When Mike and Angela Sales arrived in New Zealand from the Philippines they had never milked cows, but the couple are fast learners. Jackie Harrigan reports.
For equity manager Mike and Angela Sales, joining their local Mangaone Catchment Care group was an opportunity to be involved in an environment oriented group while trying to run a low-environmental impact and sustainable Patoka dairy operation. It was also an extension of the community spirit they have felt since shifting to the small isolated Hawke’s Bay dairying area five years ago.
Mike and Angela moved from the Philippines to New Zealand in 2007 as skilled migrants, with animal science and microbiology degrees respectively, but having never milked cows. Seven years later they moved to Patoka as 10% equity managers for Mark and Donna Keaney to run the 1200-cow System 4 Bluff Views property.
The couple threw themselves into the dairy industry – initially they planned to stay for only 10 years but they were inspired and influenced by Mark and Donna’s business outlook and quickly realised the opportunities the industry offered. A dairy career could really help them grow their knowledge, their business and their dream to succeed and build a good life for their two children Max and Francine (now 19 and 15).
They upskilled fast, learning all they could on farm as farm assistants at Reporoa, from Primary ITO courses to attending discussion groups and any trainings and seminars on offer during their stay at Maxwell Farms. After three years they moved to Ngakuru, Rotorua, to the Keaneys’ home farm, Greenacres, and managed it until Mark and Donna bought the Bluff Views property at Patoka and asked them what their plans were.
“We had just bought a house in Rotorua with a mortgage but they offered to guarantee us into a 10% farm share – they have been like family to us and wanted to help us.
“Even the lawyer setting up the agreement was amazed at their generosity – it was such a blessing,” Angela said.
On their first visit to the young conversion property up a back road in Patoka, the Sales hadn’t even seen the city of Napier yet and wondered where they were going – “it seemed very isolated and we were worried about our kids coping”, but after a family discussion the children agreed to help Mike and Angela grasp the opportunity.
“It was not love at first sight,” Angela said, but after five years the couple feel like they have never lived elsewhere.
“Hawke’s Bay is home to us now – we have an amazing community and we really appreciate this place and value its beauty.”
They were also overwhelmed with the friendliness and help from the local community, who turned up with firewood, baking and offers of help, and invitations to community events centered on the local school.
Despite the low payout year, careful cost control and attention to detail meant they kept cost of production low – at a range of $3.90 to $4.20/kg MS – and almost always made a profit for the partnership. All the profits have been ploughed back into the farm, upgrading effluent management, with a new weeping wall, lined pond and green-water floodwash system, a 8-bay calf shed, pine tree woodlot harvesting and retirement and pine planting on 35ha of steeper sidings. Farm dairy upgrades have seen Protrack, auto heat detection, automatic cup removers and automatic teat spraying installed.
While the move has not been made to cut the staff requirement in the shed, Mike and Angela said retaining staff can be tricky so having automation builds their flexibility. They have upgraded two houses on the property to attract staff and have now got better long-term retention with two Filipinos and one local, and their son Max for the summer.
“We struggle to get the locals interested, with very few applicants and they don’t tend to see out the season – it’s too far to travel from Napier.”
But the Filipino workers they have had for four and five seasons, Gus and Manny are encouraged by Angel and Mike to really engage with the industry by upskilling and learning as much as they can.
“We tell them not to work just to send money home – they can stay and improve themselves and make really good money in this industry – there is so much potential,” Angela said.
“We try to run a simple system that is effective and efficient and implement a ‘no blame policy’, it’s all a team effort – Mark and Donna don’t put too much pressure on us so we don’t pass pressure along.”
Angela has, however, put a lot of effort into staff training, writing up induction procedures and expectations and an operations manual which means everyone is on the same page and paying attention to detail.
This focus on detail has allowed them to minimise grades in their farm dairy, to drive down the not-in-calf rate to 12% with 78% in-calf at six-weeks during 10 weeks mating with no bulls and to maximise profitability by reducing expenditure on things like animal health.
HOTTER SUMMER, NEW CROPPING REGIME
The couple arrived in the Bay to a similar level of altitude as their Rotorua farm, but the same operating system they tried to embed just didn’t work, Mike said.
“We get more wind here and its hotter and drier in the summer, so we had to adjust our cropping pattern.”
They moved away from the winter fodder beet crop feeding 8kg/cow/day to growing 8-10ha fodder beet as a late lactation crop and feeding just 4kg/cow of the beet.
Now the cows are wintered off-farm, walked to the neighbours on kale for five-seven weeks, where they are fed 50% kale, 25% palm kernel and 25% straw. The Sales purchase the kale crop on yield.
The replacement heifers are grazed off at another neighbours, poked through a gate in the boundary fence at 100kg and paid for on a weight-gain basis.
“It’s very easy and works well.”
Since 2014 the farm has been regrassed at a rate of 50ha/year, using rotation through a summer crop of turnips and rape for three years, but now transitioning to chicory and ditching the rape to make another tweak to the farm system.
“We are looking at reducing the area of summer crop too, as we have nearly completed the regrassing.”
The fertility was low on the conversion farm, Mike said, so cropping has built fertility and helped them get on top of the Californian thistle problem.
They are trying out new cultivars of ryegrass – Trojan and one50 and tried Rohan to investigate if it is better with the grass pulling problem, with good results so far. There’s also a discussion about using a mixed tall fescue sward as the summers are getting too hot for the ryegrass.
“I am planning (with Mark and farm advisor Bridget’s approval) to sow 12ha of tall fescue combined with red and white clover, Agrotain plantain and cocksfoot and try a fast two-week rotation compared with a 30-day ryegrass rotation,” Mike said.
Mike says he is a believer in data collection and recording and measures his pastures every 7-10 days, recording in MINDA Land and Feed which he says is very good.
“The more information you have the better the decisions you can make.”
The couple are very proactive with technologies and value the input of farm adviser Bridget Ray from AgFirst with a quarterly meeting and exposure from her as to what people are doing on other farms.
Mike loves to adapt and use ideas he sees on other farms – which are not always successful.
“Last year we tried 3am milkings in summer when it was cooler – 3am and 11am – but the cows were falling asleep on the race, so we had to abandon that after four days,” he laughed.
Monitoring cow health is a priority. “We are very blessed to have Vet Services Hastings supporting us and monitoring our cow health program through Infovet.”
They have managed to keep SCC below 150,000 since 2014, and levelshave tracked as low as 78,000. Mike puts it down to the big commitment by staff to quality milking procedures and says it has paid off in managing to reduce annual animal health costs from more than $100,000 to $70,000.
“Keeping SCC low pays off in two ways – less mastitis drug costs and less loss of milk from the vat – we convert everything to cents and are very conservative on day-to-day costs,” he said.
Similarly, lameness is minimised by staff ensuring cows are fetched early, not rushed on the lanes, not bunched up behind the backing gate, and by being patient and putting effort into maintaining the races.
The two summer drought years they have faced were trying but Mike and Angela have learned to manage them, by having enough summer crop and then drying off early.
Last year over the summer they were logging 7.5ha of mature pines and then replanted the area, along with 35ha of steep sidings to retire erosion-prone country. Having already dropped cow numbers by 50, Mike is contemplating reducing another 50 – saying the first time they reduced numbers they produced more milksolids.
“I would rather have less cows, because I can feed then more – with less supplement and less cost it’s better for pugging, for the environment and more profitable for us.”
The forestry initiative was part of their Tiaki farm environment plan and means Bluffviews have now actioned all the high risks identified in the plan, along with ticking off fencing waterways, staircasing an old quarry on the farm to prevent sediment runoff and re-fencing and excluding a holding paddock with pugging and sediment risk. They have also installed water meters to measure water take from the bore and water use at the farm dairy.
Now the big investments have been made the Sales would like to reap the rewards and are considering lifting their equity stake to 20 or 30%. A recent health scare has made them pause and re-evaluate their former aggressive plans for business growth, but they remain grateful for the opportunities the farm and partnership has given them,
Even on their first trip home to the Philippines after 12 years away, they were really keen to get home to New Zealand.
“New Zealand is such a blessing for us, we love it here, it is home for us.”
BLUFF VIEWS, PATOKA, HAWKE’S BAY
- Owners: Mark and Donna Keaney, Mike and Angela Sales
- Area: 468ha (410ha eff), seedling pines 35ha, gullies tracks and races 23ha
- Staff: 4 fulltime, 3 part-time
- Stock numbers: Calving 1240, peak milking 1200 cows, 270-320 R2s, 270-310 R1s, 900 cows milked TAD (2 herds), 300 milked OAD (in one herd of younger and lighter cows).
- Production: 2018/19 412,885kg MS, 2017/18 422,111kg MS, 2016/17 364,185kg MS, 2015/16 381,254kg MS, 2014/15 412,336kg MS.
- System 4, 725kg/cow bought-in palm kernel blend through in-shed feeding