The Allcock family unwittingly built themselves a composting barn when they decided to build a covered stand-off area for their herd five years ago. They told Sheryl Brown why their ‘Mootel’ continues to be a game-changer for their operation.

Tony Allcock is the fourth generation to farm between Pirongia and Ngahinapouri in the Waikato.

His grandfather bought the farm in 1913 after he grew up on the land living with his auntie and later split the farm into three blocks for his sons.

“In 1893 Totty bought the farm off Hall – an officer in the Maori wars. Totty’s wife Mary was my great grandmother’s sister who brought up my grandfather here on the farm as they had no children of their own. In 1913 the title for the farm came through to my grandfather, so it’s been in the Allcock name for 106 years but an Allcock has lived here since 1893, which is fascinating.”

Tony later purchased his father’s block then bought one of his uncle’s farms and now the milking platform is 97ha effective.

The farm boundaries the Waipa river and several gullies have been fenced off.

With their proximity to the river, about 11 lifestyle houses have been built around the farm and Tony and Fran were becoming increasingly aware of how their farming practices looked to the public eye.

In winter they used to stand cows off on the yard, or make a sacrifice paddock, which ended up looking like a horrible mud pool, he says.

“You’d take them to the paddock and they’d stand at the gate and say ‘oh no boss, not in there again’. It was not nice.”

When Fonterra paid a record payout in 2013/14 the timing was right to do something about it and future-proof their operation. The decision to build the covered barn was Fran and Lucas’ idea, “they outvoted me”, Tony says.

The barn was an instant success for cow comfort and milk production and Fran quickly gave the barn the name ‘Mootel’.

Tony designed the barn, and he wanted the widest possible roof without internal poles. The barn is 60m x 41m, 6.32m at its highest and 3.8m on the outside, with two 18m x 60m bays with a 5m feed lane through the middle. The pitch of the highest point is 14 degrees, but Tony has learnt that the ideal pitch for optimal ventilation is 18 degrees.

“We are lucky though because the barn is on a slight rise over the surrounding land, so it gets that extra uplifting airflow.”

They didn’t have any comparable barns to copy from so their design was original.

They have made a few changes to it since building it, but they pretty much got it right, Tony says.

“It was quite a fluke we got it as good as we did. We built all the feed bins and laid all the concrete, it was a big job, but we did pretty well. If I did it again I would make the feed bins slightly wider.”

The barn is only about 7.5 square metres/cow when it should be 8 sq m/cow, so they may drop a few cow numbers if they continue to increase production.

They have since cut a 30mm gap in the middle of the centre roof to add a bit of extra ventilation, removed the rails and double gates at the front of the barn and taken the water troughs out of the barn and put them on the concrete apron at the front. The cows were bunching next to the gate, and they were also hanging around the water troughs, Fran says.

“The bullies don’t hang around the water troughs now because they are out in the elements, so the cows just go out to drink and then go back into the barn. They also tend to go to the toilet when they go for a drink, so they’re doing that on the concrete now instead of on their bedding.”

The shavings in the barn are 600mm deep but if doing it again they could add up to 200mm more. This would give a bit more reserve and more composting power, Tony says.

When they first built the barn they didn’t know anything about a composting barn, but after a visit from nutritionist Sue Macky they realised that’s what they had on their hands.

They stir the barn once a day during the summer and twice a day during the winter to help dry out the shavings.

They started out with a rotor tiller, and now use deep tiller subsoilers with wings on them, cultivating about 500cm deep. It takes them about 10 minutes to stir it.

“If you’re not willing to stir it every day, then don’t put one in. It’s like a ginger beer bug, you have to keep stirring and feeding it every day,” Fran says.

“The most important job is to stir it, otherwise it goes into a gluggy mix and it can die.”

The key to a composting barn is to maintain an environment that favours aerobic bacteria rather than anaerobic bacteria. With ventilation and daily aeration the shavings stay dry and warm.

The shavings remarkably have almost zero smell, even if you pick it up in your hands, your hands won’t smell, Fran says.

Fly tape from Shoof has been a great investment, catching loads of flies and keeping them off the cows.

The concrete apron out in front of the barn is green-washed and scraped every day, which goes into the weeping wall system, with the liquids going through into the 4 million-litre effluent pond.

The wood shavings stay in the barn for 12 months, getting dug out in April to sit to further decompose before being spread on the paddocks as fertiliser. The costs of replacing the shavings every year is worked into their fertiliser spend now.

They haven’t used conventional fertilizer for the last two seasons, and the grass is still performing well, Tony says.

They are regularly testing the soil and watching for increased potassium levels and nutrient levels altering.

“It costs $13,000 to spread the compost, but it saved me about $50,000 in fertiliser. Even if I can continue to only spend a quarter or half the amount on conventional fertiliser in the future it will be a saving.”

They continue to learn the best practice for the barn and their overall operation.

“It’s been a real journey, we’ve learnt a lot about composting barns, about cow behaviour, about feed levels and the responses we’ve got.”

All supplement is fed through the barn, with close to 100% utilisation. The poor utilisation of feeding out maize on the paddocks was made clear in their first year with the barn, Tony says.

“I used to feed out maize in the paddock, and I thought I did a pretty good job. I always fed it out on the grass before the cows and they ate it well. I prided myself as a good farmer.”

The first day the cows went into the barn and ate their maize silage, they went back out to the paddock and hardly ate any grass.

“The grass was still green, the cows were all sitting down chewing their cuds – they were full. I’d been kidding myself all those years. We produced 28% more milk that year, 100,000kg milksolids (MS) up to 128,000kg MS with no extra feed in the system, just 100% utilisation.”

They’ve increased the amount of maize they’ve grown onfarm from 12ha, to 18ha, to 23ha, with production going up to 132,000kg MS, 146,000kg MS up to 163,000kg MS last year. They are targeting 180,000kg MS next season with their 27ha of maize.

Cow comfort was the number one priority when building the barn. On a 30C day in the Waikato, the cows can stand in the shade where it is only about 15-20C.

In summer the cows are milked, go to a paddock and then come into the barn about 11am.

After milking about 4pm they go back out to another paddock. In summer they are doing less damage to the pasture because they aren’t over grazing or pulling, he says.

“It’s taken a lot of pressure off the grass. Our biggest gain has been our production in the summer.”

“It’s an all-weather barn, not a winter barn,” Fran says.

In winter the cows can spend up to about 20 hours in the barn, Tony says.

Most of the cows end up calving in the barn, which is an added bonus when it comes to picking up clean, dry calves. Giving the cows a dry, comfortable place to stand or lie down and be out of the elements is essential to look after body condition.

“Beforehand we could get our cows up to good body condition, but a week of bad weather can set them backwards and you’re back to square one again.”

Cow condition is never an issue now – the cows are always well-fed and they are never under stress from weather. The heifers come into the farm dairy and you can’t tell them apart from the cows, Tony says.

“Cows just gain condition so easily now. It takes three years for a cow to change her shape and build the capacity for this system.”

The herd is a standard LIC Friesian herd, however, they’ve started using CRV Ambreed genetics over the last three years to breed slightly larger-framed cows with the capacity to produce under their system.

The herd starts calving on July 23 and they aim to milk until the end of May.

They run artificial insemination over the herd for three weeks, followed up with Friesian bulls for nine weeks. Their empty rate is 11% this year.

Before the barn they used their in-dairy meal feeders and were feeding 3kg/cow/day of supplement.

They used to grow about 4ha maize onfarm, but have increased that every year since the Mootel has been built.

The land they take out for maize means they run at a stocking rate of four cows/ha during those months.

The same paddocks grow maize for three years, growing a short Italian ryegrass in-between crops, on a threeyear cycle.

“It costs us 17c to grow our own maize, which averages about 25 tonnes drymatter (DM)/ha,” Tony says.

“We can grow twice the amount of drymatter than we grow in grass in the year.”

They feel they have made a good step building the barn to help them futureproof the farm, Tony says.

When they built the barn Environment Waikato said it didn’t need to be lined but as a precaution under the compacted clay and sand floor they laid four runs of novaflow/side leading out to a collection tank. No liquid has gone into that tank in the last five years, Tony says.

Under Overseer the farm’s leaching went down from 40kg N/ha to 5kg N/ha, but went up to 40kg N again when they included the maize block.

“We may have to look at our cultivation, and perhaps direct drill our crops in to get that number down further.”

The other concern Tony has is the future supply of sawdust. Other bedding options may need to be investigated.

Their biggest focus is maintaining an ideal composting barn for their herd, to ensure good animal health.

The herd’s average somatic cell count has gone up from 40,000-70,000 before they built the barn, to 100,00-120,000.

This year it has been up to 200,000 due to a variety of issues.

Before this year their mastitis cases have been fine, they use spring-rate of teat spray all year round.

Lucas has played a big role in the Mootel and getting the operation working well, Fran and Tony say. He came home to work on the dairy farm eight years ago after working at Fonterra since he left school. He is currently lower order sharemilking, but Tony and Fran want him to go 50/50 sharemilking.

They are in the process of making a succession plan with Lucas and their daughter Farah. If the farm stays in the family that’s great, but if other opportunities come along or the kids want to do something else, there is no pressure, Tony says.

Farm Facts

  • Owners: Tony and Fran Allcock
  • Lower-order sharemilker: Lucas Allcock
  • Location: Ngahinapouri, Waikato
  • Area: 109ha, 97ha effective
  • Cows: 280 Holstein Friesians
  • Production: 163,000, 580kg MS/cow
  • Supplement: 27ha maize (2.5t/ cow/year), 110 bales grass silage
  • Supplement bought-in: 334t palm kernel, 173t soy meal, 56t molasses, 330 bales hay
  • Farm dairy: 26-aside herringbone, in-dairy meal feeders, Tru-Test drafting system.
  • Effluent irrigation: 70ha

The Numbers

  • Supplement/maize: $420,301
  • Annual barn maintenance costs (includes spreading): $26,000
  • Aztech barn: $440,000 this is complete already for the cows to use, Aztech building was $267,000 poles and roof.
  • 4-million-litre effluent pond, weeping wall, effluent irrigation system, concrete in and around barn, concrete maize and palm kernel bunkers: about $500,000