Dairying in the remote Maruia Valley.

Hitting the sweet spot

Focusing on stockmanship and breeding worth has seen a West Coast couple’s herd reach top-ranking production figures. Anne Hardie reports.

Six weeks calving is long enough by Kane and Rachel Inch’s reckoning and they’ve also dropped cow numbers, milk once a day and feed just grass through a season that amounts to just 270 days in milk.

The result? They produce 1000kg milksolids (MS) per hectare which is sent to Westland Milk Products and make a profit of $1237/ha – compared with the benchmark for the area of $785/ha. And it’s achieved in a region 366 metres above sea level, sandwiched between the Southern Alps and the West Coast’s Victoria Range.

In the middle of winter, when hard frosts bite the ground in the remote Maruia Valley and snow coats the ground occasionally, their 185-cow herd has the kind of condition that wouldn’t look out of place on a beef farm. Part of it is due to stockmanship and part of it to their focus on breeding worth (BW).

Rachel says observation is a vital tool at mating.

“It’s all about BW,” Kane says. “Trying to breed cows that turn grass into milk as efficiently as possible.”

Today their herd is in the top 2% of the country for BW at 146, with a production value (PW) of 193 and Rachel says it’s the reason they have been able to drop cow numbers from 210 to 185 and achieve the same production.

A passion for genetics – or as Rachel suggests, obsession – harks back to boarding school for Kane when he was separated from the farm due to Maruia’s remoteness, so his father used to send him the herd records to work out their breeding programme.

Since then they have sharemilked on the family farm before buying a 65ha support block, then leased the 65ha dairy farm neighbouring the support block before buying it to create a self-contained unit on the edge of the Maruia River.

‘I’m not big on segregating stock and giving them special treatment. They need to suit our system.’

It’s a remote location in a corridor between the mountains, just short of the Lewis Pass, with their farm spilling over river flats and river terraces to the edge of the beech forest at the base of the mountains. Two metres of rain falls through the year and it’s usually summer safe, which is fortunate as it bakes in the valley, while winter is long and cold.

For that reason, they don’t start calving until August 19 and to ensure they save enough cover for early spring, they dry the cows off from May 15. The priority is making sure they have enough feed onhand to last until balance date which is about October 1.

“We have such a compact calving that we want to be as close to balance date as possible,” Kane explains.

They’ve been calving for that compact six-week period for the past four years, following the first year on their farm when the herd calved from July through to December and they decided that needed to change. To do that, they mated the herd for seven weeks the following year and then cut back to just six weeks, with their figures speaking for themselves.

They typically achieve up to 87% of the herd in-calf by the end of their six-week mating, using just artificial insemination (AI), while 91% of the yearlings get in-calf during the same period through AI.

Breeding for a high BW, efficient cow has enabled them to achieve the same production with fewer cows.

Their submission rate is about 91% during the first three weeks of mating, while conception rate, which is the key, is 72%. So for every cow put up for AI, 72% of the cows get pregnant at each insemination compared with the industry average of 60%.

The beauty of the shorter mating period, Kane says, is they are not breeding from cows with problems and it increases the gap between the end of calving and mating for every cow in the herd.

“It’s all about giving every cow enough time from calving to mating to be ready for mating again. So doing just six weeks, the last cow calved should have six weeks before mating. Calving last year was 42 days from start to finish. Our goal is to get 90% of cows wintered, in calf in six weeks.”

Stockmanship plays a big part at mating; knowing their cows and using observation is a vital tool to get cows in calf. Even though tail painting is used, Rachel points out certain cows won’t let other cows ride them when they’re cycling. She is pretty much in charge of the herd at mating as Kane is the local artificial breeding (AB) technician, inseminating about 7500 cows in the Maruia region. He does it because he wants to get cows in calf.

“I like to think I can help farmers get good results. To me, if you don’t get cows in calf, it’s end of story.”

The job takes him away from the farm for up to seven hours a day, leaving Rachel to identify their own cycling cows.

Kane and Rachel’s herd has a six-week calving span.

Time spent observing the cows

“I spend quite a bit of time in the paddock observing the cows. At AI we shift to afternoon milkings until Christmas and if I do observations in the morning I can see them three times a day. You see the ones that are restless and moving and those that start calling out three days beforehand. There’s one cow that won’t let anyone ride her, but she’ll be the first in the yard when she’s cycling. That’s where the pre-mating heats are important because we’re looking harder at them.”

They also keep a close eye on cows after calving and anything with any sign of infection is treated early with Metricure.

In the six weeks of mating, every cycling cow is artificially inseminated, including the yearlings, using straws from the highest BW bulls with good genetics for somatic cell count and udder conformation. It results in genetics from two of the best Friesian, two of the best Jersey and two of the best crossbred bulls used over their herd, with the aim of achieving cows that are F12 J4.

Because everything is in calf to top AI bulls – and a big percentage of the herd is in calf – they rear all their heifer calves and a selection of bull calves which then gives them young stock to sell. That gives their income a significant boost as they are able to sell 30 to 40 in-calf rising two-year-olds for about $1600 each – adding $1.77/MS in stock sales last season.

All up they rear about 90 calves that are covered by the Rotovec vaccination given to their pregnant mothers. Until October, the calves are reared in a plastic tunnel house, with access to outdoor pens. The light, warm environment has had a positive effect on calf health and the calves prefer to stay inside. Following their first feeds of colostrum, the calves are fed milk out of the vat until they are weaned.

Rising two-year-old in-calf heifers clean up the last of the oat crop.

“It gives them the best start and it’s simple,” Kane says.

The simple philosophy follows through their entire farming system, beginning with the OAD-regime which they switched to five years ago. By year four on OAD they were achieving production on par with their previous twice-a-day milking, but with lower costs and less work.

OAD is fairly common along the Maruia Valley as many farms stretch along the valley floor beside the river and have long walks for the cows, especially in the heat of summer which can reach temperatures into the 30s. The added benefits of OAD have been cow health, reproduction and time to look after the young stock well.

Between OAD milking and cows on a 24-hour grazing of each paddock, lameness is a rarity, while good cow health means they have lost just one cow in the past 12 months.

“They can ride out adverse conditions easier because of body condition and reserves.”

No special treatment

Nothing gets preferential treatment in the herd; everything is in together with the R2 heifers mixed with the main herd a month or so before calving so they can sort out issues before the season gets underway.

“I’m not big on segregating stock and giving them special treatment. They need to suit our system.”

By breeding for high BW and rearing all their heifer calves, they have a good selection of younger, better animals that are more efficient for their simple system.

No palm kernel is bought in – they never have used it and don’t believe in using it – and balage or hay is only bought in as required. They’ve had to this year after drought was declared in the region and the cows ended up grazing pasture on the support area that was originally tagged for silage to feed through winter and spring.

In January, the cows were walking 3km to standing hay and production dropped 20% for the month. Usually they reach about 67,000kg MS by the end of the season, but the drought knocked it down to 61,000kg MS –after milk has been taken out of the vat for the calves and just 270 days in milk.

The previous year a flood destroyed a winter kale crop on the river flats of the support area, leaving a trail of gravel in its wake.

But most years they will be able to make enough supplements from surplus grass on the support area, where oats and ryegrass are direct drilled into the stony soils to lengthen the round in autumn when they’re building up a feed bank for winter.

“We try and keep everything pretty consistent with feed, whether it’s kale or silage or grass,” Kane says. “We only change one of those things at any one time to only make a little change in their diet. I think a lot of people are grazing those crops right up to calving and the cows have to change to grass and make milk and recover from calving, which drains their reserves.”

“Last year when we didn’t have a kale crop,” Rachel continues, “and they only had grass, it was interesting to see the cows – they had no calving issues and pre-mating heats were really good.”

Kane says it takes cows about three weeks to get used to a crop – or whatever feed they are on. Through the season, the cows are on a grass-only diet and maybe a turnip crop, and rather than worrying about grass cover or what is ahead of the herd, Kane and Rachel concentrate on breeding the cow that suits their simple system.

“We don’t measure grass,” he says. “But in saying that, we’re observant and always trying to keep the grass in a healthy growing state. At different times of the year we’ll aim for different targets, but it’s only by eye.”

Likewise, evaluating cow condition by eye alone is all about stockmanship. Again, breeding the cow that suits their system and only breeding from those that get in calf in their six-week mating period, ensures they have cows that cope well.

Through the season they milk at nine in the morning, after they have got their two primary-school-aged girls off to school, and the OAD regime gives them time to keep the farm running without too much pressure.

By April, they’re starting to save pasture on the support area for wintering the herd and young stock, then drying the cows off from May 15 and getting them off the milking platform to build a feed bank for the next season as winter grass growth is only about 10kg DM/ha/day.

Through winter, the cows typically get grass, kale and silage, returning to the milking platform for calving, when they graze paddocks with shingle ridges or peat soils through spring, which is the wettest time of the year.

They have used the turnip crops in the past for summer, but last season it didn’t strike due to the drought and they think the cost of putting the crop in versus the return from it is marginal.

“In the past we’ve put it in to help damaged paddocks but you also have to consider the time for that paddock to be out of grass. So we’re contemplating not doing turnips at all.”

Ultimately, grass is the easiest feed and their focus is on getting good production from what they grow on the farm, with fewer cows, which comes back to genetics and breeding efficient cows.

“We’ve been trying to work out what the farm can handle and I think we’ve hit a pretty good level.”

Farm facts

Owners: Kane and Rachel Inch

Location: Maruia, West Coast

Herd: 185 Crossbred cows, BW 146

Production: 1000kg MS/ha from 270 days in milk

Reproduction: 87% of herd in calf and only six-week mating period. Submission rate 91% in first three weeks, conception rate 72%.