A Southland farm was turned around during conversion to dairy, and it’s won the region’s Ballance Farm Environment Awards supreme award for 2018. Karen Trebilcock reports.

When Ryan and Abby Moseby decided to convert Ryan’s parents’ sheep and beef farm near Mataura in Southland, they decided to put the dairy at the bottom of the farm.

Ryan, Abby and Harriet (18 months) with one of their dogs.

Both the top and bottom boundaries have good road access for the tanker, but the decision had to be made whether to make the cows walk uphill or downhill to the dairy. It’s a 200-metre lift.

“We decided to walk them downhill to milking and pump the water and the effluent uphill,” Ryan says. “It seems to have worked.”

The 2018 Southland Ballance Farm Environment Award supreme winners are finishing their fourth season milking and getting everything uphill and downhill has been just one of the challenges of the conversion.

They also had no stock water scheme as every paddock had a creek running through it which was fine for the sheep and the beef cattle but with dairy it wasn’t.

And all those creeks are tributaries of the world-famous brown trout fishing river – the Mataura.

‘Our contractor made sure the camber and materials used were good. The cows don’t go single file, they’re spread right across the tracks so that shows he got it right.’

The farm has been in the family since 1874 and was a dairy unit until the wool boom in the 1950s.

At the time Ryan and Abby converted it back to dairy it was running 4000 stock units but when they transferred those numbers into cows they were told their production budgets were optimistic.

However, they’ve proved their critics wrong producing almost 300,000kg milksolids (MS) from 685 cows in the 2016/2017 season and will do close to that again this season even after the Southland drought.

Ryan and daughter Harriet with one of their dogs in the furthest paddock from the dairy.

During the conversion they knew the steepness would be an issue although one of their neighbours was already dairying on a similar lift. They just had to do it right.

Fences had to be spun around so cow flow was downhill, the 10km of waterways fenced off, bore water at the dairy pumped upwards to new troughs, 100 hectares regrassed and about 8km of lanes built.

They reckon they’ve done at least 35km of fencing.

“Because of the 200m lift, our lane placement and gradient had to be really good,” Ryan says.

“They start at eight metres wide at the dairy and then go to seven metres wide and at the top are six metres wide.

“Our contractor made sure the camber and materials used were good. The cows don’t go single file, they’re spread right across the tracks so that shows he got it right.”

Rotten rock from the farm saved them significant dollars and they had a bulldozer on site for a month making cuttings and smoothing out the gradient where the cows would walk.

“It was a big cost, but it was important we got it right or we would have been paying for it every day.”

They bought a 400-cow herd locally and added carryovers, heifers and a few North Island cows to make up numbers to just over 600 and have slowly built numbers from there.

“The herd is mainly crossbred but there is a bit of everything in there. We AI for six weeks and bulls out for four weeks using mostly LIC KiwiCross. We want a medium frame on this country.”

Their 120 to 140-day storage effluent pond has a stirrer which keeps solids suspended to be pumped 80 to 90m uphill to low-application maxi pods which cover more than 90ha.

“We didn’t want to use a muck spreader on this farm. It’s one less expense plus it means we don’t have heavy machinery on the steep country.”

A green-water wash system on the backing gate is used to clean the yard after milking.

“It goes twice around and that’s it. The yard has never been washed yet with a hose.”

The cows were wintered on fodder beet on the lower paddocks and kale grown on the rougher country at the tops but this year, with all the top paddocks now developed, it’s just fodder beet at the bottom.

“With fodder beet we’ve never grown less than 25 tonnes/ha and we’re yet to pay $2000/ha to grow it so it’s working well for us.”

Some of the wintering is on two neighbours’ land and another neighbour grazes the yearlings.

When his parents were sheep farming they had kept up the fertiliser programme so Ryan and Abby knew they had the soil fertility for dairying.

Soil testing every paddock recently, instead of whole farm testing, has shown the Olsen Ps to be anywhere between the mid-40s to single figures.

“Now we’re targeting where we’re putting on fertiliser.”

To maintain cow condition, with the challenge of the contour, once production drops to 1.8kg milksolids (MS)/cow/day, milkings go to 16 hours.

“That usually happens around December or January. By going 16-hour milkings we know we can hold production at 1.8kg MS, reduce any lameness problems and everyone can enjoy the summer.”

Once-a-day milking starts in early May, just in time for the start of the duck hunting season.

Although Ryan and Abby have never been in a position to enter the Dairy Industry Awards, they have both been judges so know what it means to be part of a competition and were at first wary of entering the Ballance Awards, especially as they don’t liking putting themselves in the spotlight.

“There had been a bit of pressure from a few people for a couple of years to enter so we thought we would get them off our back by having a crack at it,” Ryan says.

“It’s called the farm environment awards but every aspect of our business – production, our finances, the cows – is looked at.

“After three and a half years of dairying we thought now was a good time and opportunity to let independent eyes have a look at what we were doing and provide feedback and opportunities on our business which was the main motive for entering.

“We never thought we would win.”

The couple met at Lincoln University (Abby is from the Wairarapa) and both worked in banking after they graduated – Ryan with SBS and Abby with Westpac.

It was during a six-month world holiday that their thoughts turned to Ryan’s parents’ farm and succession.