money at the start – we used to drive to the Karamea store once a fortnight for a packet of winegums,” Tegal laughs.

“And my mum used to buy groceries and bring them up to us,” Wendy adds.

For extra money, Tegal drove milk tankers at night for six weeks, driving up to 700km a night and getting as little as one hour’s sleep before it was time to get up and milk the cows. He drove milk tankers again when they later farmed at Kokotahi, inland from Hokitika.

“But then you hit a point where you are established enough to make money,” Tegal says.

It helped they had good farm owners and neighbours along the way who were prepared to help out and give advice, plus family that helped fix machinery when there wasn’t the money to pay a mechanic.

In all, they had three sharemilking jobs in 11 years and two of those farms were new conversions – one didn’t have the dairy up and running as the cows began calving and they had to milk the first cows by hand.

When they bought their first farm, they continued with their sharemilking contract and put a contract milker on their own farm and spent any spare time spraying the rampant ragwort on it. Rainfall reached seven metres one year on that farm and 1m of that was in just one week – in summer – to wash out the water scheme, bridges and 40 silage bales down the creek. But it was a high-producing farm in one sense.

‘We had the highest-producing farm in the Kowhitirangi Valley at the time. Because it was the highest up the hill!’

“We had the highest-producing farm in the Kowhitirangi Valley at the time,” Tegal says. “Because it was the highest up the hill!”

They may not have had the highest production, but they did win Westland Milk Products’ milk quality cup one year and were second and third other years.

Then nine years ago they sold their previous farm to head to Australia where the lure of cheaper land, less rain and a new adventure had a 100ha farm in Gippsland in their sights with their pen close to signing the dotted line. Then the Christchurch earthquake hit and caused the exchange rate to tumble and that removed hundreds of thousands of dollars in buying power. So they pulled the pin on the “beautiful farm for half the price” and looked for a new farm on the Coast to be up and running for the new season.

“We thought we were going to Aussie, so we’d sold the herd and machinery and everything,” Wendy says. “We’d kept our heifers though and bought 170 cows from the herd here.”

It’s a 209-hectare farm with 170ha milking platform, plus gullies and sidlings where they run the calves and their own bred bulls. In their first season they budgeted on spending $350,000 on upgrading the farm including 600 tonnes of lime, 800t of fertiliser in one go to boost fertility and a meal feeding system in the dairy. Since then they have flipped patches of paddocks with their own 18t digger to improve drainage, including areas of peat on clay and a hard pan beneath. The digger has been a worthwhile investment as Tegal has clocked up 6000 hours on it, though he has little time now they are back full-time milking cows.

For six of the nine years on the farm, one of their sons, Thomas, and his wife, Hannah, were contract milkers and while there they won the West Coast-Top of the South Dairy Farm Manager of the Year. This year the young couple won the sharemilking title on a farm at Kowhitirangi.

Tegal and Wendy remained very much a part of the farm operation while Thomas and Hannah were contract milking, passing on their fastidious work habits. When they left the home farm, Tegal and Wendy took on another contract milker for the 2018-19 season, but ended up moving back to the farm themselves from their 30ha support block at Ahaura to take up the reins again part way through the season. Their other son James came back as 2IC.

This season Tegal was on crutches for a good part of spring due to a ruptured tendon and by the end of November they had just gone six months without a day off.

The support block at Ahaura where they were living and will eventually retire, grazes the calves from Christmas and winters a few cows. Its real value though is that it can be locked up through spring for supplements, with about 500 tonnes of silage made each year to add to the 500t made on the milking platform, including pit silage, to provide their summer feed.

“The Ahaura block is our irrigation because that gives us the feed for summer dry,” Tegal says.

Despite a West Coast rainfall, the grass can disappear on two thirds of the farm during summer and they usually sow a summer crop as well as relying on silage. But this year the Coast was hammered by rain throughout spring and they simply couldn’t get a crop in the ground.

“So we kept growing silage instead.”

They do feed the cows in the shed with a mix containing 45% dried distillers grains (DDGS), 30% dried soy hulls and palm kernel for the remainder. They’ve tried different feeds in the past, but this one works well and Tegal says you can’t overfeed the cows on it.

Last year they used a feed with wheat in it and the cows were “loose and sick”, whereas this year they’re healthy and content. All up, the cows get between 600 and 650kgs each through the season at about 2kg/day depending on grass quality and availability at the time. Minerals are also added to the feed mix to ensure the cows have optimal levels throughout the season.

The herd is “generally” crossbred with about a third Jersey, which means at mating about two thirds of the cows receive Jersey semen and about a third get Friesian semen to produce medium-sized cows.

While most dairy farmers are flat out with calving through early August, Tegal and Wendy are still sleeping in until the first cows are due to calve on August 18. They then milk through to May 25, depending on the season, and despite less days in milk they still achieve 450-460kgs MS/cow with their best 482kg in the season that, as luck would have it, they also had the lowest payout. Tegal says they start calving later for the simple reason it ensures they don’t run out of feed.

“When we’ve gone through our first round, the grass is away. We’re a round behind a lot of people but it works for us and we end up with a better production per cow. We just can’t see the point in calving earlier. Have trust in your cows because your cows can do it if you feed them.”

It helps to have a lower stocking rate of two cows per hectare which is all part of their preference to work on production per cow rather than aiming at a target for total production and more pressure on the cows and system.

Calves grazing the gullies are also under little pressure before they go to Ahaura and when they return to the farm 10 months later, they graze behind the cows to keep on top of grass quality and growth due to lower stocking numbers.

“The philosophy is, the cows go in and eat the best pasture for milk, then the heifers go in and top off the waste and then we top what’s left with the mower,” Tegal says.

The heifers are mated with home-bred bulls that run in the gullies most of the year. Six bull calves are selected each year and taken through to two-year-olds when the two smallest are kept to go over the larger cows the following year at the end of artificial insemination (AI).

“It’s a good bit of extra income and because we have about 40ha of rough grazing in all these gullies, the bulls do well.”

The result after AI is a six-week in-calf rate of 80-85% in the herd. A good result is in part due to those fastidious work habits again; spending time in the paddock observing the cows at mating to note which ones are cycling.

“You pick up so much in the paddock,” Tegal says. “You pick up more than you do with (technology) aids. If you rely on all those aids you lose proper stockmanship. It’s all about being out here enough to see what is happening. We’re pretty fastidious.”

Next on the agenda, if Wendy has her way, is retirement where they head back to their Ahaura block and travel more. Whereas Tegal considers retirement an “ugly word”, so there may have to be some compromise.

Farm facts

Owners: Tegal and Wendy Oats

Location: Reefton, West Coast

Area: 209ha with 170ha milking platform

Support area: 30ha at Ahaura

Cows: 350 generally crossbred

Production: 460kg MS/cow

Calving start: August 18

Supplements onfarm: 1000 tonnes silage made onfarm and support

Bought-in supplements: 2kg/cow/ day meal

Tegal and Wendy’s grade-free guide


Morning – Vat gets a hot wash with Agmax vat cleaner gel and Alkali recycle.

The plant always gets a good cold rinse and hot alkali recycle.

Night – Hot water used up in the morning, so a cold acid wash through the plant.


Morning – Half the hot water used for a hot acid wash through the plant.

Night – Enough hot water left over for a hot acid wash through the plant.

Alkali gets rid of the milk deposits, but Tegal says most people only do one or two alkali washes a week, whereas they put through alkali recycles every second day.

Cups are washed before they are hung up and hosed up the mouths of the cups.

It’s important to have clean teats before cupping and cowshit washed away from the bails so nothing is sucked up if the cows kick the cups off.