Rangiriri farmer Mike Simpson believes they have built infrastructure to carry their family business into the future by protecting the land and environment, and prioritising animal welfare and people. Sheryl Haitana reports. Photos by Emma McCarthy/Mike Simpson – Rangiriri.

After just six months of utilising a new 6100-square-metre covered feed pad, a multitude of benefits are showing up in their farming business, Mike Simpson says.

The covered feed pad along with the new 64-bail rotary with a covered yard has been in use since the start of June 2019 and the operation has moved from a DairyNZ System 2 to a System 5.

“This year the cows are still doing 1.9kg milksolids (MS)/day in January, we didn’t even peak at that last season,” Mike says.

“We are milking 150 less cows now and have gained 16,000kg/MS on the previous season.”

The three-year goal is to produce 550kg MS/cow up from 380kg MS/cow under their grass system. The cows are already on track for the second-year target halfway through the first year.

The payback on such a significant investment in their business is much more than financial, however, Mike says.

“We have more friendly cows than we’ve ever had, their coats are shiny, they’ve grown already this year. It’s all those benefits that you don’t see on paper.”

The three-week submission rate rose from 78% to 98% this season after just a few months in the new system.

Feeding the 1100 cows twice a day on the feed pad means there is equal opportunity for each cow to be fully fed, Mike says.

After milking, the cows now go to the paddock and sit down for about an hour because they are full. By the time they get hungry, all the cows are in the paddock, so the last row doesn’t miss out.

“That alone is a really good feeling. In the heat the cows are not outside bunched up in the paddock, not eating with the bully cows standing around the trough.

“In here, they can all get a feed and a drink at any time.”

The feed pad includes three feed bays which can house 400 cows each, with six sqm/cow.

There is 750mm feed space with capacity to feed the cows 9kg/cow at any one time and each bay has six water troughs.

The covered feed pad is usually 8-9C cooler than outside which adds to cow comfort in summer. The cows are using it already, usually making their own way back to the feed pad by lunchtime on hot days.

The peace of mind that comes with knowing the cows are sheltered from the heat or the rain, is huge, Mike says.

“You’re not worrying about the cows or what you’re going to be waking up to during winter.

“We didn’t make any mud last year, we had a very kind winter. But normally we would sacrifice 20-30ha during winter and the rest of the farm suffers too.”

Eliminating pugging damage has already made significant improvement to grass quality and cover. Plus they didn’t have to winter 400 cows off this season.

“This year we’ve had very little willow weed and the grass growth has been through the roof. I would hope it has increased grass growth by 10-15% this season. We’ve done quite a bit of undersowing which has worked really well. We will continue to do more.

“We’ve already realised we have too much grass this year, we will look to get back to 1200 cows.”

Stocking rate has gone up from 2.2 to 3.4 cows/ha on the milking platform, but could go up to 3.8 or 4 cows/ha, Mike says.

On wet days during winter the cows were only on the paddock for about four hours of the day, standing off on the rubber-matted covered feed pad the rest of the time.

“The cows still get a bit tired, even with the rubber matting, so you still have to manage it. They didn’t all sit down, but it was the first year, so they’re still getting used to it.”

Simpson Farms is a family owned and operated business. Mike’s grandfather Murray bought the “undesirable land” which boundaries the Waikato River in 1974.

“We are very low-lying and surrounded by stop banks. It is basically a swamp in winter,” Mike says.

“For three months you can’t walk through some paddocks, let alone take a bike or tractor.”

‘We have more friendly cows than we’ve ever had, their coats are shiny, they’ve grown already this year. It’s all those benefits that you don’t see on paper.’

The sandy loam soil gets a good response from 10mm of rain in summer, but they have to pump water out in winter.

“We get a benefit in summer, but we pay the price in winter.”

Mike’s parents Trevor and Sue took over the 400-hectare farm in 1982, which has grown to 640ha, with a 620ha runoff at Waingaro.

The young stock are reared between the runoff platform at Rangiriri and the Waignaro runoff, where they also fatten sheep and rear about 250 dairy beef.

Their runoff manager Mark Parker is a great operator and has run the runoff for 20 years, Mike says.

Mike trained as a mechanic when he left school, farmed around the Waikato for three seasons before returning to the home farm as a contract milker 10 years ago. He spent six years contract milking before stepping up to a general manager role.

“It was always the plan to come back here (to the home farm).”

When Mike came home they built two extra irrigation pivots and he increased production by 25%.

The low-input grass system was always limited by the farm’s winter/summer conditions, however. The farm was milking 1200 cows through two 44-bail herringbones and required six staff for milking. One of the farm dairies was due for a major upgrade, and the family decided to build a new farm dairy to run a more streamlined operation. They also knew a stand-off area was critical to future-proofing their business.

“A rotary always excited me, and fully fed cows always excited me,” Mike says.

Mike, Trevor and Rex Ashby (another valued long-term staff member) went and looked at eight other farms with rotary dairies and covered feed pads before they finalised their design.

Visiting other farms and talking to farmers about what worked and what didn’t was crucial research, Mike says. For example, a lot of the feedback from farmers was that the tractors used every last inch to turn around at the end of the feed pad so they added an extra 2m at each end to give the equipment more space.

They employed Archway Construction to build the feed pad, weeping wall and feed bunkers. Don Chapman Waikato Ltd built the rotary and yard and Aztech Buildings put the roof over the barn and dairy yard.

Originally the plan was to build it in stages over a three-year period. Instead they took the plunge and built everything over a 10-month period, with the cows getting into the barn on June 2, 2019.

It was the best decision to build everything together and the contractors worked in well together, Mike says.

“It was intensive, Dad and I were down here every weekend. But there were no real hiccups.”

The 3ha building site was built near one of the existing herringbones, so power and water were already on site. They were able to cart sand off the farm for the build, which probably saved them about $400,000, and gave them financial room to build everything at once.

Every square metre of concrete is designed to maximise the use of gravity, with a recycled floodwash system and weeping walls to capture the solids. The rainwater off the roof is diverted back into a main canal.

The green floodwash uses recycled water, stored in three 25,000-litre tanks. A similar system is used to clean the main yard, using 90% recycled water and the balance pumped from nearby Waikato River.

The original design was to use one tank/bay but it wasn’t enough water so Archway joined the tanks to work together, using green water coming in from the pond.

“I highly recommend Archway, they are a well-oiled machine and it was no issue to change that. They also built the feed bunkers in three days.”

The weeping wall has allowed them to spread the effluent solids over a larger area on the farm. They use the solids on their maize paddocks which saves them buying DAP fertiliser.

“We are creating our own nutrients. It took us about two days with three trucks to empty one side and spread it.”

The pond is irrigated over 60ha, spread through guns on one of the farm’s three pivots.

They have consent to get one more pivot, which Mike would like to do in the next two years. Their consent is for 7.5m litres/day, with the ability to irrigate for 100 days of the year from November. The water is pumped from the Waikato River on the farm’s boundary.

They grow 18 tonnes/ha under the pivots and 14t/ha on the rest of the milking platform. The cows currently get one out of every three feeds under the 160ha irrigated land, with another pivot, every second feed would be under the irrigator.

“We are better off than people without irrigation, but we are still not summer safe.”

The feed wastage since using the feed pad has been minimal and they only scrape the feed pad once a week. The cows are likely to waste more grass silage as they flick it up on to their backs, as opposed to the maize, Mike says.

The wastage is about 0.2%, compared to up to 40% when they used to feed out in the paddock, he says.

They are working with nutritionist Scott Freeman on the cows’ diet and are feeding 2.5t drymatter (DM)/cow/year, a mixture of maize silage, corn, gluten, palm kernel and tapioca.

They are growing 30ha of maize this year and plan to plant 60ha next season.

“Last year we bought all the maize in, now we want to grow it ourselves and lower our costs.”

Mike has bought a self-loading mixer wagon with an auger on the front, which has a two-year waiting period, so he has a mixer wagon and tractor on loan thanks to Roger Gills in Huntly.

They installed a PPP Industries liquid feed dispenser in the farm dairy to feed molasses to help with cow flow last year. After five months training the cows on the rotary after calving, the cow flow was still not ideal and the molasses has helped entice the cows into the dairy.

They put a roof over the yard as well for extra cow comfort and for good cow flow from the covered feed pad into the farm dairy.

Half the yard also has rubber matting which is gentle on hooves when they train the cows and for when they train the heifers each year.

Mike is looking forward to being able to dry cows off on their calving dates this year, rather than having to go Once A Day (OAD) early on or dry off early.

The cows will get a six-week holiday instead of some getting a three-month holiday which is good for production and cow management.

“If we dried off early we used to get big, fat cows and have calving problems.”

Calving starts July 5. Mike wants to condense calving to 10 weeks and will use all Artificial Insemination (AI) this season.

“Bulls are a bit of a ticking time bomb, they’re a health and safety issue and they do a lot of damage.”

They mate about a quarter of the herd to beef bulls and rear about 270 dairy beef calves each year. They usually use Hereford, but used Angus last year after they got some big calves because of the extra feed that went into the cows late in their pregnancy. They will go back to using Hereford this mating.

The farm employs Brett and Jo Young to contract milk the operation, who in turn employ four staff. They also have a tractor driver/maintenance staff member (Rex) and Mike and Trevor are onfarm overseeing the operation.

The new DairyNZ System 5 operation is definitely more intensive for staff with no ‘lazy’ weekends, but the technology in the rotary also makes it a lot easier and more efficient.

Pregnancy testing for example this year could be done during milking on the platform, instead of the staff having to bring the cows through the farm dairy again. Mike is also installing an LIC heat detection camera this mating to help identify cows.

Staff work less hours on a weekend than a weekday, but they have to feed out twice a day which takes more time. The staff work on a seven-on/two-off roster which works well, and staff are home by 5pm most nights, Mike says.

The 64-bail rotary was the biggest they could build with one person able to milk on their own. One person can milk 450 cows/hour comfortably.

With a negative public perception of dairy farming and increasing environmental regulation, what they’ve built has given them the ability to walk the talk when it comes to looking after the environment and the cows.

“I think in 20 years, or even less, this is what the government will say we need for farming. We’ve built this to last for 50 years.

“We are protecting the land for the next generation.”

Mike and his wife Hayley have two children, Levi, 7, and Ruby, 5. They’re sticking to the family farm for the long haul so it’s a good feeling to have these new facilities.

“It’s a big investment, but I’m here for the rest of my life.”