Anne Hardie

A lower stocking rate and milking the heifers once a day after the peak of the season are part of a farming philosophy aimed at being proactive rather than reactive for Malcolm and Caroline Berkett in the Rai Valley.

It’s enabled them to achieve empty rates between six and 11% in the herd and 1120kg milksolids (MS)/hectare last year during a drought that turned the tap off for any irrigation. When the herd was dried off at the end of May, they were already in good condition going into winter and set up for the next season’s production and reproduction.

Last year the farm was stocked at 2.8 cows/ha and this season it will be 2.6 cows/ ha to give the farm operation flexibility and keep the cows in good order.

Until six years ago, Malcolm was a contractor in Golden Bay, making balage and silage for dairy farmers, but both had dairy backgrounds and five years ago they bought their first dairy farm, a 105ha effective farm of mostly rolling hill country in the Rai Valley between Nelson and Blenheim. Since then they have added a 50ha block across the road that had been dairy in the past and then beef. This season the opportunity arose to buy the 72ha neighbouring dairy farm which they added into the operation, all linked by an underpass under the state highway, with water and fences reconfigured to operate as one farm.

Last season they milked 430 cows at the peak before switching the entire herd to once a day (OAD) milking at the beginning of February when the drought triggered water restrictions that forced them to turn off the irrigation, then drying 100 off in late February.

‘We’ve chosen to keep our stocking rate down and be self-sufficient. We can make more silage and balage here and maybe winter 100 cows here as opposed to a higher stocking rate and buying in more feed, more fertiliser and getting more winter grazing.’

The end result was 173,600kg MS compared to their target of 175,000kg MS – and they had been on track for 190,000kg MS before the drought – and still 1120kg MS/ha without bought-in feed other than their usual palm kernel supplement.

This season they will calve 590 cows on close to 220ha and milk them through the 44-bail rotary dairy they built two years ago to replace the 20-aside herringbone. Added to the business now is 72ha drystock block on the other side of Nelson in 88 Valley where along with a 72ha leased block nearby, they will winter most of the cows, carry all the young stock and make all their own balage to be almost self-contained. About 100 cows will be grazed on the milking platform, so leased bulls will be the only stock entering the system from other properties – which raises the option of using artificial insemination (AI) throughout mating – and palm kernel at 2kg/cow/day will be the only bought-in feed.

Malcolm and Caroline live at the drystock property while contract milkers Mark Ring and Sarah Hope are in charge of the day-to-day management of the dairy farm. Mark and Sarah are from England and Wales respectively, but met on a dairy farm in New Zealand 15 years ago and the working holiday morphed into a permanent stay with two young sons growing up with a rural NZ lifestyle.

The Berketts’ business has expanded quickly, simply because opportunities arose to buy neighbouring properties, with the support block giving them the control of their stock – another reason for lower stocking rate, Malcolm explains.

“We’ve chosen to keep our stocking rate down and be self-sufficient. We can make more silage and balage here and maybe winter 100 cows here as opposed to a higher stocking rate and buying in more feed, more fertiliser and getting more winter grazing. We’ve got the option to build the stocking rate up if we want to, but a lower stocking rate is less pressure if we get a season like last.”

Because they have expanded the operation quickly, the amalgamated herds are a “lolly scramble” ranging from large Friesian cows through to Jerseys. A crossbred cow tending toward Jersey is their ideal to suit the soft river flats as well as the drier hills and long walks up to 2km for milking. At mating, it means Jersey semen for Friesian cows, crossbred for crossbred and some Friesian for Jersey cows.

“The Jersey-crossbreds in the herd are the more fertile and efficient and better suited to this environment,” Mark says. “We’re trying to pick those with larger frame and larger capacity so we don’t go down the road towards smaller cows.

“We’re also trying to improve the amount of grass grown on the farm and we want the animals with the capacity to eat it, so it makes sense to breed cows that can do it.”

This year they also have 100 Jersey-nominated straws for selected cows while the bottom third of the herd has short-gestation Hereford straws. The need for numbers to fine tune the herd means AI will last seven weeks this year rather than six weeks to get those replacements and mating will continue for 11 weeks. Mating is carried out without any interference with the cow, so there’s no synchronising or CIDRs – just metri checks when needed.

Their best reproduction result to date was 5.9% empties two years ago, but it did cost them a bit of production. On the vet’s advice that year, Malcolm says they switched from palm kernel in the shed to a concentrated blend leading up to mating because the cows’ energy levels were a bit low on blood tests. It was a very wet season and they began feeding the blend in mid-October.

“But they didn’t get transitioned onto it properly and their milk production crashed – we lost about 10,000kg milksolids and they put it on their back instead. We only fed it for a month and consequently we got them in calf with a very low empty rate.”

Another season they milked about 400 cows with half of them on OAD for the bulk of the season and just 7% of the cows were empty following that mating. Running a OAD mob balances the long walks from some paddocks to the dairy, while the TAD mob grazes closer to the dairy.

The two-year-old cows in their first season milking will go from twice-a-day milking (TAD) to OAD around mid-September and that has achieved good results with 78% in calf in six weeks and 8% empty. The lighter cows are added to the OAD mob to build up their condition prior mating as well.

Flexible milking regimes applies to the entire herd to keep the cows in good condition and milking throughout the season – it all depends on the weather which ranges from floods in the 2m rainfall climate to drought. The entire herd begins the season on TAD before dropping the heifers and lighter cows to OAD, with the main herd switching to 3in2 around Christmas if it’s a dry year.

“What you lose in production, you make up for at the end of the season because we don’t dry off early,” Mark says.

Nature can always throw a curved ball though and last season’s drought saw them on 3in2 milking at Christmas, then OAD at the end of January before drying off 100 of the lighter and cull cows in February. By mid-March the rain was back and good growth through autumn held production up.

“We were only 1400kg milksolids down on what we budgeted on which goes to show milking them twice a day for the whole season doesn’t produce more,” Mark says. Making decisions early in the dry weather enabled them to get through the drought without buying in more feed.

This season they will also look at TAD three days of the week and OAD for four days, including weekends, which is being trialled by other farmers in the region. Again, it will depend on the season, but they are also considering it for staff. Mark and Sarah employ two staff – both young women this year and one is a backpacker on a holiday visa – and they say it is a struggle attracting staff anywhere around the county, let alone an isolated valley with a small village. One of the challenges is the budget of contract milking, but also finding people who are keen on physical work these days and competing with the younger generation’s addiction to their phones, Mark says.

“If you could milk a cow with a mobile phone you’d have a lot of people wanting jobs on farms. People expect different things from a job than they did 10 years ago. A lot more technology helps people, but you also see less people with skills.

“Kiwis want to be managers now rather than do the hard work,” Malcolm adds. “The dairy industry is relying on foreigners for the physical work. They’re the coal front.”

Nature throws the biggest challenges at the farm though. Last year it was drought and sometimes three times a year there’s floods spreading over the river flats beside the Rai River. On the plus side, the silt left behind has produced very fertile soils, while there’s also a cost and time to replace fences. Just a single wire runs the length of the river boundary now and paddocks are longer to reduce the amount of fencing running across the path of floodwaters.

On the other side of the road, the rolling hills provide a balance, so there’s plenty of choices to move stock out of the way of forecast flooding. Wild pigs are the problem on the outskirts of the hill paddocks, foraging beyond the bush and forestry to dairy pasture where they can do real damage. Consequently, there’s less money spent on those pastures if the pigs are going to wreck it.

Across the farm, about 10% is regrassed each year following summer crops of chicory or turnips which are aimed at getting more bulk into the second round of grazing. The crops are grown on the irrigated areas to utilise the water and

all up the farm has 30ha under pivot irrigation from the river, K-line on the new 72ha farm and 30 sprinklers on their original hillier farm over the road. Turnips are the favoured crop because when the water is turned off – and it’s turned off early when there is no rain – the turnips persist, Mark says.

“If you’re after drymatter, turnips maybe more economical than chicory and if you don’t have water, the chicory doesn’t grow.”

Going forward they are considering less crop and more regrassing. They’ve been impressed by Aber Magic diploid perennial ryegrass and though it’s late maturing, it’s a consistent performer to the end of the season and hung on well through last year’s drought. The aim is a balance of grasses to get consistent growth through the season which is why they are trialling drought-resistant fescue and cocksfoot on the drier hills. Seed is expensive though and Mark says those species need good management to utilise them well.

Though the aim is to be as self sufficient as they can, they still like feeding palm kernel through the season. The cows get 2kg a day and Malcolm says it gives them the option to add minerals into the cow’s diet by adding it to the palm kernel in the dairy, plus it entices the cows into the dairy and they’re not wasting feed during wet weather.

Something a little different added into the system is Aqua Genesis, a water treatment that uses a frequency through the water to alter it from H2O to H3O2. It basically makes the water more drinkable for the cows by removing anaerobic bacteria – in a way making it more like rainwater and Malcolm thinks animal health has improved since the unit was installed.

Caroline’s father is involved with the company producing the machine and they have installed one unit in the water tank at the dairy which supplies stock water as well as the dairy. Another unit is installed in the effluent tank with the idea it will make that water more available to the plants when it is distributed through pods.

It is one of the first farms in the world to have this technology installed and Malcolm says they notice less smell from the effluent system and there’s no build-up of solids which reduces the need for a solids separator. A big plus is that in summer, there’s no flies hanging around the dairy.


  • Owners: Malcolm and Caroline Berkett
  • Contract milkers: Mark Ring and Sarah Hope
  • Location: Rai Valley, Top of the South
  • Area: 220ha this season
  • Cows: 590 cows
  • Stocking rate: 6 cows/ha
  • Support land: 72ha owned plus 72ha leased
  • Reproduction: Two-year-olds 78% in calf in six weeks and 8% empty