Nelson-based Oaklands Milk have grown from one milk truck eight years ago to a fleet of seven. The Raine family credit a move to once-a-day milking and A2 genetics ticking the boxes for them and their customers. Anne Hardie reports.

The milking platform may have shrunk over the years on the home farm, but Oaklands Milk on the edge of Nelson has grown exponentially since it sold its first bottles of fresh milk eight years ago.

When the Once-A-Day (OAD) Milking Conference visited in May, autumn calves were in the paddock and the herd was cranking up for its season which will run through to Christmas.

In eight years, the business has grown from one little local delivery truck to a fleet of seven, with deliveries of its glass-bottled milk to local customers as Oaklands Milk or via its Aunt Jean brand to supermarkets in Blenheim and Christchurch. It also supplies its A2 pasteurised milk to a couple of ice cream and cheese businesses. The latest addition to the business is a full-sized tanker to replace the smaller version that collects milk from its other farm at Motupiko, plus milk it purchases from another local dairy farmer. Today the factory attached to the dairy processes 1500l of milk an hour and bottles it, has a staff of about 12 and then another seven behind the wheels of the trucks.

At the heart of the operation is the Raine family farm of about 300ha that rises steeply up hills behind the tiny area of remaining flats adjoining the Saxton Field Sports Complex. The milking herd grazes the flats and the steep lower hills of the property, while beef cattle from the farm operation graze still higher and forestry is tucked around the edges. The family has farmed there since 1842 and the fresh-milk business was created to keep it economically sustainable into the future.

As its boundary fence struggles to hold back population growth and a city council throws its weight on a rural enterprise, the business inevitably has a few added farming challenges. But the family has taken an educational approach to work with the public and the year before Covid the farm had 1700 visitors through its gate.

In the past, the family milked about 200 cows on the home farm – through a 13-aside dairy – whereas the herd now sits around just 100 cows after the council told them to reduce their effluent footprint. Eight years ago they upgraded the existing dairy on the farm with a small attached factory but quickly outgrew that complex and built a new factory further up the farm track. The growth of the business now has them planning a new complex in the next couple of years.

 

Sorting the A2 Cows

Julian Raine says they sorted out A2/A1 cows from day one for their Oaklands’ journey, which “buggered our production and breeding index”, but formed the basis for an A2 herd on both the home farm and at Motupiko, which gave them another selling point to customers. Since then, they have been working toward improving the quality of the herds which today are milked OAD.

Several factors prompted the move to OAD. Most importantly was a herd and environment that met customers’ expectations – happy cows in good condition, fed predominantly grass and little impact on the environment. It also fits the council’s requirement to reduce its effluent footprint on the home farm. At Motupiko, a planned herd home will better capture effluent and being a colder farm, it will keep the cows warmer which meets their ethical farming policy for customers.

On the home farm, OAD suits the 80ha milking platform that wanders up steep hills and has no irrigation through summer.

They used to irrigate the flats, but the council required them to reduce the size of the irrigation pond in the hills for safety and once the tap was turned off, they decided to continue as a dryland farm.

Aimee and Michael Bates have managed the farm for the past 15 years, from the time the farm winter milked for town milk supply and then briefly seasonal supply for Fonterra before supplying its own fresh-milk factory. They now begin calving on March 10 to milk through winter and finish the season about December 23 as milk production is dropping off and the farm’s pasture is also drying out. The rationale behind this is that it’s easier for the business to source extra milk from other farms through summer, whereas other farmers aren’t milking through winter.

Even though they are milking OAD, Aimee and Michael still choose to have the cups on the cows at 4.30am. That way the milking is done and dusted, with the cows back to the paddock by the time the factory kicks into action for the day. Plus, they can have the cows milked, calves fed, fence breaks moved and still be back home in time to get their two kids ready for school. The steeper paddocks aren’t the easiest to get the cows at that hour of the morning in wintery rain, but the help of a dog, spotlight and 15 years of practice works well.

When the herd first went to OAD, Julian says some of the cows struggled with milk volume and they had a few issues with somatic cell counts but over time they have developed a herd that suits the operation. Somatic cell count at the beginning of May this year, as calving came to an end, was 89,000 cells/ml. The average age in the home herd is four, with the oldest stretching out to 14. Forty-four of the cows in the herd are two and three-year-olds which drag the average production down a bit, but it still peaks at 33 litres/cow/day and averages 18 litres. Within the dairy, Aimee and Michael follow a strict hygiene policy to ensure the milk that goes into the factory is the best quality. Plus, it’s a picture of healthy cleanliness for the groups that visit the farm.

“It has to be audit-ready 24/7,” Aimee says. “And the same with the paperwork. And we’re pretty strict about what cows go into the milking herd.”

That includes ensuring cows are milked eight times after calving before their milk goes into the vat. Colostrum goes to the calves, but the milk is too valuable to come out of the vat and they are brought up on milk powder.

 

Producing Wagyu-cross

With public perception in mind, another policy is no bobbies. That policy has led to Wagyu-cross calves from a portion of the herd. A few top cows in the two herds are given semen from selected sires, about two thirds get bull of the day and the bottom third at Motupiko get Wagyu semen. Sexed semen is out because Julian says it’s too expensive and not always correct.

The resulting Wagyu-cross calves are reared to a minimum of 90kg and sold under contract to LIC. Last year there were about 40 Wagyu-cross and this year 20. Some of the crossbred bull calves find a home as four-day-old calves with farmers mothering them onto empty cows they want to keep in milk. The rest, plus Hereford-cross from bulls run after artificial insemination, are grazed on the hills to around 18 months, depending on the season, then sold to finishers. Rearing the Jersey-cross calves is far from being a money spinner, but Julian says it fits their no-bobby policy.

“We use a lot of milk (powder), particularly on the Jersey cross that will probably be five years old before we can sell them,” he laughed.

Mating begins on June 8 and they have had empties as low as 2% and usually around 5-6%. However, during 2020 it climbed a bit higher to 10% with no obvious explanation. The bulk of the herd calved within four weeks this autumn, with the tail end trickling out to nine weeks. Aimee says autumn calving has worked better for them than spring because it’s warmer, drier and the calves are weaned by the end of May when they head off to a nearby support block.

Breed'em and feed'em

Through the farm’s season, the herd gets brewers grain from a brewery at 0.5kg/cow/day, plus 4-5kg maize grown off farm and 1.5-2kg of local apple pulp to mix with the feed. A kilogram of distiller’s dried grains per cow per day is fed in the shed, mainly through winter, with balage fed out when needed.
About 280 bales of balage is made on 16ha of flats at the front of the farm, with a similar amount of hay cut. Keeping grass quality is a challenge with just 100 cows and hills that are too steep to be topped. It’s mostly older pasture and native species on the hills, so through spring they bring the Hereford mob down from the higher hill country to speed up the round, while locking up the flats for supplements.

The flats neighbour the sports’ field and suburbia, so to avoid complaints they don’t spread effluent in those boundary paddocks. They don’t calve in those paddocks either as just about every calving cow prompts a phone call and Julian says “everyone knows more about calving than I do”.

In a bid to educate the public and show their customers what they do, they invite them onto the farm. Aimee and Michael are used to showing school groups, in particular, what happens on a dairy farm. Because they milk so early, they sometimes get a couple of cows into the dairy to milk in front of a group or show them the calves and there’s always a quiet cow that will be looking for a scratch. They’ve also taken cows to the A and P show for a milking display.

“Kids often don’t know where anything comes from,” Aimee says. “It’s good to get the public here to show them what we do. We’ve got nothing to hide.”

Julian says the public question them about dairying and management practices and it’s a chance to have a conversation with them.

“They’ll be critical and sometimes we agree to disagree, like taking calves away from cows.”

He says it’s important to have those conversations and at the OAD Conference he advised other dairy farmers to not hide behind their practices, but either change those practices or get involved in a wider conversation.

Adding value to milk

Oaklands Milk bottles up to 10,000l of milk a day and its future growth is aimed at adding value to milk rather than growing milk sales which would lead to storage challenges.

Julian says that means investing in the plant and processing further up the chain rather than simply processing more milk and in doing so, getting closer to customers with the end product and capitalising on the intellectual property it has been building. It’s the next step for a business that has grown in leaps and bounds rather than a steady rise and each leap has required substantial capital which has all been done without outside investors. Part of that was achieved by selling out of hops and also selling a chunk of the home farm for a retirement village to be built.

The family had plenty of experience in business through its involvement with horticulture, but it didn’t have processing experience when it first stepped into milk processing. For that reason, it changed its board structure early on, from a family-based board to a fully commercial board with independent directors. Julian says bringing that outside experience to the business has helped it progress.

“Sometimes they don’t see it the way I see it, but you’ve got to suck it up if we want to still be here in 100 years.”

So far they’re working on a 10-20-year strategic plan to achieve a common goal and it’s provided the opportunity for son, Tom, to take up the reins by processing and selling their milk direct to customers.

Julian says there is a lot of satisfaction seeing their own product on shelves and he enjoys the interaction with customers. When they first stepped into milk processing and set up vending machines at the gate, they sat for weeks beside the machines to talk with customers and find out what was important to them.