Winning the Best Lower North Island Farm Performance has seen Manawatu’s Shawn Southee look at further possibilities for improvement. Jackie Harrigan reports.
Despite never having heard of the Dairy Business of the Year (DBOY) competition, Shawn Southee was interested in the benchmarking possibilities for the Hopkins Farming Group, owners of the Manawatu Waihora Farm that he manages.
Waihora is one of 10 dairy farms and two drystock blocks in the group, with six clustered around Opiki in central Manawatu and four dairies at Apiti, east of Kimbolton and close to the Ruahine ranges.
Group chief executive Shaun Back encouraged Shawn to enter in the 2019 competition – assuring him “you won’t have to do much – just fill in a few forms” Shawn said wryly.
“We have done some benchmarking through Dairy Base and within the group – but in time we will probably enter half a dozen of our farms, because then we could benchmark very comprehensively.”
Hopkins Group has run 1000 cows on 340-hectare Waihora since 2000 and Shaun has managed the property since 2006. A Manawatu local, he has been in the dairy industry since 1987. Managing a team of five full time equivalents (including Shawn) on a split-calving farm producing 409,890kg milksolids (MS) in 2017/18 he was keen to generate more figures on the operation and see what they could get out of it.
“I do like to browse over the figures and compare us with the guys around here and have found we are within cooee of what the others are doing.
“There is always something new to learn however.”
Winning the title of Best Lower North Island Farm Performance and the resulting trip to the awards night in Queenstown was the icing on the cake – although the trip was so busy Shawn felt he didn’t have much time to enjoy it so he took his wife Debbie and their children back a couple of weeks later for a holiday.
One third of the cows are autumn-calved and winter-milked and so supplemented 800-1000kg drymatter (DM)/cow using maize and grass silage and palm kernel but the wet soils don’t really lend themselves to the cropping programme so Shawn contracts in maize silage.
“There are plenty of people in the Manawatu to grow it, but it doesn’t fit in well with our wet soils and trying to get reseeded into pasture after the crop.”
The farm produces 1229kg MS/ha and 410kg MS/cow for a 5.6% return on capital and an operating profit of $3295/ha, which sits between the top results for the Wairarapa/Manawatu region for 2017/18 and the average for that period.
The operating profit margin of 35% also sat between the top and average results for the area, but Waihora farm was ahead on gross revenue/kg MS at $7.61 and farm working expenses were above the average for the region.
The report also highlighted some areas for the farm to work on, Shawn said.
Pasture harvested was only eight tonnes DM/ha which surprised him.
“I was surprised at that lower amount of pasture harvested, because we have really effective use of supplement – and we have been working on understanding our pasture usage for the past couple of years.”
Getting Massey University dairy scientist Danny Donaghy on to the farm every week to upskill the farm staff and other HFG managers has led to them using the three-leaf strategy to help them grow as much grass as possible, Shawn said.
“We are looking after the plant more, we understand about how to figure out the number of true leaves and that the pre-grazing plant needs to be at the 2.5-3 leaf stage.
“I had heard about tillering, but I wasn’t really focused on the leaf stage of the plant.
“Now we are fixated on optimising the grazing stage for the pasture and the cow.
“We can create more pasture by encouraging more daughter tillers – which is really important for getting through the summer.
“Each week Danny would help us look at the paddocks and make decisions – and see what’s going on.”
Grazing down to the 1500kg DM/ha residual is also important, Shawn admits.
“It’s not hard when you get your eye in – and since I have been here in 2006 we have lifted the production from 270-280,000kg MS to over 400,000kg MS – all that’s been focusing on the pasture – growing and eating as much as we can for milk production.”
Pasture management is the biggest major improvement over that time he says, but he has made alterations to the cow breed as well.
“The heavy soils didn’t suit the big Friesians that were here – so we have gone to a smaller-framed Kiwicross cow, and with better use of supplements and growing more grass silage and using it more effectively we have lifted production substantially.”
Using crossbred semen over all the Kiwicross cows at mating, Shawn follows up five-six weeks of AI to crossbred bulls with one week of short-gestation Hereford semen followed by Jersey bulls.
All the later calves are bobbied – which is a policy Shawn is keen to see the back of.
“I am keen to change to breeding beef- cross calves – but I think some of the other managers have had calving difficulties so it’s a company policy.
“But we haven’t had any trouble here at Waihora and I just don’t like having so many bobby calves so I want to work on that.”
Taking out the underperforming maize crop, Shawn replaced it with 25ha turnips which he is now keen to transition to 35ha chicory, with the thought that the chicory will go in in spring and will hold on better in the summer.
“The turnips are good but tend to die off when the cows are still eating them.”
Summers can get a bit dry, Shawn says, but if they look after the pasture and go to a 30-35day round in summer they can usually get through.
EFFLUENT AREA EXPANSION
In the DBOY environmental assessment, Waihora farm was commended for having 100% of its waterways fenced with generous 20m riparian buffer zones and for its use of a 500-cow feed-pad where cows are fed and can be stood off pastures during high risk periods for nutrient loss.
Opportunities for an improved environmental footprint include expanding the effluent irrigation area which Shawn says is something at the top of his list.
“We have plenty of effluent storage but the irrigation area is 62ha at the moment which is pretty low at 18% and ideally I would like to double it to 80-100ha.”
The main drain that runs through the farm is all fenced off, but two duck pond areas have formed on the farm and one is well fenced and planted and the other needs fencing and planting in flaxes, he added.
“I would really like to put in shelter belts to give the cows shelter from the common frequent nor’westers – maybe flaxes, natives and willows, they should be easy to build with the repairs and maintenance allowing us to do a little of it each year – and it could be handy for counting as carbon in the future too.”
- Waihora Farm, Hopkins Farming Group
- Opiki, Manawatu
- 1000 cows, 333ha (effective)
- 300 winter milkers, 700 spring calving
- Production: 410kg MS/cow, 1229kg MS/ha
Waihora farm apprentice Will Barnes is working his way into a fulltime job.
The 16-year-old was very happy to get out of school and jumped at the opportunity to join the Hopkins Farming Group after being exposed to the industry through a week-long training experience.
“I really enjoyed being on the farm, being outside and working with the animals – so I went back to Heidi at Hopkins Farming Group and was offered an apprenticeship position.”
The HFG initiative saw two apprentices starting on two of the group’s farms – to build up some new workers coming into the company.
The apprentices are paid from the central admin account and work shortened hours to begin with.
‘The idea was to introduce them to dairy farming in a way that meant they learnt what it was about but the work load didn’t put them off staying,” Shawn Southee said.
Will works a 40-hour week with no weekend work, starting 9am and working through until six and earns minimum wage which he is saving to buy a car for when he gets his restricted licence.
He has learnt how to milk cows, ride the motorbike, drive the tractor and ute and is involved in all the spring tasks – identifying calving cows, calf rearing and everything else that is going on the farm.
He’s really enjoying the work and his Primary ITO Level 2 How to know your cow training module.
HFG also runs lots of onfarm and within-group training and Will says he loves working for a group that will have different opportunities for him in the future.
From the farm manager’s point of view Southee is pleased with the scheme.
“The apprentice scheme was something the managers were keen to bring in – at the monthly meetings we discussed it and were keen to run apprentices for a few years to bring them through the staff ranks and have some flexibility in the system.
“The two apprentices can be shared around the group to plug some gaps and give them different experiences.
“They also get trained with the rest of our staff and understand the company values and methods.”