The benefits of organic dairy farming outweigh the challenges. Sheryl Brown reports.

Neville and Louise Williams have done it all, throughout their 35 years farming. They have milked cows in a high-input, high-stocking-rate system, they have milked once-a-day, and now they are certified organic farmers with 2.5 cows to the hectare and have installed robotic milkers.

Louise Williams: taking on new challenges.

The couple like to take on new challenges and aren’t afraid to try new approaches, that may not be part of the status quo of the time, Neville says.

“The whole thing about the job is to keep it interesting and remain open to trying new things. When it comes to farming systems, there is no right or wrong one – it’s how well you do what you do. We choose to farm using a ‘best tools for the job’ approach.”

The couple have been farming on the Williams’ family farm at Horahora, near Cambridge, for 35 years. They bought the original block in 1989 and ran a conventional farm system (for the time), until they upped the ante in 1995 with 4.5 cows/ha.

In 2001 they bought a neighbouring block of 38ha and rather than buy more cows and upgrade the cowshed, they cut back the stocking rate and reverted to a low-input biological system. This then led to milking the cows once-a-day for the next 10 years. During this time the benefits for cow and farm health became obvious.

Having farmed biologically for several years, it felt like the natural step to go organic, Louise says.

They became certified in 2009 and the more they travelled along the road, they knew organics was where they should be.

“Our experience has shown us that the organic model has people, land and animals at the heart. To have things in balance is important,” Louise says.

‘When it comes to farming systems, there is no right or wrong one – it’s how well you do what you do. We choose to farm using a ‘best tools for the job’ approach.’

Neville also saw it as another challenge and wanted to see if they could farm organically and do it well.

Neville set out to plant more diverse pastures, which have thrived on the Tirau Ash soils.

“A diverse pasture benefits cow health and milk production, improves the soil and decreases nitrate leaching – which improves water quality, as plants with deeper roots capture more carbon and nitrogen,” he says.

A cow emerges from one of the robotic milkers after milking.

He oversows with 2kg/ha chicory, 1kg/plantain and .5kg/ha lucerne  every few years and undersows a diploid ryegrass to improve pasture density..

“When we started oversowing chicory over 25 years ago we were told it wouldn’t work but wanted to try it as an alternative to growing turnips. The strategy has proven to be very successful over the years and has taught us the benefits of diverse pasture in terms of cow health, pasture persistence and soil health.

“I’m not saying what we are doing is the right thing, but it makes sense to us and it’s what works for this farm.”

One of Neville’s ace cards is pre-graze mowing. The farm is about 70% mowable and he mows every paddock possible ahead of the cows from September through until December.

“I’m a big fan of pre-graze mowing. The cows eat 20% more so we’re utilising what’s in the paddocks, including any weeds. The cows store this extra energy and the pasture quality is improved. Our empty rate is around 6% with no veterinary intervention due to the cows being well fed.”

Neville does all their oversowing/undersowing and fertiliser application. For fertiliser they use a combination of certified RPR, SOP and Guano plus minor elements to keep balanced soil fertility. They also apply Agrisea pasture seaweed in spring and autumn.

“I like to put my own fertiliser on, so I can put it on when and where it is needed.”

Being in control of pasture management is vital because sourcing quality organic feed is difficult. You can’t as easily just pick up the phone and order a truck of more feed, when there is a feed deficit, he says.

They make 300-500 bales of grass silage onfarm depending on the season and buy in certified lucerne as a quality protein source.

They were growing organic maize onfarm until two years ago and were achieving yields up to 20 tonnes/ha. However, growing organic maize is all about the timing of cultivation and planting as the paddock must be ploughed and left to fallow for six weeks – which is a loss of about 4.5t drymatter. If they got the timing wrong they could suffer with low yields.

In the Waikato with maize paddocks also comes yellow bristle grass (YBG), which is one of the reasons they’ve stopped growing it, Neville says.

They harvest their silage before the end of November to limit the chance of contractors bringing YBG seeds on farm.

Louise picks YBG out by hand and after a couple of years without growing maize is starting to make good progress on removing it from the farm.

Robots and organics

Since Neville first set eyes on robotic milking machines more than 25 years ago, he was intrigued and three years ago they decided to buy four Lely units. The flexibility of automatic milking machines fitted with the philosophy of organic dairy cows because the whole system puts less stress on the animals, Neville says.

“Even though cows have a herd mentality, the cows aren’t herded. They come to the shed when they want to, which, depending on their stage of lactation, is anywhere from one to three times a day.”

Some naysayers said the robots wouldn’t work on their farm because they thought the cows wouldn’t walk back to the farm dairy. The farm is rolling-to-steep, sitting 150 metres above sea level.

However, the cows’ milking frequency is the same whether they’re in the paddock closest to the farm dairy, or the furthest 2km away, Neville says.

The cows are willing to walk the distance and they have minimal lameness issues because they walk at their own speed.

It took them about two weeks of intensive training to transition their herd through the robots.

“The first few months with the robots were hard, but we knew they would be. We were lucky to get help from friends, as well as other local farmers who had robots and Lely. Once we got over the settling-in stage and learned how the system worked, it really freed us up to focus on other things, for example pasture management, keeping a close check on animal health, and carrying out restoration work, fencing and general farm maintenance.”

Now the heifers join the autumn milkers to get used to coming into the farm dairy and walking through the Texas gates and robots. Like training heifers in any farm dairy, it requires patience, but with this system you don’t get kicked trying to put the cups on, Neville says.

The cows are very quiet in the dairy and as they move about the farm. Allowing them to choose when they’re milked helps both milk production and overall animal health.

“They’re very relaxed and if there’s a line for a robot, they’re often just chewing their cud and waiting for their turn,” Neville says.

“They get to spend time with the cows they like spending time with and they express their natural personalities, because they’re free to come and go as they please. They’re relaxed and happy. On the way out, they get to enjoy a good scratch with a mechanised brush.”

The radio is normally going and the Williams’ son Trent who is a sound editor has created a playlist which they are doing an informal experiment on looking at the cows’ milk production in reaction to the music.

Having the robots onfarm also helps attract good-quality staff like their farm manager Vaughn Davys, Neville says.

“You don’t have to be a computer expert to work with the system, but you still have to be a good all-round farmer.”

The data gathered at every milking also supports their organic operation because the cows are monitored so closely and proactive decisions can be made.

Like a herd test every milking

When it comes to managing mastitis the robots are a great help. It’s like having a herd test at every milking. When a cow has a somatic cell count alert she is drafted to the treatment shed. Her quarters are assessed and treated appropriately, using a combination of stripping, Shoof Udder Comfort which helps improve udder health, and homeopathy.

“It’s surprising how many cows self-cure,” Neville says.

In an organic system, being proactive with animal health is vital because you cannot use the ‘ambulance at the bottom of the cliff’.

The cows are given AgriSea Animal Health Tonic, cider vinegar and minerals through the dosatron as required to maintain general health and to reduce somatic cell count.

The cows also have access to Himalayan salt rocks and a small amount of organic molasses while they’re being milked.

They use an approved iodine-based teat spray year-round.

If a cow needs to be treated with antibiotics she is treated appropriately, immediately removed from the herd to a quarantine area to recover and then sent off-farm.

They generally have less than 1% of cows that need to be treated with antibiotics, about three a year, Neville says.

Sunlight and having a well-balanced consistent diet every day is a big contributor to good animal health, he says.

“We try and feed our cows really well all year.”

They have also culled strictly for mastitis and udder conformation since installing the robots and choose genetics accordingly.

Louise chooses the LIC bulls every year and the traits she focuses on are udder conformation, size, fertility and SCC She’s also been selecting A2 bulls for the last decade and most of their herd is now A2.

They do three to four weeks of artificial breeding followed by crossbred bulls. They have been split-calving for the past few seasons, but have gone back to spring calving with an extended calving period of 12 weeks.

“We are doing the opposite of everyone else and we are trying to elongate our calving. This will mean we can still milk all year round to utilise the robots and capitalise on the winter milk price but without having to calve twice a year. The farm optimisation programme shows no loss in profitability from this approach. It will be interesting to see how it goes.” Neville says.

They have been 80% Fonterra organic suppliers until this season and have now gone 100% to the Organic Dairy Hub Co-operative.

The Hub is open and transparent, and they wanted to support it, Neville says.

Neville and Louise are not purely financially driven and it’s not the reason they’re in organics, but it’s nice to see the value of organic milk being recognised.

“Money is not the most important thing, it isn’t the motivation, but the farm still has to pay its way,” Neville says.

The next generation

Gina and Trent are the fourth generation to be raised on the Waikato farm. Gina is an advertising strategist and writer by trade and Trent is a sound editor and musician working in Wellington.

Gina took a year off work in 2015 to help Neville and Louise on the farm and while she was there she established a website for the farm and began writing a farm journal.

The farm journal is a way to connect, share and learn with likeminded people, interested in the future of farming, or food production. This could be a chef in South America, a blogger from Wellington who’s interested in sustainability, or a farmer in the district we’ve known for years, Gina says.

“Solutions can come from anywhere and it’s crucial to keep an open mind for new ideas. The only rule we work to is one around ‘positivity’. We don’t believe constructive conversations start with finger-pointing, or preaching. You have to start from a place of empathy and respect.”

She encouraged her parents to build a hub when they built the new farm dairy for the robots, which includes a kitchen, dining area and office with windows to view the cows coming in to be milked. The shed is adjacent to Maungatautari Road which is a popular thoroughfare and they now have a setup which will be attractive for onfarm visitors.

They have also planted a native shelter belt, a selection of fruit trees and edible hedgerows around the tanker track to enhance the surroundings.

With part-funding from the Waikato River Authority and support from the local school and Iwi, they have retired 10ha of marginal land and planted more than 30,000 plants including manuka and kanuka, as well as building three treatment weirs, with generous ‘buffer zones’.

Three tributaries spring out of the ground on our farm, Gina says,

“We have a rare opportunity to make sure the water in these streams starts off life as it should go on.”

Within the extensive native planting and abundance of clover, Gina and her partner Richard, saw an opportunity to introduce bees to the operation.

“Planting the marginal land doesn’t just help with biodiversity, it helps with economic diversity, by creating the perfect environment for bees. The honey is just one of the benefits of beekeeping; the bees also help to pollinate our trees and our pasture, creating a richer, more abundant and productive farm for all that live their lives on it,” Gina says.

“Introducing the bees has made our marginal land more meaningful. It’s also given us a very hands-on way to learn a new craft, and the capacity to care for colonies as well as cows.

“It’s not a huge leap to say there’s a co-dependence and correspondence between the bees, the pasture, the cows, the wetlands and their fauna, and us – all relying on one another to thrive.”

Gina and Richard were travelling down every fortnight to tend to their beehives but have now moved down to the farm.

The couple have set up two apiaries on the farm, with 20 beehives, as well as a market garden and will expand now they’re on the farm full-time.

“The garden and in particular, the bees made good environmental sense, and their additional economic value gave the project the green light,” Gina says.

“For dairy farming to be good for all of us, we need good farmers who have their eyes on tomorrow and acknowledge their place as brief custodians. Good farmers are across the economics, as well as doing right by the community and the environment. We need to take care of this land. It’s home. This land is everything.”

Key facts

Our Land of Milk and Honey

Owners: Neville and Louise Williams

Location: Horahora, Waikato

Area: 158 ha, 112ha effective milking platform, 31ha effective for young stock

Cows: 300 crossbreeds

Production:  950kg MS/ha

Operation: Organic, DairyNZ System 2

Farm Dairy: Four Lely Robotic automatic milking systems

Pasture: 11.1t DM/ha harvested, nil urea, pasture as percentage of feed consumed: 88%

Supplement: 450 bales lucerne brought in, 350 bales silage made onfarm.

Farm working expenses: $4.03