Graham and Glenys Bell with some of their cows. All their cows are individually named. Picturees: Sarah Brook

No shortcuts to grade-free

The Bell family have a record of attaining the lowest somatic cell counts in the country. The tell Glenys Christian how they do it.

Waitoa dairy farmers, Graham and Glenys Bell, have had very few holidays over the 41 years they’ve been married. They even sold their Waihi Beach house because they weren’t making enough use of it. But they do have a study with the walls lined with gold grade-free certificates of excellence from Fonterra along with one congratulating them on achieving the lowest somatic cell count in the country last season.

“We’ve always been low,” Glenys says.

“It’s attention to detail and taking no shortcuts.”

They have achieved Fonterra’s grade-free status for many seasons. Their herd’s somatic cell count level was the fifth lowest in the country in 2012/13. The following season they moved into first place, were second in 2014/15, fourth in 2014/15 then took out top place again last season with an average somatic cell count (SCC) of 33,729. The lowest average they’ve achieved was in 2014/15 at 31,574.

“It’s just who we are. A lot of farmers don’t have the time to spend doing what we do because they’re running larger farms and employing staff. And some people tend to let it go because it’s too much.”

Graham was brought up on a dairy farm near Taupiri and after meeting Glenys, who grew up in Hamilton, at a stockcar meeting they married and moved to Cambridge for their first sharemilking job.

‘Palm kernel is a tool and if we didn’t have to use it we wouldn’t. It’s convenient and I’d be very disappointed if it was banned.’

“We bought a starting herd of 120 cows from Matamata and milked them in a walk-through dairy,” he says.

After just one season the farm was sold so they moved to Te Aroha, milking 130 cows on 40 hectares for three seasons. Then came a move to Manawaru with their herd, which had grown to 220 cows, where they stayed for one season.

Next came the purchase of their first farm, 39ha at Te Hoe along with lease land. They milked 140 cows and improved the hilly property through a lot of hard work and ragwort spraying. After seven years they moved to Whitikahu, near Orini, where cow numbers increased to 200.

They then moved to Springdale to a 69ha farm where they milked 220 cows.

“We were there four years and had four droughts,” Glenys says.

Key points

Location: Waitoa, Waikato

Area:114ha

Owners: Graham and Glenys Bell

Herd: 360 crossbred cows, Breeding Worth (BW) 120, Production Worth (PW) 144, 100 percent recorded ancestry

Production: 2016/17 season, 147,000kg milksolids, hoping for a similar result this season

Farm dairy: 26-aside herringbone with no new technology

Supplements: Up to 150 tonnes of palm kernel, used only to bridge feed gaps in early spring or summer, up to 300 big round bales of silage made on their farm. Conventional bales of hay bought in for calving cows some years.

“It was a harsh area to manage on feeding grass alone, tough going and a lot of stress.”

So they moved to Waharoa, buying first an 80ha farm then a 40ha block two years later. They ran the farms separately so while one of their three daughters, Maria, milked 160 cows through one dairy they milked 290 through the other.

Graham Bell in his study with a wall lined with gold grade-free certificates of excellence from Fonterra.

After seven years they started looking for an easier property where it would be possible to put a sharemilker in the future and so they came to Waitoa.

“We bought 88ha on two sides of the road,” Glenys says.

An underpass connected the two pieces of land but as one of first to be put in its depth meant flooding issues and other problems.

“We just about pulled our hair out.”

The solution presented itself three years ago when they sold one of the blocks of 30ha along with their house, bought a neighbouring farm of 60ha so they had 114ha in total and built a new house.

“It’s very good land and not prone to drought so much,” Graham says.

That means they can keep to their low-input farming system, bringing in up to 150 tonnes of palm kernel a year, which they only use when or if required to bridge feed gaps, fed in trailers in the paddock. They know they will need to be careful once Fonterra’s Fat Evaluation Index (FEI) demerit points system comes in from September 1.

“Palm kernel is a tool and if we didn’t have to use it we wouldn’t,” Graham says.

“It’s convenient and I’d be very disappointed if it was banned.”

The Bells also grow 5ha of chicory a year, starting with a smaller area 15 years ago.

“The cows love it and can’t wait to get on to it so we will have to increase it next season due to needing to cut back on palm kernel,” Glenys says.

Another advantage is that after it’s sprayed out to put in permanent pasture as part of a renovation programme around 30% comes back and remains as part of the sward. Fertiliser is applied twice a year to recommendations with sodium and selenium also going on and the cows receiving copper boluses to take care of any deficits. Urea will be applied at a light rate behind the cows as and when it’s needed.

In the dairy.

While they usually make 300 big rounds of silage, the dry early summer weather has seen that cut back to under half that amount this year. They don’t make hay themselves but will sometimes buy in a couple of hundred conventional bales to be used when the herd is calving, starting from July 15.

And this is the time when they both say the effort to maintain low SCCs in the herd really begins.

“The calving period is where the bulk of infections can occur, so you need to get off to a good start,” Glenys says.

“If you get an infection at an early stage you can clean it up better and get the cow back in the herd.”

It’s rare that cows will calve in a mob as they will sort any out which are going to calve that night after milking, bringing them close to the dairy which also makes them easy to attend to.

“Occasionally we will get one that beats us, but not very often.”

They pay close attention to their mantra that all cows must calve on clean pasture.

“We have a lot of small paddocks around the dairy, so we will pick a nice place,” she says.

“If an area gets muddy we will fence it off. We go to a lot of trouble – that’s just what we do.”

Graham’s in the habit of going to bed early then getting up several times in the night to check cows that might be calving. Maria and her husband, Michael Kidd, who manage the farm, will also take it in shifts to check calving cows for any problems and giving any new-borns a hand with their first feed off mum.

“If calving isn’t as quick as it should be we will step in,” Graham says.

“We never calve a cow without a glove and use a teat spray if they’re coming up to the dairy.”

He reckons with their experience they’re aware very rapidly of when there’s a problem.

“It might be a twinkle in the eye, but you know that something isn’t quite right,” he says.

Calves bed on wood shavings

Calves are taken to their shed where the bedding is wood shavings spread on top of wood chips which is cleaned out every year. As well an antiseptic spray, Vircon, will be used every couple of days through the calving season.

The couple have always worked as a team and calf-rearing is no exception.

“We like to do our calves well,” Glenys says.

“They get their first feed of brand new milk out of a freshly calved cow.”

That two litres of colostrum is repeated for their first three or four feeds, then they will go on to milk from the colostrum vat at the nearby dairy, pumped straight over to the calf shed for their consumption from 12-teat calfeterias hung on gates.

Their six-bay calf shed is divided into areas for new entrants, bobbies and a sick bay as well as calves grouped together according to when they were born.

“If one is a good doer you might move them up a group,” Graham says.

“We aim to make everything easy because you’ve got enough stress at that time of year,” Glenys says.

“We don’t take it very easy if we lose a calf.”

They would like to leave calves in the shed longer than they do but with new arrivals ready to take their place they’ll move them to other sheds where they have access to a paddock protected by hedge. Once ready to move to other paddocks they’re fed from a 50-teat mobile calfeteria.

The Bells don’t believe in feeding a lot of meal.

“We don’t overdo it,” Glenys says.

“We just want to help them along with rumen development.”

After calving the Bells will get their cows into the dairy as soon as possible to check their quarters and dose them up on calcium supplement. The pasture is dusted before calving at least once.

Heifers have been teat-sealed for the past five years with their udders all checked before calving to make sure the quarters look even. Every cow is given a rapid mastits test when they have calved and this will be repeated at night and morning milkings if they’re deemed to be a high risk animal. They will be checked once more before they’re allowed to enter the milking herd.

“We watch very carefully the amount of reaction on the blue test which is gauged the following milking that will determine treatment or not,” Graham says.

“The thicker reaction deems it’s harder to treat. We probably do use more antibiotic than other people but that’s our attention to detail. And vets don’t get much of a job here, just the products we buy.”

While their vet bill may be high over calving, it’s lower than most farmers’ for the rest of the year.

“In the back my head there is the thought that Fonterra isn’t paying for us to go to all the trouble of producing this high-quality milk,” he says.

It rankles with him that their care and attention is aiding other farmers to keep producing milk with high SCCs, although he acknowledges that low SCC cows, being healthier, will produce more milk for their owners.

They teat-spray every cow at every milking.

“We know each cow and we know each udder, so we will notice if there’s a slight swelling or change and can check that out straight away,” he says.

They also make sure to check their dairy thoroughly every year, keeping a good eye on vacuum pressure.

“We like the cows to enjoy milking,” Graham says.

The cups are put on and taken off gently, they maintain liners well and teat spray right through the season. They have always herd tested five times a year.

“If we do get a spike in cell counts we will be extra vigilant.”

“Milking should be smooth and enjoyable, but you need to move it,” Glenys says.

They don’t move their cows on to once-a-day (OAD) milking concerned that it might lift SCC levels which are always higher at the end of the season. Instead, they will dry them all straight off when it’s time.

“We might go OAD with the heifers if it’s extreme conditions but not the cows,” she says.

At drying off they use blanket dry-cow therapy, cut back on the cows’ feed and teat-seal them. As well they will use a homeopathic preparation to help dry off, where just a few drops are required in water troughs for five days. With plenty of trees on the farm they try to keep the herd’s stress levels low by making sure they always have shade in summer.

“If they’re stressed their cell count will rise but they can wander up to the trees any time after lunch.”

All this care and attention shows up well in Cynthia, a 12-year-old cow, still in the herd who Glenys says has the udder of a five or six-year-old. She’s the mother of Conrad, an LIC Premier Sires bull bred by the Bells who has the highest semen sales of any Jersey bull offered last season.

“We breed for strength in an animal and Graham will spend a lot of time looking at the sire catalogues,” Glenys says.

“We’re always looking for the best all-round bulls which will produce strong daughters with good udders and temperament. Once we use a bull we know whether the breed line will suit our purpose.”

Graham says their aim is to have cows which are low maintenance, nice to look at and to milk.

“We like to have quiet and settled cows.”

And this was well-illustrated by a recent comment from a relief milker who described their cows coming up in the paddock and “talking” to him.

Mating begins on October 10, with the Bells using AI for the following four weeks. They worked as a team carrying out an AI round for LIC up until two years ago.

“I don’t miss the work, but I do miss the cow contact as well as the contact with farmers,” Graham says.

“We’ve always finish the mating season after AI with Jerseys because of the easy calving and afterwards the cows cycle better.”

The bulls are taken out of the herd on December 9, so calving is reasonably compact. They normally end up with around a 7% empty rate.

Young stock apart from 30 of the later born calves will go to graziers in Otorohanga in December. A few extra calves will be raised to be sure of the 20 percent replacement rate required to enter the herd. They will either be sold through a local livestock agent or else put on Trade Me.

All their children, son Martin, who is now sharemilking nearby and daughters, Tania, Wendy and their husbands who relief milk, helped on the farm and took part in calf club as children. And now the Bells are happy to see all their grandchildren doing exactly the same.

Five tips for lower somatic cell counts

Graham Bell has five simple tips for fellow dairy farmers wanting to reduce their herd’s somatic cell count (SCC) levels;

  • Calve cows on ground that’s as clean as possible.
  • As soon as you can after calving paddle test cows with the Rapid Mastitis Test.
  • Before cows go back into the milking herd check them again.
  • Make sure you have clean hands, by using gloves or frequently spraying your hands throughout milking.
  • Be vigilant on cleanliness with everything.<end bullets>
  • And for farmers running larger operations who aren’t able to personally make sure these routines are adhered to he has some more sensible advice.
  • “Train the most on-to-it and capable ‘cow-lover’ you employ to set to the job.”