Margaret and Peter Brooker (left) with sharemilkers Chris and Stacey Hatfield and their young family.

Making the most of a challenging climate

Once-a-day milking takes pressure off animals, farm and people, Anne Hardie reports.

A priority on Peter and Margaret Brooker’s Maruia farm is good animal welfare management which results in less pressure on the environment.

That is why some of their pasture is more than 40 years old and still performing well, they have less runoff around the yard and less sediment is lost from paddocks.

For the past nine seasons the Brookers have contracted sharemilkers to milk cows on the farm and selecting couples with the same philosophy toward animal welfare and the environment has always been paramount.

The couple bought the farm off Peter’s parents in 1990 and today it has grown to 450 hectares with 300 effective including a 210ha milking platform and a 90ha neighbouring support block. An interest in machinery and cultivation led to a passion for regrassing and fertility which benefited the farm and became a business. These days they run a contracting business for local dairy farmers from growing winter feed crops and regrassing to bulk silage, grass conservation and track maintenance.

‘We wouldn’t have a twice-a-day herd on the farm again. It would put undue pressure on cows and tracks and our farm just isn’t suited to twice-a-day milking We could probably do more production but I doubt if we’d make more money.’

As farm owners they are pedantic about soil and pasture at home, with sharemilkers Chris and Stacey Hatfield on the same page and managing it according to its challenging climate. The farm sits right on the boundary between Tasman and Buller districts with a rainfall of about two metres, an occasional snow fall and scorching summer temperatures. In last year’s “mother of all droughts”, they were sometimes milking at 7.30pm when it was still about 26C after reaching 35C during the day – and up to 37C one day.

Pasture that is more than 40 years old still performs well in some paddocks.

Peter concedes they have always run the farm conservatively to look after the cows and the environment for a sustainable farming operation.

“We’ve always had well-fed animals and always leave slightly higher residuals than most dairy farms when it’s wet. Some farmers have to nail the 1500 residual no matter what the paddock and trash the paddock. But one size doesn’t fit all and milking cows here isn’t the same as milking cows in Culverden. If we grazed to 1500 here in very wet weather, we wouldn’t make any money because there’s no money in mud. We’ve got pastures over 40 years old and still going really, really well.”

The farm is milking 580 cows once a day (OAD), where they are split into two herds that are milked either morning or night. Last year in the drought they actually produced more milk and ended up with 193,000kg milksolids (MS) which works out at 919kg MS/ha.

One of the key aspects of the farm business is animal welfare and Peter says OAD takes pressure off animals, farm and people, plus there’s the lifestyle factor which can’t be underestimated. They still have the cups on the first cows by six in the morning to beat the tanker and then 2pm for the afternoon herd, but there’s flexibility in the system and during the heat of the drought Chris pushed the afternoon milking back to 7.30pm some days rather than walk the cows to the dairy in 35C heat.

Reproduction reflects less pressure on the herd, with 84% of the herd in calf within six weeks. That led to 45 calves being picked up from the paddock in just one day and 93 heifer calves tagged in one week of calving. Production also responds to less pressure and Peter says they are on target to achieve 2kg MS/day at the peak on OAD.

“We wouldn’t have a twice-a-day herd on the farm again. It would put undue pressure on cows and tracks and our farm just isn’t suited to twice-a-day milking We could probably do more production but I doubt if we’d make more money.”

Another advantage of milking once a day is they don’t have the cesspool that develops around the yard that they experienced back in the days they were milking twice a day and that means less likelihood of runoff, Peter explains. Plus the tracks need less maintenance and lameness is no longer an issue with the cows.

One of the cost benefits of OAD has been longevity in the herd and this year just 12% of the herd will be replacements, while the average age in the herd is seven. Peter says that enables more selection pressure in the herd, means surplus heifers can be sold at weaning and heifer calves from older cows are the ones that they want to keep in the herd because they are the ones producing well, longer. Longevity gives them choices when it comes to selection and surplus replacements.

Chris says older cows still producing well pay dividends into the system. It’s only achievable by feeding the cows properly and having high-octane grass all the time, he adds. Which is where the partnership between farm owners and sharemilkers is crucial.

Chris and Stacey were really looking for a 200 to 300-cow herd when they applied for the sharemilking contract with Peter and Margaret and after their new baby screamed throughout the interview, they never expected to hear back.

But in between the screams, Peter and Margaret thought they had similar ideals for dairy farming and forwarded a list of phone numbers so Chris and Stacey could talk to other people about their farming style and the community.

“That way they can ask people about the area and the community,” Peter explains. “It’s not just the worker going through the interview process but the owner as well.”

Their farm milks nearly 600 cows though, so Peter and Margaret bought half the cows for the herd and leased them to Chris and Stacey so they had like-minded people looking after the farm and animals.

The cows were from three different herds and the goal is to achieve 400kg MS/cow on pasture including silage or balage, with palm kernel used as an extra rather than a feed replacement.

A two-metre rainfall usually guarantees good grass growth – about 14 tonnes/ha/year – and they build up a big bank of grass supplement mainly from the support block which is especially useful in wet weather when the cows are on standoff pads to save the paddocks and pasture. One of those standoff areas drains naturally into a large pakihi swampy hollow which acts as a filter and reduces runoff.

During last summer’s drought the bank of grass supplements kept the cows going and by the end of the season they had munched through 600t of supplements that included 600 bales of balage, two large silage pits and 90t of palm kernel.

One of their problems – if you call it a problem – is deciding which paddocks to put into summer crop because they’re all performing well. Usually 15ha is sown in turnips for summer and last season they just happened to plant the three wettest paddocks which ended up with exceptional crops of 14-16t/ha despite the drought.

In winter they grow 10-12ha of brassica crops such as swede and kale on the home farm support area for 100 cows and 20ha on their neighbouring drystock property for about 500 cows, with both herds fed balage and silage as well.

Well-fed cows put less pressure on the environment.

The days of winter crop on the farm are numbered, though, and Peter would like to head in the direction of green feed options such as Italian ryegrass which would be environmentally more sustainable.

“The sediment loss from pastures and especially winter crops is a biggie and I am concerned about winter cropping. I think longer term we’ll move away from brassica crops to large areas of greed feed. We don’t grow fodder beet for that reason. It can work well for some people but I don’t think we’d ever grow it here because there’s too much pressure on the land.”

To lessen the pressure on the land, the cows are often offered a whole paddock as if they are spread out there’s less chance of treading damage.

Keeping the cows full takes some pressure off pastures because if they’re full, they’ll lie down rather than mill around, Chris adds.

Though Chris is in charge of the day-to-day management of the farm and has one staff member, it’s very much a team approach with Peter and Margaret who help out when necessary which he says is akin to having a farm advisor come in the gate every day.

“It’s a team thing; Peter does the fertiliser and I can continue putting milk in the tank.”

Every paddock was soil tested last year and it’s the third time that has been done to reach optimum soil conditions in each paddock with a target pH of six.

“Our super application ranged from 150kg/ha to a tonne/ha in some areas and lime ranged from 750kg to 6t/ha in places,” Peter says. “Our fertility is pretty good now and we’re at the point of 750kg to one tonne of lime (per hectare per year) and between 30 and 40kg/ha of phosphate.”

Nitrogen (about 200kg/ha), sulphur and potassium are spread through the season a little and often and phosphate tends to be in autumn as a super product.

Porina is a constant battle on the farm and every year they need to spray areas with Dimlin which they trialled for three years before it came onto the market. The pastures are proof that it keeps the bug under control.

Proactive recycling

Peter and Margaret buy about seven tonnes of plastic wrap each year for their contracting business, so they try and lead by example to recycle all the plastic they use on their own farm.

Leading by example and recycling plastic.

“We need to be a lot more mindful of recycling what we can,” Peter says. “To be sustainable we’re going to have to be proactive about it.”

They’re one of about a third of New Zealand farmers who are recycling their plastic waste from largely silage and balage wrap.

Agpack-owned Plasback recycled 2100 tonnes of waste plastic last year and scheme manager Chris Hartshorne says 90% of that is the stretch film and cover used as wrap around grass supplements. That amounts to about 30% of the plastic sold into the market.

The scheme began recycling farm plastics in 2006 and Hartshorne says there has been considerable growth in recycling since then, especially in the past couple of years.

“Traditional methods of burning or burying materials on farm is not good and farmers have embraced recycling,” he says. “In general they’re very good at self-regulating and see their neighbours doing the right thing and think they should be doing that as well.

“In the last year we’ve seen a huge amount of discussion on plastics in the environment and people are concerned about it and farmers, like everyone else, want to do the right thing. We can’t replace those plastics with non-fossil-fuel products and the plastics do a good job. It’s how to dispose of them at the end.”

He says a recent survey in NZ showed waste was the third biggest concern for the average Kiwi and recycling was a way to reduce that waste. The plastic can’t be recycled back into wrap, but instead gets recycled into products such as Tuffboard, Tuffdeck and Plaswood. The key to recycling success is creating demand for the products which will in turn keep the costs down for farmers, he says.

Farmers pay $17 for a bin liner that they fill with plastic wrap and then $40 to have it collected. Recommended but not essential is the $560 bin which makes it easier to pack the liners.

Incorporating the recycling costs in the purchase of plastic would require government intervention as he says each part of the chain that deals with the product has to pay into any scheme.

“There is potential for it and the Ministry (for the Environment) is talking about mandatory stewardship schemes – and plastics for agriculture is high up on the list.”

Now that nearly a third of farmers are recycling plastic wrap, Hartshorne says the goal is to get the next third recycling. One of the best ways to achieve that is through industry-led programmes and he points to Synlait’s ‘Lead with Pride’ programme which rewards farmers financially for a set of farm practices that includes waste management.

A team on the same page for animal welfare and the environment.

Key facts

Farm owners: Peter and Margaret Brooker

Sharemilkers: Chris and Stacey Hatfield

Location: Maruia, West Coast

Farm: 300 effective hectares including 210ha milking platform

Herd: 580 cows on once-a-day milking

Production 2017-18: 193,000kg MS; 919kg MS/ha

Reproduction: 84% in calf within six weeks

Average age of cow: seven, with 12% replacements this year.