Careful management of hygiene, effluent, water and stock are keys to success for a sharemilking couple, as Elaine Fisher explains. Photos by Alan Gibson.
The dairy is a food factory and, as such, hygiene should be of the highest standards, according to Rerewhakaaitu dairy farmers Carlos and Bernice Delos Santos.
“I tell our staff that you should be able to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner off the concrete floor in the dairy and not feel disgusted about it,” says Carlos – and he’s not joking.
The couple’s commitment to cleanliness and hygiene has seen them win major regional and national awards. In 2017 when they won the Central Plateau Share Farmer of the year award and went on to be runners-up in the New Zealand Share Farmer of the Year, Bernice and Carlos took the Ecolab Farm Dairy Hygiene merit awards in both.
It was the Delos Santos’ high standards that so impressed the judges in the awards, with Share Farmer head judge Neil Gray saying in 2017: "We walked into their cowshed and couldn't believe it was over 30 years old, it looked fantastic. They lived and breathed their philosophy that the cowshed was the place where they produce the finest quality milk that goes onto supply food for the rest of the world".
Today the same detailed procedures the couple applied to that dairy, to ensure it operated safely and to the highest hygiene standards, are followed in the 54-bail herringbone dairy on the Rerewhakaaitu farm.
Last season they moved from the 140ha Ngakuru property, where they were sharemilking 350 cows, to the 230ha (205 effective) Onuku Maori Lands Trust owned farm at Rerewhakaaitu, south east of Rotorua. There they are 50:50 sharemilking a crossbred herd of 630 cows, producing 235,000 MS from 585 cows last season.
“I’m pretty proud of my cows. From the time we bought our first 30 cows and all these years of breeding and culling, it’s good to see them milking well now and to have the potential to do more,” says Carlos.
“We were milking twice a day for most parts of this season and were not too affected by the drought. Our cows came from a farm which was steep where they had to do a lot of walking up and down hills. Here it is gently rolling country and the walking is easier, so they are producing more milk. The cows shifted and adopted well to their new home.”
The dairy is also a step up from the smaller, older shed on their previous farm. It has Protrack automated drafting gates, automatic cup removers and teat sprayers, meaning it can be operated by two staff.
“We milk in two herds and have battery operated latches on the gates so cows walk themselves to and from the dairy. It took a week or so to train the cows but once they got used to it, it worked well, and we have a lot less lameness.”
Hot wash water in the dairy is recycled where possible, particularly during calving when it is used to wash calf feeders and trailers. There is a rainwater diversion system to ensure excess fresh water doesn’t end up in the 1million m3 lined effluent pond.
Effluent is irrigated onto around 40ha using a two-pod irrigation system. “It’s low volume and we shift them quite regularly and use timers to minimise over-application and to spread on as much ground as possible.”
The farm operates as System 2 with palm kernel brought in during spring and autumn. Summer and winter crops are grown as supplements too.
“This year we grew 9ha of turnips and 6ha of kale and swedes. The animals love the turnips, they hold their production really well.”
The soil is the fertile Rotomahana mud, a material discharged during the 1886 eruption of Mount Tarawera. Today they are what are termed as rudimentary humus soils, which have developed since the eruption, and produce good pastures of ryegrass and white clover.
“These soils are very fertile but need careful management as they can get muddy during rain and cows can cause damage due to pugging,” says Carlos. “The problem is the mud dries hard and if you don’t get the timing right it’s difficult to fix the damage. We send about 200-400 cows a year to a nearby runoff that the Trust co-owns, to lessen the number of cows between June-July. It allows us to build up grass for calving as well.”
The farm is in an ecologically sensitive area, close to Lake Rerewhakaaitu. “The Trust has fenced out all the waterways and in terms of nitrogen we only used 51 units of N/ha last year, which is quite low compared with many farms.
"When the cows finish a crop paddock I try to follow with the roller tiller and then get the seed on so we have new grass within a couple of weeks"
“We have our own spreader and we try and follow the cows so we don’t do the whole farm at once. We also don’t apply when we know there’s heavy rain to avoid nitrogen leaching. Another thing the Trust has done to reduce its environmental footprint was to convert one of its former dairy farms to sheep milking.”
The farm’s water comes from a bore, and water meters have recently been installed to ensure the allocated water take is not exceeded.
The drought that hit farmers in the Waikato, Hawke’s Bay and Northland so hard was not as serious on their farm. “We did get a dry spring and it’s been dry through summer, but these soils hold moisture well and the grass kept growing. We made silage early on, which helps with feed.”
Pasture quality is important to Carlos who uses LIC SPACE for pasture monitoring. “It saves me a lot of time particularly during calving when there is a lot going on.” He also has his own seed drill to re-sow paddocks with perennial ryegrass, particularly those used for crops.
“The challenge is to get the job done on time. When the cows finish a crop paddock I try to follow with the roller tiller and then get the seed on so we have new grass within a couple of weeks.”
Carlos and Bernice operated their previous farm with the help of casual staff. Today they have two full-time staff, and Bernice, as well as looking after their growing family, takes care of the calves and the administration of their business.
The Covid-19 lockdown, which saw schools close in March, meant the Delos Santos children Carl, 10, Claire, 7, and Cara 3 were home full-time.
“It was a change for our family, and in some ways quite nice as we didn’t have to worry about dropping the children to the bus or going anywhere. We did try to teach them a little during that time but didn’t stress too much about it,” says Carlos.
The two staff, Malcom Padilla and John Nistal, who share accommodation, formed a “bubble” and the Delos Santos a second one, keeping their distance and everyone paying increased attention to hygiene. However, overall, lockdown made little difference to life and work on the farm.
Like the couple, their current staff are Filipino but Carlos says nationality was not a factor in the decision to hire them.
“We are happy to give the opportunity to enter the dairy industry and enjoy the benefits we have to anyone who is willing to work hard and learn.”
Bernice and Carlos are ideal role models for what can be achieved in the dairy industry. In 2001 Carlos, newly arrived from the Philippines and short of cash, borrowed $140 to buy a pushbike so he could get to a relief milking job at Mangakino.
“I came to New Zealand as a mechanical engineering student and got into farming almost accidentally because I needed work.” Through that initial relief milking role Carlos discovered an aptitude for farming and progressed to farm assistant and then herd manager for 1000 cows. From 2006 to 2007 he was assistant manager on a 750-cow property.
Bernice, who was a registered nurse in the Philippines, came to New Zealand in 2007 and by 2008 the couple were married and variable-order sharemilking a 300-cow herd.
“I was a city girl who didn’t know anything about cows, so it was a big learning curve for me,” says Bernice who has a Certificate in Agriculture Level 4 and an on-farm milk quality qualification.
Carlos has gained a Diploma in Agribusiness Management. He has now taken on a role with the national executive for the Dairy Industry Awards, seeing that as an opportunity to give back to the awards and also enhance his governance skills.
The couple’s aim of owning their own farm hasn’t changed from the early days of their involvement in the industry. “It’s still our long-term goal, something to aim for within the next five years.
“We are committed to the dairy industry. I don’t see myself doing anything else. This industry has given me so much and now it’s time for me to give back.”