Hawke’s Bay/Wairarapa Dairy Manager of the Year Nic Verhoek didn’t expect to get his present post when he went window-shopping for jobs. Jackie Harrigan reports.

Nic and Kirsty Verhoek have managed to take a high-input farm to a higher plane of production and profitability – by tweaking many aspects of Willow Park Agri, a System 5 dairy farm on the outskirts of Masterton.

Milking 920 cows on the split-calving property, Nic as farm manager has managed to lift total cow production from 417,051kg milksolids (MS) in 2016/17 to 490,000kg MS in 2017/18 and a forecasted 480,000+kg MS in 2018/19. Per cow production has lifted from 453kg MS/c0w to 533kg MS/cow last season and a forecast of 520+kg MS/cow this season.

Willow Park’s EBIT has also increased from $4426/ha in 2016/17 to $5047 for the 2018/19 season over the farm’s five year baseline EBIT of $2748/ha, from the same number of cows.

Nic is a self-confessed type A personality who says he loves to be chewing furiously – he says if he’s not on the edge then he is not on. And when he applied for the manager’s job on the 920-cow Willow Park farm he didn’t really expect to get the job.

“I was window-shopping really but I was lucky enough to get the job, even though I was a bit short on life experience, but I had plenty of attitude and motivation.”

The dairy farm has been converted from a former multi-generational sheep and beef operation over the past 23 years by Selwyn and Jenny McLachlan, regrassing and fencing the cultivable river terraces flanking 4km of the Ruamahanga river.

Willow Park was performing at a very respectable level, growing 17 tonnes DM/ha and harvesting 14t DM/ha while supplementing 1.9t DM/ha in the 2016/17 season when Nic arrived as manager.

“There is a lot to this farm – many challenges with 100% irrigation, river terraces pumping out the feed, high input and production alongside split calving and a covered composting barn.,” Nic says.

‘The composting barn is great – the cows love it, we love it, cow and calf mortality are much reduced and it’s fantastic at collecting nutrients – but it’s a balancing act to allow cows enough time to utilise all the benefits the barn offers.’

“It’s an all-consuming property – and we thought we knew everything – what a crash course in dairy farming that was – with winter flooding and minimal staffing.”

Fast forward three years and Nic won the Dairy Manager award in the Hawke’s Bay/Wairarapa Dairy Industry Awards. The couple have dedicated three years and very long days to the operation. Kirsty has also worked off-farm full time for BakerAg while the couple have also been bringing up their daughter Isabelle. Kirsty has also had an input into the farm both physically and more importantly, with her professional knowledge as a ruminant nutritionist.

The increase in production and profitability the couple have managed to pull off at Willow Park has been largely through increasing cow inputs and building output of milk – in a relatively cost-efficient manner.

“This herd is a high genetic merit herd, so we have the potential to challenge them to use less feed to make more milk,” Nic says.

Growing the rumen was the catchcry – encouraging the cows to lift intake of a nutritionally balanced diet to make more milk solids without costing a lot more.

The mantra in feeding the cows is “never a hungry minute” and “make no mud”.

“We really like the system five operations, we don’t like controlled starvation.”

The covered composting barn had been newly installed before the Verhoeks arrived, but the systems and processes were not refined to make the most of it, and so Nic and Kirsty did a lot of experimentation to refine how it could best work.

“The composting barn is great – the cows love it, we love it, cow and calf mortality are much reduced and it’s fantastic at collecting nutrients – but it’s a balancing act to allow cows enough time to utilise all the benefits the barn offers,” Nic says.

“With high performance irrigated pastures, maximising grass growth on the platform involves looking after those pastures and not making any mud – as that constrains growth – so the cows have to be housed in the barn when they can’t be on the pastures.

“We are very keen on cow welfare and doing things a bit differently so we had the passion to drive the experimentation and get the most out of the composting barn.”

“Managing the composting substrate was a learning curve – it needs to be ripped every day and we call it the Japanese garden as that’s how it looks after the treatment – but it will last a few years if you look after it properly.”

Nic calls the system Pasture Plus – and concentrates on growing and harvesting as much pasture as possible before adding in any supplement.

“It’s full on, we are growing 18.5-19.5 tonnes DM/ha and the target is to get that to 20 tonnes – and we are not averse to getting the mower out to help control it and maintain high-quality ME pasture.

“We plan to always know the amount of feed offered by weighing the supplement and GPS mapping the paddocks.”

Measuring and monitoring is intense when growing and utilising such high levels of pasture.

The stocking rate in the Friesian cross herd is set to manage peak pasture growth – so stocked at 4.5-4.6 milking cows/ha with up to eight mouths/ha at the peak growth (utilising non-milking mouths if required), and the feed barn is used all year.

Pasture covers are measured every 7-10 days using a plate meter and the Pasture Coach app, and targeted covers of 3300kg DM/ha pre-grazing and 1600kg DM/ha post-grazing.

“Superior palatability of the tetraploids allow for higher pregraze targets, and ensure we can grow the most drymatter available we can,” Nic says.

Daily visual monitoring of the three-leaf stage ensures the grazing is at the optimum stage of leaf growth.

Weekly feed budgets are compiled in Excel and then supplements are used strategically to keep the pasture in the optimum growth stage.

Supplements on-hand are monitored monthly and crop monitoring and feed sampling and composition analysis by professionals feeds information into Farmax budgets so the nutritional balance is maintained throughout the season.

The daily feed offering is a maximum of 15-16kg DM pasture/cow/day and a variable supplement rate makes up the difference, building to a total of 21-23kg DM/cow/day in the peak of milking.

The constant monitoring and measuring and setting of diet composition ensures the total ration always meets the cow’s energy requirements and targeted 18-22% protein levels.

Supplements used at Willow Park include fodder beet, kale, grass silage, maize silage, barley grain, maize grain, corn gluten, palm kernel, soya and brewers grain.

Between August and January, 1-3kg DM/cow/day of barley or maize grain is fed through the in-shed feeding system and the rest of the supplement fed in the barn.

The dry cows are adlib fed between 12-15kg DM/cow/day, Nic says.

“We spent a lot of dollars growing rumens, to teach the cows to physically consume as much as they can.” This means making feed available to cows all the time – up to four shifts a day for milking cows on pasture, twice a day feeding in the barn, with grain offered at morning and afternoon milkings in-shed. With dry cows it can mean shifting twice a day on crop, with access to plenty of dry feed in the form of baleage, hay, and straw.

“We don’t want the girls standing around without a gutful and being able to see ‘triangles’, if this happens I’m not doing my job properly”.

With so many cows and age groups, co-ordinating getting them all on and off the feed pad each day for four hours each is a massive logistical challenge.

But keeping the paddocks in good condition is important to maximise pasture growth, Nic says.

“We have to set extra breaks to move cows off wet pastures and then stand off the cows in the barn to avoid making mud when we get bad weather – the weather apps on our smartphones help us to predict rainfall and plan cow movements.

“When we know bad weather is coming we can utilise older or hard-panned pasture and paddocks facing away from the prevailing weather.”

Pre-mowing and back fencing also help maintain pasture quality and identifying and managing the pasture surplus and deficits in a timely manner is really important, he says.

The farm has 15-20% of pastures renewed each year with strategic use of crops on poor-performing paddocks and grass-to-grass renewal in summer under the irrigation. The predominately tetraploid ryegrass clover mix is now starting to include 4kg/ha of plantain seed. This successful pasture combination is a testament to Selwyn’s desire to continually improve Willow Park’s pastures.

Trying to keep feed costs down and optimising fertiliser and nitrogen use has led to a drop in feed costs for the 2018/19 season, despite supplement rising to 37% of total intake. Feed costs tracked up to $2.02/ kg MS for the 2017/18 season (when a dry summer pushed up feed costs) and have been forecast back down to $1.67/kg MS for the 2018/19 season.

Nitrogen use has fallen for the past three seasons, from 395kg N/ha in 2016/17 to 390kg N/ha in 2017/18 and 287kg N/ha in 2018/19 season.

The nitrogen policy is for application of little and often, avoiding wet periods and winter, so 25 units are applied 1-3 days pre-or post-grazing and Pro-Gibb is added in in late winter/spring. A contractor maps the application to provide proof of application and soils are tested every three years.

“The feed barn provides great mitigation for nutrient leaching as the nutrient is collected in the compost,” Nic says.

Cow-centric focus

With a strategy to maximise cow comfort and have fully fed happy cows, the Verhoeks have had a strong focus on monitoring milk production data, daily observation of cows, animal health checks and avoiding cow interference at mating.

Staff training is a key strategy with something Nic calls ‘fencepost yarns’. This is spending time with the five full-time staff and numerous part-timers on-farm discussing specific day-to-day activities, not solely focusing on ‘book-driven’ training and trying not to over-complicate things.

A focus on monitoring sees them recording daily herd data using MINDA Live and LIC linked with Protrack in the dairy shed. Using the information to record cycling cows and to ID and administer animal health treatments Nic is able to report to the owners and farm adviser weekly via an excel spreadsheet and Dropbox. The farm is also part of the BakerAg Dairy Systems Monitoring (DSM) monthly benchmarking programme.

“We are farming in a fishbowl here – surrounded by 80 line-of-sight non-farming neighbours and also the farm owner living on one side of us and the farm adviser on the other side. We need to measure, monitor and report often!” Nic says.

Cow health is the key to producing more milk from less cows.

“We think of the cows’ welfare first and foremost,” Nic says.

The McLachlans’ Friesian cross herd has 100% recorded ancestry and BW and PW records are comfortably above the national and Wairarapa averages so the milking potential is there, Nic says.

The main health issues are mastitis, lameness, heat stress and metabolics, and prevention is the order of the day at Willow Park.

Cows are condition-scored about every eight weeks, have a dry cow period of 50-70 days and a strict dry cow process maintains body condition and helps cut down somatic cell count.

Udders are stripped for mastitis prevention and the farm has a strict clean tail policy.

Springer cows are in the feed barn for 20 hours each day (Nic says the cows love being in the barn – as do the staff in inclement weather) and freshly calved cows each get a calcium/metabolic bag and a B12 injection, insuring they have a great kickstart.

Lameness prevention includes ongoing race maintenance, introduction of a ‘woppa crush’ which allows for ease of animal treatment and staff use, and addressing any problem areas at the gateways, dairy shed and feed barn. Old carpets have been put on the races for a short-term solution in problem areas in the past.

Calf rearing protocols

The farm employs two full-time calf rearers in spring and one in autumn, and there is a protocol followed for all calves – 90-95% of which are reared as replacements or beef calves. Most calves are born in the feed barn and are picked up at least twice-daily and fed gold colostrum within six hours of calving, then fed 2-3l colostrum/milk/milk powder twice daily thereafter.

Housed in north-facing pens on sawdust with 8-10/pen, the calves are offered ad lib straw and pellets from two weeks of age with access to pastures from eight weeks.

Milk is fed once daily from 80kg LW onwards and calves weaned at 100kg LW. After weaning they are rotated through the milking platform, half-way through the milking herds round to ensure access to quality 2500-2600kg DM/ha pastures and then set stocked on older under-performing paddocks with supplement.

The heifers are kept on the milking platform as feed dictates or moved to the run-off, fed pasture and weighed every eight weeks. They are all mated by AI for an early June calving with follow-up bulls and trained on the milking platform in preparation for the milking season.

“It’s a stressful time for the brand new mums, we want them to know as much as possible about the system before its time to go to work, they have experienced the barn, races, and milking shed, meaning all that’s left to do is to calve.

Next steps

Nic and Kirsty have one more season (2019) at Willow Park, then the plan is to move to the Bay of Plenty for the 2020 season to pursue other opportunities as they continue working towards their goals of land ownership and food production.

While continuing to grow their business, it is becoming important be nearer to Kirsty’s family, as she and Nic welcome baby number two to their family in spring. Their goal is to leave Willow Park with tweaked policies and documented processes and technologies for the next farm team to carry on the high-profitability journey of the property.

Farm facts

  • Willow Park Agri Ltd, Masterton
  • Owners: Selwyn and Jenny McLachlan
  • Milking platform: 210ha
  • Support land: 150ha attached land (owned/leased), 68ha detached land (leased)
  • Annual rainfall: 950mm
  • System 5
  • 920 peak milked cows, 700/750 spring calving, 200/220 autumn calving