Waikato dairy farmers Paul and Donna Davies spotted the opportunities of winter milking a decade ago. The couple have been split-calving ever since, but this year have moved to 100% autumn calving with the help of their contract milker Sam Clarke. Sheryl Brown reports.

Cows can get lost in a split-calving system and it’s easy for farmers to carry empty cows through to try and get them in calf in the next mating and they’re often just losing money, contract milker Sam Clarke says.

Rather than following typical culling protocol and getting rid of infertile cows or having to weigh up the cost of carrying them over, cows are often milked through and given more chances than normal.

“Cows are floating around and you keep spending the same money over and over again on the same cows,” he says.

“When I started here in June there were cows in this herd that hadn’t calved in over two years. Paul could have spent a lot of unnecessary cost, but I think we’re past all that now.”

The Irishman started as contract milker for Paul and Donna Davies in June last year and is helping them through their first season of 100% autumn calving.

‘Split-calving is good in certain situations, but I think it’s hard on staff and it’s hard to get good staff to handle year-round milking.’

The couple have employed contract milkers for years but got stung last season when the herd’s somatic cell count (SCC) rose from a 150,000 average to more than 350,000 due to a combination of wet conditions, feeding fodder beet in muddy paddocks, and poor management.

Cows were not being treated for mastitis and there were a lot of three-titters left behind in the herd.

“By the time I realised what was going on it had cost us a fortune through lost quarters and replacing cows,” Paul says.

The couple decided to reduce cow numbers and move to 100% autumn calving and employed Sam to help them through the transition.

The SCC has come back to 104,000 on the last milking in February. This year they teat-sealed the heifers for the first time which Paul hopes will help reduce mastitis. They blanket dry cow the herd every year, but Sam and Paul want to look at a change this season to prepare the herd for incoming restrictions on antibiotics.

There are multiple pros attached to going full winter milking, from the obvious winter milk premium, to better-grown young stock and less pasture damage from having no dry cows in winter.

It’s also easier on staff and easier to attract good employees who are essential to a successful operation, Te Awamutu farmer Paul says.

“Split-calving is good in certain situations, but I think it’s hard on staff and it’s hard to get good staff to handle year-round milking.”

With autumn calving the staff take their holidays in summer, they’re not picking calves up in wet weather gear and they don’t have to worry about standing dry cows off in winter.

Paul also wanted to find a way to reduce his stocking rate to have a more sustainable operation going forward. At their peak they were milking 500 cows, which was intensive at five cows/ha.

In their best season milking 500 cows they produced 2650kg milksolids (MS)/ha and 560kg MS/cow. Paul’s goal is to produce 600kg MS/cow which he hopes they can achieve by focusing on quality over quantity.

“We want to have cows with enough capacity to achieve that 600kg MS/cow. We want to milk less cows with more efficiency.”

Switching to 100% winter milking should make up for the drop in cow numbers.

“Milking 400 cows through the winter gives us a good premium, it means fewer rows in the shed which makes it easier for staff and our costs drop because we don’t have to buy in as much feed.

“Dropping numbers has also given us the opportunity to improve the overall quality of the herd.”

When the couple initially went split-calving they sold their Fonterra shares and started supplying Open Country Dairies which allowed them to invest in their own business, including building a 400-cow feed pad , feed bunkers and buying a mixer wagon.

Without that infrastructure, moving to a full autumn calving system wouldn’t have been an option, Paul says.

The couple also invested in planting poplars around the farm to give more shelter for cows and are thinking about putting a roof over the feed pad or building a covered loafing barn.

“We have to think about a changing climate. The rain we’ve had this season could become the new normal. We want to give cows relief from rain or heat.

“This farm is prepared for bad conditions and we can take advantage of good conditions like this year with the great grass growth means we have more grass silage in the bunker.”

The cows are fed twice a day on the feed pad, with a diet combination of maize, palm kernel and grass silage. Paul grows 20ha maize on the runoff which is 10km up the road, and this year has grown another 2ha on the milking platform. He also buys in 100 tonnes of maize silage every year.

“Every year I try to grow and buy enough maize to be able to feed the cows maize year-round.

“If you feed your cows well they will do more for you.”

They have grown fodder beet on the milking platform for the last two years, which is a great feed source, but it didn’t suit their system because they couldn’t harvest and store it, he says.

Contract milker Sam Clarke (left) with farm owner Paul Davies – “feed your cows well and they’ll do more for you”.

“The fodder beet was the wrong variety to lift and it was tough on the cows being in the mud and we got a lot of mastitis.”

Last winter they fed the cows tapioca after the fodder beet finished, feeding 2kg/cow in the morning and again at night, which gave the cows a good source of energy during mating, Sam says.

Growing maize on the milking platform this year was part of Sam’s regrassing programme for the farm.

“When I came for the interview I could see a lot of things that needed improving on this farm, like the herd, the drainage in some paddocks and regrassing.”

A combination of dry summers followed by a wet season last year meant a lot of weeds had come through, he says.

They’re measuring the pasture cover weekly and using that information to determine the worst-performing paddocks. The plan is to spray out 25ha and regrass in autumn, which will reduce their milking platform for a few months.

Paul was using Kiwi Fertiliser but in the last two low-payout years he reverted to a more traditional and cheaper fertiliser programme.

He’s keen to move back to a more environmentally friendly fertiliser programme again. He uses N boost which has halved the amount of nitrogen in the system. They also irrigate effluent over 60ha of the farm and spread the solids from the feed pad with a muck spreader. This year they will spray the nitrogen following the cows and use a weed spray at the same time.

Mating in winter

feet are essential for winter milking and a successful mating during the winter months, Paul says.

With the cows on the move twice a day to and from the farm dairy races need to be in good order, it’s important to have plenty of access points into paddocks and have good infrastructure for feeding cows.

Sam got in Hoofit Waikato hoof trimmer Stuart Rogers who trimmed 117 cows’ feet.

“Prevention is better than cure. Feet are a big issue especially with winter milking.”

Last year they mated for 12 weeks from May 23 to August 14 using Artificial Insemination (AI) for the full 12 weeks with no bulls. Using no bulls means cows aren’t being chased in races and have less risk of getting lame.

They used teaser bulls for the first three weeks of mating but by the time they’re really needed later they had sore feet and were exhausted, Sam says.

This mating he might just use teaser bulls for the last six weeks to find silent heats.

“When they’re only chasing two or three cows you get more value out of having them.

“When I took the job on I was worried about 12 weeks’ AB, but it was quite good in a herringbone rather than a rotary when you’re just standing in one spot looking for cows. It’s also a really good way to get to know your cows in a new job,” Sam says.

For the last 10 years, Paul has leaned towards a Friesian crossbred cow to increase the protein/fat ratio, tailing off with Wagyu and short-gestation Hereford semen.

Their six-week in-calf rate is 80% this season with just a 7% empty rate. The most important thing was to make sure the cows were getting heaps of energy through mating, 5kg of maize silage, 4kg tapioca.

Sam also puts that empty rate down to cleaning up the herd and using VetEnt to do 35-day scans on every cow.

“It cost Paul more, but it gave me peace of mind. We only found a handful of cows that weren’t in calf but hadn’t cycled again, and I was pretty happy because we only had to use about four CIDRs.”

They also have 30 spring-mated cows that they thought they would sell, but have kept hold of for now.

Growing cow capacity

A big part of the plan for reducing cow numbers and increasing cow efficiency is growing young stock well.

Sam has a passion for rearing young stock and is in charge of managing them at the runoff.

When he first saw the young stock last year they were well under weight, but the R2s that will be mated this winter are looking in way better condition now, he says.

“There won’t be any under 300kg at mating so I’m happy with that. It’s great in this job to be able to have control of our young stock.”

Autumn calves have an advantage over spring-born calves and it’s important to build on that advantage, he says.

“It all starts the day the calf is born. They’re born strong in good conditions and then by the time they’re grown to have the ability to eat, it’s when the grass is taking off in September. For spring-born calves by the time they’re six months old the grass is losing quality.”

Sam goes to the runoff most days and is regularly monitoring their weights. He leaves a lot of the dairy farm daily management decisions to his staff Clarry Werahiko and Reenier Pangilinan.

“We make a plan together, but they are generally deciding where the cows are going every day. Clarry came with me from my last job so he knows how I work, and Reenier knows the farm and the cows so it’s a good balance.

“The best thing on this farm is the people, from the top down everyone gets on really well together.”

They also have Wayne Strong who works part time as the ‘fix it man’ who does all the jobs the guys can’t get to.

It’s a great team environment and it’s good to see the staff getting on well together and doing a good job, Paul says.

Growing popcorn

Paul and Donna are also known for their popcorn brand Pop’n’Good which they started after growing popcorn on their dairy farm in 1984.

They had just won the Waikato Sharemilker of the Year and bought their first farm when interest rates skyrocketed.

The bank manager suggested they sell their car, but Paul saw an opportunity to grow some popcorn and started popping it in their kitchen and selling it at fairs and in video stores.

They now contract 500 tonnes of  popcorn grown in Gisborne and Blenheim, which is then dried and brought to the factory in Te Awamutu.

It’s an example of what can be achieved when people think outside the box during the tough times, he says.

“I always say never waste a good downturn.”

Key facts

Owners: Paul and Donna Davies

Contract Milker: Sam Clarke

Location: Te Awamutu

Area: 104ha effective

Cows: 430 Friesian crossbreds

Farm dairy: 30-aside herringbone, Protrack

Peak production (500 cows): 2650kg MS/ha, 560kg MS/cow

2018/19 Production Target: 200,000kg MS

Protein/Fat ratio: 0.78

DairyNZ Farm System 4-5

Supplement: Palm kernel 1t/cow/year; maize silage:500t; tapioca 100t; grass silage 100t

Effluent irrigation: 60ha

Runoff: 50ha effective