A Taranaki farmer has turned his entire farming operation 180 degrees and is loving the change.
When farmers change their farm system, it’s often just a case of making minor changes to streamline the operation. However, when Taranaki farmers Adam and Taryn Pearce decided to make changes they didn’t do things by halves.
The Pearces operate a 60-hectare, 180-cow farm at Lepperton. When they decided to change their farming system, it was not going to be just a small tweak for them to achieve that goal. They would be turning their high-producing, high stocking rate, high input and split-calving System 5 farm into an autumn calving System 1 farm.
The Pearces came home to the family farm in 2011 as 50:50 sharemilkers. After five years they bought two-thirds of the family farm and leased the remaining 20ha. They are the third generation to work and own the farm.
“I think mum and dad get quite a buzz seeing the legacy continue. I grew up on this farm, and went farming straight out of high school. I then went to Massey University to complete a Bachelor of Applied Science degree,” Adam says.
“I started it but didn’t finish. I hated being inside in the classroom. I realised that if getting a degree meant that I was going to become an agricultural rep and spend most of my time inside, then it wasn’t for me.
“After two years at university I went farming and never looked back. I worked for two farmers before coming here.”
Taryn is a full-time teacher and Adam’s parents help out on the farm when needed, otherwise he is the sole labour unit on the property. He has made many farming practice changes during his time on the farm to derive more profit.
They have been running a split-calving for the past seven years and this is his second dry period due to selling his spring herd in October 2019. Consequently, this is his first season of complete autumn calving.
“The high input, high stocking rate System 5 farming operation was always only going to be a means to an end. I was going to carry on for a further five years to quickly clear debt but that pressure took its toll on my mental health. The entire system wore me down, mentally and physically,” he says.
“Because I don’t like employing staff, I was doing the workload of two people and wore myself out. It takes a toll on all parts of the body physically and, being honest, I suffered mentally too.”
He says it takes a lot of effort and concentration to run an efficient System 5 farm and get it right every time. It’s very easy to quickly lose a lot of money. But if you get it right, that profit quickly pays off debt. To transition to autumn milking you either sell your spring herd and buy an autumn herd, split-calve them and slowly transition into autumn calving, or continue milking them for 18 months.
The herd has been reduced from more than 300 to 180 and produces 90,000 kilograms of milksolids
“Last year we had 340 cows between the two herds and the heifers. We’re now down to 180. I mostly stick with Friesian-Jersey cross cows for their volume and milk solids,” he says.
“When I changed to autumn calving I sold the spring herd, which meant that I could run the farm single-handedly. When we split-calved I employed a staff member for afternoon milkings and some farm work.”
As a spring farmer their herd initially produced 78,000 kilograms of milksolids (200 cows). This rose to a high of 128,000kg MS when milking 300 cows, split-calving and operating at System 5. He now autumn milks 180 cows and produces 90,000kg MS at System 1.
“The farm only just handled the 300-plus cows, so it’s a joy to be running 180. When we bought the farm we immediately put it up to a System 5. It was very intensive but a lot of profit came through to pay a lot of debt down early. Last spring we sold the spring herd, which allowed us to pay off a large chunk of debt,” he says.
“We now don’t have to produce so much on the farm. Our goal is to not import any feed. Last year we had to buy in some because I underestimated how much maize we would use. This year we’ve put in a lot more and we shouldn’t have to buy any. We want to be self-contained and I think we’ve reached that goal.”
One-third of the farm is planted in maize and lucerne crops and all supplemental feed is grown on the farm. They don’t make any hay, but usually make 150 silage bales.
The 3ha of lucerne is fed during winter as a protein to complement the maize silage. The lucerne makes fabulous silage. The lucerne paddocks are three years old and he aims to get five to seven years out of them.
The lucerne paddocks are permanently out of the grazing rotation, but he knows it’s worthwhile due to it being such a valuable silage crop. The 3ha crop produces 22-24 tonnes of extremely high protein silage per year.
“I usually put in 10ha of maize, but this season I planted an extra 5ha due to a failed oats crop that was destined to be baled and fed out during winter. I’m undecided whether I’ll keep the extra maize or sell it. Last year I grew 5ha of maize but ran out and wished I had seven. So, we did 10 and now we’ve got 15,” he says.
“If I sell that it will give me the extra cash flow to pay for all the contracting for the crops. Last year we sold 10ha which not only paid for the contracting, but for all of the seed too.”
Adam doesn’t want to see a feed truck coming through his farm gate if he can help it. He believes in the sustainability aspect of being a self-contained unit. It also removes all imported feed costs. His costs are then a known quantity and he’s not at the mercy of fluctuating feed prices.
“When you put 5ha of maize in you know exactly what it cost you and where you can slot it into your budget. When I first got here my best PKE price was $160 per tonne, and at the end we were paying $250 per tonne,” he says.
“When cropping hay or silage, I try to only use the effluent paddocks as a way to pull the potash out of them. Potash can build up in the effluent platform paddocks too. Taking silage off those paddocks takes it down to a better level and lowers the animal health risks.”
Cowshed effluent is pumped to ponds and then out to pasture via a travelling irrigator. The irrigation platform covers 33% (20ha) of the farm.
Amelia gets up close with the herd and tries to hand-feed them.
The 18-aside cowshed is extremely efficient and it only takes him an hour to milk 180 cows.
“I really don’t know why it’s so efficient. Mum and dad have always commented about its speed. I thought that maybe having a straight exit would be faster, but the cows seem to really like turning when they leave. They row up really well, I think the zig-zag rails help,” he says.
“Having calm people in the shed helps too. Mum often does the afternoon milkings and I think we have a very similar manner in the shed. When we’ve had staff, it tends to unsettle the cows.
“I injured my back in June, so I wasn’t able to get out on the farm very often. Mum and dad, after not having to do too much on the farm for 10 years, jumped in and had to do everything. They worked through the winter until I was able to get back to morning milkings in late October.
A unique aspect of this farm is they do not raise any replacement calves anymore, they buy all of the replacement cows. He purchases other farmers’ empty spring calving cows during March and April after his herd has begun calving.
Consequently, there are no young stock coming through that would have to be grazed on the farm or with a grazer, which eliminates another cost.
The herd begins calving on February 20 and by March 10 half of the herd has calved. This is when he begins to buy replacements.
Adam with his UBCO electric farm bike. He loves the bike and thinks it pays for itself in two years. There is practically no maintenance or moving parts to break.
He picks the best of the best out of those herds. Those high-figure cows arrive and carry on milking and are mated in May and June. They produce right through the season. Going forward he plans to buy between 30-40 replacements each year.
“After a spring calving herd is scanned at the end of February, farmers then send me a profile of their empties. I know what the cows look like because an agent will send photos. I’ll then select the ones I want from BW, cell count and production records,” he says.
“They have to be producing, because I want them to carry on through to Christmas. We have a pregnancy test in August/September and if any are still empty, I make a decision based on whether I have grass, or if the spring has arrived early.
“The decisions are ‘do I send them to the works now or do I take them through to Christmas and get the extra production?’”
This season he sold a lot of his empty culls as in-milk because there was such a demand for in-milk cows.
They do not have any stock on the farm that doesn’t produce milk.
Adam buys replacement cows for around $600 each, milks them and if they’re still empty in December they’re culled and he usually gets about $1000 for them.
“You always win because you buy them low and sell them high if they’re still empty. You also win if they’re in-calf and go through to your next season. I pick through the available animals to make sure we get top quality cows,” he says.
Their in-calf rates over the past few years has been very high, with 94% last year and 82% prior to this.
The Pearce children Amelia, Penelope and Maddeline do their share on-farm and always wear their good dresses on the farm, much to Adam’s amusement.
In the past they have sold all calves as four-day olds, which made life a breeze when Adam was still milking more than 300 cows. The calves were only on the farm for four days and calf rearing was one less thing to worry about.
“We’re now under less pressure and have gone down the Wagyu contract path. I originally wanted to do a four-day or 10-day contract before selling them to a calf rearer, but there aren’t as many calf rearers in autumn, so I could only do a contract for 100kg calves,” he says.
“We made the decision to get every cow in-calf to Wagyu. I estimate that 115 got in-calf to them because we only used their straws for four weeks. We used short gestation Hereford straws at the end of the 10-week mating period”
Adam wouldn’t have used Wagyu bulls without a contract through LIC and First Light Wagyu. It’s a unique market in the autumn because there aren’t as many buyers. He has previously reared some 100kg Herefords and struggled to sell them.
This is his first Wagyu season and he’s expectantly waiting for the first calves to arrive around February 20. The Wagyu project is a trial and, if it works, he will probably adjust the farm’s facilities. He is employing a staff member to teach the calves to drink before feeding them with an ad-lib system.
Autumn calving helps drought-proof the farm and last year was a good example. It was very dry but his cows didn’t need a lot of feed during that period because they weren’t milking.
“The grass during that period is high in dry matter due to the dry weather. The cows just put on weight. Their maintenance is much lower too, because they’re not trying to keep warm,” he says.
One criticism that is often levelled at autumn calving is the greater amount of crops that must be grown to get the cows through winter. However, the crops are growing when the cows’ production is declining and they don’t need as much feed. The cows are also drying off just as the weather becomes drier, which also helps mitigate the dry stress period.
“Others say that you shouldn’t grow crops on-farm because it uses up the milking area. Well, my cows don’t milk in that area. If I had all of that area in grass there’d be a surplus, and I’d be making it into silage anyway,” he says.
Some say that farmers who talk about autumn calving make it sound overly nice and rosy, but neglect to mention that they have to milk through winter. Adam agrees that he has to get up and milk in the winter during June and July when spring calving farmers aren’t. But he knows that they are typically dry months.
“August and September are your wet months. Yes I’m milking, but I’m not outside collecting calves,” he says.
Milking less cows and autumn calving means Adam doesn’t need to employ staff and can spend more time with his family. Back to front: Taryn, Amelia, Adam Pearce, Penelope and Madeline.
As a spring farmer, the family typically took holidays in June, but Adam’s mental health really struggled with that.
“When I was away on our winter holidays all I could think was, ‘are the cows making mud? Are the people looking after my farm and shifting the cows like I would?’ I couldn’t mentally get away from the farm,” he says.
“Now when we’re on holiday, it’s late summer. What can the cows do to the paddocks? Nothing. Practically anyone can move the herd then.”
He says the biggest bonus of autumn milking is the fine weather to holiday and then to calve through. Late summer and autumn is a time of nice weather and it’s a pleasure to be working outside.
“It’s so much nicer to be grubbing thistles in pleasant weather. If you have a water leak, you go to fix it in a t-shirt, not in heavy, wet weather gear and be up to your elbows in mud,” he says.
He feels that autumn calving could be easily adapted to any region of New Zealand.
“We make less mud because the cows are content after feeding on maize on the feedpad before heading back to the paddock. I still think that even in wetter regions, you would still make less mud than break-fed, dry cows during winter,” he says.
“A spring calving herd stomps in most of the grass because it’s so wet underfoot. Winter dry cows can get the paddocks down to 1300kg DM/ha, whereas the lowest we get to is 1500kg DM/ha. We grow more grass because it isn’t in shock,” he says.
“In a wetter climate you could fine-tune your maize input to carry you through the wetter winter.”
There seems to be a burgeoning interest in autumn calving. Thirteen months ago, Adam held an on-farm discussion group as part of a Smaller Milk and Supply Herds (SMASH) conference. Usually five to seven people attend the on-farm groups, whereas the autumn calving event attracted 65-70 people.
“Our family life is way better now. Because Taryn is a full-time teacher, I do the farming and look after the kids – all the pick-ups and the drop-offs and afternoon activities. We just move our milkings around to suit,” he says.
“Autumn calving works really well with Taryn being a school teacher. This year we were able to go to the East Cape for two weeks, there’s no pressure.”
In June last year, Adam climbed over a feed trough to catch a cow he’d accidentally let out from AI. He tripped over the feed trough and came down on his side and herniated a disc. The injury was inoperable and led to him seriously contemplating continuing farming after his doctor told him that maybe he should look for a different job.
“For the last six months we’ve been assessing whether to sell up or hold on. But it’s such a delight to be outside farming. I really enjoy morning milkings and love nature and the environment. I can’t think of a better job,” he says.
Adam is happy with the way the farming operation is running and doesn’t think he’ll be making any major changes. He advises anyone contemplating autumn calving to talk to a number of autumn calving farmers and see a range of different practices.
“Obviously, you must initially make the decision to go autumn calving. You’ve just got to put the fear behind you. It’s such a breeze and I’ve never looked back. If I was going to sell up and go bigger or elsewhere in the country, I’d change the system to autumn calving in a flash,” he says.
“Try and find me an autumn calving farmer who doesn’t like it or has gone back to spring calving. I don’t think you’d find one. I’ve never come across any that are negative about it once they’ve gone there.”