Dairy farmers need to take ownership of their future by embracing the challenges facing the industry Waikato farmers John Hayward and Susan O’Regan say. Their operation is one of the 20 high-performing farms studied as part of the Primary Industries Ministry’s Farm Systems Change initiative. They told Sheryl Brown how they keep a step ahead in their business.
Turning up to interview John and Susan on their 400-cow dairy farm, I found them talking about water with Marcus Lloyd, who was on a hikoi to walk the waterways of New Zealand carrying the message ‘water is life’.
It was refreshing to see people, not pointing fingers and attributing blame, but rather sitting together discussing the greater issue of water – and agreeing it is everyone’s responsibility to work together to improve water quality and protect the country’s water resources.
Marcus had walked more than 700km at that stage and says Judge Valley Dairies was the best standard of sustainable farming he had witnessed on his journey.
Farm: Judge Valley Dairies
Owners: John Hayward and Susan O’Regan
Location: Rotorangi, Waikato
Milking platform: 130ha effective
Cows: 400 Friesian and Jerseys, 50:50 autumn:spring calving
Maize: 33ha grown on milking platform
Palm kernel: 330t
Pasture harvested: 15t DM/ha
Nitrogen leaching: 37kg N/ha
Since John and Susan won the supreme award for the Waikato Ballance Farm Environment Awards in 2016 they have welcomed copious visitors on to their farm and believe it is important to reach out to the community.
“We want to change some of the perception and the only way to do that is to talk to people, be persistent and send the message we are doing a good job,” John says.
“If I can educate someone that’s not in the farming sector I will do and it’s something I enjoy doing.”
John recently spoke at the Environmental Defence Society’s Tipping Points conference in Auckland, where instead of feeling like a lamb to slaughter, the couple found genuine interest in the environmental work they are doing onfarm.
The conference did open their eyes to some startling truth, however, that the landscape of farming and food production is changing rapidly. Not only are consumers becoming more aware of environmental and animal welfare issues, but synthetic foods are set to become a very real competitor to dairy in the near future.
‘It’s important we get everything lined up and are doing everything right in people’s eyes so they’ll continue to buy our product with confidence and hopefully we’ll manage to attract a premium.’
Consumers will want ethically produced food and NZ dairy producers are going to have to be on top of their game in order to compete, John says.
Farmers can’t afford to sit on their laurels and expect to have a viable business in the future.
“It’s important we get everything lined up and are doing everything right in people’s eyes so they’ll continue to buy our product with confidence and hopefully we’ll manage to attract a premium.”
John and Susan share a philosophy to look beyond what they can see. They try to anticipate the challenges and opportunities in their business, economically, socially and environmentally.
The couple bought their first farm at Rotorangi eight years ago in an equity partnership. They later bought out their equity partners and purchased a neighbouring drystock property. They now have a more self-contained operation with the dairy herd and young stock grazed at home on a mix of rolling to steeper hill country.
To finance the second farm and fund capital infrastructure they sold their Fonterra shares and switched to supplying Open Country Dairy, which opened up an opportunity to focus on winter milking premiums.
In making the switch to autumn calving they looked closely at their efficiencies onfarm and built a feed pad to be able to feed the cows well in summer and capture more effluent with a weeping wall and effluent bunkers.
“We looked into our business and we had to work out what was most profitable for us.”
Split calving suited their land class and their new milk supply agreement.
They autumn-calve 50% of the Friesian and Jersey herd, but they will be moving up to 70% autumn calving in the next couple of seasons.
They are slowly moving to a more Friesian crossbred herd for a higher protein ratio and use CRV Ambreed Low-N Sires.
With the feed pad they have reduced feed wastage from 2.8kg drymatter (DM)/kg of milksolids (MS) to less than 2kg DM/kg MS and have increased production by 21% per cow and cow efficiency from 81% to 95%.
“We’ve managed to increase cow intake, they’re producing more and we’re getting more days in milk.”
The operation is a DairyNZ System 3, buying in about 14% of their feed, mainly 330 tonnes of palm kernel which they eventually want to eradicate.
They don’t want to be vulnerable to market price fluctuations for their feed supply, John says.
“I want a system where I can control more cost. With big debt loading we have to make our business pay every single day.”
They now grow 33 hectares of maize onfarm, which gives them more feed on hand and the ability to utilise the effluent solids from their weeping wall as fertiliser.
“I think we have our farm set up well environmentally and economically I think we’re there – we’ve been able to hold our cost structure and it doesn’t matter if it’s high or low payout we can continue doing what we are doing.”
They are ready to turn on a dime if they need to, however, John says.
Farmers need to be able to spot the opportunities onfarm to future-proof their business and identify both strengths and weaknesses.
“We looked at our business to see where we could cut the fat, or add to it. If everybody looked at their business and what they’re doing the opportunities soon jump out at you.
“Nobody knows their own farm better than the farmer, they need to work out what fits best for them.”
Writing on the wall
As part of building a sustainable business the couple knew they also had to be on track environmentally.
A catalyst to ramping up their environmental duty of care came after their son Ben was invited to a Water Kids Teaching Kids Conference in Australia. Ben had to research New Zealand water issues in the district and it made John and Susan think more about what they were doing onfarm and what they could do better.
“We’ve always had an environmental bend to us, but it escalated our thinking,” Susan says.
“We could see the writing on the wall in terms of environmental requirements in the industry and we wanted to be environmentally ready going forward.”
The couple completed a Land Use Capability Assessment with Waikato Regional Council and identified alternative uses for more sensitive land classes on their property.
It’s important to have the right advisers and experts around you and to collect information to see what works best on your farm, Susan says.
The process helped them make educated decisions about land diversification and land use. They identified 20ha to retire in native, riparian and wetland areas, and planted a further 4.5ha of pine trees and 5ha of manuka.
They also built two sediment ponds which capture runoff from up to 80ha before it goes through the wetlands.
The couple spend between $20,000 and $30,000 annually on environmental projects. They still have a couple more improvements to make, including building a lined effluent pond.
In their view they shouldn’t be winning awards for the environmental work they’ve done – it should be industry standard, Susan says.
“I think that’s our ultimate goal – the more we can share hopefully there is a greater uptake and there is a general improvement of best practice across the industry.”
The couple are an example of the ability to increase profitability while improving environmental performance.
The two are not mutually exclusive, Susan says.
“It’s important to us that we can tick both boxes and I think we’ve struck that balance reasonably well.”
Building what they believe is a resilient business helps them sleep well at night.
“When you listen to the news we’re probably the worst guys in the world right now environmentally,” John says.
“I think farmers are doing a good job and I think we need to continue to focus on what we’re doing and hold our line, keep doing the good things and eventually we’ll come out the other end looking better than we are right now.”
The MPI Farm Systems Change initiative aims to close the gap between top-performing dairy farms and the rest of the industry.
MPI have completed 20 case studies on high-performing farms to understand how they have improved farm performance and productivity.
- <blob:>To read more about John and Susan visit www.mpi.govt.nz/growing-and-harvesting/dairy-animals/farm-systems-change/dairy-farm-case-studies/
- <blob:>For more about Marcus’ journey visit his Facebook page Marcus Matawhero Lloyd or find Judge Valley Dairies on Facebook.