Three self-contained, low input dairy units in a dry, secluded valley achieve productivity and environmental targets with a closed herd, conservative stocking rates, and judicious use of crops. Anne Hardie reports.
The Todd family milks 1800 crossbred cows in the Tutaki Valley south of Nelson, yet most travellers heading through nearby Murchison would never guess the rugged hills hide such a productive bowl.
In this valley the Todds farm three dairy units that are self contained, low input, and (apart from a few tweaks) achieving their environmental targets to take the business into the future. Stocking rates are conservative, cows have access to hill country with their winter crops, and although the farms have 25km of river frontage there have been years of bridging and fencing. There are now 14 bridges up to 19m in length spanning waterways and, along with riparian fencing and other costs, the environmental spending added up to three quarters of a million dollars a couple of years ago.
For four generations the family have farmed in the valley, beginning with a ballot block after return from war. Other properties were bought as they came on the market and today the business includes the home farm milking about 420 cows at the peak of the season; the middle farm, Tiraumea, which milks 385 cows; and the southernmost farm, Tutaki Heights, which milks 1,000 cows.
The two northern farms are run as one company and one herd. Cows are wintered together and divided into two herds, one for each farm and dairy, as they calve. Tutaki operates separately though all three farms work together wherever possible, including machinery and houses.
On the home farm are John and Debbie Todd who converted Tiraumea from a bull farm back in the 90s, while their son, Stephen, and his partner Kim Sluys, are the younger generation on Tutaki with their family of five kids. They also oversee Tiraumea, which has a herd manager in charge of day-to-day operations. Between the three farms they employ eight full-time staff and six part-timers who are mostly the wives or partners of full-time staff.
Tutaki was the first farm converted to dairying in the 1990s by Avon Gillespie who went on to convert several farms further south in the Maruia Valley before his business toppled. Despite the hype and collapse of Gillespie’s business, John says his entrepreneurship and the quality of his conversions stimulated the region’s dairy industry.
Tutaki has never been an easy farm, with a hike of 10km from one end of the farm to the other. Being the narrower end of the valley means it also slopes up to the surrounding hills. As with the other farms it has a mix of stony river flats and silt loam terraces before the steeper hill country kicks in. Tutaki covers 600ha, with 400ha forming the milking platform and the remainder in crop or used for young stock.
Hard, frosty winters are followed by scorching summer heat into the 30s when the stony river flats dry out and the cows can have long, hot walks. Though the dairy is located in the middle of the farm the cows still walk up to 5km, and because of that they are milked once a day (OAD) at about 5am and stocked at about 2.3 cows/ha. This season Tutaki has produced close to 300,000kg milksolids (MS), which is its best production for the past five seasons, working out at 750kg MS/ha.
The season for all three farms begins with the first calves on August 10 and cows are dried off about May 20. Whole milk for calves is taken from the vat on both Tutaki and the home farm.
Tiraumea, in the middle, produces about 160,000kg MS from 150ha to work out at a little more than 1,000kg MS/ha. It has the benefit of 80ha of K-line irrigation sourced from the river, which keeps chicory performing well through the dry summers and enables them to milk the herd twice a day throughout the season. It’s still lightly stocked, though, at about 2.5 cows/ha.
“That extra protein in summer seems to hold the cows up,” Stephen says. “If you can get a bit of high quality feed into them, they seem to hold up pretty good.”
Grazing cows on winter crops is getting a lot of flak from the public in some regions, but one of the advantages in the Tutaki Valley is scale and terrain.
The home farm to the north produces 135,000kg MS from 150ha, or 900kgs/ha, with the herd on OAD the entire season. This farm winters a large proportion of the cows so paddocks are out of the round early for winter crops.
Hard winters with frosts reaching -8C force the herds onto crop and supplements. They don’t mind frosts though – less wastage of feed and easier on the cows than wet weather. About 90ha goes into winter crop each year, and for four years that was fodder beet although they’ve been a bit disenchanted with it. Yields averaged 18-20t/ha, with some paddocks down to 12t/ha, and the best up to 27t/ha. At 18t/ha, Stephen says the costs of the crop are just too high to warrant the results so they replaced half the fodder beet with kale. They had also had reproduction problems, with too many empty cows for their liking, and thought fodder beet may have been a factor.
“We were wondering whether coming off fodder beet, with its 60% sugar, to pasture that had been carried through winter with quality that wasn’t great and low sugar levels was leaving the cows in a lull as they came up to mating.”
For the past couple of years they added molasses to the cows’ diet to make up the sugar difference through the winter. Cows were given 5-6kg/day of both fodder beet and kale, plus a couple of kilograms of hay or balage. Empty rates have improved slightly but they are still a work in progress, and Stephen says the walking distances for the cows are an ongoing challenge that works against them at mating.
This is the first year they have removed fodder beet completely from the winter programme and replaced it with swedes as well as kale. It’s the first time they have grown swedes and the paddocks have produced between 15 and 18t/ha, with some of it grazed a month earlier than planned because of the long, dry summer. This winter the cows will be fed either swedes or kale as well as hay or balage. As cows get close to lactating they will be taken off swedes and grazed on the kale before being moved to grass.
Grazing cows on winter crops is getting a lot of flak from the public in some regions, but one of the advantages in the Tutaki Valley is scale and terrain. Most of the cropping is on the extremities of the milking platforms or support areas that merge into rougher hill country. That works especially well on Tutaki where those paddocks further away from the dairy are also the paddocks rising into the hills. Around the edges of milking platforms on the home farm and Tiraumea is about 400ha of good hill country that provides support land for both units that includes the overflow from crops.
“We can choose winter areas that don’t pug too much, and cows can spread out on crops that back onto rough country where they can go out and lie down.”
Come summer, the crops become chicory, summer turnips, and, to date, a bit of raphno. Between 40 and 50ha are planted in summer crops and Stephen is questioning whether he will grow raphno again. Although it produces 3-4t/ha at first grazing it struggles to regrow through the dry without irrigation: turnips yield 10-12t/ha of bulk to feed to cows through the dry.
“You graze raphno in spring and then can’t graze it again for a while. It’s out for a long time whereas you can have turnips and have grass back in autumn for the cows to graze in spring.”
They don’t plant turnips on the home farm though as the heavier ground can produce turnip scald and, because the timing is similar to facial eczema (FE), it’s difficult to judge whether scald is caused by turnips or FE.
This year the home farm had no crops and used pit silage as a supplement. Each year all surplus grass on the farms goes into pit silage that they make themselves, adding up to 1,500t between the home farm and Tiraumea plus 1,500t on Tutaki.
John says the farms can grow an amazing amount of grass in a good season but it’s a matter of balancing it through the year. Because of that they cut more when they can and feed it out on the fringes when it is needed. As well as silage they make 800 bales of balage after the main cut, which gives them flexibility with feeding supplements during wet weather or if a silage wagon breaks down. They’ll also buy standing grass in the neighbourhood, if it’s available, and make it into hay. They feed it to the cows on winter crop to fill them up, or during the dry with summer crop, or when it’s wet and they want to keep the cows full.
The one bought-in supplement is palm kernel, feeding up to 2kg/cow/day in the dairy through the pinch periods of the season and 1kg/day the rest of the season. If needed, they will offer it to the herds in trailers through spring or dry summers if there is a feed shortage. Stephen says they usually contract a few loads in spring to fill those feed gaps though price also dictates how much they will buy. This year they had to feed out more pit silage through the dry summer, which means they will have less silage going into spring and that will also influence their decisions around palm kernel.
Looking ahead, Stephen says they want to remove the palm kernel from the middle of the season and use fertiliser to grow more grass when they can turn it into supplement for the dry summer. The prospect of a lower payout, plus higher prices for palm kernel, will make that an important consideration this coming season.
“The cost of feed is always important but more important as the payout drops and the opportunity to turn a dollar out of that feed gets harder. We can either carry more (bought-in) feed into a drought or cut more grass before it. The profitability is in grass because you can grow grass way cheaper than you can buy in feed.
“We’re trying to be more efficient. We’re grass based now, but we want to become more grass based with less (fed) through the shed. If and when the payout drops, the more efficient you can be is the better place to be.”
One of the advantages of wintering the cows and planting crops through winter and summer is the regrassing programme that follows. Shogun ryegrass is the top choice for heavier paddocks where it does well, while drought-tolerant perennial ryegrasses such as Governor and One50 are chosen for the drier paddocks. Summer crops are grown near each of the three dairies, with Tabu, Shogun, or Trojan ryegrasses following the chicory, depending on the rotation.
The Todds raise their calves on whole milk from the vat because it is simple and they know the calves are getting exactly what they need.
Between the three dairy farms they raise 500 calves each year. They are split between two sites and raised by the women on the farms because they are “caring, patient, and do a great job” with the calves. Milkbar trailers are filled with whole milk with DanCalf Plus added to include a coccidiostat and avoid coccidiosis. They’ve had trouble with that in the past and want to avoid a repeat.
The calves are kept in the sheds from two to four weeks before being moved to paddocks in groups of 50. Muesli is introduced from day one and then pellets of any brand but they must be grain based and have 20% protein.
“Whole milk is easy,” Stephen says. “You don’t have to mix it and generally milk powders aren’t a lot cheaper with labour and the hassle of doing it. This year it would have been cheaper to feed milk powder but it could have been the other way. Milk is easy and simple and it’s a known quantity.”
Also, Fonterra doesn’t pick up colostrum from their location, so feeding the calves makes good use of that milk.
Careful selection of genetics has gone into breeding replacement calves, aiming at high breeding worth (BW) with A2/A2 breeding because they are hedging bets for the future. They also place importance on the fertility breeding value. The aim is capacious cows that have the ability to carry milk; an efficient cow that has the ability to get back in calf easily and “does a good job”.
Rising two-year-old heifers are synchronised and artificially inseminated (AI) so that they are always breeding from their best stock.
Along with heifer replacement calves the Todds keep 40 bull calves that are mostly Friesians with high BWs, which will run with the cows after AI, but also a few Jerseys to run with heifers after AI.
“The main driver is the assurance of having bulls, knowing what you’ve got, and keeping your herd closed,” Stephen says.
Even before Mycoplasma bovis came along they operated a closed herd to prevent problems such as bovine viral diarrhoea in the herd, and still vaccinate their bulls to avoid the disease.
Taking a proactive approach with animal health has long been a focus on the farms and with that in mind they prefer to spend the money on vaccinations rather than an outbreak. Cows are also vaccinated for rotavirus six weeks before calving because they experienced that havoc six years ago and don’t want to revisit it.
“It’s quite a high cost (to vaccinate) but the cost at the other end if you don’t can be quite high.”
Similarly, the health of the cow and her milk is critical, with vigilant culling on higher somatic cell counts (SCC) following herd tests and trying to stay on top of subclinical mastitis. On the home farm, the SCC averages 90,000 cells/mL while Tiraumea averages between 80,000 and Tutaki averages 170,000.
Minerals are fed to the cows in the dairy and two of the farms have Dosatrons to provide them through the drinking water. Through winter, minerals are also added to the cows’ diet in water and on silage, including magnesium to help prevent milk fever and grass staggers.
“Then you don’t have a hole to fill coming into calving. We try to keep the tanks full.”
While the valley floor and terraces are in milk production, 500ha rising up to the steeper walls of the valley has the staggered plantings of pine trees for the potential return from harvest and carbon credits.
About 60ha are already well established trees, 150ha were planted two years ago, another 150ha planted last winter, and 125ha will be planted in pines this winter. For the past couple of years and this winter they have been eligible for a Government grant through the Afforestation Grant Scheme, which was designed to establish new forest, with the One Billion Tree Fund replacing it.
“You wouldn’t be able to afford to plant these areas without the grants,” Stephen says. “Most of it is unusable land for dairy support. And it means we can grow an asset for the future.
Farm owners: Todd family
Location: Tutaki Valley near Murchison, Tasman
Farms: Tutaki 400ha MP, Tiraumea 150ha, Home 150ha
Cows: Tutaki 1,000 cows; Tiraumea 385 cows; Home 420 cows
Production: Tutaki 300,000kg MS, 750kg MS/ha; Tiraumea 160,000kg MS, 1,000kg Ms/ha; Home
135,000kg MS, 900kg MS/ha