Anne Lee

At Alderbrook farm, on the north bank of the Rakaia River they’re painting a picture – well a lot of pictures, all of cows.

Liam and Lauren Kelly are 50/50 sharemilkers, milking 670 cows for Lauren’s parents Marv and Jane Pangborn.

They’re also contract milking 510 cows on the Pangborn’s neighbouring dairy farm too, running both jobs through their Ahipene Farming company.

The pictures aren’t paintings in the literal sense, they’re not the product of water colours or oils but are made up of data, information gleaned throughout the year through keen observation and with the use of technology.

It’s that picture, a detailed profile of each individual animal, that gives Liam the crucial information he needs during what he sees as the most pivotal time of the dairying calendar – mating.

So much of a farming business’s productivity and profitability hinges around getting as many cows in calf as possible and getting that done quickly to give a tight calving spread.

Liam doesn’t see it as a chore, he relishes it and that’s even though there are no bulls on Alderbrook Farm so artificial insemination (AI) goes on for 10-11weeks.

The 54-bail farm dairy was built in 2017 and is fitted with Protrack, automatic drafting and the Protrack Heat camera.

But rather than delegating responsibility to the technology Liam uses it to enhance his decision-making.

You’ll still find him up the vet stand, in the paddock or in the drafting yard checking cows throughout the 10 weeks.

You’ll also find him seriously focused on leading the farm teams in pre-mating heat detection too.

“I love this stuff – it’s the best time in the farming calendar, cows are at peak, we’re at peak grass growth, things are humming.”

The job of picking cows to put up to AI definitely falls to the senior team members with the farm managers responsible for the first six weeks.

“They’re keen to do it and I encourage that. It’s something you have to live and breathe over that time and too important to leave to more junior team members.”

They choose time in lieu with afternoons off over mating or being paid out the overtime.

Taking a break and getting off farm before and after mating is important too.

Liam admits he’s a details man which may be why he relishes the mating period, when all the onfarm preparation – getting cows to good condition and collecting necessary data – is all put to use.

He starts right back in February preparing for the October-November mating period.

All cows are body condition scored (BCS) then with all heifers and light, earlier calving cows going on to once-a-day milking from March 1.

He uses the MINDA BCS app to enter the data and build reports.

The more information you put in the better, he says.

The technology is what gives him the ability to know each cow individually.

“If you have a 200-cow farm you can know each cow well yourself. But with our scale I can’t go into the paddock and say there’s 301 for instance she’s this and this, but I can look her up on my phone and tell you a lot about her.”

Whatever way you build the picture doesn’t matter – what matters is having the information and using it, he says.

His aim is to have three-year olds at BCS 5.5 along with heifers at planned start of calving on August 1 with other mixed-age cows at BCS 5.

Looking after the three-year-olds is important to limit wastage of what are typically our highest genetic value animals, he says.

Wintering mobs are split and fed with those BCS targets in mind.

One mob will be lights and heifers,  one will be BCS 4.5 and early calving BCS 5 cows and the third mob is fats and September calvers.

Calving hits on Alderbrook with a hiss and a roar thanks to the mating programme.

But it means cows get the best chance of getting back in calf.

This calving, the heifer mating programme, meant that 70% of heifers had calved before August 1 and by August 14, two weeks into the main herd calving, 70% of heifers had been Metrichecked and cured.

That gives them 70 days until planned start of mating.

Last year he’d used a double PG – progesterone programme on heifers starting on October 5 with the second shot 11 days later followed by five days of mating from a day after the last shot.

That gave an 84% submission rate.

This year to cut some costs he did the first six days of AI on heifers by putting animals up based on visual heats and had 25% submitted over that period.

He PG’d the other 75% on the afternoon of the sixth day and then did a further five days AI.

From that 11-day mating period he had a 98.5% submission rate.

For the main herd mating starts on October 22 with the all-important pre-mating heat detection starting 24 days earlier.

“We’re big on recording pre-mating heats. It helps build that picture of each cow and gives us an understanding of what’s going on with her.”

Tail paint is freshened up frequently and all information is loaded into Protrack.

“It’s so critical when it comes to mating decisions. If you’ve got a dubious heat during mating you’ve got to be able to go back and look at the data – when was her last heat, when did she calve – it’s all important.

“There’s that old saying if in doubt draft her out – well we don’t do that. If in doubt we go back and check.

“If the records don’t show she’s due to be on heat and she’s not showing a strong heat we’re more likely to leave her than put her up.”

Last season Liam says their cow mating was a little complicated – particularly for the farm teams so he’s modified it this year.

“Last season we put a CIDR in non-cyclers a week before planned start of mating if they hadn’t shown a heat 35 days out from calving.

“We pulled those CIDR’s out seven days after they went in and started mating the day after.

“Because we’d gone early with the CIDRs we went again with them 12 days into mating.

“In total we CIDR’d 14% of the herd – so pretty high usage.

“But we had a three-week submission rate of 93%, a six-week in-calf rate of 74% and a 10% empty rate.”

That was over an 11.5-week mating period.

“Last year it’s important to note we needed to increase numbers so we were prepared to spend a bit of money on getting as many cows in calf as possible so we didn’t have to buy in cows given the risk of Mycoplasma bovis.

That risk was also behind the decision to go no-bull and keep 34 carryover cows from the previous season.

He used a blanket CIDR programme on them, bringing them to the farm dairy from days 18-25 to AI them based on tail paint observations.

The result, 100% in-calf.

This year he’s gone to a Why Wait PG programme over the main herd which brings cows into heat a week earlier.

It requires good pre-mating heat detection and based on that information he treats any cows he knows are due to cycle in the second week of mating – therefore bringing them into the first week.

Those due to cycle in the third week of mating are treated daily to bring them forward by 10 days.

Liam says most of the cows were already due to be cycling in week one so they weren’t treated at all.

The programme gave them a 68% submission rate for the first week of mating this season with just 6% of non-cyclers that didn’t respond to PG treated with a CIDR by the end of that week.

It made for some big days of AI with close to 100 animals due to be put up on the busiest morning.

“We actually shifted to AIing in the afternoon on those days so the AI technician could get through other clients,” Liam says.

He uses A2 A2 semen and nominates all semen to ensure his best cows are mated to the best bulls.

He’s also mindful of some sage advice from a previous employer – to always have your asset sale ready.

The first five weeks of mating is to nominated dairy semen with the bottom 30% of the herd, in terms of production worth (PW), mated to beef semen.

The lowest 10% of those go to Hereford and the others in the low PW group go to Wagyu through the First Light contract.

Mating will be for 10 weeks this year with short gestation length (SGL) dairy used in the last four weeks of mating.

Liam says once the second cycle of AI starts he takes the opportunity to train staff in identifying cows for mating.

“I’ll get them up on the stand with me and we’ll talk about what we’re seeing.

“I’ll get them to search up the information on a cow that we’re uncertain about and if we draft her out they’ll watch her and check for signs.”

All team members are well trained to spot signs of heat in cows out in the paddock.

“You’ll get some farmers who say they won’t do paddock checks but we’re always aiming to get that extra 5% in everything we do here.

“You’ve got to work hard for that.

“If I want to get an extra 2% in calf that means I’m looking for 0.2 cows/day over 60 days. It might seem like a small number but for me it’s worth that effort.

“When you’re out there you’re checking other things as well, residuals, fences, cows – it’s a crucial time of year to be getting everything right and as a team we’re all very focused on doing that.

“It’s a team effort and having great staff makes all the difference.”

Liam says he’s always looking for ways to improve and loves the challenge that comes from the local DairyNZ sharemilkers discussion group he’s in as well as conversations with his father in law Marv.

“I couldn’t guarantee this year’s mating programme will be exactly what we do next year – it’s all about getting better each year, being open to the challenge.”


  • Alderbrook Farm 2018/19 season
  • Owners: Marvin and Jane Pangborn
  • Sharemilkers: Liam and Lauren Kelly
  • Cows: 670 crossbred
  • Production: 494kg MS/cow, 1838kg MS/ha
  • Supplement: 850kg DM/cow including balage, palm kernel, Proliq, molasses, grain
  • Three-week submission rate: 93%
  • Six-week in-calf rate: 74%
  • Empty rate: 10% after 11.5 week mating all AI
  • Heifer three-week calving rate: 81%
  • Heifer six-week calving rate: 95%
  • Cows three-week calving rate: 68%
  • Cows six-week calving rate: 91%
  • Cows nine-week calving rate: 99%
  • Conception rate: 55%